The Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec uses the tourism tagline “C’est geant!” to underline the size of its wide-open wilderness spaces. A couple of hours north of Quebec City, it’s an area where the Atlantic Ocean reaches a fjord finger into the interior. Between the area’s wild rivers, the Saguenay Fjord, and 407 square mile Lac Saint Jean, this is the perfect region for a water-focused vacation. So when Tourism Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean invited me to join a small group of water enthusiasts, I packed my water shoes and waterproof camera and went.
Stand Up Paddle Boarding
Our tour group consisted of three serious adventure dudes and me. We drove through the Saguenay countryside, looking out at the big sky, pines, yellow and purple wildflowers, cornfields and the rounded thrust of silos. They traded tales of backpacking through Mongolia, skiing uphill and not taking showers for weeks. I visualized not falling off a stand-up paddle-board my first time out.
We arrived at Cooperative O’Soleil, a paddle sports outfitter on the eastern side of Lac Saint Jean. As a beginner, I was happy to get an extra-wide board, which lends stability. A young woman briefly described how to stand up, how to paddle, and warned us not to scrape the board’s bottom fin as we pushed off the shore. Then we were on our own.
Kneeling on the floating board in a quiet channel, I had a panicked moment wondering if I could really stand up. I yearned for more instruction so I could postpone trying. But if I didn’t want to look like a total fool, there was nothing to do except stand up.
For the first five minutes, my legs shook. It felt unnatural to be standing on a floating board, paddling. Fortunately, my legs adjusted and we slowly moved from the channel toward the lake.
The lake was a little rougher, between a breeze and the wakes of boats. The three guys had narrower boards, and I could see them struggle for balance at times. But it was a fairly peaceful, low-risk activity. The worst that was likely to happen was getting wet. I stayed on my SUP for more than an hour and didn’t fall off. So I hereby pronounce this activity accessible for any reasonably fit beginner.
Our next water adventure was a three-hour trip down 7 kilometers of the mighty Metabechouan River, traversing 12 Class 3 rapids.
Our guide at H2O Expedition, Melisande Tardif, is a river fiend. She told me it took her only one rafting trip to get so hooked she started guide training. That was six years ago. She’s funny, friendly and totally at home on the river. Her favorite part about guiding is the teamwork. “You can’t go down the river alone,” she told me. “The river makes links between people very fast.”
Before getting in the raft, we geared up in wetsuits, personal flotation devices and helmets, and underwent comprehensive safety instruction. We learned what to do if we were thrown from the raft, what to do if everybody was ejected, and how to most safely traverse rapids sans raft. One of our raft-mates, a petite Italian woman, was going positively white from the possibilities. I felt a bit uncertain myself.
Then we had to hike down hills and staircases to the water. Carrying the raft. It was one long, hot walk.
Once in the raft, Melisande taught us basic paddling and commands, such as forward, backward, stop paddling, and “Oh, shit!” That last command means everybody get down in the raft and hold on. And yes, we did hear that command later in our trip.
The river was flowing pretty well for August. We were soaked almost immediately, but between the wetsuit and a warm air temperature, it felt pleasant. We had a few opportunities to swim, bodysurf milder rapids and jump off a cliff into deep water.
Afterwards, I asked the Italian couple about their rafting journey. “It was a very emotional experience for me. I’m a very anxious person,” Valentina Punzo said. “It’s an experience that puts you into the nature. It doesn’t put you into the nature as a stranger. You are part of the nature.”
Her husband Attilio was happy to experience the natural side of North America. “America is skyscrapers but also nature and the power of nature.”
Aventuraid, a privately-owned adventure park northwest of Lac Saint Jean, offers outdoor experiences like dogsledding and snowmobiling in winter, and canoeing in summer. In keeping with our water theme, my little group went to canoe. And to see wolves – forty wolves live in a sanctuary there.
I had the pleasure of sharing a canoe with our guide, Julien Gravelle. While the rest of my group complained they got three times as much exercise as I did trying to correct their crafts’ zigzagging courses, our canoe stayed perfectly straight with Julien steering.
We started out on the Ouasiemsca River, which eventually connected with the Mistassini River. I enjoyed the billowing clouds, sparkling water, looking out for beaver huts and listening to Julien talk. A French native, he left because he couldn’t find an interesting job there. After a stint in forestry in New Zealand, and managing a wolf program somewhere, he wound up at Aventuraid. He leads canoe trips in summer and dogsledding in winter.
Dogsledding is a big deal in France, he told me, and insisted that wherever you go dogsledding, chances are you will have a French guide. He had a thorough knowledge of French history, was very handsome, drove the canoe perfectly (even over a little set of rapids) and cooked us lunch on a rocky outcropping of the river. He even brought veggie pate and tofu dogs for me, his vegetarian client. In other words, he was the ultimate guide.
My last day in the Saguenay region held the most stunning scenery. We drove a couple of hours east of Lac Saint Jean to the Parc National du Fjord-du-Saguenay. Granite cliffs tower 500 or more feet above the deep and gorgeous fjord. With an average depth of 690 feet, you know lots of sea critters swim up the fjord, including harbor seals, sharks and whales. We were a little far up the fjord for whales, but I saw one seal poke its head up to check out our kayaks.
Our guide with Organisaction!, Samuel Laflamme, is a devoted outdoorsman with 15 years of guiding nature excursions. He’s traveled around the world, but always returns to Quebec. “I don’t find peace anywhere else,” he told me as we paddled between the huge cliffs.
The park offers another touring option that looked like a fun challenge. A via ferrata course combines hiking with climbing. This guided activity promises that even amateurs can experience “walking” on a rock wall while safely roped and helmeted in. This might be the next outdoor adventure I need to try.
Bota Bota Floating Spa
After all this outdoor adventuring, I spent a few days in Montreal. There I had a tame but extremely pleasant water experience at Bota Bota, a retired ferry boat turned 25,000 square foot floating spa.
The popular water circuit takes up two decks of the boat and spills into an onshore garden. Guests sit in whirlpools, dip in cold pools, open their pores in saunas and eucalyptus-scented steam rooms, and relax in chill-out areas with hammocks, bean bags and chaise lounges. All while admiring the Montreal skyline. This place is bliss!
Bota Bota opened for business in 2010. In addition to the water circuit, guests can book massages, facials and body treatments, eat in the restaurant, or attend yoga and Pilates classes. All you need to bring is a bathing suit, so it’s easily accessible for travelers.
The huge, varied province of Quebec has so much to offer. Water enthusiasts need to put it on their lists.