Onward to Tadoussac!
After a much needed recovery day at L’Iles-aux-Coudres, we continued eastward along the St. Lawrence. Tim and I had intended to hug the south shore, as Ariose took us eventually around the Gaspé peninsula. When Lisa and Guy, our buddy boaters on Inti, another Alberg 30, shared stories of encounters they had with whales in the area where the Saguenay River empties into the St.Lawrence, though, we were easily convinced to alter our route and sail together along the north shore to Tadoussac. We hoped that some marine mammals would grace us with an appearance.
We weren’t disappointed.
We had a brisk wind for the early part of the day, whipping up waves, with whitecaps all around. It was a gorgeous sun and blue skies day. An ideal day for an invigorating sail on Ariose. Once again, Inti left later, but easily overtook us.
Rounded mountain coastline, dotted with the occasional lighthouse slipped by. A few hours later, the winds faded. Whitecaps disappeared as the waters calmed. Feeling a little let down, we knew we’d have to start the engine. Many people who sail, we’ve noticed, are more accurately motor-sailors. They rely heavily on their engine to get them where they are going. I understand. There’s a certain ease to motoring, with no need to fiddle with lines, speeds and direction are consistent offering more certainty, and the boat stays level. But for Tim and I, on a perfect sail, the engine remains silent and does little more than act as ballast weight. The noise of the motor, the noxious smell of the diesel exhaust especially when winds are astern, and the cost of using fossil fuels, both to our pocketbook and to our conscience, outweighs any appeal. No thank you. Our Yanmar usually only gets fired up when there’s a safety issue or other pressing reason. And on this day there was.
We had a narrow window of time to enter the mouth of the Saguenay at Tadoussac, so we needed to hurry. Why the rush? If you read our previous post, you’ve likely already guessed. Currents. The Saguenay empties a huge volume of water into the St. Lawrence, and is also affected by tidal currents. At peak ebb tide, there’s a 6-7 knot current flowing out. There’s no possibility of us fighting against that! Our guidebook offered warnings of wind-against-tide, and river current-against-tide, which we were determined to heed. We were still rattled by our taste of those kinds of conditions just a few days earlier, and had no appetite to be thrown into a repeat wash cycle. At slack tide, when waters are relatively still, it would be an easy entrance, so that was our target. And that meant we didn’t have the luxury of time to bob around becalmed. Sometimes, just contemplating starting the motor seems to magically invoke the wind. Not this time. Tim cranked the Yanmar and let it propel us on through the smooth waters, still enjoying the lovely scenery.
A short while later, we noticed some whitecaps in the distance and felt hopeful that the winds were picking up. They looked rather peculiar, though. Usually, the waters shift from calm, to ripples, to waves, to whitecaps. Hey! These weren’t waves. The glistening white skin and distinct melon-shaped heads became obvious. Belugas! A pod was making its way toward us, their snowy bodies visible as they repeatedly surfaced. Wow. I’ve had the thrill of seeing whales a few times in my life, and each time, I’m overcome with a feeling of awe. Being on Ariose, and not a paid whale watching tour brought a higher level of intensity to the experience. Wonderful. We turned the engine off and drifted. I silently apologized to the winds for having scolded them for disappearing. Without the calm, we likely would have had no idea these whales were sharing their waters with us.
Belugas are an arctic species (no dorsal fins on these guys… all the better to swim under ice) but they are also regulars on the St. Lawrence, especially in this area. Here, the confluence of the deep Saguenay fjord’s fresh cold waters with the St. Lawrence provides ideal conditions for the fish and invertebrates that tickle the palate of these toothed whales. Over the summer, they build their fat stores, ready for winter.
Sadly, belugas as a species, are not grinning. They are on the endangered list. Some of what we read indicated only 500 or so remain in this region; other sites report the population at nearly 900. Twice as high, but not much room for optimism in either figure. And that small number is declining. Commercial whaling decimated their population, and even though hunting belugas has been banned for over 40 years, there hasn’t been a noticeable recovery. I guess that’s not surprising considering they are also dealing with high levels of pollution, degradation of their habitat, reduced food supplies, collisions with vessels and drowning in fish nets…the list goes on. This are of the St. Lawrence is also where females come to give birth and rear their young. Rabbits they are not. Mature females only give birth every 3 years or so, to a single calf. Hard to repopulate when reproducing at those rates. If they don’t succumb to the many hazards they face, they do live to about 75 years, though. By the time the young are around 7 years old, they taken on the pure white of maturity. We saw a few juveniles, distinguished by their grey colour, a shade of hope.
Communication through sound is essential for belugas. They have an expansive repertoire of vocalizations which are crucial in keeping track of and training their young. That melon-shaped protuberance on their foreheads allows them to use echolocation to find their prey, spot breathing holes under the ice, and otherwise “see” in the dark depths. Looking around the waters, busy even in this off-season period with tour boats and zodiacs, ferries, freighters, and even a certain Alberg 30 motoring along, the volume of noise they are subjected to would have to be seriously disruptive. Over multiple sightings, we were never close enough to hear them. And that’s a good thing. The Saguenay-St.Lawrence Marine Park has been established in this area to protect the beluga’s habitat. Among other regulations, boats are required to keep good distance, and we were pleased that the belugas also seemed to be following this keep-away rule.
Belugas weren’t the only mammals we were thrilled to see. Harbour porpoises surfaced nearby. We waited expectantly for them to come play in our bow wave, but no. When sailing BC’s inside passage with our friend Bill a couple years ago, it was thrilling to have dolphins make a direct line to the boat to swim in our bow wave. Unlike many in their family, though, harbour porpoises don’t tend to approach moving vessels. Less exciting for us; way safer for the porpoises. We were also under the frequent surveillance of seals, heads bobbing in the waters around us. Once we passed their inspection, or perhaps once we thoroughly bored them, they’d gently tip their heads back and gracefully slip underwater.
We also spotted lots of minke whales, one of the baleens that come to feed in these unique waters where their small prey thrive. They were also intensely hunted in the past, but numbers are healthier than belugas. They are “only” about 20 feet long but at 12,000 pounds, weigh more than our 30 foot sailboat. We took video after video, trying to capture them, but we were no match for the minke’s stealth. They would come up for air, letting go a low blow just as they descended. When we’d hear their spray-sigh and turn toward the sound with camera in hand, we’d usually just catch the slightest glimpse of fin and back.
There are also other whales in these waters, like the fin, and the blue. Blue whales, at an incredulous 80-100 feet and over 200,000 pounds are the largest mammal on our planet. They have a tall blow, that rises 30 feet above the water. We suspect we caught sight of one in the distance. Just a close enough encounter to spark one’s imagination about one of these behemoths potentially rising alongside and dwarfing Ariose.
While cruising, Tim and I intentionally limit our news consumption. We appreciate how living aboard forces us to in be in the moment, and it’s a healthy cleanse to not be drawn into the perpetual cycle of depressive media feeds. Five minutes of CBC radio most mornings gives us our essentials, but other world events do still leak into our lives through email and social media. Just a week after our amazing encounters with the whales of the St. Lawrence, we were hit with one particularly sickening news item. It reported on the annual slaughter in the Faroe Islands, a remote group of volcanic islands between Iceland and Norway. A “tradition” of hunting whales and dolphins is practiced by using boats to drive pods into shallow waters. Villagers then wade in, knives in hand, to kill “humanely” in waters red with the blood shed. This year was particularly horrendous. Usually about 600 pilot whales are killed, and dolphins in the dozens. The hunt made the news for the largest number of dolphins ever killed in one day: 1428. One thousand, four hundred and twenty-eight 500 pound white-sided dolphins. The meat is then distributed to all. What cognitive gymnastics does a person with any grain of humanity need to go through to justify such killing? The incredible sense of privilege Tim and I carry having belugas, dolphins, and minkes share their waters with us collided forcefully with the shame in being a part of a species capable of such brutality.
Back to the St. Lawrence, and our eastward voyage. After hours of being captivated by whale-spotting, we reached the distinctive Prince Shoal Lighthouse. A hard turn to port, brought us past the village of Tadoussac and into the Saguenay. Our timing was just fine, and it was a smooth entrance.
Tadoussac is a popular tourist destination. As we passed by, we noted the splashy red-roofed hotel, more effective in guiding mariners into the town from the water than were the nautical markers. The promotional website mentions that the Innu people called this place Totouskak, meaning “bosom”. There are a pair of rounded sandy hills just to the west, we presumed the accumulation of a millenium’s worth of sand deposits spilling out from the river, so perhaps that’s a plausible translation. Another interpretation of the indigenous name for the area is “the place where the ice is broken”. Tim preferred the former.
As I mentioned already, the Saguenay is actually a fjord. It originated in a fault line that formed 950 billion years ago (geological history can sure highlight our insignificance). Subsequent rock collapses carved a trench into the Laurentians. Glaciers then added their final touches. It’s the same Canadian Shield rock as stretches across northern Ontario, our home. No wonder it felt familiar. The first summer Tim and I owned Ariose, we kept her on Lake Temiskaming. We’d meet up at Haileybury marina Friday 5pm, and sail until Sunday evening when we reluctantly dragged ourselves off and returned to our respective homes. A favourite spot was the impressive cliffs of Devil’s Rock. Here on the Saguenay, there’s a similar feel, but the steep-sided granite stretches for miles. It’s spectacular.
Inti and Ariose settled into our inviting anchorage, protected on 3-sides by rock and dense forest. As we stood on the deck, shouting between our boats, mutually admiring the surroundings, we suddenly heard a whoosh. We turned to see a minke swimming along the surface, its nose pushing a freighter-like bow wave as it entered our little cove, checking us out. It let out a sigh as it blew and descended, seeming to express a somewhat reluctant, ok, you guys can stay. Magical.
We allowed ourselves the luxury of a 2-day stay, enough to sample the area, but far less than we longed for.
The next morning, Chef Tim treated the 4 of us to a pancake brunch on Ariose. Meeting fellow sailors automatically gives a foundation for conversation and for a relationship. Owning the same boat expands that base, as good old classic boats tend to appeal to a certain breed. It’s usually safe to assume some common values. As I mentioned in our last post, it was fun discovering that the commonalities we had with Lisa and Guy extended far beyond our Alberg 30s. We filled our bellies with Tim’s pancakes and our spirits with hours of hearty conversation that wandered from sailboat rigging, to navigating different risk tolerances as a couple, to milling wood, to capitalism’s destructive forces, while comfortably crowded into our sheltered cockpit, in the still waters of our cove.
There’s an extensive network of hiking trails as part of the Saguenay Fjord National Park. We knew there was a main branch nearby, that would give us access to Tadoussac. Tim, Lisa and I dinghied in, managing to get ourselves across the slippery kelp and algae covered rocks at low tide. Whenever Tim and I walk in the woods, I gravitate toward trails and Tim steers clear of them. So Tim went his own way, wanting to check out the flora, and I joined forces with Lisa. We bid good luck to Tim who headed off in the opposite direction. We, however, had little idea where the trail was, so bushwhacked through dense spruce and mossy downfall. Finally, we emerged on a groomed, gravelled track. As we paused to pick twigs and needles out of our hair, Tim ambled up the path toward us, a slightly self-righteous grin on his face, and no debris in his pony. He had found the trail right away.
We walked a couple of kilometres into town, and joined the handful of other late-season tourists wandering the streets of Tadoussac. Colonial roots run deep here, with Jacques Cartier first showing up in 1535, then the Basques arrived on whaling expeditions later that century, and in 1599, what’s come to be known as Canada’s first trading post was established here. The Recollet Order missionaries were not far behind.
Much of our voyage so far had been under the constraints of a timeline, balancing the need to make that window between hurricane season and Atlantic winter storms and, of course, under the constraints of covid. We had intended to depart in July, and spend about 3 months exploring the St. Lawrence and Maritimes, hoping that while doing so, vaccinations would effectively overcome the pandemic and the US border would open. Once hurricane season had blown itself out in October, we would turn south. Our late start tightened our available time for leisure sailing. It’s been so frustrating to get a glimpse of areas like this that appeal to us, that call to us to stay a little, but to be under pressure to move on. An extra day here and there could translate into sailing in snowstorms off the Nova Scotia coast. And yet, with the alarming increase in the delta variant of covid infections, there is a chance we will not make it out of Canada at all. If the US water border remains closed, we need a plan B.
Since we loved the feel of this area, we considered the option of calling it quits here, to stay and explore for another month or so, and then leave Ariose until next year. We looked into Tadoussac’s winter storage facilities, and they are certainly unique. On a high tide late fall, gates to a enclosed area are opened and the basin floods. Boats enter and are manoeuvered somehow onto their cradles or trailers. Hard to imagine how they manage this, but apparently, they do. Then, when the tide goes out, the gates are closed, leaving boats safe and sound out of water for the winter. It would be interesting to witness this, and it seemed a relatively safe option, but after further contemplation, we ended up deciding to continue on. Ariose will be far from Tadoussac this winter.
We needed to head back home to North Bay a few days later (more about that next ArioseNote). We had commited to return for a week, but those dates, originally set for August when we were still in Ontario, close to home, kept changing. While in Tadoussac, the timing was finally confirmed. We needed to be home the next week. We decided we had better make a few miles in the intended direction before the road trip. We reserved a slip in Rimouski, a little further east on the south coast of the St.Lawrence, where we could safely leave Ariose, and we reluctantly moved on. There was no time to sail up the Saguenay. There was no time to wander the hiking trails that (now that we knew how to access them!) were so inviting. There was no time to visit the marine mammal interpretation centre that promised to deepen our appreciation. We hope to return some day.
If we continue south to the Caribbean, we hope to make some longer passages to hop-scotch down the US Atlantic coast, stopping a couple times for rest and provisioning, but making as much distance as we can. Our longest passage when cruising previously was 4 days / 3 nights. It was actually one of our most enjoyable of the 10 overnight passages we made, Many say, and we found, that after a couple nights’ sleep deprivation, you fall into a routine and can continue on comfortably for long periods. That was 5 years ago, though, and we’re even more grumpy now than ever when our sleep is disrupted, so we thought it would be a good idea to get some practice in. The weather forecast over the next 24 hours was ideal, albeit a little on the light side, but when sailing in unfamiliar waters through the night, too-light winds are way more preferable to winds in the other direction. Inti planned to do the same.
Slack tide fell mid-day, so that’s when we weighed anchor and slipped past Tadoussac and back out on the ever-widening St.Lawrence. A few check-ins with Inti made the passage far less lonely, as we shared everything from whale sightings during the daylight hours, to soup-making plans to warm the belly in the cold, to the magic of the moonlight. It was a cold night, but the moon was so bright it almost seemed to warm us, and allowed us to easily see our surroundings. I took the first solo shift, from 6:30 pm to 12:30, and Tim helmed from 12:30 to 4:30 am, then together, we brought Ariose in to Rimouski where we anchored in the wee hours. Nearly 18 hours to sail 60 nautical miles. Much more tortoise than hare. At times, we just bobbed in the calm. At times, the sailing was gloriously brisk. Several times in the dark, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a whale emerging at our side. I braced myself, heart racing, readying myself for a blue to surface and dwarf Ariose. But, no. The “visits” were nothing more than the moonlight and waves playing tricks on my imagination.
It was a sort-of successful overnight passage, but Tim and I both found it almost impossible to sleep once off-shift. Between the cold and being hyper-attuned to every sound, we found it difficult to shut-down once crawling under the covers. Once we dropped hook and assured ourselves the anchor was well set, we rectified that issue. Looks like we’d do well with a little more practice.
Inti hoped to make it to Gaspe before wrapping up their sailing this season, and with the success of their overnight and a continued favourable forecast, they decided to carry on and make it a multi-day passage. We exchanged farewells by text, a rather inadequate way to part after forming such close connection. I didn’t check with Lisa and Guy to get consent to quote them, but their sentiments so match our own, I can’t help but share their words:
“Buddy boating has been a surprise highlight… to be able to witness something unique together, you get to say “did you see that/feel that?! ” Explanations to others always lacks a little something. That’s what buddy boating was… somebody else to be there, nodding their heads saying yea! Right on!”
Yea! Right on Inti. Thanks for sharing these waters with us. You helped make a memorable leg of our voyage, as we sailed Quebec City to Rimouski, all the more memorable. We look forward to crossing wakes again. Fair winds.
(As an aside, a blog we follow written by Behan Gifford, shares experiences and much expertise gained from raising their family aboard their boat Totem, as they circumnavigated the globe over the last decade. A recent post is about buddy boating, or what they more accurately call bungee boating. If you’re interested, check it out at www.sailingtotem.com)
Once we caught up on sleep, we radioed the Rimouski marina and received instruction on accessing our slip. My French is improving a little, but it still felt like an abundance of kindness for the staff to reject my apologies for butchering their language with a “Mais non, Madame. Vous parlez tres bien.” The municipal marina facilities are the among the best we’ve ever seen. Large well designed breakwalls protect from every wind direction. Perhaps the only drawback to our “always anchor” preference is that we are both rusty in maneouvring in tight spaces, so docking is always a little stressful. Ariose’s pristine, newly painted hull added further pressure. There’s a little less stress now that she has incurred a few (painful!) scuffs, otherwise known as dock-kisses. Rimouski’s marina has ample room, with wide apart slips. Much appreciated.
As we’ve shared, marina stays for us are a rarity. Since leaving Kingston in August, we’ve only used a marina once, in Montreal, so that we’d have easy access to the city. There are many things we’re not so fond of when staying in a marina, but one, yes one, becomes more and more seductive the longer we go without. Hot showers! Hygiene on Ariose is not a top priority. We make do with quick sponge baths, or on warm days, dousing ourselves on deck with ladles of water. No need for hair conditioner as natural oils have lots of time to do their thing when shampoos are weeks apart. That Rimouski shower, with a seemingly unending supply of hot water, especially after the previous night’s numbing passage, was absolutely superb.
The next day we worked out the sea wobble in our legs as we hiked through the like-new industrial/commercial zone of the town. Past the Fix-Auto and Centre Camion and Centre Techno Pneus, then into the big box district past Winners and WalMart and Canadian Tire. What a contrast, from having spent the last week sharing the waters with whales, to now being assaulted with this commercialism. Then the following day we were off toward home. More about that very bizarre intermission from sailing in our next ArioseNote.
We’ll end with another short clip of a minke whale, this time, signalling a deep dive with a good-bye wave of its fluke.