The Quebec leg of our Canada 150 celebration was another study in contrasts, the combination of touristy and wild at Tadoussac, where the Saguenay River meets the St. Lawrence, and the pairing of pristine Lac Phillippe in Gatineau Park with Ottawa’s high rises just across the Ottawa River.
The first contrast came with some comic twists sandwiched around the smallness one feels when nature shows you who’s boss, like minke whales emerging maybe 30 metres away in the estuary, confirming you are floating on fragile pockets of air nearby.
The water where the Saguenay and St. Lawrence Rivers meet was deceptively tranquil when we set out, but soon was broken by minke whales emerging and blowing spouts of air.
See that and to your core you know how really insignificant you are. The minkes, modest by whale proportions at more than 10 metres in length and exceeding 9,000 kilograms in some cases, are still impressive.
The sightings backed up what is not seen but hauntingly heard, the blow as the animals emit huge gusts of air upon surfacing. In combination, you know that under the paddleboard you straddle, there’s a whole society of giants at work and play.
Endangered Belugas moved on
It’s the play part that fills the restaurants and hotels of colourful Tadoussac, minkes even obliging visitors at the little cove beside the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre (MMIC) with breaches that draw gasps from tourists. Rarer are sightings of the endangered Beluga whales. By mid-September, when we visited, most of the fragile population of pale whales had moved on to the northwest Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre provides a great primer on whale life and sits on a small cove where minkes sometimes emerge.
The tide added to our anxiety, fooling us first as we parked on the beach to inflate our Cascadia boards. In the half-hour it took to set up and get them up to recommended pressure, the incoming tide had lapped up and around the front tires.
Luckily, our SUV had an all-wheel sand mode that easily pulled us out and up a steep access ramp to safety. Back on the beach, John gulped hard and contemplated his sixth time on a board, this time with massive mammals in the mix, while Pam champed at the bit to get out on the water amidst these magnificent creatures.
Before the day was over, the tide would factor in again, its deceptive force creating more adventure.
Power of whales and sea
The board still felt like a bed of marbles to John for the first few minutes, and logically he knew the whales would give us a wide berth, but it was unnerving, especially when our plans to skirt a point of land and make shore at the MMIC unraveled.
That point of land became an illusion as we realized we were simply being pulled out further out in the bay where we embarked. With the wind up and more chop and the wake of whale-watching vessels, it was getting to be tough slogging. For John, that meant dropping to his backside and paddling hard.
Back on the beach, we lugged the boards to the interpretation centre, where the obliging staff let us use washrooms to change from our gear to street clothes before we toured the facility.
The centre, the result of an organization called GREMM, welcomes about 35,000 visitors a year and offers a look at the world of whales through videos, hands-on acoustic activities and the majestic skeleton of a 13-metre sperm whale.
Spiritual retreat/touristy town
Tadoussac is a colourful little town and the Saguenay narrows into a fiord as you trace it by tour boat close to its origins at Lac St. Jean. We stayed at L’ermitage St. Antoine at Lac Bouchette, about 90 minutes away. The spiritual retreat is a worthy visit regardless of religious belief, an oasis of calm with motel, cabin and camping combination with a wonderful restaurant boasting killer tortierre and a bakery sending off enticing gusts.
A viewing tower provides a workout and fine views of the lake and surrounding countryside and there is a seven-kilometre walking trail, much of it along the water.
We also did a quick spin through the Gaspe peninsula, but never found decent conditions for a paddle, maddening with iconic backdrops like majestic Perce Rock seeming so close.
Along the way we came across two young Quebecois riders with horses making a trek from Grand Rivière to Montreal to prove the utility of aged animals. Sandra Bessette and Zack Hunt were leading Hazal and Abby along the shoulder of a highway when we spotted them.
Sandra Bessette and Zack Hunt lead Hazal and Abby beside a highway. They were highlighting the worthiness of horses with disabilities during their long trek.
The pair, who perform as jugglers with their company, Spectacle Oasys, were riding about half the time over the 760-kilometre route. Abby was 15 and blind, Hazal had a growth on the side of her mouth that made a bridle difficult for her mouth. Pam shared a covetted date square, purchased from a local bakery, with Sandra and Zack who first offered the lions share to the horses before nibbling on a few crumbs themselves. “The horses always come first”, professed Sandra. And they did, licking the sweet oats from their lips.
Both horses and riders were standing up well to the distance, thanks in part to stable owners along the route offering overnight accommodation.
Roughing it in the SUV
Moving on to Gatineau Park after comfortable beds wasn’t quite as easy. We arrived late after access to our campground was closed for the night and we were left to sleep in our SUV in a parking lot.
Still, the custom-fit foam mattress was comfy once we transferred our gear to the front seats and we woke to mist on the lake that gave way to a brilliant blue sky. We watched the transformation over fresh tea and coffee.
John enjoys an early morning coffee by Lac Phillippe in Gatineau Park. The sun soon burned off the mist and a glorious day on the water followed.
The pristine water of Lac Phillippe was almost entirely ours save for a pair of kayakers and after a partial circumnavigation, we plunged into the deliciously cool water and let the sun play on our faces.
Ravenous, we repaired to the Chelsea Pub where we lit into salad di Parma, crisp lettuce with prosciutto, red onion, goat cheese, pecans and maple vinaigrette and ample tacos with succulent chicken and a crisp, spirited Mexican side salad. The Chelsea also offers its own craft beers plus other local and international selections.
After that, it was home to Hamilton for a break and a couple of sessions of granddaddy daycare for John with 20-month-old Harper and reconnecting with friends and family for Pam.
Canoes stand at the ready for paddlers who visit Lac Phillippe in Gatineau Park.
Feature photo: Pam gets ready for a paddle amongst the minke whales at the confluence of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence Rivers, where a deceptive tide pulled at us as the whales emerged.