The road to our country was narrow, muddy and full of tiny ceramics and plastics. dwarves, fairies and bears. My 8-year-old daughter spotted a miniature tiger crouching at the foot of a pine tree while holding her stuffed giraffe and carefully avoiding gnarled roots.
He was too tired to offer her anything but a casual nod as he stumbled behind his father and 11-year-old brother, under the weight of the pink sequin backpack and the six-and-a-half hours we had spent. The road from Montreal to a town called here Sacré-Coeur Embracing the Saguenay River in Quebec’s Côte-Nord region.
It was late June 2019 and we had come here looking for whales, traveling about 300 miles northeast from Montreal, past Saguenay. ferryand drive the last mile on a dirt road to meet our innkeeperHe longed for us to finish this last leg of our journey before dusk.
Saguenay’s St. We were staying about 16 miles from Tadoussac, a picturesque town where it meets the Lawrence River. The waterway is part of a protected marine park about six species of whales can be seen regularly from here. May to end of Octoberr St. As they feed in the deep, nutrient-rich waters of the Lawrence Estuary, they make a fantastic spot for whale watching.
I booked a trip on a whim, Finding a listing on Airbnb, and building a family vacation around the idea of sleeping in a supercharged tent. At the time, the trip felt like the beginning of a new chapter for our family. Our children were getting older and could endure long journeys, empty plans, and walks heavy with luggage. We can explore corners of the world together.
Now, looking back at that time, after a year and a half of going through a pandemic and minimal travel, I no longer see that journey as a start. Instead, I see it as our unhindered final adventure, where our concerns are limited to catching ferries, avoiding mosquitoes, and spotting sea creatures.
last month, Canada reopened its borders for fully vaccinated American travelers, making such a trip possible once again. With proof of vaccination and a negative Covid-19 test, a family can repeat this relatively Covid-safe itinerary, even though some attractions are closed or only partially open. Unvaccinated children younger than 12 years old Must comply with Canadian testing and safety requirements. For me though, this option still feels weak. My daughter, who is now 10 years old, is ineligible for the vaccine and I hesitate to travel such a great distance with her as cases are rising again. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Canada Level 3, high risk and advises unvaccinated citizens to avoid non-essential travel there. I wonder when we will be able to travel so freely again. And so, the adventure we’re having feels like it’s been plucked from a world out of my reach, like watching the water, waiting for a whale to come to the top.
Where are the whales?
We started the trip by car from our home in New Jersey to Montreal, where we stayed for a few days via New York. We then continued on to the Côte-Nord, where we spent three nights surrounded by boreal forest and the dramatic Saguenay fjords while searching for humpback, minke, fin, beluga and blue whales.
As we climbed a hill that first evening, the forest tunnel view opened up, revealing our white canvas dormitory and majestic fjords hundreds of meters below, overlooking Saguenay.to Saguenay Fjords National Park. We had an unobstructed and private window to this wonder from the deck outside our dormitory.
Our innkeeper told us to watch a pair of belugas playing in the water all morning. nearby Bay of Sainte-Marguerite It is their breeding ground and nursery. Unlike other whales that just pass through, belugas, primarily an Arctic species, live here year-round. From this distance, he told us, they might look like white hats on the water.
The children immediately inspected their new home, marveling at the propane stove, the dripping water from the kitchen sink, and the dry sawdust-filled toilet. (A surprisingly fascinating wood the house a few meters from the dormitory was for large bathrooms.) The circular space had two bedrooms, a wall of windows overlooking the fjords, and a glass vaulted ceiling for stargazing. We arrived too late to find a market to restock our dwindling supply of food, and we had finished what we had for dinner – a few slices of cheese and salami on sandwich bread. The kids grumbled from the disappointing meal.
That night 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 two rivers had been a crossroads and meeting place for people. First Nations tribes. The passage he read describes an encounter in which Samuel de Champlain met several indigenous tribes who had gathered for celebration in 1603, building a summer camp at Saguenay, not far from the port of Tadoussac and near where we slept.
The next morning we awoke to the magnificent view of the fjords covered in fog. There were no belugas in sight, but there were a lot of mosquitoes, huge, determined and ready to attack. We wore long sleeves and went back to the car as the stripes were already starting to form. I had booked a whale watching cruise from Tadoussac and was dying to catch the boat.
Tadoussac, a village of 800 inhabitants founded in 1600, is today St. It is a quaint marine tourism center overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The area attracts 1 million visitors a year, so the streets of Tadoussac are brimming with shops, restaurants and inns. My husband was particularly curious about the copy. Chauvin Trade CenterIt was built in 1600 and is the first fur trading post in Canada. large overlooking the bay Hotel Tadoussac, with a red roof, white siding and green shutters. Rebuilt in 1942 after the original hotel from 1864 was demolished, it features a large lawn and Adirondack chair gardens overlooking the water.
We passed the hotel and landed at the dock, where the boat was waiting for us, with a busload of tourists from Quebec City, about three and a half hours away. (cruise company We have trips that we use that are available through mid-October this season.) It is unusual to see giant species such as the blue whale swimming in a river hundreds of kilometers from the open ocean. Yet they come to the estuary to feed, St. They travel through the depths of Lawrence. Laurentian Canal and mingling with other smaller species such as the beluga.
On the ship’s upper deck, passengers jockeyed for position as the captain explained the sights – fin whales were spotted to the north. I stretched my neck over the other passengers, following the dark water with my binoculars.. On the horizon I saw grayish hairs dusting the air from the vents. Their ridges are exposed, flat discs are best seen with binoculars. My daughter, who barely lifted the railing, could see nothing. My son was blocked by other passengers, leaning against a pole, frustrated and bored.
The cruise was over and I was worried we had promised the kids too much – whales wouldn’t show up on command and it was possible for us to end our vacation without seeing it up close. On our way back into town, we stopped at an ice cream parlor for consolation and then had a light dinner outside. microbrewery overlooking the bay. The brewery was bustling with customers conversing in French that evening. We shared the pizza and charcuterie plate and took in the crisp summer breeze.
‘I felt a swoosh on my left…’
The next morning I woke up determined to see the whales. We headed approximately 30 miles north on Route 138. a nature center (open until mid-October) in Les Escoumins, the northern boundary of the marine park. The outpost has a training center, a scuba diving base, and St. Lawrence, there were rocks we could sit on. A guide suggested that we return to another centre. Cap-de-Bon-Désir, with its red and white lighthouse, is also open until mid-October. Minkes had been spotted there earlier in the day and thought we might be luckier there. When we arrived in Cap-de-Bon-Désir, we followed a path surrounded by birch trees and descended to the cliffs. There were several other families living on the rocky banks of the river.
The children played in small puddles on the rocks. They were filled with zooplankton, the food that makes this water so nutritious. The river looked huge and peaceful but I didn’t see any whales.
My son and husband went out to find a bathroom. I approached my daughter, who was on watch over the bee my son saved from the water. As I knelt next to him, I felt a swoosh on my left. I looked up to see, rising just a few feet from the water, a mink whale so close that I could see the mussels on its skin and I could hear its heavy breathing. It took my breath away as this giant creature of the sea surfaced, almost breaching it. And then he was gone, lost in the deep pit of cold, rich waters.
My son and husband came back a few minutes later to find out what they had missed. Give it 15 or 20 minutes, we were told by a guide who was on the rocks and the mink would come back for air. There were at least two, he said, maybe three. And so we waited. Sitting on the rocky terrain, they emerged one by one, their breathing a deep groan, their backs slippery. Minkes are known to be close to land, as the water almost immediately falls off the shore. And they raised their heads so high that we could see their mouths. Other times, they would surface far away and show us only their backs and dorsal fin. Between visits, we scanned the stillness, waiting, looking for a sign. My son would jump and point if he saw one first, and we would all turn our heads as it briefly emerged from a world we could barely grasp. Then they left, went to feed elsewhere.
That evening we went to a restaurant on the pier in Sacré-Coeur. La Casta FjordIt will be open during the first week of October this season, depending on tourism. With small, wooden tables, shipyard walls and a weathered deck overlooking the fjords, the owner spoke little English so I stumbled upon the French I hadn’t spoken in years to order a salad and a lobster and Scandinavian shrimp linguine. The food was good, the view is even better. We looked at the river and everything we couldn’t see below and imagined more excursions to come – 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, as the world continually reopens with travel complicated by coronavirus testing, vaccination registrations, and ever-changing social distancing rules, we instead find ourselves crafting promising itineraries for the years to come, planning small adventures for autumn or perhaps bigger ones next spring. . Maybe by then, we hope the world calls out once again.