Kayaking the Saguenay

Kayaking Saguenay Lac-Saint-Jean

Outpost gear editor Paul Auerbach heads out to kayak the spectacular Saguenay    

By Paul Auerbach, Photos by Sean French/Outpost Magazine

The Saguenay Fjord was at a nasty, rolling boil, a chaotic mess of black and white and silver foam lacking any discernible pattern. Looking over my shoulder, I could see three-and four-foot waves rolling down the fjord behind us at a 45-degree angle, but our kayaks were getting hit by waves reflecting off the rock wall less than 200 metres to our right. We had been warned of the dangers of surfing by our guide, Martin-Frédéric Berthiaume, and it took real concentration not to let the waves simply take us down the fjord—which was, after all, where we were heading. While surfing would have required much less effort than kayaking, we would run the risk of being turned sideways and driven into the frothy mess, which is one of the ways an adventure can morph into an ordeal.

And this was not supposed to be an ordeal. In fact, artisan cheeses, and free-range pheasant and local beers bursting with character and flavour, were supposed to play a big part in our trip to the Saguenay and Lac Saint-Jean in Quebec. The plan was to kayak the Saguenay Fjord, explore its southern shore, then head northward to finish our trip with a three-day paddle of the northern and eastern shores of Lac Saint-Jean. Along the way we were hoping to see some of what makes Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean so famous: stunning scenery, great food and people who know how to enjoy both. As soon as the rough outlines of the trip started to emerge I called my friends Sean and Marion—Sean knows how to paddle and can navigate in French, and Marion will forget more about food than most of us could ever learn about it.

But now, out on the fjord in 15-knot winds, food was the last thing on my mind. I looked at Martin-Frédéric, just 10 metres ahead, and immediately felt reassured: he did not look concerned. Those who are often afraid, like me, are experts at recognizing concern in people’s faces, especially those of doctors or guides or accountants, and I didn’t see anything: he looked like he was peeling potatoes and listening to CBC’s Q on the radio. Martin-Frédéric is a level-three paddler with more than 10 years’ experience guiding on the fjord, and everything he did reflected a high degree of skill and professionalism. I felt sure he would get us to dinner, and when he did, it would not be of the Kraft dinner kind, either.

Bad Weather Kayaking

Having the benefit of a seasoned guide is critical on the fjord, where weather and paddling conditions can change quickly, and where there are few places to get out of the water safely when the surface isn’t so polished. The tides closer to the end of the fjord, where it narrows, reach up to nine knots, which makes travel by kayak one way only. And even further north, tides of four or five metres are common, making tide tables essential for multi-day paddles. Martin-Frédéric told us that kayaks had been washed away by the waves created by the larger tour boats that run up and down the fjord to Tadoussac, and some turned up 80 kilometres away on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.

Berthiaume is not only an expert paddler with a deep and thorough knowledge of the fjord, but it turns out he’s also a very able and enthusiastic chef. What he and Organisaction (our host outfitter) have in mind is adventure during the day, then fine food and beautiful views as evening rewards, and they really deliver on all counts.

The fjord itself provides the views, but its beauty is more than skin deep: it’s also a geological wonder that is worth the trip alone (about five hours from Montreal). It started forming about four billion years ago, which is an astounding number that I can’t vouch for or explain or even grasp really, but that’s the number confidently asserted at the Musée du Fjord in La Baie. The fjord is now a 100-kilometre-long trench, almost 275 metres deep in places, left behind after a mile deep slab of ice melted about 20,000 years ago. The ice sheets cut deep into the Saguenay Graben, a portion of the earth’s crust, gouging the fjord in the process. What was left behind is a stunning, dynamic ecosystem that includes steep cliffs rising 400 metres straight up out of the water, and Greenland sharks (who pose no danger to humans) patrolling the frigid depths.

Saguenay Fjord

Saguenay Fjord

The waters of the fjord—a layer of fresh on top and saltwater below—and the land around it have been teeming with life for thousands of years since the ice receded, and Native people, including the Innu, the Algonquin and the Etchemin, lived and died here for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. As I stood looking down the fjord from La Baie, where I first laid eyes on it, I struggled to grasp how the entire region, stretching west beyond Ottawa and south to Maine, had been under saltwater as recently as 10,000 years ago. The Champlain Sea, which was really a saltwater inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, was constantly receding because (get this) the earth’s crust was rebounding and rising once it was relieved of the weight of all that ice. So the Innu and other Native peoples of the region were living in coastal communities, and the native name for the land-locked salmon that is still found in Lac Saint-Jean today is “poor little lost one.”

Les Fromageries Extraordinaires du Fjord

We had driven north from Montreal, through Quebec City, and then through Jacques Cartier National Park, along a perfectly smooth highway that unfurled in front of us like a giant ribbon. The highway itself was a surprise, but what Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean had in store for us was extraordinary: natural beauty without crowds, charming towns, very good food, and warm, friendly people. We arrived at La Baie, near the northernmost end of the fjord, and checked into Auberge des 21. The picturesque hotel is known for its outstanding food and its amiable owner and head chef, Marcel Bouchard. Lucky for us, he’s a strong believer in the value of local food, and even the herbs used in the restaurant are all locally grown.

In the morning we made time to head up to Fromagerie Les Bergeries du Fjord, about 10 minutes from La Baie. I had heard that the area around Lac Saint-Jean had some very good cheesemakers and I wanted to see and taste for myself. We pulled into the driveway of a neat farm with a sizeable outbuilding housing the fromagerie. We were greeted by Martin Gilbert, who runs the farm and the cheese operation together with his brother and his wife, Josée Gauthier. Even though they were busy getting hay off the field that day (“faire les foins,” as they say), Martin was eager to show us around and to have us sample some of their raw milk cheeses.

The cheese is made from one herd of sheep and one herd of jersey cows, and only the milk from the morning milking is used (owing to its higher fat content). We are conditioned to think of milk as either raw or pasteurized, but for Martin it’s really a question of “dead or alive” (processed vs. unprocessed; dull vs. robust tasting), and he much prefers the latter. Now I do, too. There’s a reason their cheeses were among those served to Barack Obama and the rest of the G20 leaders in Toronto in 2010.

Food of Saguenay

We drove north and west, through Chicoutimi, which was hosting a beer festival, and made our way to the eco-lodge La Pourvoirie Cap au Leste. We spent the night in what felt like an aerie—high above the fjord, with spectacular views back toward La Baie and southeast in the direction of Tadoussac. The north shore of the fjord, the road to Tadoussac, is a favourite route for cyclists, but judging from some of the hills I saw, it looked like a good place to ride along in the support vehicle.

After a hearty breakfast at Cap au Leste, we rolled down to Rivière Éternité, where we met Graham Park, a truly transplanted Anglophone who works as a ranger at Saguenay Fjord National Park. It must be a common experience: feeling this would be a great place to live and work, but Park has managed to make it a reality. He helped us get organized, and after a quick lunch under blue skies we pushed off, paddling in the direction of Cap Trinité.

I had heard that this was a serious destination for rock climbers and I could see why: the rock rises straight out of the water and just keeps on going for 400 metres (think Empire State Building). To get a sense of what some people do up here, all you have to do is Google “Big Wall Climbing Saguenay,” and sit back and watch the show.

We were still a few hundred metres from the north shore when Martin-Frédéric shouted “écureuil!” My brain searched the French/English rolodex…did he just say squirrel? Sure enough, a wide-eyed tree-dwelling rodent was paddling furiously across the fjord, in search of what treasure I couldn’t tell you. How he ended up hundreds of metres from shore and near the middle of the fjord will forever be a mystery. As I looked at his face, all contorted effort and gnawing rat fear, I tried not to laugh, as I know I’ve had the same look on my own face paddling in bad conditions—eyes fixed on the distant shore, deeply unamused, just hoping for a place to land. We watched for a few minutes, partly to make sure he wouldn’t perish out there and partly just to admire his pluck and courage. And that’s how our three-day paddle on the fjord began, with a rodent foreshadowing my own anxious paddle two days later.

Nautical Squirrel

Nautical Squirrel

After a half day or so of paddling, we pulled into Anse du Portage, a small campsite on the north shore of the fjord looking directly across at the town of Anse Saint-Jean. After a quick swim in the cool fresh water I walked past the picnic table where Martin-Frédéric was chopping and slicing with great energy. “Hungry?” he asked, with a grin. “It’s important to eat well when you paddle all day.” As someone who’s eaten more than a few sodium-rich freeze-dried meals I knew what he meant, but I still wasn’t prepared for what he had in store.

Less than an hour later we sat down to a meal of local venison, beef and vegetable fondue, local red wine and cheeses from Fromagerie Blackburn and Les Bergeries du Fjord. Just when I thought I couldn’t eat another bite, a homemade service-berry cheesecake appeared, courtesy of Organisaction’s own Mathieu. I knew what I thought about the food, but when Marion—my foodie companion—said it was one of the best cheesecakes she’d ever had I knew it wasn’t just my appetite and the fresh air speaking. As if that wasn’t enough, the cheesecake was served with a local raspberry whiskey dessert wine.

We woke rested and relaxed the next morning. After a leisurely breakfast, we packed into our kayaks and began paddling south, with Martin-Frédéric filling us in on the history of the area along route. Around mid-morning we reached île Saint-Barthélemy. The rocky shore made landing an adventure, but again Martin-Frédéric found a way and we scrambled ashore, then climbed to a vantage point where we could see all the way south to Pointe aux Crêpes. Back on the water we paddled leisurely to L’Anse des Ilets Rouges, where we stopped for lunch.

Toward the end of lunch I noticed Martin-Frédéric watching the sky to the north and west, and it wasn’t long before he got us moving. We paddled at a good clip directly toward the south shore as the skies darkened. About two-thirds of the way across the fjord the rain came, but mostly without much wind, and as we paddled into Anse à Tidée, the sun was pouring down along with the rain—it looked like millions of sparkling lights laid out before us.

After setting up camp I wandered down to the cook tent. I was coping well with the feelings of guilt and shame that can arise from being cared for by a superior, and pleased to see Martin-Frédéric whistling while he worked on dinner over a Coleman stove. He had kept it a secret that he was carrying in his kayak enough rack of lamb for six people, wild foraged lobster mushrooms for his “hunter’s sauce,” and asparagus he would grill to perfection. And when the homebaked blueberry and raspberry tart appeared after dinner (Merci encore, Mathieu!) together with scotch and maple syrup ice wine, I thought I’d been delivered from the world and all earthly suffering.

The following morning we pushed off in the direction of Cap Sainte-Marguerite, back on the north shore. The cape is where whales tend to congregate, and we were anxious to see some belugas. But the weather wasn’t cooperating. By 9:30 the wind had picked up, and the two or three kilometres that separated us from the cape were mostly white caps. It looked like excellent conditions for America’s Cup sailing, but not so much for kayaking. We would need to paddle north while the waves would be bearing down on us from the west. Though we were prepared to do whatever Martin-Frédéric recommended, when he said “I think no” after a minute or two of looking out over the fjord, I was secretly relieved.

Instead, he turned us south and east, and still the paddling was as challenging as anything I had experienced. How much I now resembled that squirrel in the middle of the fjord I will leave to others.

About an hour later, we rounded Pointe aux Crêpes and headed for the beach at L’Anse Saint-Étienne. Here the wind was settled, and it was like we were in a different world from the churning wind tunnel we’d just paddled through. We were arriving near low tide, and getting the boats and gear up to the beach meant hauling it a few hundred metres. And yet the muscle work wasn’t all that difficult because we knew lunch was waiting—as usual that meant a whole array of local cheeses and other delicacies.

Hauling Our Gear\

Hauling Our Gear

Tired but happy, we thanked Mathieu and Martin-Frédéric and rolled back up to the highway and drove to L’Anse Saint-Jean, about 20 minutes away. The little town is quite picturesque, and the charming Les Gites du Fjord affords excellent views of the water and the harbour. The town was also North America’s first municipal monarchy—becoming one after a 1997 local referendum—and I gather that King Denys I (Denys Tremblay, a professor at the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi) was pretty accessible, as monarchs go. Alas, the experiment was short-lived: three years later he abdicated amid local grumblings that a municipal king wasn’t all it was hyped up to be!

After doing laundry and a few other chores, we met up in Restaurant L’Islet, where we ate exceptional steaks and watched the deep blue waters rolling south toward the St. Lawrence, happy not to be out amid the whitecaps.

La Plus Belle Ville L’Anse Saint-Jean

The next morning we woke to beautiful blue skies, and decided to spend some time wandering around L’Anse Saint-Jean. Founded in 1838, many of the town’s well-maintained houses were built well before 1900. The town’s covered bridge has been made into an art gallery, and much of what was on display was very high quality. It was therapeutic just to feel how peaceful and quiet it all was—even now, during the height of the tourist season. There were people around, to be sure, and the hotel and restaurant were full; but the town and the folks who live there felt undisturbed by its visitors, and the natural rhythm of life near the fjord seemed intact.

Curious to see what local artists were doing, we stopped into a gallery run by André Bouchard, an animated historian and environmental activist who creates beautiful murals, canvasses and tabletops (stunning, we all agreed) using acrylic paints. As it turns out, Bouchard lives in a house that he traded for one of his paintings, and he’s the creator of the poster for Amnesty International’s campaign against torture. If you want to get a sense of the man’s astonishing passion and energy just go to his website at andrebouchard.com and watch him at work.

Andre Bouchard's Gallery

Andre Bouchard's Gallery

We finally packed up the car, and leaving L’Anse Saint-Jean only reluctantly, started the drive through the rich farmland that lies between the fjord and Lac Saint-Jean. West of Hebertville, the countryside rolled and undulated, rising and falling like an ocean of corn and canola and alfalfa, punctuated here and there by barns and silos, silhouetted against the blue sky of a flawless summer day.

We were heading for one of the most highly regarded cheesemakers in the area, the Lehmann family. The family moved to the region from Switzerland in 1983, and two of Jacob and Marie Lehmann’s three children still work on the farm, where a herd of brown Swiss cows provide the milk. Jacob is widely recognized for his contribution to the region’s growing reputation as a producer of world-class artisanal cheeses, and the samples we tasted were just flat out delicious. The Kénogami was my personal favourite, a surface-ripened farm cheese named after the road that was, for a long time, the main link between Saguenay and Lac Saint-Jean.

Later in the afternoon, we found our way to the Auberge du Presbytère Mont-Lac-Vert, a wonderful guesthouse run by Danielle Castonguay, which was the first presbytery in the Lac-Saint-Jean area and dates back to 1917. The inn sits on the shores of Lac Vert, and once again, we were surprised to find that here, some half an hour from Chicoutimi, we were eating gourmet food.

We spent the night in Saint-Gédéon on the shores of Lac Saint-Jean. On the way to dinner we stopped by Microbrasserie du Lac (a microbrewery), which bottles 45,000 litres of locally brewed beer a year and hopes to more than double that production within a year or two. Their brews are stored in Jack Daniels’ kegs, which infuse the beers with subtle hints of cherry or peaches left over from Tennessee orchards.

Our guide, Olivier Spénard, used to be a tough guy in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but now lives in the area and works as a translator. When we arrived on a warm Thursday night, the place was swarming with people and seats were hard to come by inside and impossible out on the patio, which looks out over a farmer’s field. But the wait was worth it. The brews, named after people who blow things up and chop down trees, are bold and delicious.

The following day we kayaked around the islands at the south end of Lac Saint-Jean, where we met the very likable Stéphan Tremblay, a friend of Equinox Adventures’ owner Hugues Ouellet. Tremblay showed us something he calls the igloft (a fusion of the igloo and the loft), which provides most of the comforts of home while floating quietly in a secluded bay. It was only later that I discovered this was the same Stéphan Tremblay who sat in the Canadian Parliament at the age of 23, and took his chair from the House of Commons home with him to Lac Saint-Jean. A lot of people remember him doing it, but not many remember he did it to protest growing economic inequality.

Kayaking Saguenay South

Kayaking Saguenay South

At the mouth of the Métabetchouan River, we stopped at the archaeological centre, which includes an art gallery and a kind of visitors’ centre. We were greeted by Andre Lepine, who had a long white ponytail, sparkling eyes and the look of a man with a lot to say. Lepine can trace his roots in Quebec back to the early 1600s, and spent 10 years living and teaching in native communities in Northern Quebec. He gave us a crisp, detailed presentation on the history of the region, and I’m pretty sure it was not in all respects to the official history (we were, by this time, getting used to people with strong views and a willingness to express them).

There is little evidence of it today, but Métabetchouan was the historical meeting place for nine Indian nations, a commercial hub as important in its time as Chicago was in the late 19th century. Each summer up to 18,000 people would travel to this place, where the river meets the “big shallow lake,” most of them in large canoes laden with merchandise for trade. Tobacco and corn were brought from as far away as the shores of Lake Huron, 1,200 kilometres south and west. Lepine himself participated in a gruelling re-enactment of the traditional route, paddling and portaging 15 to 16 hours a day for six days in a row.

After a quick breakfast we continued north to Saint-Prime, where we stopped in at the Fromagerie Perron and the Cheddar Cheese Museum. The museum itself includes the preserved upstairs flat of the Perron family, as well as the original working equipment they used. The area around the lake, with its thriving dairy farms, is home to dozens of local cheese producers. Some of them will just open the door and give you a tour (time permitting), and every time we stopped we found people eager to tell us about what they were doing and how much they loved it. And with very few exceptions the quality of the cheese was superb. Some of the standouts we tasted in the area came from Fromagerie Perron, Fromagerie Ferme des Chutes, La Normandinoise (one of my favourites) and Au Pays-des-bleuets, all within a 20-minute drive of Saint-Prime.

Later in the day we put the kayaks in the water on the Ashuapmushuan River (the “place where one lies in wait for moose”). The river is the northern boundary of a park bearing the same name and is high on peoples’ lists of places for canoe camping and whitewater adventures. We paddled up the river, past Saint-Félicien, and then found our way to Auberge des Berges, paddling right up to its dock. Before we could even get out of our boats we were being greeted by the vibrant Mireille Fleurant and her husband, Jacques Tremblay, who welcome hundreds of cyclists, paddlers and snowmobilers every year. From the road the Auberge is rather non-descript, but once you’re inside and meet Mireille and Jacques, you’ll know you’re in the right place. The food is first rate and the view of the river from the dining room is spectacular.

If you get anywhere close to the village of Saint-Félicien, you should absolutely get to Microbrasserie La Chouape (short for Ashuapmushuan), which is a microbrewery with a roster of outstanding beers, including black oat beer that will change your night, at least. The next morning we wandered out to the parking lot, where Hugues was waiting with the boats all loaded up. Hugues has the lean athletic look of a guy who’s used to doing things for nine people rather than just one or two. He’s good-natured and easy going, which are essential for a guide, is the president of Equinox, and has strong views about how to grow tourism in the Lac-Saint-Jean region.

“The real obstacle to getting more tourists here is the distance; but once people see what awaits them here the distance doesn’t seem so great.” Hugues has organized bike tours for people travelling all the way from California—La Véloroute des Bleuets is one of the area’s main summer attractions. It’s a 265-kilometre paved bike route that circumnavigates the lake. Whole families can be seen pedalling happily along the path, enjoying the great views of the lake and the gorgeous farmland that surrounds it.

Hugues was not entirely sure what to make of us. Not too many people want to do multi-day kayak trips on Lac Saint-Jean, partly because of the unpredictability of the conditions, and partly because point-to-point paddling on a large lake can be lots of work without changing scenery. The lake itself is vast (more than 35 kilometres across) and yet extraordinarily shallow. It’s so shallow, in fact, that it can get whipped up in no time with just a modest 10-knot wind. And the waves can get so big so fast that locals won’t go out in power boats if the wind is blowing. We explained that our mission was to see as much of the area as possible and that cycling really wasn’t our thing. And when he heard about how much cheese we’d eaten in the preceding days he just laughed, understanding that we could use the exercise.

The weather had been great for most of the trip. We’d been rained on briefly on the Saguenay Fjord, but since then we’d seen nothing but blue skies and warm temperatures. We departed from Pointe Saint-Méthode and headed west, across the mouth of the Mistassini River, and toward the north shore of the lake. The temperature was approaching 30ºC. We saw no other kayaks and very few boats of any kind for most of the morning. It took us most of the day to paddle to Vauvert, which is a well-developed destination for families, with great cabins for rent and a spectacular white sand beach that stretches for kilometres.

At Vauvert we found the food to be very, very good—and reasonably priced. Marion had nothing but praise for the fresh pan-fried fish (doré) and the melon, blueberry and feta salad. After dinner we sat, sated, around a roaring fire that looked directly out across Lac Saint-Jean. A perfect day.

Paddle to Pointe-Taillon

In the morning we started the long paddle to Pointe-Taillon, a national park on the lake’s eastern shore. The park itself is connected to the Véloroute and includes great campsites, easy beach access and all the amenities you could need (showers, a restaurant). We stayed in two Huttopia tents, which were a revelation. Although staying in the tents is pricey (about $170 per night) they do sleep four comfortably, and you can get people to go with you who ordinarily wouldn’t be interested in camping.

When we woke on the last morning of our trip, the wind was still whipping the lake into a frenzy. I had fallen asleep exhausted, but Hugues (I learned in the morning) had stayed up listening to the wind bending the tops of trees at right angles. Eventually he got up to go check on the condition of the kayaks, only to find four-foot waves crashing on the beach and too close to the boats for comfort. When I got up in the morning he was contemplating whether the conditions on the lake would be too rough to paddle (not for him, for us). After breakfast we walked down to the beach and had a look: the wind was still strong, and whitecaps and spray could be seen on the water’s surface. The waves were still three- and four-feet high and just putting the boats in would be an adventure. I thought of the squirrel and his wild, staring eyes: is that what the day had in store for me?

After some thought, Hugues decided that once we got past the beach break the paddling would be OK, so off we went. We started the trip toward Alma by paddling straight into large, strong swells, the water crashing over our boats. Hugues was keeping a close watch on everyone, and before long each wave looked more like a challenge and less like a threat. Soon we were beyond the beach break and out in the open water: the wide blue sky and the morning light were stunning, and the absence of any boat traffic gave us the feeling of paddling in a really remote place.

Clear Skies and Great Paddling

Clear Skies and Great Paddling

The paddle down to Alma was long and peaceful, and we took advantage of the time to ask Hugues everything about the lake—the people who live around it, its future. Like a lot of people who live here, Hugues lived in Montreal for a time but came back because he wanted more of what he likes—kayaking, cycling, skiing, trekking—and less of what he doesn’t like: traffic and congestion.

In no time, we were paddling through the Grand Décharge, past cabins and sunbathers and lots of motor boats. Exhausted but happy, we pulled the boats out of the water near Alma, then thanked Hugues for looking out for us, and for a fantastic paddle.

After spending the night in Alma we woke up and started the drive south toward Quebec City, via Route 169. The road wound through beautiful mountains and valleys, much steeper and more dramatic than I thought I’d find just two hours from Quebec City. But by this time, I was getting used to being surprised.

We had a remarkable nine days in the area, and had only scratched the surface. As I watched the scenery drift by it occurred to me that I really should get back here soon and hike the north shore of the fjord out to Tadoussac, or maybe explore the area in the winter on snowshoes, or maybe try the Véloroute. And I realized it’s not about finding a reason to go to Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean—it’s about choosing from so many good ones.

Paul Auerbach is Outpost’s Gear Editor, and long-time kayak and outdoor enthusiast.

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