2021-09-25 11:00:18 Whales So Close You Can Touch Them: A Family Adventure in Canada

Whales So Close You Can Touch Them: A Family Adventure in Canada

The path to our yurt was narrow and muddy, with tiny ceramic and plastic gnomes, fairies, and bears strewn about. My 8-year-old daughter spotted a miniature tiger crouched at the base of a pine tree while clutching her stuffed giraffe and gingerly avoiding the knotty roots.

She was too tired to respond with anything more than a casual nod as she trudged along behind her father and 11-year-old brother, weighed down by her pink sequined backpack and the six-and-a-half hours we’d spent on the road from Montreal to get here, to Sacré-Coeur, a town in Quebec’s Côte-Nord region called Sacré-Coeur.

We had traveled roughly 300 miles northeast from Montreal, crossing the Saguenay by ferry, and driving the final mile on a dirt road to meet our innkeeper, who was eager for us to finish this last leg of our journey before nightfall.

We were staying about 10 miles from Tadoussac, a charming town where the Saguenay River meets the St. Lawrence. The waterway is part of a protected marine park where six species of whales can be seen feeding in the deep, nutrient-rich waters of the St. Lawrence estuary from May to the end of October, making it a spectacular place to whale watch.

I’d booked the trip on the spur of the moment, finding a listing on Airbnb and planning a family vacation around the idea of sleeping in a supercharged tent. At the time, the trip felt like the start of a new chapter in our family’s life. Our children were getting older and could handle long drives, impromptu plans, and hikes laden with luggage. We could travel to different parts of the world together.

Looking back, after a year and a half of trudging through a pandemic and traveling only minimally, I no longer consider that trip to be a beginning. Instead, I see it as our last free adventure, where our only concerns were catching ferries, avoiding mosquitoes, and spotting sea creatures.

Canada reopened its borders to fully vaccinated American travelers last month, making such a trip possible once more. A family could repeat this relatively Covid-safe itinerary with proof of vaccination and a negative Covid-19 test, though some attractions may be closed or only partially open, and unvaccinated children under 12 must follow Canadian testing and safety requirements. However, this option still feels shaky to me. My 10-year-old daughter is not eligible for the vaccine, and with cases on the rise, I am hesitant to travel such a long distance with her. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies Canada as a Level 3 high-risk destination, and unvaccinated citizens are advised to avoid unnecessary travel there. I’m curious when we’ll be able to travel freely again. As a result, the adventure we had feels like it was plucked from a world I can no longer access, similar to watching the water for a whale to crest.

Where are the whales?

We began our journey by driving from our home in New Jersey through New York to Montreal, where we spent a few days. We then traveled to Côte-Nord, where we would spend three nights searching for humpback, minke, fin, beluga, and blue whales in the midst of the boreal forest and the dramatic Saguenay fjords.

As we ascended a ridge that first evening, the forest tunnel view revealed our white canvas yurt overlooking the Saguenay hundreds of feet below, as well as the majestic fjords, which are part of the Saguenay Fjords National Park. We had an unobstructed and private view of this wonder from the deck outside our yurt.

Our innkeeper advised us to keep an eye out for a pair of beluga whales that had been playing in the water all morning. Their nursery and breeding grounds are in the nearby Sainte-Marguerite Bay. Unlike other whales that only pass through, belugas, which are primarily an Arctic species, live here all year. They might look like white caps on the water from this distance, he said.

The kids immediately inspected their new home, marveling at the propane stove, the trickle of running water from a kitchen sink, and the sawdust-filled dry toilet. (There was a surprisingly charming wooden outhouse a few feet away from the yurt for major bathroom runs.) The circular space featured two bedrooms, a wall of windows overlooking the fjords, and a glass dome ceiling from which to gaze at the stars. We’d arrived too late to find a market to replenish our dwindling supply of groceries, so we ate what we’d brought for dinner — a few slices of cheese and salami on sandwich bread. The kids grumbled their way through the disappointing meal.

My husband read to us that night from a book he’d brought with him, “Champlain’s Dream,” about the French explorer. The confluence of the two rivers has been a crossroads and meeting place for First Nations tribes for 8,000 years. The passage he read described an encounter Samuel de Champlain had in 1603 with several native tribes who had gathered in celebration, building a summer camp on the Saguenay, not far from Tadoussac harbor and near where we slept.

The next morning, we awoke to a stunning fog-covered view of the fjords. There were no belugas to be seen, but there were plenty of mosquitos, huge, determined, and ready to attack. We put on long sleeves and swatted our way back to the car, welts forming as we went. I had reserved a whale-watching cruise from Tadoussac and was eager to board the boat.

Tadoussac, a village of 800 people founded in 1600, is now a charming maritime tourist destination with views of St. Lawrence Bay. Because the region attracts 1 million visitors per year, Tadoussac’s streets are densely packed with shops, restaurants, and inns. My husband was particularly interested in the replica of the Chauvin Trading Post, which was built in 1600 and was Canada’s first fur-trading center. The grand Hotel Tadoussac, with its red roof, white siding, and green shutters, overlooks the bay. It was rebuilt in 1942 after the original 1864 hotel was demolished, and it has a sprawling lawn and gardens with Adirondack chairs facing the water.

We made our way past the hotel and down to the dock, where the boat, along with busloads of tourists from Quebec City, about three and a half hours away, awaited us. (The cruise line we used has trips available until mid-October.) It is unusual to see a blue whale swimming in a river hundreds of miles from the open ocean. Nonetheless, they come to the estuary to feed, traveling along the deep Laurentian Channel of the St. Lawrence and mixing with other smaller species such as the beluga.

Passengers jostled for position on the ship’s upper deck as the captain announced sightings — fin whales had been spotted to the north. I craned my neck over the other passengers, my binoculars tracking the dark water. I could see the grayish plumes from their blowholes dusting the air on the horizon. Their backs appeared, smooth discs best seen with binoculars. Nothing was visible to my daughter, who was barely able to clear the railing. My son, frustrated and bored, leaned against a post, his view obscured by other passengers.

The cruise ended, and I worried that we’d over-promised the kids — whales don’t appear on command, and it was possible that we’d spend the rest of our vacation without seeing one up close. As we walked back to town, we stopped for ice cream and then had a light dinner outside at a microbrewery with a view of the bay. That evening, the brewery was bustling with patrons conversing in French. We ate pizza and a charcuterie platter while enjoying the cool summer breeze.

‘There was a swoosh to my left…’

I awoke the next morning determined to see whales. We drove about 30 miles north up Route 138 to a nature center (open until mid-October) in Les Escoumins, the marine park’s northern boundary. The outpost had an educational center, a scuba diving base, and rocks where we could sit on the St. Lawrence River’s banks. A guide suggested we return to Cap-de-Bon-Désir, which has a red-and-white lighthouse and is also open until mid-October. Minkes had seen us there earlier in the day and thought we’d have a better chance there. When we arrived at Cap-de-Bon-Désir, we took a birch-lined path down to the rocky banks. A few other families were also present, sitting on the river’s rocky banks.

The kids splashed around in small pools of water on the rocks. They were teeming with zooplankton, the food that gives this water its nutritional value. The river appeared vast and serene, but I saw no whales.

My son and husband went in search of a restroom. I leaned in close to my daughter, who was watching over a bee that my son had rescued from the water. I felt a swoosh to my left as I knelt beside her. I looked up to see a minke whale rising from the water just a few feet away, so close I could see the barnacles on its skin and hear its heavy breath exhale. As this colossal sea creature surfaced, nearly breaching, I exclaimed. Then it was gone, vanishing into the cold, rich water of the deep trench.

My son and husband returned a few minutes later to find out what they’d missed. We were told by a guide on the rocks that the minke would return for air in 15 or 20 minutes. She said there were at least two of them, if not three. So we sat and waited. They emerged one by one as we sat on the rocky land, their breath a deep groan, their backs slick. The minkes are known to edge close to land because the water drops off almost immediately offshore. And they did, raising their heads to the point where we could see their mouths. At times, they’d surface far away, giving us only a glimpse of their back and dorsal fin. We’d scan the stillness in between visits, waiting for a sign. If my son saw one first, he’d jump and point, and we’d all shake our heads as it emerged briefly from a world we couldn’t fathom. They then vanished, off to feed somewhere else.

Back in Sacré-Coeur, we drove to La Casta Fjord, a restaurant on the wharf that will be open this season through the first week of October, depending on tourism. The owner spoke little English and the restaurant was tiny, with wooden tables, shiplap walls, and a weathered deck overlooking the fjords, so I stumbled through French I hadn’t spoken in years to order a salad and linguine with lobster and Nordic shrimp. The food was delicious, and the view was even better. We gazed out at the river and all that lay beneath it, imagining future trips to the Gaspé Peninsula or Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. The world seemed vast at the time. This would be the first of many trips.

Now, as the world slowly reopens, with travel complicated by coronavirus tests, vaccination records, and ever-changing social distancing rules, we find ourselves devising hopeful itineraries for the coming years, planning small adventures for the fall, or perhaps larger ones for next spring. We hope that by then, the world will have beckoned once more.

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Whales So Close You Can Touch Them: A Family Adventure in Canada