The path to our yurt was narrow, muddy and peppered with tiny ceramics and plastic Dwarfs, fairies and bears. My 8-year-old daughter, clutching her stuffed giraffe and carefully avoiding the gnarled roots, spotted a miniature tiger crouching at the base of a pine tree.
She was too tired to offer more than a casual nod as she trotted behind her father and eleven-year-old brother, complaining about her pink sequin backpack and the six and a half hours we’d spent walking the Montreal road to get here a town called Sacré-Coeur, which hugs the Saguenay River in the Côte-Nord region of Quebec.
It was late June 2019 and we had come here in search of whales, traveled about 300 miles northeast of Montreal, crossed the Saguenay by ferry, and drove the last mile on a dirt road to meet our innkeeper who was waiting That we finished this last leg of our journey before dark.
We were about 10 miles from Tadoussac, a quaint town where the Saguenay meets the St. Lawrence River. The waterway is part of a protected marine park, in which from May to the end of October around six species of whale can regularly be observed feeding in the deep, nutrient-rich water of the St. Lawrence Estuary.
Booked the trip on a whim, found an ad on Airbnb and built a family vacation with the idea of sleeping in a charged tent. Back then, the trip felt like the beginning of a new chapter for our family. Our children got older and could handle long journeys, easy plans and hikes with luggage. We could explore corners of the world together.
When I look back on that time now, after a year and a half that I’ve been trudging through a pandemic and only traveling minimally, I no longer see this journey as the beginning. Instead, I see it as our last carefree adventure, where our worries were limited to catching ferries, avoiding mosquitos and spotting marine animals.
Last month, Canada reopened its borders to fully vaccinated American travelers, making such travel possible again. With proof of vaccination and a negative Covid-19 test, a family could repeat this relatively Covid-safe itinerary, although some attractions may be closed or only partially open and unvaccinated children under the age of 12 must meet Canadian testing and safety requirements. To me, however, that option still feels skimpy. My daughter, now 10 years old, is not eligible for the vaccine, and as the cases are on the rise, I am reluctant to travel such a long distance with her. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention views Canada as a Level 3 high-risk destination and advises unvaccinated citizens to avoid non-essential travel there. I wonder when we can travel so freely again. And so the adventure we had feels like one torn from a world that I can no longer reach, much like watching the water and waiting for a whale to appear.
Where are the whales?
We began the journey by driving from our home in New Jersey via New York to Montreal, where we stayed for a few days. We then drove on to Côte-Nord, where we would spend three nights in the middle of the boreal forest and the dramatic Saguenay Fjords while looking for humpback, minke, fin, beluga and blue whales.
As we scaled a ridge that first evening, the forest tunnel view opened to reveal our white canvas yurt overlooking Saguenay, hundreds of meters below, and the majestic fjords that make up part of the Saguenay Fjords National Park. From the terrace in front of our yurt we had an unobstructed and private window to this wonder.
Our host told us to look out for two belugas that had been playing in the water all morning. The nearby bay of Sainte-Marguerite is their breeding ground and nursery. In contrast to the other whales that only travel through, the belugas, mainly an arctic species, live here all year round. From this distance, he told us, they might look like white caps on the water.
The children immediately visited their new apartment, marveling at the propane stove, the trickling water from a kitchen sink and the dry toilet full of sawdust. (A surprisingly charming wood Outbuilding a few feet from the yurt was for large bathrooms.) The round room had two bedrooms, a wall of windows overlooking the fjords and a glass dome ceiling to see the stars. We were late to find a market to replenish our dwindling food supplies, so finished our evening meal – a couple of slices of cheese and salami on sandwich bread. The children grumbled at the disappointing food.
That evening my husband read to us from a book he had brought with him, “Champlain’s Dream”, about the French explorer. For 8,000 years, the confluence of the two rivers was a crossing point and meeting place for Indian tribes. The passage he read told of an encounter Samuel de Champlain had in 1603 with several indigenous tribes who had gathered for celebrations and were building a summer camp on the Saguenay, not far from the port of Tadoussac and near our sleeping quarters.
The next morning we woke up with a breathtaking view of the mist-shrouded fjords. There were no belugas in sight, but there were mosquitoes in abundance, huge, determined, and ready to attack. We put on long sleeves and made our way back to the car, the welts were already forming. I had booked a whale watching cruise departing from Tadoussac and I really wanted to catch the boat.
Tadoussac, a village of 800 people founded in 1600, is now a picturesque tourist destination overlooking St. Lawrence Bay. The region attracts 1 million visitors annually and so the streets of Tadoussac are dotted with shops, restaurants and inns. My husband was particularly curious about the replica of the Chauvin Trading Post from 1600 and Canada’s first fur trading center. Overlooking the bay is the Grand Hotel Tadoussac with a red roof, white side walls and green shutters. Rebuilt in 1942 after the original hotel was demolished in 1864, it has extensive lawns and gardens with Adirondack chairs overlooking the water.
We meandered past the hotel and down to the dock where the boat was waiting for us, along with buses full of tourists from Quebec City, about three and a half hours away. (The cruise line we use is offering trips through mid-October this season.) It is unusual to see giant species like the blue whale swimming in a river hundreds of miles from the open sea. Still, they come to the estuary to feed, migrate along the deep Laurentian Canal, and mix with other smaller species such as the beluga.
On the upper deck of the ship, passengers were fighting for their position when the captain announced sightings – fin whales had been sighted in the north. I craned my neck over the other passengers and followed the dark water with my binoculars. On the horizon I saw the gray clouds from their blowholes that dusted the air. Their backs emerged, smooth panes that could best be seen through binoculars. My daughter, who could barely clear the railing, could not see anything. My son, whose view was blocked by other passengers, leaned against a post in frustration and boredom.
The cruise ended and I was concerned that we had promised too much to the kids – whales don’t appear on orders and it was possible that we would end our vacation without ever seeing one up close. As we headed back into town, we stopped at an ice cream parlor for comfort and then had a light dinner sat outside in a microbrewery overlooking the bay. The brewery was bustling that evening with guests talking in French. We shared pizza and a sausage platter and enjoyed the fresh summer breeze.
“I felt a noise on my left …”
The next morning I woke up determined to see whales. We drove about 50 km north of Route 138 to a nature center (open until mid-October) in Les Escoumins, the northern limit of the marine park. The outpost had an education center, dive center, and rocks to sit on on the banks of the St. Lawrence. A guide suggested we go back to another center, Cap-de-Bon-Désir, with a red and white lighthouse that is also open until mid-October. Minkes had been spotted there earlier that day and thought we might have better luck there. When we arrived at Cap-de-Bon-Désir, we followed a birch-lined path down to the rocky banks. A few other families were also sitting on the rocky banks of the river.
The children played in small pools on the rocks. They were full of zooplankton, the food that makes this water so nourishing. The river looked massive and peaceful, but I didn’t see any whales.
My son and husband went looking for a bathroom. I leaned over to my daughter, who was watching over a bee my son had rescued from the water. As I knelt next to her, I felt a rush to my left. I looked up to see a minke whale rising out of the water just a few feet out of my reach, so close that I could see the barnacles on its skin and exhale its heavy breath. I gasped when this huge sea creature appeared and almost broke through. And then it was gone and disappeared into the deep ditch of cold, rich water.
My son and husband came back moments later to find out what they had missed. Give him 15 or 20 minutes, a guide who was on the rocks told us and the dwarf would return for a breath. There were at least two, she said, maybe three. And so we waited. As we sat on the rocky land, they emerged one by one, their breath a deep moan, their back slippery. Since the water drops almost just offshore, the dwarves are known to end up close to land. And they did, lifting their heads high so we could see their mouths. At other times they appeared far in the distance, offering us only a glimpse of their back and dorsal fin. Between visits we searched the silence, waited and looked for a sign. My son jumped and pointed when he first saw one, and we all snapped our heads when he emerged briefly from a world we could barely comprehend. And then they were gone to eat elsewhere.
Back in Sacré-Coeur that evening we drove to a restaurant on the quay called La Casta Fjord, which this season is open until the first week of October, depending on tourism. Tiny, with wooden tables, ship walls, and a weathered terrace overlooking the fjords, the owner spoke little English so I stumbled through French, which I hadn’t spoken in years, to order a salad and linguine with lobster and Nordic shrimp. The food was good, the view even better. We looked at the river and everything we couldn’t see underneath and imagined further excursions – maybe the Gaspé Peninsula or Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. At that moment the world felt huge. This trip would be the first of many.
Now that the world is reluctant to open up again and travel is made difficult by coronavirus tests, vaccination cards and ever-changing rules on social distancing, we are instead putting together hopeful travel routes for the coming years and planning small adventures for the fall or maybe bigger ones the next Spring. Perhaps, we hope, the world will beckon again.