As an adventurer at heart who once dreamed of writing for National Geographic and traveling all over the world discovering the planet’s hidden gems, I jumped at a recent opportunity to be one of five journalists who would participate in a friendly competition along the Saquenay Fjord in Northern Quebec. I didn’t know much – just that the adventure was themed on the CBS television series, “The Amazing Race,” and that it would involve sea kayaking, hiking, sailing, photography, brushing up on my French, and whale watching. I had heard of the fjords in Norway and Scandinavia, but never in Canada. The week-long journey would take me from one end of the fjord to the other, staying in different locations each night and competing by day in various activities. A trip like this always brings unexpected delights and this one was no different.
Air Canada from LAX
When I arrived at the airport, I learned my Air Canada flight from LAX to Montreal had a slight delay. It was nothing to be concerned about – I’d still make my connecting flight to Bagotville in Northern Quebec. The traffic on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles was moving surprisingly well for a Monday morning at 9 a.m. Even still, I arrived a bit later than is typically recommended, as I had already checked in and printed my boarding passes at home. But with just a few people in front of me at both the baggage drop and through security, LAX was a breeze. Perhaps this was a lucky start to my adventure?
It had been a couple of years since I’d flown Air Canada and was surprised that you had to pay for food and snacks on board. I chose a vegetarian sandwich ($7) made with pita bread, hummus, cucumbers, roasted pepper, and kalamata olives. It satisfied my appetite just fine, but the scent of some other kind of food emanating from the executive class cabin smelled better.
While there is no WiFi on board, I appreciated the 110V/60HZ electrical output in my seat, that I used to charge my computer and camera. The flight was relatively smooth and six hours, a magazine, a nap and a movie later, I arrived in Montreal for my connection to Bagotville. The movie, unlike the food, was free. (Confession: I watched the Justin Bieber documentary, Never Say Never, and actually found the story entertaining. I knew he was discovered on YouTube, but had no idea he was a complete social media phenomenon. Don’t judge – I was catching up on my pop culture! I also needed something to tune out the three-year-old crying next to me and what was more appropriate than thousands of screaming teenage girls?)
Connecting to Bagotville via Montreal
When you arrive in Canada from the US, you are in Terminal B and have to go through Customs, pick up your checked bag, re-check the bag, then go back through security to get your connecting flight, which in this case, was in Terminal A. Rushing to get to the gate, I learned upon my arrival that my connecting flight was also delayed.
By the time my sweat had dried, the flight was boarding. The short one-hour trip to Bagotville on Air Canada’s De Havilland Dash 8 Turboprop plane was everything you’d expect of a puddle jumper – limited room for even carry-on baggage, loud propellers on either side, and cramped quarters with enough time for a coffee or tea and a bag of pretzels before you arrive.
It was hard to tell what the destination looked like as it was now after 11 p.m., and everything – even the Hotel Chicoutimi‘s restaurant – was closed so a snack of cheese, crackers, and fruit in the room would suffice. Note to travelers arriving late: plan ahead and have backup. The room itself was spacious and comfortable, with biodegradable bath products that give the impression this was an environmentally-conscious resort, respectful of the land’s natural beauty. I eagerly anticipated being able to see it just a few short hours of sleep later, in addition to getting a hearty breakfast to prepare for the day’s adventures.
Day One on the Fjord
The first introduction to the many activities you can do while visiting the Saguenay Fjord was a day of adventure at Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux. It was unlike any adventure park I’ve ever experienced and is certainly not for the timid, the unfit or the uncoordinated. Those who aren’t used to an intense level of physical exertion may be able to get by, but not without a considerable amount of difficulty. Our Amazing Race-themed challenge for journalists had begun…
I pride myself on being an adventurous type, unafraid of a physical or mental challenge, so doing a Via Ferrata, which literally means “Way of Iron,” seemed exciting. It consists of rock climbing, scaling steep cliffs with the Fjord’s waters 30 feet or more below with nothing to ensure your safety but a couple of carabiners and a helmet. The practice was developed around 1916 to find a better way of ensuring the safety of soldiers fighting along the Dolomites in the First World War. Many years later, it became a recreational activity for thrill-seekers.
Exhilarating it was, but let’s just say, it’s nothing like the rock climbing wall at your local gym. At times, vertigo sets in and you have to trust that your feet and hands, quadriceps and forearms are going to do their job. During the climb, we were given our first challenge: to write a postcard while hanging 30 feet above the fjord on the side of the most challenging part of the Via Ferrata, a vertical climb. My knees were shaking and heart pounding as I scrambled to write something as quickly as possible, so my hands were once again free to hug the crevices in the rock. When our group was all safely back on firm ground, our postcards were read aloud. They were judged on a) penmanship, b) creativity, and c) completeness. Because mine received an, “awwww, so cute,” and was the most completely written, I won the first points up for grabs!
Post-rock scaling and lunch to re-fuel, we head to the Parc Cap Jaseux’s Ropes Course. We bypassed the children and family courses and went straight for the Extreme course. Extreme is an understatement. If you’ve ever wanted to give the show “Wipeout” a try, this is the real-life version.
From the “Butterfly Bridge” in which you walk wooden swing to wooden swing with varying heights and tensions, to the “Pyramids” in which you literally jump like a monkey from pyramid-shaped beanbag to rope to beanbag, this is a course that makes muscles you didn’t know you have burn. Here is a video.
Our day of adventure didn’t end there. Ziplining is one of my favorite adrenaline junkie activities, but Cap Jaseux’s course has some challenges along the way that make it a workout in and of itself. Case in point – the trapeze line, in which you literally jump off the tree platform to reach a trapeze swing that serves as the zipline. With my body thoroughly exhausted at this point, I didn’t make the jump, much to my personal disappointment. I relied on the harness to get me across the line. The zipline course is easy in comparison to others I’ve experienced, but the wooden ladder climbs from platform to platform make it more physically strenuous. The Via Ferrata, the ropes and the zipline are enough to work up a serious appetite and need for ibuprofen.
The End of Day One
The adventures of the day ended at Cap Au Leste, a quiet haven in the middle of the fjord, with lovely cabins, a firepit, and the serenity of being in the middle of nowhere. Dinner is served in the main cabin – each night is a different menu with just one choice of meal, included in most room rates.
Over dinner we had our second challenge – a pop quiz about the area (including having to identify pine needles, wintergreen, and blueberry leaves, and among others, define “fjord” – literally a long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs, typically formed by submergence of a glaciated valley). After dinner, we were given our point status in the “Amazing Race Challenge.” Throughout the day our guides (both our official guide, Wade Gapes from Cap Jaseux and our tour guide for the week, Nancy Donnelly from Tourism Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean) had been keeping track of various challenges and activities. They assigned points as we went, including arbitrary points for things like who tweeted the most (me!), and who got bumped and bruised during our physical challenges.
At the end of Day One, I was in first place with 14 points.
The morning was spent at the Musee du Fjord, where we learned about the indigenous wildlife present in the fjord and the history of the region. There, our challenge was to let Rosie, the resident tarantula, crawl on our arms. I did not win this challenge, although I earned a point for actually doing it. Feeling the teeth of a gigantic poisonous spider on your arm just isn’t my forte.
We spent a good part of the afternoon hiking in the Baie Eternite section of Parc National du Fjord to the Madonna statue at the end. This 7 km hike is not for casual hikers, although anyone can do it with two critical criteria: the will to do it, and some level of physical fitness. The majority of the climb is uphill with stairs of rocks and steep hills. It took about three and a half hours roundtrip with some photo stops along the way to observe the picturesque views of the surroundings and fjord below.
The Madonna Statue itself is 10 meters high (30 feet) and stands on a rock plateau that looks out over the fjord, a beacon to travelers trekking along it. Our challenge during the hike was to find international visitors, and take a photo with them at the statue. It was a bonus if you got their shoe size. Finding international visitors in tourist areas is generally not difficult.
Part of the charm and curse of this area, however, is that it has not been an international destination point – most of those visiting are from other parts of Quebec or Canada and are typically French speakers. I did happen to find two international couples, one accompanied by a 16-year-old daughter. Both families were from France, one from Paris, and the other from the Brittany region. They were a little perplexed as to why I wanted to take a photo with them, but when I explained to the English-speaking daughter, who relayed the message to her parents, they were happy to oblige.
Most of the European travelers to this French-speaking province are from France. However, I was told that French and Canadian French are quite different in tone, much like Americans in different parts of the U.S. speaking English. Those in the South, Northeast, and West sound quite different and may be hard to understand at first.
Evening Sail on Night Two
That evening we took a sailboat chartered by Voile Mercator from Cap Eternite to the village of L’Anse St. Jean, about a two-hour casual journey. We were delighted with a gorgeous sunset prior to arrival and felt a surreal sense of mystery and intrigue disembarking in the dark with no sense of our surroundings. It was like arriving on a private island, only this wasn’t an island, we’d discover the next day! After helping our captain, Julien Quay, hoist the sails, he prepared dinner for the group on the ship. Dinner was not served, however, without our challenge for the evening – eating a delicacy that translates to…wait for it… raw sea slugs! I just couldn’t do it. They smelled like low tide. I ate one tiny bite of the side of one, which earned me one point, and that was it.
By the end of day two, however, I was still in the lead with 21 points. Later that night, a couple of us took a brisk 10-minute walk from the hotel – Les Gites du Fjord – to the one hot spot in town, the Bistro. This is the place where all the locals hang out, get the latest gossip, and also serves as a commune for intellectual discussions about how to grow the area, improve it, and make it an overall better place to live for those who call it home. The Bistro has plans underway to make the front house a microbrewery with beers that utilize all locally-grown, organic ingredients.
Waking up in the quaint town of L’Anse Saint Jean was stunningly beautiful. Seeing the fjord and the cliffs surrounding the village was quite simply serene. My body at this point was sore. Calves were aching, Achilles tendons were screaming, and my forearms were numb. Walking down stairs felt a bit like knives in my lower half, but the competitor in me was ready to tackle the day – sea kayaking! Weather was cooperating surprisingly well up to this point, and although there were a few spurts of rain during our three-hour paddle up, it was nothing short of refreshing and the rest of the day was hot enough for tank tops.
Our guide, Louis Dubord from Fjord en Kayak, spoke of the areas myths and legends, including a sea monster responsible for the waves that often come up in the fjord out of nowhere. As a challenge to earn points, we had to learn all of the French words for parts of the kayak and scenery we saw along the way. It would be inappropriate for me to indicate what the word for “seal” in French sounds like, but those who know, well, you know. The rest can look it up and enjoy. You’re welcome!
After a picnic lunch along the shores of the fjord (Louis prepared a nice Greek salad), our task was to create a piece of art on the beach using only natural found objects. We had 10 minutes to do so. I used sand, logs, rocks, blades of grass, leaves, and a metal rod I found on the beach. I crafted it into a mini version of the fjord, using a rock to carve out the fjord, as if it had been the glaciers that originally created it, and twisted the rod into the sails of sailboat. All of the creations were artistic and lovely, among them an interpretive version of the Saguenay flag, a statement on Quebec politics, and a fleur de lis. Louis and his colleague chose my fjord sculpture as the winner in this challenge.
Next, we headed out on bikes along the Saint Jean River through the quaint village. A trailhead took us to a stunning waterfall, Le Grosse Chutte, that was a relatively easy three kilometer hike.
Making our way along the Fjord to Petit Saguenay
That afternoon, we drove to our next stop along the fjord – Villages Vacances Petit-Saguenay, a collection of cabins and camping grounds. It doubles as a camp for both children and adults to engage in various activities from bonfires on the beach to the typical kayaking and hiking that is prevalent along the fjord.
On the way there, we made a pit stop at the local grocery store to pick up some snacks, which turned into a full cart of goods. Upon our arrival, I used the cooking utensils in the cabins and prepared some light appetizers of pan-seared salmon, a salad, sautéed vegetables, and some Brie cheese and bread for the group. We ate and toasted with wine to mark our halfway point of our amazing race adventure. As we groused about our bumped and bruised bodies, we laughed at how truly exhausted we were after all the hiking, kayaking, biking, ziplining, rope traversing, and rock climbing in the past 48 hours.
Village Vacances was clearly a place where fun is the name of the game. With our friendly guide and director of the property, Graham Park aka “Baloo,” we enjoyed some after dinner drinks in the bar.
We then hiked down to the beach, seeing a lone porcupine along the way, and enjoyed the evening’s bonfire. This was the only place during the entire journey with no cell phone reception. It allowed for total peace and relaxation under clear skies primed for stargazing.
By the end of Day Three, I had pulled ahead with 26 points and was in desperate need of a good night’s rest.
Day Four: Kayak Adventures
The day’s challenge: sea kayaking across the fjord. A hammock along the shore was calling my name, but I got into the kayak instead. From the beach you could see our destination point so I assumed this would be an “easy” kayak excursion. Little did I know that it was now high tide and the water was flowing at 18 knots, or about 21 miles per hour.
To ensure we wouldn’t miss our target, we had to paddle upstream for about 40 minutes, so the water wouldn’t push us out into the Saint Lawrence River. What I was thought would be a gentle paddle, was, in fact, an hour of intense physical exertion in order to slide gently into the bay on the other side of the fjord. Making it across successfully, without tipping, and without missing the mark, was a feat in and of itself!
On to the Northern end of the Fjord at Baie Sainte Marguerite
The day’s adventure continued at the Parc National du Fjord-du-Saguenay where an easy hike led to an overlook along the north side of the
fjord at Baie Sainte Marguerite. Beluga whales are often spotted here in their “playground,” according to our guide, an unexplained and mysterious phenomenon. The belugas rarely go any farther into the fjord waters.
Along the way, we had two challenges. The first was to find three edible plants along the trail. We all succeeded. I found rosehips, bunch
berries, and wintergreen. The second was to find an artifact or fossil in one of the archeological dig sites along the trail. I jumped in the dug out hole and found the first of two fossils that had been strategically hidden in the dirt.
Later, we sat along the overlook, enjoying the beautiful weather, sun, and natural surroundings and were given a pop quiz – “Remember the kayak terms in French?” I managed to get the full eight points up for grabs.
The day ended with a drive to the historic Hotel Tadoussac, where we had dinner and rested for the night. With just one challenge remaining, I now had 37 points, with the next behind me at 31. I most definitely needed the spa treatment massage reward that would go to the winner!
Day Five – A Whale of a Time in Tadoussac
Over breakfast, we found out the winner of the previous evening’s challenge – to sketch an image of the hotel. Most of us chose to draw the hotel’s unique, distinguished exterior. My drawing earned points but I was not the winner. However, I had pulled too far ahead for anyone to catch up, which meant… I had won the Amazing Race challenge and would receive my spa treatment reward that evening. Not a moment too soon!
To be honest, that morning’s activity was one that I had been looking forward to all week – whale watching. I experienced whale watching in Southern California as a child, spotting one or two whales and tails. Having heard that this was a prime time of year to see the whales during their migration, I had visions of the photographs I’d take of whales’ tails as the massive creatures emerged from the water. The dream was realized here.
Within minutes of our boat excursion onto the Saint Lawrence River (which looks more like a lake or ocean and connects to the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean), we saw our first whale. During the almost three-hours with Groupe Dufour Croisieres, we saw four of the six types of whales possible to find in this area, including many of the endangered and prized belugas. It was simply an awesome, surreal experience.
The end of the journey in Ville de La Baie
The rest of the day we explored the charming town of Tadoussac, before the two-hour drive to Auberge des Battures in Ville de La Baie, close to the airport in Bagotville. When we arrived, it was time for my massage! The facilities were basic, as this isn’t technically a spa, but rather a spa treatment room. That said, the treatment was perfect – relaxing and therapeutic.
That evening we had the best dinner of the entire trip, with four gourmet courses and a view from the dining room that overlooked the fjord during a purple and magenta-filled sunset. The food throughout the trip, to be honest, was simple and uninspired, but for this particular journey, food wasn’t the focus but, rather, adventure. There are few places that compare with the natural beauty and sheer level of challenge in the Saguenay Fjord. To say that the opportunities for extreme physical exertion, adrenaline rushes, and awe-inspired vistas are countless in the region would be an understatement.
The following day was our collective departure, and despite numerous flight cancellations due to Hurricane Irene, my day of travel was uneventful and easy. I returned home with a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, not for winning the challenge, but for the pride in having faced fears, conquering unknown territory and surviving a week of non-stop adventure!
About the Author: Lindsay Taub is an award-winning journalist with over a decade of experience as a writer/editor/photographer covering travel, lifestyle, culture, arts, food, health, and all facets that make life a journey. Follow her on twitter @lindsaytaub58.