Quebec puts the “great” back in “outdoors”

Utah’s Arches National Park was closed because of traffic gridlock on Memorial Day. Being awed by Yellowstone’s Old Faithful is challenging with parade-size crowds jostling for the same experience. While I patriotically appreciate the beauty and history of America, I also abhor crowds. I found the natural beauty and fascinating museums I was seeking plus the space to appreciate them around Quebec’s Saguenay Fjord and Lac Saint Jean.

After an hour flight from Montreal, my 13-year-old grandson and I landed in the minuscule Saguenay-Bagotville Airport. One boarding area, two check-in stations, and a toy-sized baggage carousel. I felt like I had flown back into the 1930s.  The retro mood continued along the uncrowded roads around the fjord and lake. Highlights of our journey as well as routine supply stops suggested that this region has people, not crowds; cars, not gridlock; and experiences that are unique in geology and innovative in presentation.

Saguenay Fjord kayaking

Fjord du Saguenay is one of the world’s longest fjords. The land on both sides is a natural wonder of cliffs and thick vegetation protected by Canada’s parks system. The marine park supports six different ecosystems and attracts whales with its plethora of krill and plankton. Beluga whales live here year-round and are joined by six migratory species from May to October. The only boats we saw on our two-hour kayak expedition were those in our group of six kayaks. “But…where is everybody?” asked a woman from L.A. The guide pointed to a pod of beluga whales barely visible on the horizon. “It’s usually about this crowded,” he said.

Saguenay fjord museum

Musee du Fjord  in La Bale is the place to get acquainted with the fjord. In addition to the expected explanatory displays and aquarium of fjord marine life, you can get your hands right into it. The museum provides boots, shovels, and a guide who takes small groups on digs at low tide. Our group dug up clams, shrimp, and worms before the incoming tide nudged us to the shore.  Sea kayaking is one of the best ways to experience the splendor of the fjord, Hiking along scenic trails provides a close up look at the fauna that produce the elusive scents on the water.  We passed just enough hikers to remind us we are visitors who have not overtaken the ecology.

Saguenay Viillage Vacances

Village Vacances in Petit Saguenay is a good place to experience the fjord and its surrounding forests. Cabins are simple and secluded. The sleeping lofts are popular with the kids, and the covered porches on two sides give everyone the opportunity to engage in a vanishing pastime: porch sitting. I read on the porch in a slight rain. All of the wildlife I saw were of the non-human variety. The Village has activities for all ages including escorted hikes and outdoor cheese and wine tastings. While I was enjoying the wine and cheese of the region from a pavilion with a spectacular view of the fjord, my grandson was climbing a waterfall under the supervision of an “animator.” More than camp counselors, the animators make trails manageable for older folks and the days fun for the kids.

Our animator, Flash, hosted a memorable bonfire with his guitar and ghost stories. Silly songs and marshmallows delighted the children. One looked up and said, “So that’s where all the stars are stored.” My son and a friend took a moonlit walk into the wet sand of the fjord, going several steps too far for my comfort and not far enough to appease their curiosity. It was a moment of letting go, of recognizing that the little boy was becoming a young man, old enough to decide how far he could venture with no one holding his hand

Saguenay Val-Jalbert Mill

Val-Jalbert, an authentic company town of the 1920s, conceals contemporary amenities behind doors. On August 13, 1927, the pulp mill siren announced that the factory had closed its doors forever. People moved, structures were embraced by nature, and some have collapsed. In the 1980s preservation began. Enough buildings remained to inspire restoration. Houses on the main street that could be saved were re-roofed, painted, and restored inside. We rented a house that had been turned into four guest rooms, each with a 1920s look and feel until we opened the bathroom door. Here, luxury unimagined in the 1920s is appreciated by today’s travelers and often expected. In our room, a coffee service, iPod charging station, and TV were hidden in cupboards, although watching TV in Val-Jalbert would have spoiled the mood.

The focal point of the village is its pulp mill next to 74-metre-high Ouiatchouan Falls. The turbines are entwined with greenery. The rest of the mill, still roofed, has a gift shop, restaurant, and ghosts. On the winding road from the mill to the main street, houses are naturally collapsing and tales of ghosts abound. Guest rooms have flashlights for after-dark expeditions along the spooky, uninhabited streets.

Saguenay Val-Jalbert School

During the day, reenactments give visitors visceral experiences. At the four-room convent school, one of the best preserved buildings in the village, we were scolded in French by a nun in full habit, probably for wearing shorts in her school. The postmistress eagerly shared gossip. The mayor greeted us enthusiastically and seemingly unaware we had just heard all about the shocking price of his top hat. The general store’s display windows are filled with 1920s artifacts, but the wares are for today’s travelers. Blueberry tea and blueberry chocolate bars were favorite souvenirs.

Saguenay Val-Jalbert Trolly

A free trolley runs between the town and the mill. The mill restaurant has a menu inspired by regional products. The rabbit terrine with blueberry compote was outstanding; the salmon poached in white wine was a close second. The only herbs and spices the chef uses are grown in the boreal forest that covers almost 60 percent of Canada’s land area.

Saguenay zoo camp

For an even closer-to-nature end to our trip, we camped out in a zoo! Zoo Sauvage de Saint-Felicien houses animals of the boreal forest in their natural habitats and can be viewed by safari bus. We saw black and grizzly bears, white-tailed deer, wolves, moose, elk, and other boreal animals before arriving at our camp habitant where caribou roam. Our canvass tent had evergreen boughs to cushion sleeping bags and a guide to cook food over an open fire. The eating area is fenced in to keep out mosquitoes and caribou. Night vision googles revealed the creatures of the nocturnal forest on a guided hike. An overnight here is a unique experience in wilderness camping.

We agreed that our trip to Quebec revealed facets of the great outdoors that are lost when a scenic area attracts too many people. Quebec has a well-developed tourist infrastructure and is eager to attract more visitors. Perhaps they will strike the balance between enough tourists and too many!

Comments (4)

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  1. Sandra Potter says:

    This is just such a great article. As a travel professional, and one with a deep love of Quebec, this really epitomises all that is good about the Province. Next time Carol might like to consider taking her grandson into the splendidly named Chic Choc Mountains where there is a glorious lodge of the same name.

  2. Carol Stigger says:

    Thanks! I’ll check into it for next summer. Entertaining a 15 year old next summer will take some research.

  3. Samantha says:

    Thanks for a great post. I really liked the Ouiatchouan Falls and the trolly :) Sounds like a great trip. I love waterfalls and would love to do it someday. Thanks again.

  4. JAMES SOLOMON says:

    Hi Carol,

    Nice to touch base, thanks to PY. I hope you are well.

    Nicely written, I will visit this place next year.

    Seasons greetings and blessed New Year.

    James

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