Where can you go in the world with a realistic expectation of seeing a Blue Whale, the largest animal that has ever existed on this planet? You may be surprised to learn that the answer is not somewhere in the Pacific, but rather Atlantic Canada, or more precisely Quebec's St. Lawrence River. The difficulty in locating the "big blue" is well documented, but it is something of a best kept secret that devoting 2 or 3 days to whale watching in these fertile waters can be enough to make this seemingly unlikely eventuality a probability.
While some of you were enjoying the company of grizzly bears in Western Canada in early September, I set out on a whirlwind 17 day tour of French speaking Canada, keen to see if a childhood dream could become reality. Besides the promise of the near mythical Blue Whale, there was also the prospect of seeing its only slightly smaller cousin the Fin Whale, as well as Beluga, Minke, Humpback, and Northern Right Whales to savour. Of course Quebec has much more to offer the discerning visitor besides superb whale watching. It also boasts one of the largest Moose populations in Canada, and is home to the most southerly Caribou herd in North America, a remnant of a once mighty woodland caribou population that stretched all the way south to Carolina. Then there's the incredible scenery, French Canadian history and culture, and wonderful cuisine.
I began my Quebec odyssey in the charming capital, Quebec City which simply oozes history and character from every pore. The French explorer Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Kebec (the Algonquin word for the "river narrows here") in 1608, on the site of a Huron village where his compatriot Jacques Cartier had landed in 1535. Perched on a cliff with a commanding view over the St. Lawrence, the "old town" is the only fortified, walled city in North America, and a UN world heritage site. While the city was the capital of New France and remains the cradle of French Canadian culture, many nations have shaped its history and character. The English conquered it in 1629 only to hand it back to France 4 years later, and then again in 1759 when the armies of Wolfe and Montcalm fought a famous battle on the Plains of Abraham, at the conclusion of which both generals lay dead on the battlefield. France surrendered Canada to Britain 4 years later under the Treaty of Paris, though in 1775 the American Revolutionary Army made an unsuccessful attempt to capture the city.
Today Quebec City retains an old world European charm unlike any other city in North America. Those of you enamoured of all things French will find its narrow, cobbled streets and pavement cafes have a somewhat familiar ambience, albeit with a uniquely French Canadian accent. With an abundance of historic sites, informal, country style bistros and restaurants, intimate boutique hotels and cosy historic inns, all within easy walking distance of each other, the city is an absolute delight. Unfortunately my tight schedule only afforded me 2 nights to enjoy its obvious charms before I headed out into the wilderness.
That said, wherever you are in Quebec you are never far from the wilderness, and the capital city is no exception. An easy 45 minute drive north of the city lies Jacques-Cartier National Park, a popular destination for hiking, canoeing, and wildlife observation. Moose sightings are commonplace in the park and organised moose safaris led by park rangers are available. The safaris are conducted on foot or in a 12 person canoe, depending on where moose have been seen recently. During the summer months moose spend a considerable amount of time up to their bellies in water feeding on lush aquatic plants in the Jacques-Cartier River and the park's numerous lakes, and the autumn mating season also offers excellent opportunities to observe them. I could only spend 2 hours in the park so I didn't get to see a moose, though I did get to watch the sun go down floating in a canoe, in the company of a family of industrious beavers, the peace and tranquillity broken only by the occasional thunderclap of the beavers tail slapping. It really has to be heard to be believed!
The following morning I found myself heading north, hugging the north shore of the St. Lawrence which would be a constant point of reference throughout my journey. 2 hours north of Quebec I stopped to spend a couple of hours in Hautes-Gorge-de-la-Riviere-Malbaie National Park in the picturesque Charlevoix region. The park has a sizeable but shy and elusive Black Bear population and good opportunities for birding, but is more known for its dramatic canyon like landscape and geology, scenic riverboat tours, and as a popular location for hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and mountain biking. Many visitors climb the 800m (2600 feet) L'Acropole, a moderately energetic 4-5 hour hike, with the possibility near the summit of seeing a small herd of half a dozen caribou re-introduced to an adjacent park.
In the afternoon I drove 45 minutes further northeast to the town of La Malbaie for my first taste of sea kayaking on the St. Lawrence. This activity has become synonymous with Quebec and is one of the most popular outdoor activities offered here, requiring only moderate fitness levels and no prior experience. Guiding and safety standards in Quebec are exemplary and novices are normally assigned tandem kayaks which are very stable and more or less impossible to capsize. My guide for the day had the unique distinction of also being the maker of the hand made wooden kayaks used on all his tours. I spent a very enjoyable 2½ hours out on the water in the company of numerous grey seals and herons, listening enviously to his tales of kayaking with belugas on the longer 5 hour tour. All too soon the sun was setting and it was time to say my goodbyes and drive onwards to my overnight accommodation just north of Tadoussac, one of Quebec's most popular tourist destinations.
I awoke the next day with a sense of
real expectation as I was scheduled to go out sea kayaking in
an area renowned for whale activity, but where no commercial whale
watching boats go. For many years Allan and I have been interested
in the potential of the kayak as a less intrusive and more environmentally
sound vehicle for wildlife observation, and have wondered whether
it would be possible
to encounter large whales in a kayak. This was the day to find
out! It was a foggy and overcast morning but these are actually
excellent conditions for whale watching. The lack of ambient light
brings the krill and plankton closer to the surface which can
lead to the dramatic spectacle of large whales surface feeding,
and the fog tends to magnify the tell tale sound of the whales
"blowing" which makes them easier to locate. We hadn't
been paddling long when we saw our first whale, a fast moving
minke, almost a prefect scale model of its larger cousins the
blue and fin whales. It stayed in our general vicinity for at
least 30 minutes during which time we started hearing a much louder
"blow" somewhere out in the fog. My guide Mathieu told
me this could only be "big blue". I listened enthralled
as he told me of his many close encounters with blue whales, and
struggled to imagine what it would feel like to have a whale that
unannounced next to your kayak. Repeatedly we heard it blow 5 or 6 times, then nothing for 10-15 minutes, and then another 5 or 6 blows, and so on, but it was impossible to gauge how close the whale was. Just knowing that the largest animal on the planet was somewhere out there, cloaked in the fog, was probably even more exciting than actually seeing it. We were heading back to shore with the awesome power of its blows still ringing in our ears when suddenly a minke whale surfaced just 10 yards from my kayak heading right at me! It passed under my kayak, surfaced again 10 yards the other side, and continued on its way leaving 3 speechless kayakers in its wake. It may not have been a blue whale, but it was large enough to get my heart racing, believe me.
I spent the afternoon coming down from my adrenaline rush by visiting the excellent Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre in nearby Tadoussac, and hiking some of the trails in Saguenay Provincial Park. Tadoussac is situated at the mouth of the stunning and dramatic Saguenay Fjord. As deep as 250m some places, and flanked by cliffs as high as 500m, it is the most southerly fjord in the Northern Hemisphere. At its mouth the riverbed rises to a depth of only 20m which causes the warmer waters of the Saguenay River to jet out over the frigid salt waters of the St. Lawrence. It is this convergence of waters that brings massive volumes of krill towards the surface and attracts the whales with which the area has become synonymous. Large rorqual whales feed just offshore in the St. Lawrence while the smaller, ghostly white belugas frequent the fjord itself, and can often be seen from a number of walking trails in the park.
The following morning it was time to hit the road again and continue by journey northeast along the Route des Baleine. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was full of optimism. I'd come close to seeing a blue whale the previous day and felt sure I was only hours away from realising that ambition. My confidence was not misplaced as I was scheduled to spend the morning with a small, highly respected whale watching company who are renowned Blue Whale specialists. They are the only commercial operator in the area which is frequented almost exclusively by blue whales, whereas around Tadoussac the whale watching boats sometimes outnumber the whales, and sightings of blue whales are the exception rather than the norm. They are also unique in that they use only small 10 person inflatable Zodiac vessels, and actively support whale research by creating opportunities for young marine biologists.
On arriving at their jetty my sense of expectation was only heightened when I struck up a conversation with a Dutch filmmaker who talked excitedly about the incredible footage of surface feeding blue whales he had got only days earlier. He had been out 20 times with the same whale watching operator and had seen blue whales on all but two occasions. Unfortunately Yvonn, the charismatic owner of the company soon put a dampener on proceedings when he announced that gusting winds were forecast and he wasn't optimistic about locating whales amid the resultant high seas. Sure enough Yvonn's predictions were spot on and we motored around for a couple of hours in vain. Trying to spot a whale's "spout" in high seas, or hear it "blowing" in high winds is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack, so we reluctantly had to admit defeat and head back to shore. For me this was just another example of why we always urge our clients to spend a few days in any location where they hope to see a particular species. Yvonn said that if the winds dropped by the afternoon he would take me out again.
I spent the next couple of hours between shipping forecasts talking to some of the marine biologists who flock here each year from around the world. Yvonn provides them with logistical support for their research work and wherever possible a space on his boat. In return they provide his clients with an insight into their research and scientific knowledge of the whales and the environment. I spoke to a Californian who had been conducting research on the blue whales' feeding strategies there every year for 6 years. A few days earlier he and some associates had chartered a helicopter in the hope of filming a blue whale surface feeding from the air. On his laptop he showed me the return on their investment: an incredible sequence of a blue whale feeding on the surface and dwarfing the research vessel beside it. He was incredibly animated and explained that while he had seen blue whales on numerous occasions, this was the first time he had seen "the whole whale" and he was as blown away as I was at the sheer scale of it.
I waited a few hours to see if the winds dropped sufficiently to go out again, but alas it was not to be, so I drove 2½ hours further northeast to a historic lighthouse where I was due to stay. We have always been intrigued by accommodation options that stand out from the crowd, and this certainly fitted the bill. The lighthouse was built in 1830 at the point where the St. Lawrence broadens from river to gulf, and served for over 100 years as guardian to ships negotiating the perilous night time passage to or from the Great Lakes. It is now preserved as a historic site and the adjacent 2 storey building that was originally built to shelter shipwreck victims, many of whom were stranded there for months in winter, now offers 4 basic but comfortable guestrooms with shared bathroom facilities for paying guests. As a place to stay it has a charm and character all of its own, with a real sense of stepping back in time. The resident manager and chef also ensures a warm welcome and a first rate dining experience incorporating plenty of fresh, local seafood.
The following morning after breakfast I once again hit the road and drove 4 hours further up the north shore of the St. Lawrence to the port town of Havre-Saint-Pierre. The road only continues another 60 miles (100km's) beyond Havre-Saint-Pierre and the remaining towns and villages on the north shore are accessible only by ship. The town essentially marks the end of the St. Lawrence and only Anticosti Island to the south, and Newfoundland to the east stand between Havre-Saint-Pierre and the open ocean. The real draw for visitors to the area is Mingan Archipelago National Park which sits just offshore.
This chain of 40 limestone islands and nearly 1000 granite islets runs parallel with the north shore for about 90 miles (150km's). Each of the islands is unique in character and many support unique but fragile flora and ecosystems ranging from boreal forest to sub-arctic barren land not usually found in such close proximity. Some of the islands are protected nesting sites for seabirds including the Razorbill, Common Murre, and Atlantic Puffin which nest here in June and July, and are understandably a Mecca for birders. The islands are perhaps best known for their geology however. Most visitors' enduring memories of the islands are of the numerous limestone monoliths which have been formed over 500 million years, not by erosion, but by hydraulic action exploiting cracks and fissures in the stratified rock. These surreal formations, often dubbed "flowerpots" due to lichen and vegetation that often flourishes on top of them, have a real otherworldly quality and inspire even the most rational amongst us to recognise familiar shapes in them, as some people do in clouds. Numerous local companies offer regular "step on, step off" boat service to the various islands where National Parks Service interpretive guides are available on-site to guide, educate and inform visitors.
I met up with the 2 National Parks Service biologists who were to be my guides for the afternoon in the visitors centre, and we were soon on our way to our first stop, Ile Quarry, amid bright sunshine. The boat dropped us off at the island's main jetty and we spent a an hour or so exploring the elevated wooden boardwalk that allows visitors to cross-cross the island and see the mysterious "dead cliff" in the middle of the forest, without damaging the fragile arctic barren land plants and peat bogs for which the island is known. The highlight of the visit was a secluded cove on the south side of the island which boasted an impressive array of monoliths. Next stop was dreamlike Ile Niapiskau which is home to some of the park's most recognisable monoliths, some of which were immortalised by one of Quebec's most celebrated poets who gave them names like "the lady", "the owl" and the "the Scottish man". Ile Niapiskau is like a secret magic garden straight out of a C.S. Lewis book. Words just don't do it justice. The boat ride back to Havre-Saint-Pierre took us through the channel between Ile du Fantome and Ile du Havre and gave us a grandstand view of the seemingly endless monoliths that dot the shoreline of the former. It was the perfect way to end a wonderful day.
I spent the following day out on the water with a group of local whale researchers but my weather jinx struck again and high winds from the south west meant equally high waves. I did see a couple of Humpback Whales however, and got some good shots of tail flukes and pectoral fin slapping.
The following day I went sea kayaking in the Mingan Archipelago National Park with a highly professional local kayak company. After a thorough safety briefing we were soon out on the water paddling towards Ile Nue de Mingan, otherwise known as "the bare island". The island supports unique but very fragile arid arctic flora and in summer is a key nesting site for seabirds including everyone's favourite, the Puffin, so is one of the most protected in the archipelago. No-one is allowed to land on it during the nesting season and for the rest of the year access is restricted to just the beaches and inter-tidal areas. The journey over to the island was a delight as the sea was glassy calm and overhead the sun was high in a cloudless sky. We kept our eyes open for passing Minke Whales without success, but did encounter a number of grey seals, eider ducks and seabirds en-route. We then paddled right around the island exploring its many sheltered coves and even a few caves before landing on the beach at the north end of the island where my guide Christophe Served a wonderful lunch of homemade seafood chowder cooked on a camping stove and home smoked sockeye salmon. Life doesn't get much better than that. In the afternoon I drove 2 hours west to Sept-Iles, the most northerly town of any real size on the St. Lawrence, where I spent the night in a hotel with a nice view across the river towards the south shore and Gaspe Peninsula, my next destination.
The following morning I drove 2 hours southwest to the small port of Godbout where I caught a car ferry across the St. Lawrence to Matane on the south shore. I was by now beginning to have my doubts about whether I was going to see a Blue Whale after all, so spent the entire crossing out on the deck looking for tell tale "spouts", but all to no avail. My next destination was Matane Wildlife Reserve which boasts one of the highest concentrations of Moose anywhere in North America (2 moose per square kilometre) and Eastern Canada's first mountain lodge.
I travelled to the lodge with the head guide, Jean-Francois, who is something of a legend amongst the Quebec adventure tourism community. En-route he stopped to show me a couple of mountain streams where Atlantic Salmon are once again spawning after a decades long conservation program, and a small lake where the lodge keeps a small rowing boat and a couple of kayaks for the use of the guests. He told me the lake was a good spot to see moose at the end of the day, particularly as it was the beginning of the mating season. We heard a bull moose calling nearby but a sighting eluded us. We did however see a family of Beavers on the lake and one bold individual swam up to within 5 metres of me which took me quite aback. I didn't have long to wait for my first moose sighting however. We met female with a calf on the road just a few hundred metres from the lodge.
The lodge is perched atop a 2,030 foot
(615m) peak high in the mountains, surrounded on all sides by
deep valleys and even higher peaks. The view is incredible! The
lodge itself is designed to blend into its natural surroundings
so is unobtrusive on the outside, but the interior is first class
throughout, whilst retaining a rustic, wilderness feel with flagstone
and hardwood floors, and lots of wood panels
and beams. The large second floor, open plan guest lounge and dining room has big comfortable couches arranged around a centrepiece glass and stone fireplace, and floor to ceiling picture windows affording panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. The lounge also opens onto 2 observation decks where guests can watch the sunset or soaring Golden Eagles. The 18 guest bedrooms (all with en-suite bathrooms) are also furnished and equipped to the highest standards. That evening I got to experience the lodge's renowned hospitality and excellent wine list. Meals are served "family style" in the main dining area, with the guides and highly acclaimed head chef, Alain, joining the guests. The rapport established between the guides and the guests is all important as the program of guided activities is the jewel in the lodge's crown.
Guests can choose from a wide variety of activities including wildlife observation, hiking, mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, and fly fishing, and the high guide to guest ratio ensures that the activities are tailored to the guests' particular interests and fitness levels. In the winter the lodge specialises in backcountry skiing employing short telemark skis specially designed for the local conditions. There are no ski-lifts here and guests are transported to the ski trails in a tracked snowmobile vehicle, or strap high friction "sealskins" to the underside of their skis and climb snowshoe style.
I decided to focus on moose observation and seeing as much of the surrounding area as I could during my 2 night stay. I rose early both mornings to accompany Jean-Francois on moose "dawn patrols" before breakfast. On both occasions we only had to walk a few hundred yards before seeing moose on or close to the old logging road that leads to the lodge. There are also a number of observation platforms overlooking salt licks (salt is essential to moose's health) within walking distance of the lodge. Probably the highlight of my stay though was climbing nearby Mount Collins which gives panoramic views all the way to the sea on both sides of the Gaspe Peninsula: the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the north, and the Baie des Chaleurs that separates Quebec from New Brunswick to the south. At a little over 3,400 feet (1030 metres) it is the second highest peak in the vicinity of the lodge, and a fairly energetic 11 mile (18km) all day hike. Jean-Francois told me the summit was the best viewpoint from which to gain a full appreciation of the area, and above 3,000 feet (900 metres) there was a chance that we might see some Caribou, part of the herd that live in adjoining Gaspésie National Park. We didn't see any caribou on the mountain but the scenery was incredible and I felt a real sense of achievement making it all the way to the top, even continuing to walk part way along the saddle that leads to the even higher Mount Matawees.
The following morning after breakfast
it was time to bid a fond farewell to the lodge. I'd spend a truly
wonderful couple of days there but leaving was a bittersweet moment.
In a short space of time the staff and guides had made me feel
like one of the family and I could happily have spent the whole
week there. I still had so much more to see and do in Quebec however.
Next stop was Gaspésie National Park which borders the Matane Wildlife Reserve to the east. The Chic-Choc and McGerrigle mountains dominate the park which contains 25 of the 40 highest peaks in Quebec, all of them over 3,300 feet (1,000m). On the 2 highest peaks, Mont Albert and Mont Jacques Cartier, visitors may encounter members of the most southerly Caribou herd in North America grazing on ground lichens above the treeline. I checked into the park's main lodge where I had lunch with the manager and the incredibly gracious park director, Francois, and then Francois accompanied me on a short hike to get some perspective on the park. I was very interested to talk to him about the conservation of the park's endangered Caribou population which stands precariously at around 200 individuals. He explained that in order for the 3 resident herds to maintain status quo they must successfully rear 35 calves each year, and the biggest obstacle to that was predation by coyotes and black bears.
Towards the end of the hike I became aware of 3 dark shapes moving through the undergrowth off to our right. Incredibly only 5 metres off the trail, right beside us was a moose cow and 2 calves. We'd almost walked right by them without noticing! The moose family appeared to be completely at ease with us being so close and just continued grazing as if we weren't there. I photographed them for about 30 minutes and at one point one of the curious calves came within about a metre of me. Its mother looked up briefly but then just carried on eating completely unperturbed. A quite magical encounter!
The following morning I took the shuttle bus from the lodge to the trailhead leading to the summit of Mont Jacques Cartier, at 4,200 feet (1270m) the highest peak in Quebec outside the Arctic territory of Nunavik. I was accompanied by one the park's resident biologist guide who explained that while it isn't unusual to see caribou cows and calves near the summit, seeing the bulls with their huge antlers is quite rare. We'd been climbing about 2 hours and had reached an altitude of about 3,300 feet (1,000m) when we spotted the first caribou: a cow with a young calf resting on the ground about 200m off the trail. We'd only been watching them 5 or 10 minutes when a magnificent set of antlers suddenly appeared on the horizon as a large male got to his feet near the female and calf. I couldn't believe my luck! In the space of 15 minutes we'd seen the full house: bull, cow, and calf. We hiked on for another 15-20 minutes and spotted 2 more caribou lying next to each other just 50m off the trail. One was a large cow but the other was an absolutely huge bull. They had their rumps towards the trail and didn't show any signs of stirring. Another photographer who had been climbing ahead of us told me that he'd seen the 2 bulls rutting earlier. I felt a tinge of jealousy but decided to press onwards to the summit hoping that the bull would be in a more photogenic position when we passed by again on the descent. We reached the summit after about 3 hours of climbing (and lots of stops to take photographs). Unsurprisingly the view from the summit was breathtaking and the extra 20m of elevation afforded by the observation tower seemed unnecessary. We sat down to enjoy our packed lunch but I was keeping half an eye on the two caribou hoping for a great photo on the descent.
Sure enough they'd got to their feet and were grazing close together. I was rewarded with a frame filling side profile of the bull against a cobalt blue, cloudless sky. Perfect conditions: it doesn't get much better than that. He was picking his way very gingerly over the barren, rocky landscape and looking somewhat forlorn having apparently been injured in the rut. After taking pictures for 30-40 minutes I felt I'd got the best shots I was going to get. By then we'd been on the mountain about 3½ hours and the last shuttle bus back to the lodge was leaving in an hour-and-a-half so we decided to head down. It had been an incredible day. We'd seen 2 large bull caribou as well as 2 cows and a calf which had far exceeded my expectations.
The following morning I drove 3 hours east to the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula where Jacques Cartier first landed in 1534 and boldly claimed Canada for the king of France. It was a very scenic journey along the coast and I passed through a number of picture postcard seaside villages en-route to my next destination: Forillon National Park. The park is surrounded on 3 sides by the ocean and encompasses habitats as varied as boreal forest, sandy beaches, and rugged shoreline cliffs. Its wildlife is equally varied and includes moose, deer, beavers, porcupines, black bears, seals, great blue herons, and a wide variety of seabirds. Visitors to the park should also train their binoculars seaward, as whales are frequently seen just offshore. Sightings of marine wildlife are probably easier to come by, but almost any of the park's terrestrial wildlife species may be encountered while hiking the walking trails. I spent the afternoon walking a couple of the shorter trails with a local hiking guide who is also a biologist. Sightings of the larger mammal species eluded us but we were far more successful with the avian species, including a number of raptors, and it was a joy just to be outdoors on another glorious day.
The following morning was the final throw of the dice in my quest to see a Blue Whale. I'd heard that there had been a lot of blue whale sightings in recent weeks around Gaspe, so I had arranged to go out with a local whale watching company. My previous optimism about seeing one on this trip had begun to diminish, but within 15 minutes of leaving the jetty we'd spotted the unmistakeable spouts of multiple, large whales. As we got closer it became clear that we were in fact seeing the spouts of 2 groups of whales, 5 individuals in all. Initially I thought they were all fin whales, the only marginally smaller and anatomically similar cousin of the blue whale, so imagine my surprise when the very informative interpretive guide announced that 2 of them were in fact Baleine Bleu.
It took a while for the realisation to sink in, and I couldn't quite believe my eyes as I began to recognise the telltale patchwork grey flanks of the blue whales from the much darker, more monotone fin whales. The boat captain expertly managed to predict where the whales would surface next and keep the boat heading parallel to them in order to give us a good view without disturbing their natural feeding behaviour, and we were able to keep in close contact with them for the better part of 2 hours. On one occasion we were watching the 2 blue whales on one side of the vessel when one of the fin whales suddenly surfaced very close to the boat and actually passed under us. The sheer size of these magnificent animals is almost too much for the human brain to take in, even when only a small part of them is visible above the surface. Generally you just see the arch of the back from the nostrils to the dorsal fin as they surface momentarily to take a breath, though in the case of fin and blue whales that back just seems to go on and on. Towards the end of the cruise we were rewarded with the sight, albeit in the distance, of one of the blue whales raising its tail fluke clear out of the water, seemingly bidding us farewell as it sounded on a deep dive. Unfortunately I had my camera trained on one of the fin whales and missed the chance of a photo of this rare behaviour. C'est la vie as they say in Quebec! I had still realised a lifelong ambition and the day was still young. It had been a very successful morning.
I spent the afternoon out on the water again in Baie de Gaspe, this time in a sea kayak. The blue and fin whales I'd seen in the morning were nowhere to be seen, but my guide and I did visit a couple of seal colonies and 20 curious Grey Seals bobbing around you like corks is quite a sight. We also saw a number of Great Blue Herons and a variety of shore birds. A very pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon. Afterwards I enjoyed a cold beer at the kayak company's eco-camp and then it was time to be on my way again.
I continued my scenic journey around the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula to the incredibly picturesque seaside town of Perce, considered to be the jewel of the Gaspe Region. The town is named after Quebec's most photographed and famous landmark, the Rocher Perce (Pierced Rock). When Jacques Cartier first visited the area in the 16th century it was the one of a series of 3 natural arches in a limestone headland jutting out into the Atlantic. During the intervening years the other two collapsed, the second in 1845, severing the remaining arch from the mainland. A little further offshore is Ile Bonaventure, a small island which is home to one of the two largest gannet nesting colonies in the world, the other being St. Kilda in Scotland. The island and the present town site of Perce was eventually settled by emigrants from Jersey who established a cod fishery here. Many historical buildings from this period still exist on both Ile Bonaventure and Perce itself. That evening I enjoyed a wonderful seafood dinner at the famous La Maison du Pecheur which also has an interesting history. In 1969 this one time fishermen's shed was a bustling youth hostel frequented by free thinkers and the birthplace of the militant Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ). These bohemian, would-be revolutionaries expressed their ideals in graffiti and paintings that still adorn the timber walls and ceiling.
The following morning I got to indulge
in one of my greatest passions. I went scuba diving with a local
shop. The objective was to see if I could swim with some of the Grey Seals that live just off Ile Bonaventure. The easy, relatively shallow dive in surprisingly warm 14C water was an absolute delight and at regular intervals curious grey seals swept by to check me out before returning to more pressing matters like finding food.
After a pleasant lunch at La Maison du Pecheur it was time to see Ile de la Bonaventure above water. I met with one of the interpretive guides from the Quebec Parks Service who are the guardians of Parc National de l'Ile Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Perce which encompasses the island, the pierced rock, and a number of historic buildings on the town's waterfront. We took one of the many sightseeing boats which take visitors over to the island after first visiting Rocher Perce, looking for any whales and basking sharks that may be in the area, and cruising right around the island to give a "big picture" view of the vast gannet colony on the east (seaward) side of the island. Visitors can then spend as long as they like on the island before catching a later boat back to Perce.
It was about 2PM by the time I set foot on the island and began the 45 minute walk across the island to the gannet colony. I'd had a very interesting conversation with my guide on the boat about the island's fox population so imagine my surprise when we suddenly met one on the trail coming the other way. I don't know about cunning but this fox was certainly bold and just trotted right by us only feet away! That set the tone for the rest of the afternoon, though nothing can prepare you for the sight of close to 150,000 Northern Gannets covering every square inch of the cliff top plateau in the southeast corner of the island. This is one of the most awe inspiring natural wonders you will ever see and it leaves you somewhat bewildered so much is there for your brain to take in. Each of the roughly 30,000 breeding pairs jealously guards a minute territory, about 80cm in diameter, and vicious territorial disputes are interspersed with incredibly tender bonding between life mates. Then there is the apparently never ending aerial armada arriving back from offshore fishing trips to feed their gluttonous chicks. By September the chicks are often bigger than their parents but some still retain their downy plumage. When their parents depart in winter they are generally too overweight to fly and instead simply jump off the cliff! The fall kills roughly 90% and of the remaining 10% that swim out to sea to begin the slimming down process, only half survive the first year - a quite astonishing mortality rate. The lucky ones return to Ile Bonaventure the following year along with the mature breeding pairs and begin the long learning process that may one day lead to them finding a mate and rearing their own chick on the plateau.
The next morning it was time to bid a reluctant farewell to Perce as I began my journey westwards back to Quebec City. I followed the southern shore of the Gaspe Peninsula passing through numerous historic Loyalist towns with familiar names like Newport, Port Daniel, and New Carlisle, to the town of Bonaventure. The town as founded in 1791 by the French speaking Arcadians, many of whom were driven from Canada and eventually settled in Louisiana where they became known as Cajuns, but is still home to some of their descendants. These days it is best known for the crystal clear Bonaventure River, probably Quebec's most pristine salmon river. Here on the banks of this incredibly picturesque river a present day Arcadian family have established a thriving eco-tourism business offering kayak and canoe excursions, and imaginative and unusual wilderness accommodation options including a modern take on the Tipi and the wonderfully named Ecologi. I was to spend the night in the latter, a wooden stilt house surrounded by dense and aromatic boreal forest, and connected to other Ecologis via elevated wooden walkways - a secluded village in the trees! The Ecologis are round or hexagonal with a steeple roof and slightly reminiscent of a Mongolian yurt, but solid and very cosy and comfortable. Mine had a large skylight window for star gazing from the comfort of the bed and I have to say I had one of the best night's sleep ever. They are also equipped with air conditioning and an en-suite toilet and shower so this is like camping with home comforts.
The following day I went out on the river with a guide. Excursions on the Bonaventure River are a relaxing affair. You and your equipment (kayak or canoe) are transported to a suitable point upstream where you put-in and let the gentle current take you all the way to the ocean, paddling as much or as little as you like. En-route you can just soak up the beautiful natural surroundings and, if you feel inclined, take a dip in the incredibly clean and inviting water. Excursions of various distances and durations are available, ranging from 2 hours to 2-3 days. I opted for a kayak and spent a very pleasant couple of hours on the river, stopping for a picnic on an island en-route to the sea. My guide and I were collected at the end by an old school bus and transported back to camp with our trusty steeds. It was a great way to chill-out at the end of a packed and often hectic trip.
The following morning it was time to hit the road as I had a 7 hour drive to Quebec City ahead of me, and an evening flight to catch. I drove the remainder of the south coast of the Gaspe Peninsula through the towns of New Richmond (home to the excellent British Heritage Village, a recreation of a Loyalist settlement in the late 1700s) and Carleton, and then turned north and cut across the base of the Peninsula through the incredibly picturesque Matapedia River Valley, famous for its historic covered wooden bridges. The fall colours were in all their glory in the valley which was a rich palette of yellow, orange, and red. Sadly I didn't have time to stop at Parc de Miguasha which is one of the world's fossil capitals, home to probably the greatest number and best preserved fossils from the Devonian period, and famous for specimens of the lobe-finned fish that began made the transition from sea to land. I did however stop for a couple of hours at Bic National Park on the north shore of the Gaspe Peninsula. This pretty park encompasses a narrow sliver of land immediately bordering the St. Lawrence River and is much marine as it is terrestrial. It has some excellent walking trails and a number of great locations from which to observe seals. Zodiac boat excursions to view seals and other marine wildlife are also available.
That evening I indulged in a French Canadian take on fast food: the famous Poutine (chips with cheese curds and gravy) as I waited to catch my flight and I took stock of my 17 days in Quebec. I'd realised my ambition of seeing the near mythical Blue Whale in its natural habitat as well as a number of other whale species, I'd dived with Grey Seals, had some great Caribou and Moose sightings, sea kayaked amid some of the most spectacular maritime landscapes in North America, immersed myself in French Canadian history, language, culture, and cuisine (not to mention wine and beer), and witnessed the annual spectacle of the fall colour.
It had been an amazing, memorable, and varied experience and one which I hope some of you will be inspired to seek.
North American Operations Manager