Saguenay Fjord -- Deep and Long but not very Tall

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NATAKAM condos

Flag of Canada  , Quebec,
Friday, June 19, 2009

I'd heard as a schoolboy that the Saguenay Fjord was one of the longest in the world.  Years later someone told me the area around Tadoussac was pretty, sparsely developed and inviting.  Given a spare day or two that's all the reason I need to explore a new place.  Plus it would give my kids a chance to see a fjord in North America and an opportunity to do some whale watching.  So we made the drive downriver on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, about 3 1/2 hours past Quebec City to Les Escoumins.  We chose to stay in Les Escoumins because it offered attractive fairly priced condo rentals situated right on the banks of the St. Lawrence River -- a chance to watch the river and its traffic up close and hopefully see a few whales.  Beluga whales frequent the area and I've never seen them in the wild before so I was hopeful.

This drive northeast of Quebec City takes you through picturesque Charlevoix, a less affluent but beautiful part of the province that I found especially notable for Its numerous cheese producing farms (each with its own label -- much like you might find in rural France).  The topography is typical of the Canadian Shield and is heavily forested, with mixed coniferous and deciduous trees that must be especially beautiful when decorated in their fall canopy.  The road is good and in due time we made it to the (free) ferry service which crosses the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord.  The ride across the fjord is relaxing, picturesque and takes about 10 minutes, but the true length of the Fjord (about 100 miles) can not be fathomed from this initial encounter.  The terrain around the fjord is again typical of the Canadian Shield, with rolling rounded granite hills covered by a mixed forest -- nothing like the tall, steep, rugged mountainous fjords of Norway or New Zealand. 

As one drives off the ferry on the eastern side of the fjord the village of Tadoussac is immediately to the right.  We continued past this turnoff and drove another 20 minutes further downriver to the village of Les Escoumins where we checked in for our two night/one day stay.  This was the first time on our trip to Quebec where language became somewhat of an issue.  No one in the registration office spoke English and I barely speak any French.  Still, with gestures and a preprinted reservation notice we managed to work things out.  I ran into a similar problem as I tried to tank up the van we'd rented.  The gas station attendant spoke no English but we finally figured out how to get the gas paid for and pumped into my tank.  So as you head out of the main cities into rural Quebec its good idea to have a French phrasebook with you. 

The condo was nice with beautiful views of the St. Lawrence River.  Unfortunately we arrived a few weeks before the whales start running in any number and didn't see a single fluke or blow out there.  Still, there was a nice hiking trail beside the river which we enjoyed using several times, and the views up the St. Lawrence were beautiful.

We spent a day visiting Tadoussac and part of the Saguenay Fjord.  Tadoussac is an historic though small village with its past including First Nations settlements, the fur trade, timber industry and now a  focus on tourism.  Tadoussac is dominated by the large Hotel Tadoussac, an elegant old whitewashed hotel with eye-catching firetruck red roof, which has been vacation resort for almost 150 years and the setting for some films including the Hotel New Hampshire.  The town is quaint and picturesque and has a beautiful harbor.  Located on the hotel grounds is a Chapel said to be the oldest church in North America.  There's a trail that extends from the harbor area around the point at the mouth of the fjord, with extension up to the top of the hill, then loops back along the fjord into town -- just over a mile and a nice walk.  The town features the Marine Mammal Interpretation Center which highlights the life cycle of the whales that usually are abundant in the area.  The harbor features a number of whale-watching excursions or leisurely boat cruises up the Fjord, so this is where you'd want to head if you're here July - Sept when a large number of whales swim up a deep trench at the base of the St. Lawrence River and into the waters of Saguenay Fjord, which is over 800 feet deep.  Or you can just enjoy the scenery or look for some peregrine falcon nests.

The fjord is about a hundred miles long and drains a large area of Quebec into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  Like all fjords, it provides a place for admixing of fresh and salty sea water, and with this is a rich underwater ecosystem.  There are several units of the Parc National Du Saguenay wherein one can hike, camp and relax.  It would take a long time to explore the entire fjord, but we did drive up the "Route du Fjord" and stopped at the Baie-Du-Sainte-Marguerite Sector where we had a nice hike along a tributary river to the fjord itself.  It was a nice way to see the fauna of the area and to enjoy a different perspective of the fjord.   The area around both sides of the Saguenay Fjord are nature preserves and have lots of outdoor recreational opportunities.

After our brief visit we made our way back to Quebec City where we began our week long adventure.  The trip to Saguenay Fjord had been a fun but not overwhelming experience.  I think if we'd sene a number of whales it would have become a trip highlight and I don't regret making the effort to see this area.   But if your time in the province is limited use it to visit Quebec City or Montreal instead.

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