Story & photos by Steve Jermanok
For some silly reason, the typical road trip in the province of Quebec starts in Montreal and ends in Quebec City. Don’t make that mistake. Continue your trip north another 3 hours to Saguenay and you’ll be treated to a low-cost multi-sport adventure that rivals the best outdoor hubs in North America—Stowe, Boulder, or Bend, Oregon. On a weeklong trip in July, I had the rare opportunity to sea kayak with beluga whales, raft down pristine Class IV rapids, sample one of the lone Via Ferratas on the continent, and bike on the on the celebrated Véloroute des Bleuets, a 256-kilometer bike trail that circumnavigates the massive inland sea they call Lac-Saint-Jean.
Driving north, the mountainous ridges and anonymous lakes give way to a sylvan valley surrounding large lakes. Bright yellow fields of canola mix with the rolling green hillside, tall silos, and rolled hay that gives this terrain the unmistakable French countryside feel. Everywhere you look are cyclists biking on Véloroute des Bleuets, fat-wheeling on mountain bike trails, even biking through sand on one of the 15 public beaches found around the lake.
We chose to spend the first day and night at Parc national de la Pointe-Taillon, a peninsula that juts into Lac-Saint-Jean and offers its own 45 km biking circuit. We parked in the lot, grabbed sheets, blankets, bikes, and a small mini-trailer to carry all our belongings and off we went on a short ride to our lodging for the night, a Huttopia tent. Available in 17 of Quebec’s 24 national parks, these canvas tents are equipped with four beds, heating, and everything you need to cook a meal. We dropped our belongings and continued to bike along the peninsula looking at desolate beaches, large beaver dams, and a thicket of tall birch trees. This is prime moose country but we wouldn’t find the big fella this first night.
The town of Desbiens is where we would start our adventures on the next day, a whitewater rafting trip down the Metabetchouan River with H2O Expeditions. Owner Sylvain Alarie has rafted down many of the finest rivers in the world like the Colorado, but he always returns to his native Quebec. After spending the afternoon with him on an exhilarating run down the Class III and IV rapids of the Metabetchouan, it’s easy to understand why he comes back. The clean waters of the river slice through cavernous walls where tall pines cling to the hillside. A master navigator, Sylvain found the perfect line to attack the most rip-roaring rapids as we shrieked with joy each time the raft rolled up and we met the next drenching wave.
The first you thing you wonder when sea kayaking on Saguenay Fjord is where are all the boats? No motorboats, sailboats, jet skis, nothing. Our guide, Jean, tells us there are few places to dock along the 100-kilometer shoreline and even less places to find gas. The second thing you notice is that the water is the color of black ink, perhaps because it reaches a depth of some 900 meters in the middle. We were 80 kilometers down the fjord, only 20 kilometers from the mouth at the St. Lawrence River. This is a prime spot for spotting beluga whales since the federally preserved waters of Baie-Sainte-Marguerite, where belugas mate, were directly across the channel from us. We paddled along the jagged shoreline lined with cliffs and oversized boulders and topped by pines that remarkably still stand after the harsh winters here. We spotted herons and cormorants but Jean tells us that the rugged shoreline is also a favorite of peregrine falcons.
Then we crossed the channel as the tide rolled out and waited patiently. “Just listen,” said Jean “and you might hear the belugas breathing.” In the distance, we spotted a patch of white break the surface. Then we spotted it again. Jean has had curious belugas come directly to his kayak to peer up at him, but we weren’t so fortunate today. Nonetheless, the weather was perfect, under sunny skies with a slight breeze. It was wonderful to finally be paddling in the Saguenay Fjord, one of the southernmost fjords on the planet, something that has been on my wish list for quite some time.
Just when I thought I had my fill of adventure in the Saguenay and neighboring Charlevoix region, I topped it all with the last day’s activity. Charlevoix is home to one of the few Via Ferratas in the world outside of the famous Dolomites. Using cables affixed to an 1187-foot rock face, we attached our carabiners and used iron rungs on the steep sections to clamber up the rock wall at Palissades De Charlevoix. Following our relaxed guide, Vincent, (me, not so relaxed), we slowly and carefully made it to the top of the steep cliff. We stopped to pick wild blueberries and to peer down at a sinuous creek below where we spotted a beaver swimming next to his oversized dam.
The real excitement starts at the top when we crossed a suspension bridge made of wobbly planks high above the canyon floor. Then Vincent says to me, “now it’s time to rappel down.” I looked down the 230-foot rock ledge and panicked. But Vincent slowly got me to lean off the ledge and believe in the equipment. I descended, kicking off the smooth face of the wall, and quickly found myself at the bottom, heart racing but proud of my accomplishment. This was one week of adrenaline-pumping adventure I won’t soon forget.