Expedition Journal

Mighty Saint Lawrence

Jun. 25–Jul. 4, 2017

© Dennis Minty

It is the blessing of sailing down the Saint Lawrence, rather than driving the shores, that its many dramatic caps and cliffs can be witnessed in full view. The railings were lined with passengers as the Ocean Endeavour went by the cinematic cliffs of Forillon National Park.

Map

Mighty Saint Lawrence 2017 expedition map
  • Day 1: Québec City
  • Day 2: Tadoussac
  • Day 3: Jardins de Métis (Reford Gardens)
  • Day 4: The Mingan Archipelago
  • Day 5: Gaspé and Forillon National Park
  • Day 6: Bonaventure Island and Percé Rock Migratory Bird Sanctuary
  • Day 7: Cap-aux-Meules, Îles-de-la-Madeleine
  • Day 8: Chéticamp, Cape Breton
  • Day 9: Garia Bay, Newfoundland
  • Day 10: Saint-Pierre

Day 1 – Sunday, June 25

Québec City

Coordinates: 46°48'N 71°12'W

Weather: Sunny and warm

À La Prochaine, Québec

The Château Frontenac, the most photographed hotel in Canada, is a copper-topped confection befitting the royal and the famous—and Adventure Canada passengers. It was a splendid sight in the sun, and a fine one from which to begin an adventure on the Saint Lawrence. Many of the first-time adventurers to Canada’s oldest city, founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, enjoyed guided walking tours of the bustling streets, and some even tried out their school conversational French.

In a chamber room where many a celebrated personage has given lectures, the passengers were introduced to, or reminded of, the Adventure Canada Way, and were versed in the techniques of entering and leaving a Zodiac. (By the end of the voyage all were expert, all fears banished.) Then onto the buses for the afternoon’s land ferrying to pick up the Ocean Endeavour at Tadoussac.

Day 1 hotel chateau frontenac

© Danny Catt

As they travelled along its north shore, the buses wove in and out of sight of the Saint Lawrence, passing Île d’Orleans and then Grosse Île, the quarantine station for immigrants to North America from 1832 to 1932. Grosse Île is a National Historic Site. Several of the passengers mentioned that their ancestors may well have been quarantined on the island and then made their way onto Québec and out across Canada to take their part in the great Canadian experiment.

The Montmorency Falls were spectacular, with the church at their foot that is considered a healing centre. The beauty of the Charlevoix region, home to artists and writers—and some great cheeses—filled the bus windows.

Day 1 staff musicians and friends

© Danny Catt

And then the Ocean Endeavour appeared, nestled on the calm water in Tadoussac Bay, joined to its perfect reflection at the water line. First a short ferry ride across the Saguenay, off the buses, into the dockside Zodiacs, and over water to the bustle of cabin location, registration, lifeboat drill (from which all emerged intact), and the first sampling of the excellent gastronomy to come in the Polaris dining room. Then a gathering in the Nautilus Lounge, the ship’s agora, to begin the habit of going over the day, and learning about what tomorrow will bring; in this case, a day ashore in Tadoussac.

Day 2 – Monday, June 26

Tadoussac

Coordinates: 48°08'N 69°42'W

Weather: A pleasant summer's day

Bonjour Tadoussac

The town of Tadoussac was the first trading post in Canada, established by the French in 1599, and a gathering place for both the Innu and Mi’kmaw. It reached its height of involvement with the fur trade in the early seventeenth century, with as many as fifty boats in the bay at one time. Eventually it was burnt out by the Haudenosaunee in 1661. In the Victorian era, it was rediscovered as a tourist destination and a summer home for the wealthy. With the building of a large hotel there (the hotel is featured in the movie The Hotel New Hampshire) the town grew again; now the boats in the harbour are yachts and cruisers, and the town’s income is completely from tourism. So the mayor informed us when he came aboard to address us later that day.

Day 2 guest walks tadoussac hotel

© Danny Catt

The passengers, after easily conquering their first run through of lifejackets on and off, in and out of Zodiacs in colour groups, spent pleasant hours, being officially greeted in the church, cruising main street, and visiting the old trading post, now the marine mammal interpretation centre. Tadoussac is a whale-watching centre and the French word baleine is constantly in the air.

The generosity and town boosterism displayed by the good people of Tadoussac was extraordinary, beginning with the two musicians who gently strummed us into their town as the Zodiacs made dock. Later on the beach, a trio of excellent musicians serenaded us with an impressive bonfire on one side and an equally impressive spread on the other. There was singing along in at least two languages, setting the tone for the rest of the voyage.

Day 2 Tadoussac marine interpretive centre

© Danny Catt

The Saguenay River, the one the passengers had crossed the day before on the ferry, is the deepest river in the world, capable of completely immersing the CN Tower. Although the Ocean Endeavour did not sail very far into the river this day, the passengers were gifted with the sight of a beluga mother with her grey-skinned calf. The belugas of the Saguenay are members of what could be called a lost tribe; normally they are a more northerly mammal.

Fresh water from Lac St. Jean supplies the Saguenay and decants into the salty Saint Lawrence, creating a vast buffet for the nine species of whale in the Saint Lawrence. This sighting was the first of many narrated by our resident marine biologist, Pierre Richard, who was on hand from dawn to dusk throughout the voyage to espy and inform the adventurers of the abundance of wildlife above and below the Saint Lawrence.

Day 2 woman looks with binoculars tadoussac whales

© Victoria Polsoni

Day 3 – Tuesday, June 27

Jardins de Métis (Reford Gardens)

Coordinates: 48°37'N 68°07'W

Weather: Fog turning to sun

A Blooming Good Day

Jardins de Métis (Reford Gardens), like Adventure Canada, is a family enterprise. Both were the inspiration of determined individuals, both have blossomed and grown, and now both are in the hands of the next generations. The gardens (they are on the South Shore near Rimouski) were developed by Elsie Reford between 1926 and 1958. The site was originally a fishing lodge. While she was recovering from surgery, Elsie’s doctor suggested that she take up gardening as a less strenuous alternative to fishing. Her determination and energy created one of the most famous gardens in the world.

The Zodiacs made the long crossover partly in fog, and discovered that much of the petite ville of Métis-sur-Mer was there to greet us and assist with the wet landing, including the mayor, who turned out to also be one of the drivers who would shuttle us to the gardens. Upon arrival the adventurers were taken in hand by the guides, who have one of the more pleasant summer jobs, and exploration of the botanical bounty began. The present generation of Refords, in the person of Alexander, who is the great-grandson of the creator of the now internationally famous gardens, was on hand and guided several of the tours himself.

Day 3 Reford Gardens guest smells the roses

© Danny Catt

The bulk of the gardens are in the English style, which was fascinating for the North Americans. One British passenger, an Adventure Canada veteran who regularly sailed over on the Queen Mary II, was astonished at the variety of flowers that could grow in this micro-climate. The Japanese azaleas were for many the equal in beauty of the blue poppies for which the gardens are famous. The wildflower meadow, perhaps for its less formal arrangement, was also a hit.

Day 3 Reford Gardens Lupines

© Danny Catt

Come time to return to the ship, the tide had gone out, but the passengers did not balk at the traverse over slippery stone, congratulating themselves on their competence. Much assistance was given by a gentlemen who turned out to be both the local coast guard and a town fireman.

The day’s botanical theme was enhanced later by staff member Jean Knowles with her talk on the common flowering plants of the lower Saint Lawrence. In the evening, your scribe Phil Jenkins took the passengers on an imaginary trip down the Saint Lawrence using selections from his postcard collection and sang river-related songs composed during his travels with Adventure Canada.

Day 4 – Wednesday, June 28

The Mingan Archipelago

Coordinates: 50°14'N 63°36'W

Weather: Rainy, windy, and overcast

Nature’s Sculpture Garden

Heading northeast over to the North Shore, we made for the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, which stretches in a narrow beam along the river, and has Havre-Saint-Pierre as its main port. There are forty islands in the archipelago; some are visitable, and some are sanctuaries for birds and aquatic mammals. Our resident geologist, Susan Eaton, was especially keen to stand beside the famous limestone monoliths that the elements have carved on the islands. The climate here is quite harsh, almost boreal, and the sculptured landscape seems extra-planetary.

Day 4 Mingan Islands

© Dennis Minty

The wind that has helped shaped the rocks of the islands in the Mingan archipelago was blowing well, but despite the dramatic sky, the greeting the Ocean Endeavour received as it tied up at the dock was warm. An accordion player in a straw hat began playing the moment the gangway came down, and as far as anyone could tell, he did not stop playing until the ship pulled away that evening. In the reception centre the bright orange jackets and gloves we were fitted with made us seem like an expeditionary force, which indeed we were.

Three boats left the harbour for varying destinations, and all were hoping to see the cute puffins. They did, as well as grey seals. Reports from the boats visiting Île Niapiskau were of communal wonder at the diversity of landscapes along the Saint Lawrence and the nature within them. The Road Scholars, in an open large Zodiac, were bound for Petite île au Marteau, so called because it is indeed shaped like a hammer. All were grateful for the jackets as the rain gave faces a good scrub, but, as happened on the trip several times, the weather came good just as it needed to, midway through the day.

Day 4 Parks Canada interpreter with guests

© Danny Catt

The excellent guide from Parks Canada kept up a running monologue, the monoliths were otherworldly, and, when they reached the Parks Canada cabin on the the Petite Île, a warm fire and packed lunches were waiting. The path to the other end of the island—passengers were asked not to step off it as there were rare wild flowers alongside—ended with a lighthouse with a foghorn and several outbuildings forming an interpretive centre. One Road Scholar remarked on the contrast between the life on a comfortable ship such as ours and the isolated life of a lighthouse keeper’s family, warning ships away from danger.

The gentleman was still playing accordion on the dockside as the gangway came up and the Ocean Endeavour pulled away, to the music of a small band and waving flags. The level of chatter in the Nautilus Lounge that night spoke of a good day, and the traditional dancing with the Bourques, père et fils, was vigorous.

Day 4 man with accordion

© Danny Catt

Day 5 – Thursday, June 29

Gaspé and Forillon National Park

Coordinates: 48°49'N 64°28'W

Weather: Glorious sunshine

Points of View

It is the blessing of sailing down the Saint Lawrence, rather than driving the shores, that its many dramatic caps and cliffs can be witnessed in full view. The railings were lined with passengers as the Ocean Endeavour went by the cinematic cliffs of Forillon National Park. The park was once a thriving fishing community of emigrants from the Channel Islands and Acadians, until, in 1970, a badly handled expropriation caused over two hundred people to lose their homes. In their sad wake Québec’s first national park was created.

Day 5 gannet soaring

© Danny Catt

As the human population was forcibly moved out, over the years since then the wildlife population has increased and it now, on air, sea, and land, includes nesting colonies of sea birds, raptors galore—great horned owls, northern harriers, peregrine falcons, kestrels, bald eagles, rough-legged hawks, and ospreys—whales and seals, and woodland species such as red fox, black bear, moose, lynx, mink, coyote, woodchuck, porcupine, snowshoe hare, beaver, and ermine. A wildlife kingdom.

The Zodiacs took us into Gaspé Bay and onto the dock of the eponymous town of Gaspé, then onto buses for various hiking starting points. The hikes the passengers had signed up for ranged from Advanced to Easy. The easiest was a visit to the Grande-Grave National Heritage Site, where the adventurers caught a glimpse of the past way of life of fishing families before 1970. Visitors to the Hyman general store stood back in time among the goods and foodstuffs that were sold circa 1900, and the park interpreters told tales of a thriving fisheries industry that earned them the money to feed their families.

Day 5 Forillon National Park

© Dennis Minty

Close by, a path wound around houses, fields, and agricultural and commercial installations from the beginning of the twentieth century that enhanced the experience. A guide, whose infectious laughter punctuated her excellent storytelling, spoke frankly of the park’s past. At Cap-des-Rosiers, there were gasps at the view eastward to Cap-Bon-Ami, which posed in full light for its paparazzi of nature.

The moderate walk took its hikers past hedge rows and bush full of bird song, on to the lighthouse at Cap Gaspé, where a family of porcupines greeted them. Several of the younger hikers could apparently speak "porcupinese" and the prickly mammals in their turn were delighted to make their acquaintance.

Day 5 porcupine in tree

© Danny Catt

The advanced hikers completed a loop of several kilometres that took them up, and up, to L’Anse-aux-Griffon where they enjoyed one of the premier views on the Saint Lawrence cliffs. They had been warned that there were black bears in the forest, but none were encountered; there seemed to be some disappointment among some of the adventurers.

That evening it was movie night, and the Nautilus and the Aurora Lounges lowered the screens for showings of The Grand Seduction (Le Grand Seduction), a remake of a Québecois film set in Newfoundland, so the scenery behind the actors was familiar, or would be soon. The sound of laughter in both languages issued from the lounges.

Day 6 – Friday, June 30

Bonaventure Island and Percé Rock Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Coordinates: 48°29'N 64°07'W

Weather: Fair and sunny

Taking Flight

From Gaspé town, the ship continued around the fingertip of the Gaspé Peninsula until a remarkable sight appeared before us. The "rock with the hole", Percé Rock, is a Canadian geographic icon, a wedge of limestone separated from the shoreline. In its former glory days, there were actually as many as three arches in the formation, making it appear to be a ruined section of a once great cathedral. Now there is but one arch, yet it is a sight for well eyes—and a camera.

Day 6 friends by perce rock

© Danny Catt

The Bonaventure Island and Percé Rock Migratory Bird Sanctuary was established in 1919 to protect a nesting site for seabirds, in particular the northern gannet. It is in two sections: a sort of double-header attraction for bird enthusiasts. There is Île Bonaventure (Bonaventure Island) with its eighty-metre cliffs and the half kilometre of surrounding sea, and there is Rocher Percé (Percé Rock) and the marine waters extending a kilometre offshore.

Bonaventure Island is predominantly forested, with the occasional herbaceous meadow. The cliffs are decorated with a variety of plant life. Percé Rock is actually connected to the mainland by a sandbar exposed at low tide.

The northern gannet is by far the most noticeable species on Bonaventure, along with common murres and black-legged kittiwakes, whose numbers are declining. The herring gull and great black-backed gull are partial to both Bonaventure and Percé. The Atlantic puffin is found (in very small numbers) on Bonaventure Island but not Percé.

Day 6 murre

© Danny Catt

Shortly after breakfast, flotillas of Zodiacs were launched onto mirror-like water in their colour-group rotation. Thereafter for the next two hours, the Zodiacs taxied between Percé Rock and Île Bonaventure. Approaching the rock, the cormorants on top seemed as interested in us as we certainly were in them.

Percé Rock (percé is French for pierced) lived up to its reputation for taking one’s breath away, and as the Zodiacs rounded to the far side, the cameras were vying to get the perfect shot of the Ocean Endeavour through the pierced hole. The fleet then made its way over to Île Bonaventure. On the approach the black and white dots of various sizes resolved themselves in murres and gannets. It was as though ornithological confetti had rained down steadily on the island, filling the cracks and crevices of the sheer walls. On top it appeared to have snowed birds.

Day 6 gannets at bonaventure island

© Victoria Polsoni

Staying well offshore, the passengers probably took as many photographs as there were birds. The choreography of the avian squadrons landing, taking off, dive bombing, nest building, and nest guarding was spellbinding, and it was with some reluctance that the many birders among us returned to the Ocean Endeavour.

Lunch was a festive occasion. While the Zodiacs were in the water, a feast of bar-be-cue was set up on the aft deck, and serenaded by strolling musicians. The mood continued into the evening for the traditional singalong.

Day 7 – Saturday, July 1

Cap-aux-Meules, Îles-de-la-Madeleine

Coordinates: 47°23'N 61°51'W

Weather: Mixed but celebratory

Happy Birthday, Canada

It is the habit of the staff on Adventure Canada trips to gather at a dinner table and sing Happy Birthday songs to hapless victims. Today was a special birthday. Even at breakfast, it was obvious that today was Canada Day; and not just any old Canada Day but the 150th; a most special day. Red and white combinations were everywhere. Hats, giant ties, complete outfits.

Immediately after breakfast, the Zodiacs began their day-long shuttle service into Cap-aux-Meules, a busy fishing and ferry harbour on Île aux Loups (Wolf Island), the largest of the Magdalen Islands, which resembles a violin bow. The townsfolk, proud of their Acadian heritage, had flagpoles decorating the arrival dock, carrying the Canadian, Québec, and Acadian flags.

Day 7 guests with canada flags

© Danny Catt

Île aux Loups has a splendid long beach with a boardwalk above, and soon this was populated with passengers, several on the ship’s bicycles. Beach walking in the rough tidal waves was rampant. Those who elected to take the bus journey across the island to L’Etang-du-Nord were able to get in some shopping at a ‘strip mall’ consisting of a row of single lobstering cabins.

Throughout the day, the sounds of preparation for the Canada Day celebrations—French country music!—were heard in the town’s arena. By late afternoon, the weather, perhaps in true Canadian fashion, had become unpredictable, and although there was an invitation by the town to the adventurers to join in, it was decided to suspend the Zodiac runs over to the town, which allowed the Ocean Endeavour to entertain itself, which it was highly qualified to do.

Day 7 Magdalen Islands

© Dennis Minty

Recap was interrupted by the arrival of a trolley bearing the Canada Day cake, in the form of a Canadian flag the size of a suitcase. There was a spontaneous singing of the national anthem, some patriotic poetry, and the promise that the following evening there would be entertainment provided by the passengers on a Canadian theme. Father and son Bourque got a Québec kitchen party going, and then with, half an hour left of Canada Day, the aft top deck filled with those passengers still awake to witness the fireworks. They were treated to a worthy display. It was an unforgettable closing vision on a truly historic day.

Day 8 – Sunday, July 2

Chéticamp, Cape Breton

Coordinates: 46°38'N 61°00'W

Weather: Not quite gale force

Blowing in the Wind

It was a short crossing due southeast from the Magdalan Islands to Cape Breton, the northern island of Nova Scotia. Chéticamp, which is considered an Acadian capital, is a fishing village on the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton’s west coast and it sits at the western entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Despite the rain (and it did indeed later clear up), here again the community were there in force with a hail fellow well met, and packed lunches laid out, assisting with the landing amid the fishing boats in Chéticamp Harbour.

The two gentlemen helping out were both crab fishers, and in conversation with the shore party happily admitted to having the best season of their lives. It was a season for the making of millionaires after so many years of a fishing industry heading for the bottom.

Day 8 walking cape breton

© Dennis Minty

Buses left from Chéticamp for the short trip north to Highlands National Park and the starting points of the Acadian and Skyline trails, where Parks Canada guides were standing by. Soon the group taking the Skyline Loop were within the boreal forest. At a stopping point, where a section of the spruce trees had been planted by Adventure Canada passengers the year before, the growth rate was noted. All the trees were doing well.

There is a moment on that trail when the forest falls away and the view opens out as a boardwalk snakes slowly downward, with resting spots along the way. Without the cover of trees, the full force of the wind was able to play with the hikers, and many photographs were
taken of people braced at impossible angles with their grins pulled back, and their laughter blown out to sea.

Day 8 lookout Cape Breton

© Dennis Minty

Those adventurers who remained in Chéticamp had stories of meeting hookers—by which they meant practitioners of the traditional rug hooking craft for which the area is a centre. It is said that if you cannot play the fiddle at birth, you had best leave Cape Breton. Clearly the musicians who came aboard later in the day and entertained the returning passengers were Cape Breton-born and -bred. The passengers got their second wind, as it were, and the party lasted longer than had been planned, but all were happy to prolong.

Day 9 – Monday, July 3

Garia Bay, Newfoundland

Coordinates: 47°39'N 58°35'W

Weather: If it isn’t foggy now, it will be

Fog and hot chocolate

With the finger tip of Cape Breton in our wake, we passed St. Paul Island just after a particularly beautiful sunset and headed northeast to make the south shore of Newfoundland overnight. By breakfast, we were still a few hours off but there was a trio of morning lectures to choose from. Many attended the presentation with hotel manager Eckart, in which the sheer statistics and logistics of feeding the adventurers were rather staggering.

Day 9 accordian player benoit bourque saint lawrence

© Victoria Polsoni

The weather report for that region of the south shore in summer is, "If it isn’t foggy now, it will be", and we anchored off our destinastion, Garia Bay, with the fog swirling. There was once a fishing village in Garia Bay, noted by adventurer James Cook in his travels, and at its peak there were almost 200 inhabitants. By 1911, however, the population was six, and the village was abandoned that year.

Again here, there were three choices. The majority of the passengers opted to go ashore, disembarking skillfully onto wet rock from the Zodiacs in a small inlet. From there, the choice was a hike to a lookout point or a tour of the al fresco information fair; several of the staff experts had set up knowledge points for adventurers to peruse and meander between.

Day 9 garia bay newfoundland

© Victoria Polsoni

Those cruising the bay in the Zodiacs were there and then gone from sight to those ashore, as the fog lifted and fell like a theatre curtain, revealing and masking the half dozen remote summer homes in the bay. And, in a Zodiac looking like a pirate vessel, flying a blue sail, Eckart and several of the crew went about dispensing hot chocolate—with an optional shot of Irish cream. This was particularly welcomed by the handful of passengers and staff who had bravely plunged into the bay’s icy waters for a polar dip.

Day 9 Zodiac cruise garia bay

© Victoria Polsoni

In the evening the Nautilus Lounge became a cross between a vaudeville theatre and a literary event, as the hidden talents of the adventurers came to the surface in the variety show. Poetry, guitar recitals, marvellously silly songs, recitations, and genuinely moving moments were a cocktail of delights.

Day 10 – Tuesday, July 4

Saint-Pierre

Coordinates: 46°46'N 56°10'W

Weather: Truly lovely

Vive la France

After a morning of action both inside and out, of wildlife on a screen and in real life (including whales and dolphins) we docked at Saint-Pierre at two o’clock. We were sur la France, which is French for on French soil—or rather, rock. A full slate of adventures had been prepared, including a nature walk and a photography excursion.

The islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, which are a mere twenty-five kilometres from the Newfoundland coast, were made a French possession in 1536 by Cartier. Already frequented by Mi’kmaw, Basques, and Breton fishermen, the islands were permanently settled at the end of the seventeenth century. The islands see-sawed between Britain and France, but since 1816 they have been French, joined by families from the nearby Newfoundland.

Day 10 colourful boats and houses in saint pierre france

© Dennis Minty

During prohibition in the United States in the 1920s, smuggling was (and still may be) a
growth industry on the islands. In a referendum in 1958, the islands were given three choices: becoming fully integrated with France, becoming a self-governing state within the French Community, or preserving the status of overseas territory; they decided to remain a territory.

Boulevard music on the dockside greeted the adventurers as they came down the gangway, several of the French-Canadians singing along to Charles Aznavour. Ferried into the port of Saint-Pierre either by shuttle or under their own steam, the passengers then enjoyed a day in a French ambiance, working in Euros. Stepping into one of the several cafes, patisseries, or delicatessens meant being greeting by a veritable cornucopia of sensory delights from the old country.

Day 10 Saint Pierre

© Dennis Minty

There was a poignant ambiance in the Nautilus Lounge that evening, once all were back aboard. This was the last night of Mighty Saint Lawrence, 2017. There was music from the estimable Bourques and staff member Phil, and Benoit and Phil premiered a song they had written on the voyage, Together in Adventure.

And there were testimonials from the adventurers themselves. A quote from one of
them is a fitting end to this log:

“Canada is an ark, a ship of state that takes people from all over the world, and they, together with the Indigenous peoples, endeavour to live and care together. That is the true, great Canadian adventure. Adventure Canada, her voyages aboard this ship, is a metaphor for the Canadian Adventure, and together we have proved these last ten days that it is working.”

About the Author

Phil Jenkins

Phil Jenkins

Writer, Musician, and Historian

Since 1978, after emigrating from Liverpool and returning to Ottawa where he grew up in the 1950s, Phil Jenkins has worked as a newspaper columnist, travel writer, author, and a performing songwriter across Canada.

He is also a prolific author who has written a number of award-winning non-fiction bestsellers about Canada, including Fields of Vision: A Journey to Canada’s Family Farms, An Acre of Time, and River Song: Sailing the History of the Saint Lawrence.

Phil teaches and lectures in writing, the Canadian landscape, and Ottawa history, including a lecture series at Carleton University. He lives in a straw bale house in the Gatineau Hills of Québec on the Gatineau River, where he swims or snowshoes daily, depending on the temperature.