As we launch our loaded sea kayaks from the Tadoussac town beach, we can already see whales feeding far out in the bay. The skies are clear as we paddle along the shore skirting the big, blue waters of the St. Lawrence River. As we round the point and enter the narrow Saguenay River, we’re hoping to see the whales from a more intimate perspective. We pass the ferry dock, and out of the glassy black depths a paddle’s length from my port side a minke whale glides out of the water. I hear myself gasp. Or maybe it’s just the coughing spout of the whale. The boomerang-like dorsal fin of the two-ton sea creature slips back underwater before I’ve regained my voice and can signal to my husband, Mike, to look.
I’ve never been this close to a whale. They move with the grace of a ballet dancer and the strength of a locomotive. Though the minke passes merely feet from my boat, there is barely a ripple to announce its arrival or departure. In those few seconds, I gain a new appreciation of these gentle mammals, which could capsize me with the flick of a flipper as I sit at water level, an uninvited visitor to their home. But my boat is still. A white flash in the water off my bow interrupts my thoughts. One hundred feet away, five white beluga whales are surface feeding just off the rocky shore.
Whales are the Saguenay River’s main attraction. Over the years, the town of Tadoussac, which sits on an alluvial plain at the mouth of the Saguenay, has been a trading post, a logging camp, and a farming community. Now it’s the whales that keep this town alive. Each year from May to October, minke, fin, humpback, blue, and occasionally sperm whales drop in to dine. There’s a whale museum and a research station that studies the visiting whales and the endangered belugas that live in the Saguenay year-round.
Getting There: Tadoussac is three hours north of Quebec City by car (take 138 north along the St. Lawrence River). A free ferry takes you across the Saguenay to town.
Logistics: The Saguenay and surrounding areas are busiest from June to August. September is still warm, less crowded, and a great time to visit. The Tadoussac tourist bureau is the best source of information for activities, maps, tide tables, lodging, and local attractions. Call (866) 235-4744. The Fjord du Saguenay Carte de Randonne Nautique has an excellent map of the area, as well as tide tables.
Lodging/Camping: To book tent platforms along the Saguenay, contact Parks Canada toll-free at (877) 272-5229 or visit the Web site: www.sepaq.com. The Saguenay Park map, available for C$3 from the tourist bureau, shows topography, distances, and camping, and will be useful even if you don’t read French.
While You’re There: In Tadoussac, be sure to see the CIMM (whale museum) downtown, and a visit to the sand dunes at the edge of town is a must. You’ll get a great view of the river and enjoy an exhilarating walk, run, tumble, or slide down the 70-meter dunes to the St. Lawrence. There is also fishing and hiking in the area.
Outfitters/Resources: To rent boats during high season (June-August), walk down to the town beach and look for the Tayaout Outdoors tent. They rent sea kayaks from the beach for single- or multi-day trips and offer tours. Log on to tayaout.com, or call (888) 766-1056. For a more complete list of outfitters, please see our Adventure Paddling Directory.
We are paddling to the Pointe Passe-Pierre campsite, one of 12 rustic campsites accessible by boat and trail. Ours is the first campsite up the river and should be a two-hour paddle from town. It takes us significantly longer. In the Saguenay, it is proper paddling etiquette to stop and enjoy the sights when a whale approaches. The greatest stress on the whales besides pollution is people, and chasing after a whale is frowned upon. We’re waylaid because we have the exceptional luck to be in the midst of a pod of minkes and belugas. Between the mouth of the river and the campsite, we see whales surface about 300 times. Finally, we paddle away from them so we’ll get to camp before dark.
At the town of Tadoussac, the sweet Saguenay flows into the salty St. Lawrence. Where the two rivers meet, the bottom of the Saguenay rises sharply to a shallow sill. The unique underwater topography of this confluence creates an upwelling. Here the warm and cold, fresh and salty currents collide, bringing an abundant supply of tiny crustaceans called krill into the Saguenay. Whales seek out spots where the krill is plentiful because they eat about 40 percent of their body weight (a lot of it krill) each day.
Whales are only part of the breathtaking scenery here. The Saguenay is a steep-walled rocky fjord that slices through the old and worn Laurentian Mountains. When we paddle close to the shore, the ebbing water reveals underwater caverns in which seals pop their heads out, then shyly duck back below the surface. The beauty is marred only by a buzzing bouquet of high-tension wires that cross the river near its mouth, and the whining of rubber Zodiacs and other motorized boats that chase after the whales trying to get a glimpse for the tourists.
This afternoon, the Zodiacs have stayed in port. It’s September, low season, and it’s just us and the whales in the river. The afternoon light is orange, and it shines on the tall blue flag with a white fleur-de-lis that marks the Parks Canada rustic campsites. We wave good-bye to the whales and pull our boats onto shore. It’s a short haul up the stairs to the neat tent platform, which has a bird’s-eye view of the bay and the river. Once organized, we explore trails behind our tent that lead east to Tadoussac and west to Baie Ste. Marguerite. We’re only on an overnight, but it’d be easy to spend a week or more here exploring the Saguenay by boat and on foot.
The tide is rolling in, and we pull our boats farther onto shore. A narrow path leads from the campsite to a rocky peninsula. We follow it out to the point and soak up the last rays of sun from the rocks. Another minke surprises us by circling the point, just feet in front of us, filtering krill and small fish from thousand-gallon mouthfuls of water.
The setting sun fades into a spectacularly clear and starry night. I lie awake in my tent listening to the water lap the shore and thinking about our incredible luck. In a few hours on the Saguenay, I saw more whales than I’ve seen in my entire life. I’m thankful that both the federal and provincial governments have taken an interest in the area and have cooperatively formed the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park to protect and conserve the Saguenay and its inhabitants. I fall asleep counting belugas swimming over the moon, and thinking about visiting the Saguenay again soon.
Berne Broudy is an outdoors writer and photographer in Richmond, Vermont.