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Paddle Tales: Sea Kayaking Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean

In this episode of Paddle Tales, we're heading to a place that's commonly referred to as 'The Land of Giants', because everything about the area is big and spectacular. It's a rugged and inspiring land that features a lake so big that it feels like an ocean. One of the longest and most dramatic fjords in the world and some of the best whitewater rivers that you'll find anywhere. In this episode of Paddle Tales we're exploring deep into the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region.


The Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region is located in the middle of Québec, and it's the third largest region of the province. With three national parks, and a marine park within its boundaries, it's no surprise that adventure tourism and nature are defining features. Of course, that's exactly why I'm excited to explore the place. 


To kick things off I'm heading to the small and beautiful town of L'Anse-Saint-Jean, which sits nestled in the hollows of the mountains on the shores of the renowned Saguenay. Not only does L'Anse-Saint-Jean provide a great taste of the kicked-back, small town lifestyle of the area but it's an ideal spot to launch kayaks and explore the fjord so I head over to Fjord en Kayak, the premier kayak company in the area, there I meet up with one of their guides, Mathieu Boulanger-Messier who knows these waters as well as anyone. Sweet, the sun is shining. There's hardly any wind at all and we're in the Saguenay Fjord. This is gonna be good. 


- [Ken] You gotta love exploring obviously in this region. 

- [Mathieu] Yeah, you know it's my office here man 

- [Ken] This is a heck of an office. 

- [Mathieu] Yeah so I discover the place a lot and I paddle a lot in the Saguenay Fjord. So yeah, we are into the fjord here which is an amazing environment, because as you can see there's like mountains all along. It's like a huge canyon here filled with salt water and fresh water. Fresh water on the top and salt water on the bottom. And we can call it the fjord because we have salt water in it. 

- [Ken] Gotcha. The definition of a fjord is that it has saltwater. 

- [Mathieu] Yeah, exactly. And also we have one of the longest fjord in the world. Just a bit more than 100 kilometers long. So that's why we can do five days trip on this fjord. It's a very long fjord. 

- [Ken] Well, I'm excited to be back here. It's been six years since I've been in the region. I loved it the first time and driving in here I remember why. This place is beautiful. 

- [Mathieu] Yeah, it is, huh? 

- [Ken] I feel like Kayak en Fjord's been doing this for a long time. 

- [Mathieu] Yeah, yeah, exactly. It's about 23 years ago that they started the company. 

- [Mathieu] Different kinds of trips. First of all we we do a short tour, 2-hour tour which is our busy tour. Also we do an entire day tour. So it's about 6 hours of paddling and also we also do expeditions. So we have two-days, three-days, and four-days expedition and we can also go up to five-days. 

- [Ken] It's been an amazing summer touring around Québec and seeing some of the world's most stunning landscapes but one of the most enjoyable parts of the journey has been sharing that experience with people that are totally passionate about their region. Mathieu is another perfect example of someone who is truly stoked to share his backyard. The other great thing about Mathieu is that he considers a big part of the Saguenay fjord experience to be the food. I'm hungry and this looks good. 

- [Mathieu] Yep, it is, huh? We always try to have good food because we believe in it and we always try to use local food as much as we can with our partners around the village. Bon appetit

- [Ken] So we're in a national park right now. 

- [Mathieu] Yep, yeah we are, in fact we are in two national parks. 

- [Ken] Oh really? 

- [Mathieu] Yeah, because now we are at the beginning of the marine park, which is the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. The park was created to protect the Beluga whales and also on each side of the fjord all the cliffs on each side are also protected by another national park which is the Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay. 

- [Ken] Well, I'll tell you what, this cliff over here that area looks like one of those places you just have to go explore. 

- [Mathieu] Yeah 

- [Ken] Should we start over there? 

- [Mathieu] Yeah, I think we need to go there. 

- [Ken] Everywhere you look, doesn't matter which way you look, 360 degrees of awesome. 

- [Mathieu) Yeah, It's been pristine, more that 75% of the territory is pristine and untouched. 

- [Ken] And we got it all to ourselves right now. 


It's easy to see why the region is often referred to as 'The Land of Giants'. Everything about this landscape is huge and there isn't a better way to get a real sense of the size, than paddling along the base of the cliffs. There're beautiful and impressive to look at from shore but looking up from below it's hard not to feel a little overwhelmed and a little insignificant. It's easy to imagine how glaciers sculpted the U-shaped valley over thousands and thousands of years but the scale of everything is mind-boggling. While kayaking has always been one of my favorite ways to explore a place, it has one obvious disadvantage. You just can't cover distance quickly. Considering that the fjord is over 60 miles long you need to have some serious time and a lot of ibuprofen in order to paddle the whole stretch. Unfortunately, I don't have the time and so I'm meeting up with Sophie Drolet, a captain for Voile Mercator, a company that offers sailing lessons and vacations through the Saguenay fjord. 


Our mission is to reach the most famous and dramatic bay on the Saguenay River, La Baie-Eternite. Our trip starts slowly as the light winds push the boat through the waters slowly and smoothly. It's been over 20 years since I've sailed. So it's a good chance to get reacquainted with the workings of a sail boat. But it's not long before a weather system approaches.

As the wind picks up the sunny skies are replaced by thick clouds and a fine mist. Right away, the boat jumps to life. I've always been a huge fan of gravity-fueled sports or sports that use the power of Mother Nature. And so for me, that's the amazing thing about sailing. It gives you a real taste of Mother Nature's strength and an appreciation of the fact that she's in control. All we can do is learn to play with that power. And then, as if on cue, the wind dies down as we reach a narrow bay surrounded by the highest cliffs of the fjord. We reached La Baie-Eternite, otherwise known as Eternity Bay. The crowned jewel of Saguenay National Park. It's amazing how quickly the excitement of the run down the fjord is replaced by the calm of the bay. 


It really is a magical place and the clouds and mists that hover around the mountains gives it all a surreal "Lord of the Rings" like feel. I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting this sailing trip to be one of the highlights of my summer and boy was I wrong. Following the Saguenay River upstream, we leave the fjord behind and make our way towards the Lac-Saint-Jean region. Lac-Saint-Jean is a huge lake with a number of vibrant communities around it. It also hosts some of the most beautiful rivers that you'll find anywhere which makes it an outdoor and whitewater paradise. To get my feet wet in some of the rapids, I'm meeting up with Shéril Gravel, co-founder of the Pink Water community, a nonprofit organization whose main objective is to encourage women to participate in whitewater activities. 


- [Shéril] Today we are on the Riviere Aux Sable, the part of the river is called *unknown* and it's a very thin section to practice laps. This river is very accessible because it's in the middle of the town but you have many portions of other sections and river in Saguenay Saint-Jean. Very accessible also. We are very lucky to live here.


Seven years ago whitewater changed my life. It gave me a lot of confidence because you don't have control of water you have to respect the river. And then from the moment that you can do it well then you're so proud. It gives you a very good feeling. I was working in a rafting company during the summer and I was a safety kayaker. So, I was going down the river with girls that were very scared at the beginning of the day they were telling me no it's not possible. I cannot do it. I'm too scared. I was telling them I promise you that your nails they will be broken at the end of the day and maybe you will have mascara here, but you will have stars in your eyes and that's what I want to see. And I promise you that you will have a good time. And that you will be very proud of you after that. We started Pink Water in 2014. It's a movement to encourage girls to get into the whitewater community and the message that we want to send them is that it's possible for the girls also. 


- [Ken] If there's one thing I've learned in all my years of whitewater kayaking it's that as amazing as it is to push your own limits there's nothing more personally satisfying than helping someone else reach their goals or push themselves do to something they never thought they could. I'm sure that's one of the things that made this day with Sheril so special. We both share that passion for pushing and inspiring others to try new things and take advantage of and take care of the incredible natural playgrounds that surround us. 


Once again today is further proof that paddling is only partly about the places you go and the things you see. It's about the wonderful people you meet along the way. 

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