Friday August 31, 2012

Just before, or just after, Labor Day is prime road trip time for us -- the weather's a little cooler, kids are heading back to school, so many of the spots we like to explore are quieter, but "summer" activities (like kayaking and biking) are still in full swing.

My sweetheart, Marilyn, and I are in Québec for an absolutely marvelous Active Outdoors end to summer. At this moment, we are in a "Hutopia" cabin tent in the spectacular Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay (Saguenay National Park) (www.parcsquebec.com) in Rivière-Éternité. We've been in the Saguenay region for about 36 hours and have already decided that Saguenay Fjord is one of the most beautiful spots in North America, for a few days of biking, hiking and, especially seakayaking.

Four hours northeast of Québec City, Saguenay Fjord is a full day's drive for us. Who wants to start their getaway with a whole day in the car? Is this a problem? Not at all! We never miss a chance to stay (and eat!) in the Eastern Townships and we booked an overnight, with breakfast, at Auberge La Chocolatière (www.lachocolatieredhatley.com) a lovely little inn only a few minutes off the highway in North Hatley, Quebec (www.northhatley.net).

We had two sea kayaks and our tandem bike on the car, and North Hatley is Active Outdoors central: a section of La Route Verte (www.routeverte.



com), Quebec's phenomenal network of designated bike paths, runs right through the center of town, and there's a marina there as well where you can launch your kayaks (or rent if you don't have your own) to paddle on Lac Massawippi or the river running out of it. They are very careful about invasive water plants in this area and your boat has to be washed and inspected before you can launch it.

Unfortunately, this vacation started badly. A last-second plumbing crisis (is there any other kind?) put us on the road about six hours later than we'd planned and we arrived too late to kayak. So we settled for an evening stroll near the lake and river, ending with a nice dinner at Café Pilsner on the terrace overlooking the river (complete with freeloading ducks). In the morning, we took a quick sunrise bike ride before a breakfast that featured lots of fresh fruit and oatmeal or elegant crepes, all flavored with dark chocolate. Yes, it was that good ... and a nice way to fuel ourselves for a six-hour drive.

We arrived in Saguenay with rain nipping at our heels and checked into the Auberge de la Rivière Saguenay (www.aubergesaguenay.com) where we settled into a third floor room with a balcony and an absolutely stunning view out onto the Fjord. Innkeeper Pauline Gagnon greeted us in perfect English, and prepared an excellent dinner, featuring fresh local meats and produce. She and her husband (who also spoke excellent English) and one other guest (who spoke some English) joined us at the dinner table and we had a wonderful evening. They seemed to thoroughly enjoy our halting attempts to communicate en français. That's the way we've always found it Quebec. Even in regions where most people don't speak any English, you can always get by with a smile and a little patience and politeness.

The next morning required two other virtues: Persistence and a bit of flexibility. The plan was to drive to Rivière Éternité, and the spectacular Parc national Fjord-du-Saguenay, and see part of the fjord by kayak on a guided one-day tour. Let's just say it was a bit more challenging than we had originally anticipated, but worth every moment of the drive to get there. Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy.

Wind wins

The last time I took Marilyn sea kayaking (with H2Outfitters on Casco Bay in Maine), the wind decided it wanted us to camp on a different island than we had originally planned. When the wind blows and the waves are high enough to break over your boat, you cope as best you can and change plans if you must for safety and comfort.

The breeze was riffling the water in front of the auberge as we ate breakfast. By the time we met the folks who run OrganisAction (www.OrganisAction.com) the breeze had picked up. Maybe we should have taken the omen the wind sent us more seriously: As we unloaded the kayaks we heard a huge tree crash down in the forest nearby -- close enough that we could feel the thud of the impact through our feet.

Our guide Manu, who hails from Normandie in Old France started us downwind against the lee shore, but as the wind and waves grew, the concept of a lee shore evaporated before our very eyes, and we turned and headed back far sooner than we had intended. We ended up fighting our way back up against a relentless wind; even the rising tide pushing us wasn't much help. We paddled about four hours, covering less than a quarter of the distance we'd planned. We never really got out into the main fjord, it was just too dangerous.

Still the scenery we did see was simply spectacular -- 900-foot, glacier-carved cliffs rising directly from the water. It would have been breathtaking even without the wind to help. One day of paddling here simply wasn't enough. We have more paddling planned for Friday, weather permitting, but we're hoping the wind will quiet down tonight and we can get in some more paddling on our own tomorrow before we move on to L'Anse Saint Jean.

In the meantime, there are woodland trails to walk and quiet roads we can pedal on our bike. There's always something to do ... Stay tuned.

Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com