Sunday, July 9, 2006
The authorities are looking for me. When I came up off the dock this morning the woman in the information booth asked if I was the one in the boat that was tied off down there. When I told her "yes," she said that the canal police had stopped by to enquire about the boat and directed her to inform its owner that he should report in to the personnel at the first lock downstream. For the past four days and nights, Kobuk has stayed put. I have not been around much and even when on board I usually was tucked away up in the bunk sound asleep. Evidently, in the suspicious eyes of the police the scene is beginning to get that abandoned look. I have heard that when the canal was restored, all sorts of large scale detritus was dredged out, things like automobiles and refrigerators and heavy machinery. For years, Montrealers passed on apocryphal stories about how hitmen from the Mafia would stuff corpses into old cars and then roll them off into the stagnant waters of the canal. All the stuff that was sculled up during the restoration process probably only added circumstantial substance to the myth. Maybe the police are just as susceptible as everyone else to the anxiety provoked by urban myths of this sort. Anyway, hanging questions about Kobuk will be answered later in the day when I set out for Quebec City and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Once again, I recruited strangers to accompany me through the locks, first a man and his son who were out rollerblading and then a couple men who were out on a bicycle ride. I kept asking solitary people unencumbered by sports equipment, but they seemed unsure about boarding a boat with a stranger and so in the end it was teams that came to my rescue. Every time I managed to find assistance I would make an estimate of how long the process would take and always it proved to be an underestimate by an embarrassing margin. Nobody seemed to mind, but I wonder why it is that clearing one of these little locks takes so long. So slow was the entire process that the day was in decline by the time Kobuk had at last escaped from the Lachine Canal.
The canal deposited us in the cavernous turning basin of Montreal's port. Massive concrete jetties loomed up on all sides and and a towering freighter was maneuvering over towards one of them. Kobuk and I headed out through the access slot, passed by the great long jetties next to Vieux Montreal, and got ourselves into the tumultuous flow of the St. Lawrence, which was just beginning to recover from its desperate descent through the reefs of the Lachine Rapids. The waters of the giant river eddied and swirled and carried us away downstream with the city on our left.
As is often the case near large cities, the waters were impossibly rough. Urban river banks are rarely natural and their unforgiving geometry receives waves only to cast them out again. These reflections of reality are like wandering zombies that never completely die. They silently collide and then pass on, hurriedly going nowhere, giving the waters a surface confusion that reaches epic proportions, especially on a sunny Sunday afternoon when so many pleasure boats are out buzzing around. There is irony in the fact that all this jumble of unpredictability is an exercise in self-flaggelation. The large ocean-going ships make waves that are so big and broad that anyone can float over them like a baby rocking whereas the smaller craft churn up such nasty little furrows that other small craft sometimes feel as if they are being attacked by a platoon of speed bumps that have decided to march down the road.
At last we left behind the built up city and got to where, once again, any moving thing is something of an event. Broad river waters little disturbed this late in the day, distant riverbanks swathed in forest darkness, a small white string of shorefront homes sheltered under the generous trees--this was what now became the world around us. The memory of Montreal, strident and insistent at first, gradually retreated into the little box from whence it might be called out at a later time and in a different place.
We took shelter for the night in the little square harbor of Vercheres. Its vertically-faced, stone embankments seemed unusually high for the small amount of space that they enclosed, but when you're talking about harbors it is foolish to complain about too much protection. The little floating docks inside the harbor were in advanced stages of disrepair but this did not concern the users of the place. Most small boat harbors are graveyards where polished yachts lie in silent splendor more or less intimidating into silence the few yachtsmen who might be about. But here the traffic was terrific. Boats constantly were entering or exiting the harbor, were being tied up or launched. There was a congestion of small boats actually out on the water and people were constantly talking with each other--in French, no less.
Only after sunset did all this activity come to an end. The people drifted away and a hush descended on the harbor. When I looked around I was amazed to see that Kobuk was one of the largest and most elaborate boats in there. What a novelty. Kobuk ordinarily is one of the smallest boats to be seen in a yacht harbor. For her to look so large gave me the uncomfortable feeling of belonging to the idle rich.
Vercheres Harbor: 45* 46,726' N / 73* 21.388' W
Distance: 24 miles
Total Distance: 3,675 miles
Monday, July 10, 2006
The small town of Vercheres has a park down next to the water and in it stands a statue on a pedestal. The statue is large, for even its pedestal rises to above your head, and it depicts a fourteen year old girl whose name was Vercheres. I think the town must have been named after her or her family. In any event. the plaque honoring her memory explains that in the 1600's there was a small fort located here. Madamoiselle Vercherez was in it one day with her two younger brothers, an old man, and two soldiers. No one else was about when a band of Iroquois attacked. The young girl took command of the fort and successfully orchestrated its defence--at least I assume her efforts were successful since the plaque gave no hint of failure which in any event probably would have precluded any historical knowledge of her courage. The statue depicts a handsome figure, attired in rather masculine clothes and standing with her back archly erect. At first, you would mistake her for a sort of Orlando Bloom kind of man, but closer examination reveals her true sexual identity. I unintentionally convey the idea that the girl is portrayed in an unflattering way; in fact, the figure in the statue has the sort of lithe muscularity that is appealing regardless of sex. Besides, I would not be in the least surprised if I were to learn that Madamoiselle Vercheres was somewhat less photogenic than this artistic interpretation in stone. I imagine that if she were here today to see the statue in her honor she would be rather ambivalent--pleased on the one hand to be honored for her achievement but somewhat chagrined to think that the interpretation of her physical appearance should make such a mockery of reality. Still, the spirit of the memorial is essentially good and it is wonderful to think that a town might have been named for a heroic fourteen year old girl.
The St. Lawrence is a broad, broad river, like the Mississippi only the water is cleaner. You might even be willing to drink it--as long as you don't stop to think about what is upstream from here. Through its entire course, the St. Lawrence is a very straight running river. Some people feel that travelling directly from A to B is less interesting than spending time meandering this way and that, but in spite of my lack of a schedule I do like knowing that at the end of the day I actually have gotten somewhere. In fact, when reaching a destination is not so important, the prospect of seemingly endless travel only to reach an unimportant place seems at times to be an unnecessary irritant. In any event, Kobuk has been running down this wide channel with only trivial deviations to left and right. It is a refreshing change after the lengthy zigs and zags of the Trent Severn--first four hours northeast, then three hours south, then a couple hours north-northeast, etc. Such indirectness wears on one and by comparison the St. Lawrence is a river that tells the truth.
After a morning of motoring along in the heat and the haze of a July day, however, it was a pleasing change to actually arrive at the industrial city of Sorel where the Richelieu River comes up from the south and joins the St. Lawrence. If we were to turn right here, we could be in New York city in less than two weeks. Just as with the St. Lawrence, this is a very straight course. Go south on the Richelieu and you run down through Lake Champlain, Lake George, and the Hudson River following a course that is at least as straight as the most purposeful of interstate highways. It is a lovely route, a slash of blue cutting through the Appalachians, but I am set on the long way around and so New York will have to wait a few months.
The weather was exceptionally good nearly all the time I was in Montreal and it continues now to be well above average. Starting yesterday, however, the clear skies became less vivid as a smoky haze and sultry stillness descended on the landscape. Today is the same and as Kobuk slipped by the maze of islands just downstream from Sorel I felt as if the need for attention to navigation was done for the day. Those islands marked the entrance to Lac St. Pierre and once they were behind us the still waters of the lake were a sedative. The river banks to each side receded into the distance and the open water up ahead disappeared over the horizon. The minutes slipped by, and then the hours, and I sat at the helm driving a straight course. I was comfortable with the monotony but it turned me dissolute, as a backrub might do, and eventually my chin dropped down and my drooping eyelids began to blink in slow motion, like those of a child who is resisting sleep.
That is when a deep-throated horn sounded behind me, long and loud. I jerked to attention and looked around to see a giant freighter coming up behind, so near that her foreward topsides were masked by Kobuk's canvas bimini. I was staring at a mass of rusty steel rolling up a bow wave as big as Kobuk. Three seconds of paralytic panic before I finally grabbed the toggle switch and started to turn Kobuk perpendicular to her previous course. By then I had come to realize that we would not be hit, that there would be enough time to get out of the way, and that the abrupt course alteration of this little boat had just given a skipper his entertainment for the day. After the ship had passed, I carried on in her wake like a chastened puppy.
Trois Rivieres Harbor: 46* 21.237' N / 72* 30.994' W
Distance: 62 miles
Total Distance: 3,737 miles
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
The Gulf of St. Lawrence! The heart beats a little stronger and the blood circulates a little faster at the thought of salt water. It will mean that at last, after many months and many miles, Kobuk will finally reach the sea. Already this river is such in name only for it rises and falls with the tides and its current gets reversed whenever the tide is coming in. One may think it obvious where the boundary lies between fluvial and marine waters, but in fact the two wage an endless struggle for dominance over a territory that extends well upstream and way out to sea. In the case of the St. Lawrence, the playing field is particularly large. At Trois Rivieres there was already a noticeable tide and yet Quebec City, which is 80 miles downstream, still is in the river. I do not know how far out into the gradually flaring estuary beyond there we will have to travel before tasting salt water. The thing is that salt water is heavier and when the tides come in they sweep in under the surface flow of fresh water.
I wish it were as simple as that. In fact, the downstream speed of the surface flow is subject to the speed at which the tide flows in or out. Whenever the tide is coming in it counters the natural river flow and can actually reverse it. Whenever the tide is going out its speed accelerates the rate at which the river waters make their way to the sea. I wish I could understand how the tides can do this without turning the surface waters brackish. I'll have to look into it.
Today during the run to Portneuf the final stretch was a passage through a zone referred to as the Richelieu Rapids. This as a section of the river that has boulders and rocks thickly scattered to each side of the main channel. At low tide they are mostly exposed but at high tide they are all submerged. The channel is well marked so navigating through is not difficult. If you are inattentive, though, and wander outside the channel you are likely to have an unfortunate encounter with some rocks. This will not be pleasant if the tide is ebbing as it was when Kobuk passed through. Because of the collaboration between the river current and the tidal flow, Kobuk's usual speed of six miles per hour under Yamaha power was more than doubled as we passed down the channel. We were moving at 14-15 miles per hour in a boiling, slithering rush of foam-flecked flow. Keeping Kobuk pointed downstream when so many eddys and whirlpools are nudging her this way and that was not was not so impossible but it did require constant attention.
The sedate speeds talked about here must seem innocuous to one accustomed to modern transport, but the sheer magnitude of the St. Lawrence makes this pace of movement seem otherworldly. It would be as if Mount Everest began sliding in your direction at only a few miles per hour. Talk all you want about how slow this is and how when the mountain gets here you can just sort of step up onto its flank, like onto a moving escalator--the fact is that you would be alert to its arrival.
And yet, the tide is a powerful force too. When it is flowing here, locals tell me, the current through the Richelieu Rapids actually is reversed! I happened to pass through on an ebb tide and this left me astounded that Jacques Cartier had ever gotten up through here in the first place, but of course he was astute enough to await a flowing tide. Even so, sailing up though this narrow channel in a square rigged ship must have required a favorable wind.
Every place I stop for the night leaves an imprint on my memory. For the little village of Portneuf, that memory will be of a blonde haired lass named Emilie who bounded down to the dock to take the line when Kobuk drew near. She was the port attendant and although she was only small town pretty she had the sort of smile that makes you feel the world is a better place than it really is. It sounds trite to say, but she enjoyed her work and seemed to have no more cherished thought than to help me settle in for the night. Somehow, the intake grating for the jet drive had become fouled as I came into harbor and I had to clear it. I really think that if I had asked she would have been willing to assist me with the unpleasant task of diving in foul harbor water to clear out the weeds--not because of me but because she likes helping out. I am chagrined to say that if I had thought of it at the time I might actually have stooped so low.
Portneuf Harbor: 46* 40.990' N / 71* 52.741' W
Distance: 40 miles
Total Distance: 3,777 miles
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Ever since Trois Rivieres, the land beyond the riverbanks has begun to rise up out of the water. Until then, the St. Lawrence was bounded by lowlands and the transition from water to land was more a matter of color change than anything else--from a broad expanse of blue to a thin line of arboreal green that did little more than demarcate a boundary between water and sky. The 1000 Islands were an exception of sorts for there the bedrock outcrops gave a small sense of mass above water level. Also, upon leaving Cornwall there were a few short hours when rounded hillocks far to the south, darkened blue in the distant haze, hinted at the Adirondack upland. That soon disappeared from sight, though, and thereafter the thin green band flecked with homes and cottages has constantly been the terrestrial view. But now the land is rising. Everywhere one looks, bluffs and steeply sloping shoulders drop off into the river. Homes are forced to make a choice: either stand up proud on the skyline where the vistas are grand but the water is down below, or nestle in at the base of this abruptly rising land and enjoy a more intimate communion with the river. Often it is both, leaving a swath of sharply sloping and unspoiled forest between two separate lines of settlement.
Between Portneuf and Quebec city the river channel is broad and the the waters outside the channel safe for small boats. I could steer Kobuk with outrageous disregard for accuracy since a heading even seriously off course would be corrected and assisted by the fast moving waters. The only real hazard was that of becoming so inattentive as to bear down on one of the massive iron channel buoys standing up out of the water, green to starboard and red to port. They were so large and colorful, though, that I would have had to be utterly derelict at the helm for Kobuk to hit one.
Quebec City lies on the northeast shore of the St. Lawrence and there is naught but a ferry across to the small city of Levis on the other side. There is a bridge, but it is about ten miles upstream from the metropolitan area at a place where the two riverbanks pinch up close to each other. Only as Kobuk approached that bridge did any sorts of complications arise. As is usually the case with narrow passages that have obstructions, the wind became unpredictable, blowing vigorously directly at us instead of gently from behind. The current of the river of course increased and the countering wind began to create a chop on which Kobuk slapped herself time and again, sending up thin sheets of spray that wetted down the foredeck and created rivulets on the windscreen. It was minor, though--nothing like the day of pounding into bigger waves when we headed east from Mackinac Island--and it only lasted until we had passed under the bridge. It served as a reminder that whatever goes around comes around. Back on Lake Michigan in late May I was complaining regularly about the fact that every day we had to face headwinds, but now we have run the entirety of the St. Lawrence with a tailwind all the way. This little incident at the bridge was, I should imagine, intended as a reminder that I should be grateful for how lucky we have been.
Quebec City is a classic European citadel, a fortress on a hilltop with a precipitous drop to the water on the side that fronts the St. Lawrence. From a boat you view it as you would a passing flock of Canada Geese: you look up and gawk. The ancient walls remain in place but --even when viewed from water level--they are dwarfed by a towering assemblage of imposing buildings from bygone centuries that rise behind them, lassooed together by the encircling ramparts. Each building is a gothic cathedral thrusting to the sky. They shoot up like saplings competing for sunlight and their steep-sloped roofs accentuate the effect. Their gingerbread adornment makes you think of Britain and France in the golden age of colonialism but their verticality is twenty-first century. Standing supreme among the buildings is the Chateau Frontenac, a gray stone building with a complexity of cuprous green roofing. It is oddly exhilarating to see such a traditional building rise ever higher without spreading out. And what a roof! Its rise over run looks as if it must be in the double digits, and that means all the upper storeys receive their natural light through tier upon tier of dormer windows. It is as if Walt Disney designed this place while listening to Wagner.
It all depends on the green roof. Without it, the Chateau would be grand building without a trademark. This inspirational use of oxydized copper has become a Canadian icon. I can think of nowhere else in the world where such powerful effect is achieved so directly with the design of a roof. Throughout the city now there are buildings that have copied the angular pitch and aquamarine color, copied it so well that they look like a gaggle of goslings all vieing for their mother's attention. The old Canadian Pacific hotels all had this distinctive look to their roofs, but none of the others had roofs so daringly bold and steep as here. It is ironic, in a way, for the ongoing Anglo-Canadian quest has been to identify something clear and unequivocal that can stand as a symbol of the way the country differs from the United States. These green roofs are the logical icon, and yet the archetypical one is here in Quebec, at the heart of the province least in need of establishing a separate identity.
Port of Quebec: 46* 49.127' N / 71* 12.512' W
Distance: 38 miles
Total Distance: 3,815 miles
Thursday, July 13, 2006
You're somewhere north of Mexico and you are in a full-blown city that has streets so narrow that cars can hardly pass. When you look around you find that many of those streets are paved in brick or cobblestone, and do not look as if this was done for effect. Houses seem to have been built hundreds of years ago. Further examination of your surroundings reveals the fact that there are walls around the city and that you can only pass through them in a few locations where ancient portals were originally installed or in newer locations where a slot has been cut. You find that the city is actually three cities--one an ancient hilltop retreat, one an equally ancient center of commerce located at the river's edge far below the lofty citadel, and one a nearby cluster of modern buildings in which public and private enterprises jostle for postion. I think there is only one answer to the puzzle: Quebec City. There is simply no other place in North America that is like Quebec City--an orphan child of medieval Europe that has grown to maturity. It is no wonder that many French Canadians think the province could thrive as an independent country: its capital city is too felicitous a blend of the traditional and the modern to think anything else. The rest of Canada has nothing so distinctive. If Quebec were still poor and backward as it used to be then the weight of practicality would counter such nationalistic sentiment, but the reality is that Quebec City has money to spend--and whenever you have money you think you know what you are doing.
Kobuk and I had taken refuge in the municipal marina, which is located as close as you can get to the upper and lower cities without leaving the water. Getting into the marina is a bit of a production because you have to go through a lock, but once you're in a great long lake extends in front of you with a large turning basin next to the lock gate and a wedge of successively smaller docks extending into the distance. No matter where you end up parked, you are in the shadow of the downtown.
The lock exists to ensure that water in the harbor will be always deep enough to keep afloat the grandest of private yachts. Nobody complains as loud or as long as a disgruntled rich guy so there has been plenty of incentive to insure that the harbor will meet their needs. High tide is captured in this harbor and then released back into the river in as miserly a fashion as possible. As boats come and go through the lock between high tides, water from the harbor gets depleted by the many openings and closings of the lock gates. Even so, the water loss is sufficiently small that by the time the next high tide arrives there still remains sufficient water to keep everything afloat. There are an awful lot of boats in here, though, and if ever they all decided to leave at the same time their effect on the harbor would be not unlike the consequences for a bank if all customers were to close out their accounts on the same day.
But today Kobuk had to carry that burden of worry without my presence for I was off to tour the city with hardly a thought for what might be happening in the marina. Plenty there is to see and do in a place like this, but I became waylaid by the simple antics of the many street buskers. Street musicians were a commonplace that turned hardly a head in the herds of tourists, but a street performer never failed to draw a crowd. Juggling, traditional southeast Asian dance, gymnastics to music, magicians--it didn't matter what it was--there was always a ring of onlookers watching to see what would come next. It must be a hard life, though. These performers survive on donations from the crowd, but as their routines would draw to a close the audience would melt away in advance. Nobody wanted to be the last one standing there.
Friday, July 14, 2006
The heat of the day was terrific. It hardly seemed possible that this city north of Maine could behave like New York, but the sun shone down through a sky flecked with puffy clouds and the humid air smothered everybody with its steamy stillness. I had thought that the farther along the St. Lawrence I got the cooler the days would be, but this stickiness is reminiscent of last summer's heat wave on the Missouri. People assured me that this was abnormal, but I did notice that many of the shops here have air conditioning.
In the afternoon I was making my way from the walled city down to the old district by the waterside. The drop is precipitous and the street angles steeply across it. There is an overlook and I stopped there to view the distant blue mountains arrayed like moldy haystacks along the north shore that stretches downstream from the city. Unlike Montreal where the Laurentians are out of sight--a nearby retreat that only comes into view when you approach them--here in Quebec City the mountains are at hand and appear to grow with distance. With this as the vista and the city's old port district at your feet, one feels somehow immersed in two worlds simultaneously: Old World civil down below and New World primeval on the horizon.
As I paused to take it all in, an old man came walking by, erect and sprightly with a glint in his eye. He spoke to me in french and when I confessed my linguistic ignorance he admonished me for it. His tone implied that he meant nothing serious but I imagine that that was mere subtlety. Nevertheless, he stopped and asked me about my bicycle. This led to more extended discussion that was a banter orchestrated by him. He took particular pleasure in teasing me about how rich I am with my yacht and with so much time on my hands, and I felt compelled to needle him back by concurring. I had no control over the direction of the conversation. He spoke quickly and would shift from subject to subject with alarming abruptness. Eventually, though, he settled on a single theme about which he grew ever more animated: the dreadful evil being done in the world by my George Bush. He excoriated the man, imputing the worst of motives to everything he has done and occasionally bemoaning the terrible suffering that he has caused throughout the world (by which he meant Afghanistan and Pakistan). I let him talk himself out and we parted on friendly terms.
This is the third time that I have had a Canadian lecture me on the horrors of the Bush regime. Each has displayed a visceral hatred of the man and each would brook no dialogue. Each struck me as being a reasonably mild-mannered and (on all other subjects) well-mannered individual. But where did this ferocity come from? It is altogether unCanadian. I have never known Canadians to take their politics as seriously as Americans do. Usually they treat political shenanigans as no more than the inevitable consequence of putting power in the hands of little people. They care about national and international affairs but generally treat them as being the product of ungovernable forces lying somewhat beyond the reach of human reason and human will. But this presumption that I, when I get home, should immediately dispose of this monster implies a level of political activism that I had always thought Canadians would view askance. Bush, it seems, is more than a mere politician. He is an embodiment of evil that must, like Hitler, be rooted out. I know the Canadian view is widely held around the world but fanaticism is fanaticism, and I am not convinced that Bush is so inhuman as to be deserving of it. That he is a bad president motivated by selfish aims is something I am prepared to consider. That he is Darth Vader with a Texas accent is a little harder to me to take seriously.
Saturday, July 15, 2006
This city must have more museums per capita than any place in North America. It was not possible to visit them all and so in mid-afternoon I prepared to depart. There is a harbor at the little town of Anse Saint-Michel just a few hours downstream from here so the plan was to make the most of the day here in Quebec City and then set off for a less expensive mooring before it got too late. "Too late" is not a reference to the onset of night; it is a tidal consideration. The ebbing tide probably will turn at Anse Saint-Michel around seven thirty, and after that downstream travel will be painfully slow unless the main engine is pressed into service. I prepared to leave at four, but complications arose. The sky turned dark and a thunderstorm threatened. I watched it carefully for a while and finally concluded that it would be passing us by. Once this was settled, I felt free to remove the zip-on curtains that keep out (some of) the rain and afford a little privacy in a yacht harbor. After everything was stowed and I was out in the turning basin, the wind picked up and the thunderstorm veered our way. Whilst waiting for the lock to open, the sharp gusts of wind began to sweep Kobuk towards lee hazards. I compensated by opening the throttle on the engine and steering into the gusts. This is when I discovered that the jet drive was clogged and that full throttle was hardly enough to keep any forward progress against the squall. If the bow veered away from the wind, the lack of power in the jet drive would hardly be enough to get the bow into the storm again, and by then we would be approaching some sort of hazard like a moored boat or a rock embankment. While all this was going on, I was trying to get the curtains back up. Whenever I left the helm, the bow would fall off and Kobuk would run downwind. Then when I got back up into the cabin to rectify that problem the rain would pour in the back of the boat. Finally, I decided to aim for an empty slip that was a short distance upwind. We did eventually make it, but mostly by grace of the fact that the wind was beginning to abate.
As the storm scudded off into the distance, I tied Kobuk to somebody else's slip and took a swim to clear the jet drive. That process went well enough but when at last Kobuk was back out in the harbor there seemed to be a problem with the lock for it had still had not opened. We wandered aimlessly waiting for something to happen and when at last the lock gates swung wide the pen was jammed with boats. I don't know how many had been stuffed in there, but boats were rafted to each other four and five across and there must have been an equal number of such rows. Each had to cast off from its neighbor and motor out before the next one could do the same. It was a long process and by the time Kobuk finally got into the lock nearly two hours had expired.
When finally set free, Kobuk romped on downstream assisted by the ebbing tide. Stormlets swept over us bringing wind and rain, and dropping curtains on the visibility, but they would scurry by, leaving us once again under a metal sky with the darkened profile of Quebec City silently receding astern. The trip to Anse Saint-Michel was unexpectedly quick--for the ebb tide current was running as if someone had pulled the plug and the Great Lakes were about to drain away--but in the end we were still a little late getting to Anse Saint-Michel. Our pace slackened inexorably and then the flow was against us. By then, though, the little rockwalled harbor was in sight and so we just gritted our teeth and kept on plugging.
The harbormaster at Anse Saint-Michel is a lean, angular, bemused man named Meisseur Gagnon. His English is better than my French, but still not so advanced as to permit confidence in any conversation regarding practical nautical matters. Still, he reassured me that if I were to proceed to Saint-Jean-Port-Joli I would find that I would be able to get into the harbor at low tide and not have to wait a few hours as my cruising guide indicates. I do not know which is the better source of information: it makes sense to put more stock in local knowledge but it is also hard to know when one is engaging in wishful thinking. Nonetheless, in the end I decided that Mr. Gagnon probably was right and that I would head there in the morning. Even if he was wrong, after all, it would only be a matter of hanging around at the harbor entrance for a few hours.
By the time Kobuk was properly secured and prepped for the evening, it was getting dark. I walked up to the restaurant attached to the port office and had a spaghetti dinner sitting on the porch with a view out over the river. An attractive, dark-haired young man who had helped me secure Kobuk when I came into port was the only other person there and he invited me to join him. We sat in the half light watching the river go dark and talking of things nautical. He lives in Quebec City but keeps his boat here where there is real country peace and where the river is more like the ocean. He is a hydrogeologist who loves his work but adores his weekends. He has that sailor's irrational attachment to his boat and he clearly believes that his girlfriend and their soon-to-arrive son will be similarly smitten. If he is correct, he should have a wonderful life.
Marina Anse Saint-Michel: 46* 52.691' N / 70* 54,523' W
Distance: 18 miles
Total Distance: 3,833 miles
Sunday, July 16, 2006
Although I did not know it when I arrived, Anse Saint-Michel has a reputation as one of the most picturesque Quebec villages. In the morning while awaiting the favorable tide, I cycled through the town and its charm was such that I kept forgetting to pedal. Quebec towns--and especially ones near the St. Lawrence--are strips of settlement along a single road, more thickly concentrated near the church where most of the shops and public buildings position themselves. Then the homes, at first side-by-side, gradually taper to occasionality as you move in one direction or another away from the center. Of course there are side streets, and maybe even one or two others parallel to the main if the town is big enough, but the heart of the town is nearly always linear. It is almost as if the archtypical design for a Quebec village was conceptualized in two dimensions instead of three.
On this summer Sunday morning, there was a flea market in the city park next to the polished pewter church. Little makeshift tables and stands overburdened with the most improbable of items were attracting droves of locals. Fifty years ago, they all would have been in the church. The sun was radiant and her benign rays filtered down into the park through the outstretched arms of the scattered trees. It was neither hot in the sun nor cool in the shade so the flea market activity was expansive and unconstrained around the park's perimeter. Everybody knew everybody else, of course, so the conversations were as often public as they were private. A small town that is actually living? What a joy.
When you travel downstream in this estuary, the tide is the thing. You leave at high tide and hope to reach your destination before slack tide. That is a six hour window, but it is actually less than six hours because your trip is taking you to a place that receives its tidal minimum (and maximum) the better part of an hour earlier than the place you left. Here is the problem: the tides are so great in this area that very few harbors are accessible when it is low. The inside of a harbor typically will be conscientiously dredged to insure that the docks and slips have enough water to float the boats and that the channel to them can accomodate their movement. The problem is at the entrance where, dredge as you will, it is almost impossible to clear away the muddy bottom as fast as the river puts it there. This, then, is the question regarding the port of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli: Who is ahead in the game, the river or the dredges?
Kobuk and I found our answer when we arrived. It was low tide but the current was still flowing quickly out to sea and the shallows surrounding the harbor were lumpy with chunks of water being shepherded on their way. I prepared Kobuk for entrance into the harbor by attaching lines and fenders, but as I approached the narrow, rock-walled entrance I could see a sailboat sitting there mid-channel. At first I thought the vessel was just slow or indecisive, but eventually I realized that he was stuck. When I maneuvered in close, I could look a little past this unfortunate and see around the curving bend of the entrance channel to where two more hulls were caught in the mud. And beside them only a few feet away the muddy bottom of the harbor swept up out of the deliciously still water like the glistening back of a whale. But over to the other side of those more distant hulls was a narrow stretch of evil looking water that was bounded on both sides by mud flats that were mere inches above water level. I pondered the situation as Kobuk constantly struggled to keep position in the jumbled, fast-moving waters outside the entrance. When to be prudent and when to be bold? The answer, of course, depends on the outcome--which is no help at all when deciding between the two. Eventually, it was discomfort that decided me. I didn't relish two or three hours of wallowing around using gas to maintain position and finally concluded that as long as I aimed well enough to avoid hitting the rocks at the entrance or one of the other three boats the worst that could happen would be a muddy grounding and a wait for deeper water in a boat that was no longer bouncing around like an excited child.
I pulled up the outboard and headed in. As I passed by the three stranded hulls, the pitiful remaining strand of black water narrowed down to boat width and I could hear a hollow sound coming from the jet drive that always means it is sucking something besides water. We slowed noticeably so I pushed the throttle and we inched along like a limousine spinning its tires to make way along a muddy track. After one or two eternities had passed, the reassuring sound of deeper water drifted forward and shortly thereafter we began to accelerate. I found the nearest dock and tied to it.
These little harbors are always at their worst at low tide. They enclose limited space with piled stone jetties or with vertically faced corrugated metal walls that because of the tidal range rear up all around you tens of feet, blocking the view of anything beyond their dank, algal surfaces. In this case the view was particularly dismal because the basin was more filled with mud than it was with water. All the boats were stranded in a corner of the harbor where docks and deeper water could be found. It was, in effect, a tide pool--but not a very pretty one. But then, when the water comes up the view improves and most of the ugliness is drowned. Change is always nice.
Marina Saint-Jean-Port-Joli: 47* 12.910 N / 70* 16.393 W
Distance: 39 miles
Total Distance: 3,872 miles
Monday, July 17, 2006
Saint-Jean-Port-Joli is home for a colony of artists who like to work in wood. Numerous workshop-studios are scattered along its avenue the form that the wood ends up taking can be anything from near-totem sized statues to carved figurines to ship replicas to avant garde abstracts using wood and stone together. Evidently, it all started with a single carver and a single ship model replicator. They used to hawk their artistic creations to passing motorists who were on their way to the Gaspe. Others came to town to learn from these two pioneers and then the presence of a few specialists in such an esoteric art form attracted others and led to this. Twice before I have come across a town whose economy is based on a single specialized art form. The first was _____ in Switzerland and it too is a repository for wood carvers. The other town, however, has more in common with Saint-Jean-Port-Joli. I do not know its name but it is on the road from Jogjakarta to Borobudur on the island of Java. It had only one main street and all the shops were lined along it, almost every one them selling stone carvings of spirits and gods. Although Saint-Jean-Port-Joli is not nearly so possessed by a single artistic activity as that town was, it has the distinct advantage of allowing far greater range of artistic expression.
This town is located on the south shore of the St. Lawrence but I am determined to pass across to the north shore where it will eventually be possible to enter the Saguenay River and explore its fjord wilderness. After that, Kobuk will have to make another crossing to get back to the south shore. Otherwise, we would end up in Labrador instead of the Gaspe and the Maritimes. At this point the estuary is about fifteen miles across; up at the confluence with the Saguenay it is about twenty. Farther on down these distances mushroom.
Fifteen or twenty miles would not be a problem if it were not for the current, the fog, and the potential for a Boeuf du Saguenay. The current means that any crossing ends up being on a diagonal that can easily double the distance. The fog, especially common on the north shore, means that it is hard to know where the big ships are and whether you are close to either a hazard or a harbor (thank God for GPS). The Boeuf du Saguenay refers to the treacherous result of a headwind pushing up seas against the flow of a fast moving current that is running in a relatively shallow area. It is used to refer to the specific event in the vicinity of the Saguenay confluence where the conditions can be so extreme, but there actually are a number of places in the St. Lawrence estuary where lesser forms of the same phenomenon frequently occur. One of those places is the Traverse de Saint-Roche, immediately downstream from here. I have seen nothing resembling this condition but locals speak of it with chin lowered and eyes peering at you from under lowered eyebrows. I am thinking of crossing over here in the vicinity of the Traverse de Saint-Roche because it would give good access to one of the very few protected harbors on the north shore between here and the Saguenay.
The tide dictates a departure time of around 11:30 AM, but when I return from bicycling around town a fog has moved in out on the river. This bank is clear of fog but a few miles out it looks thick and continuous. On the other hand, it is at least for now dead calm. Is it reasonable to expect both no fog and no wind? I am dubious, but my inclination is to put off leaving for a day in hopes that the fog will clear and the wind, if it comes, will spring up from the favored southwest. When I ask around in the harbor, though, I discover that a number of cruising sailboats are planning to make the crossing today and will be all leaving together. I decide to cross with them.
A half dozen of us set out together, although Kobuk is the only power boat. We all are motoring, however, since there is no wind. Then, a few miles from shore a breeze picks up from precisely the wrong direction and the sailboats quickly shift over to sail power. We still carry on together since our speeds are all about the same, but the sailboats are slicing neatly through the growing chop whereas poor Kobuk is throwing up spray like a temper-tantrum baby in a bathtub. Still, we progress. The fog comes and goes. Never can we see the far shore but sometimes the mist will lift in our vicinity sufficient for all of us to be mutually visible but then at other times the cold, gray blanket will settle down on us, first masking the most distant hull and then consuming all the others one by one until Kobuk and I are left alone.
We hit a shallow zone and now the waves are impossibly steep. They are not so big, but sometimes as we clear the top of one and plunge down its back side, poor Kobuk's bow ends up stabbing the next wave dead center in its oncoming face. Kobuk reacts quickly and leaps up immediately, but not fast enough to avoid shaving some of the wave off onto the bow. Water sluices across the deck and gurgles against the windshield, but Kobuk easily sheds it all and prepares for the next onslaught. Fortunately, these deformed creatures come at us in occasional sets with nothing but unpleasantly rough conditions in between. I don't think I would want to be caught by these uglies with the hull broadside.
Like a furious bronco, Kobuk corkscrews and squirrels, bucks and dives. Her motions are very lively but I have come to know her pretty well and have a good deal of confidence in her cork-like buoyancy. I have read enough sea sagas, however, to know that the best of boats can be capsized by a wave of the wrong shape and the wrong size. I do imagine that if Kobuk is ever going to turn turtle it will happen fast. I reach for the life vest and put it on the seat beside me.
Eventually, a wave comes along that gives us a dousing. Kobuk sticks her bow into it and begins to shrug it off and rise, but the amount of water was a little more than usual. Instead of stopping at the windshield it sweeps right up it and over the top into the cabin--for I have been leaving the cabin top open. Nothing like a cold shower to wake you up. While trying to steer, I close the cabin top and sponge down the dashboard area. By a stroke of good fortune, neither my camera nor the cell phone were lying on the dash where I usually keep them. The CD player and the GPS took baths, however. and it is a testimony to its quality that the GPS continued to perform flawlessly. I wish I could say the same about the CD player.
Not long after that, the worst of the conditions abate a little and we approach the north shore. The fog is thick and for some time no other boats have been visible. I feel particularly vulnerable because I know the shipping lane runs close to the north shore and I am afraid of being hit. It is like playing Russian roulette with a pistol whose revolving barrel has 100 chambers instead of six: the odds of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are not tremendously high but if a giant shape looms up out of the fog then adios. I decide that the best thing to do is run perpendicularly across the shipping lane using the big engine, a strategy that will minimize the time of exposure by increasing the speed and shortening the distance. Since this route runs along the troughs of the waves instead of directly into them, Kobuk is able to go pretty fast considering the rough conditions. We are roaring along with fog all around us and I am constantly scanning to both sides and straight ahead in order to avoid hitting or being hit. Then suddenly we break out of the fog and the massive shoulders of the Charlevoix mountains are dropping into the water no more than a quarter mile ahead. By running up close to shore, we get out of the shipping lane and into a zone where the current is light, and thus the waves are too. As I motor along the ragged edge of this stupendous landscape, a thrill of arrival courses through me, and only a few moments go by before the fleet of accompanying sailboats slips out of the fog off to starboard. Together once again, we carry on as a group up the coast towards Cap a l'-aigle. The wind dies, the water turns serene, and we all leave tiny furrows in the immense stillness.
Marina Cap a-l'aigle: 47* 39.794' N / 70* 05.769' W
Distance: 35 miles
Total Distance: 3,907 miles
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Cap a-l'aigle is a small boat harbor wrested improbably from a mountain flank. At high tide, the coast here is a straight run of tree-lined rocks that plunge into the sea. At low water, a tidal flat emerges that abruptly intersects the rocky shore and differs from it as much in texture as in slope. A little piece of the tidal flat has been barricaded in with boulders. Great round chunks of rock have been piled higher than the highest tide to create a square shaped enclosure. Within this protected area, the tidal flats have been dredged to adequate depth and floating docks installed. Because the rocks are round, they could not be piled vertically and thus the walls taper from a broad base to a narrow crest. Although the walls, with their obligatory entry channel, run around the three sides facing the water, the side facing the land of course did not have to be built. In fact, the rock piled walls do not even extend all the way to the landward edge of the tidal flat. At high tide the water can flow in not only through the normal entrance channel but also past the innermost ends of the walls themselves.
The landscape is so rugged that access to the harbor is from a rocky promontory off to one side. A boardwalk with handrails has been fitted to curve around a dynamite blasted rock face well above high tide level. When the boardwalk gets within stiking distance of the harbor, it terminates in a little observation platform, and from there a long ramp runs down to the floating docks. The harbor offices are not within the harbor; they occupy a building out of sight on the far side of the boardwalked promontory. When you are inside the harbor you can see the ramp and the boardwalk, but also by looking landward you can see the steep-faced mountain side with serried ranks of evergreens, one behind the other, like the view that athletes have of the crowd in the stadium. High up, near where the land curls away and out of sight, the windowed faces of two whitewashed homes gaze out over treetops and across the broad expanse of the St. Lawrence. But down low and near at hand here in the harbor, a fissure in the forest wall drops vertically and a slender cataract flashes white through the ragged veil of vagetation.
The road to the harbor drops down like a ski run. There are houses along it but I cannot imagine how vehicles manage here in the snow and ice of winter. They must do so, however, and I suppose it is a matter of adapting to necessity. If you ascend the road you will eventually come to a T-junction where freshly painted houses cling to a different road, running parallel to the river but way above it. There you should turn left for only a few kilometers away is the little town of la Malbaie, a post card village where artists gather, tourists linger, and nature lovers rest between treks into the wilderness. On your way there, the road and the coast curl gradually around into a small bay that has a stream running into it. There at the head of the bay is the town, down below you, looking clean and competent with nature all around. If you arrive at low tide, the mountain stream will be rushing under the town bridge before dispersing itself into listless channels that wander aimlessly across the vast tidal flats.
In the town, there will be all the little pleasures of a place exotic--houses painted colors you would never have thought to use, ornamental architecture with alien motifs, shops selling items you hadn't viewed as commercial or hadn't known existed, signs and signals in foreign script, people talking where you might have expected silence and silence in places you are accustomed to think of as public, noises that cannot be identified. This is the reason for getting away, is it not? To see a different life from the one that surrounds you day after day--that is the pleasure of a holiday, and in la Malbaie it is waiting for you. If one day you find yourself entering the harbor at Cap a-l'aigle to moor for the night, in the morning take the road to la Malbaie and be its guest for a while. You may find, as I did, that it becomes a day lost in time but forever found in memory.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
The day before yesterday when Kobuk and I arrived at Cap a-l'aigle, we did so through curtains of fog. Out away from land, the air was clear, but the coast was wrapped in cotton gauze from which protruded the steep-sloped land . We were a caravan then, a ;hantom line of individuated hulls moving one by one to enter the harbor. Each in turn would pass through the curtain and disappear from view. This is a magical way to arrive, but it is not the sort of condition that encourages departre. Yesterday had had fog in the morning, but by noon it had cleared away and most of the boats were on their way to other places. I had decided to stay a day, however, partly to distance myself from the cluster of voyagers who had helped me across the river and partly because the weather forecast looked even more promising for today. And today has lived up to its forecast: clear skies and no wind. At midday I set out for the Saguenay.
As we put the harbor behind us, I steered Kobuk out towards the middle of the estuary to pick up the current from the river. The harbor was shrinking away and looking distant when Kobuk began veering gradually to starboard. I used the toggle switch control for the Remote Troll to correct course but nothing happened. We began to head on over to the other side of the river so many miles away. The problem, it turns out, was a mechanical breakdown. The wire cable used to pivot the Remote Troll had snapped and needed to be replaced. I had a replacement on board and the process of doing the replacement is not complicated. It does require, however, that the cable be wrapped around a drum, drawn over a couple pulleys, and reattached using a spring to maintain tension. This is all very straightforward, but I knew from experience that I was not strong enough to stretch the spring without getting some sort of levered advantage. Usually it takes a number of abortive attempts and often I end up dropping the spring or the tool used as a lever or even the wire cable. But no dropping is allowed here as the bottom of the river is impossibly far away. I spent a half hour hanging out over the back of the boat trying to make sure that the job was done with no mistakes, and by some stroke of fortune it was.
With no wind, the grand waterway was a satin sheen and all day Kobuk and I moved along in such luxuriant stillness. The coast beside us was a green mantled mass plunging down into the water. Capes and bays were few. There was no place where a harried sailor might find protection from the terrors of the deep but it did not matter for the quiet waters were never ruffled and the hours passed in splendid peace. Off Port-au-Saumon, where the red and white lighthouse perches humbly at the base of massive bluffs, I saw all around me streaks of pure white slipping up out of the water and then curling back in. Unhurried but unhesitating, each event would last but an instant, long enough to see and to realize what it was: beluga whales.
The Saguenay is a fjord that runs into the St. Lawrence. It is wide and it is deep, and the waters that issue from it do odd things at the confluence. Tadoussac is a small town on the far side of the Saguenay where there is protected water. The crossing of the mouth of the Saguenay was the only possible navigational complication in this day of serene conditions, but even there the current was mild and the wind was down. With nothing more than a little watchfulness to avoid the sandbars that extend our a couple miles into the St. Lawrence, we brought ourselves safely to Tadoussac and dropped anchor in the bay, near the beach out in front of the grand old Tadoussac Hotel.
Tadoussac Bay: 48* 08.424' N / 69* 42.799' W
Distance: 44 miles
Total Distance: 3,951 miles
Thurdsay, July 20, 2006
All along the Charlevoix coast and now here in the Saguenay as well, the mountainous terrain is naught but rock and trees. Glacial ice ground everything down to rounded form, but it is rounded bedrock with little in the way of soil or loose material to fill the few remaining clefts and gouges. Evergreens have spread across the hardrock surfaces, clinging to them like limpets and constantly striving to fill in those remaining rock faces that, out of steepness or unfissured smoothness, have heretofor foiled their best efforts. Most of the mountain streams that tumble down to the sea are juvenile rivulets full of energy and bounce, but too small to survive their tumultuous descent as much more than foam and spray and wetness on the rocks.
There are relatively few coastal villages for rare is there a place where one might be put. La Malbaie was one and now Tadoussac is another. Situated at the mouth of the Saguenay, Tadoussac sits astride a saddle of land that connects the mainland mountain mass to a rocky outcrop that protrudes out into the river. Most buildings are traditional clapboard construction, painted up to look gay and individualistic. Even the grand old Tadoussac Hotel is like this with its broad face and deep veranda painted all in white and its roof and trim in fired brick red. I stayed in town only long enough to get supplies and enjoy a coffee at a little cafe on the main street with its view down to the water and across the bay.
While there on the patio gazing out at the scene, a broad bellied man with sandy hair and a leisurely gait came over to speak to me. He had helped me tie off Kobuk at the gas dock a short while earlier and we had spent some time talking about boats and things. He has a large boat. He also has a summer home in Tadoussac and a winter one in Florida. He gave the impression of being experienced on the water and while we were talking he had encouraged me to buy a radar reflector for when the fog so often rolls in around here. Now he was back with another idea for how I might fabricate one for myself using cardboard and tinfoil. He is right, of course: I ought to have a radar reflector. I have been putting off the prospect of having to deal with such a clumsy contraption since to be effective it must be large enough for large ships to detect. I haven't wanted to store it on the boat. I knew from the start that this fog business would become an issue when I got to Nova Scotia, but I figured that this was one of those circumstances where procrastination would actually keep the boat free of an encumbrance until the time of actual need. I had not counted on the St. Lawrence fog for I had not known about it. Still, just one more crossing and I should be out of the danger zone, for after that fog should be less likely and my route will no longer take me to where the big ships go. I shall continue to procrastinate.
The Saguenay is a side trip--up the fjord and then back down. It cannot be passed by for I have spent a lifetime wondering what it must be like. There are of course other fjords on the east coast of North America but you have to go to Labrador to see them--either that or cross over to Greenland. Newfoundland has one, but getting to Newfoundland would be a stretch for Kobuk (not that I haven't thought about it). But the Sagueney is right here in the settled part of eastern North America and how many of us (for I do consider myself an Easterner) get to see our very own fjord? The travel literature makes it sound breathtaking, of course, but travel literature would. Photos, however, have convinced me that to pass by without a visit would be foolish.
Imagine a corridor of river water as wide as the Mississippi but with towering rock faces rising vertically on either side, not monotonously so but in alternating concert with steep pitched slopes so precipitous that none but a rock climber could ascend. All this in a landscape where there are no sharp edges. Rounded, hummocky mountains drop sheer away and knife down into the water. Fir forest drapes on everything it can and often it looks as if a tree might reach out with one of its upper branches and touch the rock.
When you cruise the Saguenay, you can be a boatlength away from shore and your depth finder will register hundreds of feet. The water is deep, deep and its color is a dark blue that when churned up by the little Yamaha undergoes a chameleon change to an algal red that lurks beneath the surface. Few are the boaters, even on this perfectly clear mid-summer day, and even fewer the homes or villages. There are in fact only a handful of very small settlements along its seventy mile length and isolated homes are nonexistent. Most of the Saguenay is a National Park.
I did stop at the little makeshift harbor of Anse Saint Jean and cycled around long enough to see a French Canadian version of a covered bridge as well as the usual country church and affiliated graveyard. The village lies in one of the very few valleys that actually run down to the Saguenay and as you can imagine its view of the surrounding mountains is stupendous. But not much farther upstream was a site more stupendous: Baie Eternite. It was there that I had planned to anchor for the night, and when I rounded the last headland cliff to enter into its protected waters there stood in front of me one of the wonders of the world.
Off to port, a row of haystack mountains drops ever-steepeningly down to the water. On the starboard side, a gargantuan cliff drops sheer and in fact at the entrance to the harbor actually overhangs the water. Neither side could be traversed by somebody on foot. At the head of the bay, though, a small river has created a little valley floor, heavily wooded of course, and the valley from which the stream has come extends back for miles with steep sloped mountains on each side. It looks cut off from the outside world. It is Baie Eternite.
Baie Eternite: 48* 18.214' N / 70* 19. 832' W
Distance: 36 miles
Total Distance: 3,987 miles
Friday, July 21, 2006
As sunset approached in the bay, the sky pastelled and the growing assembly of cumulus clouds began to turn dramatic as low angle light showed off their shapes and forms by casting silver shadows. Clouds in the east became tinged in gold. Golden rays of sunshine skimmed across the tops of the mountains under which Kobuk was shaded and struck hard on the evergreen forest of the far side mountains, turning its somber green to the color of new spring growth and casting a lattuce of black shadows in all the tiny interstices. During the night the rain began and continued unhurriedly for hour after hour. In the gray light of morning the rain stopped and silence returned. Heavy banks of clouds were moving rapidly eastwards, trailing wisps behind them that caressed the mountaintops and drew tendrils up through all their intimate places.
As we swung around the headland of the protective bay and headed up the Saguenay, the brisk breeze was kicking up a flurry of waves that remained benign as long as the tide was ebbing. Within an hour, though, the tide had changed and the confrontation between wind and tidal flow began to create more troubled waters, insufficient to be any sort of danger but more than enough to slow the pace of Kobuk's forward progress. Already, it was a matter of trying to find those areas in the stream where the tidal surge upstream would do the most to overcome the river current downstream, and in most instances these were the places where the waters were roughest. In the end, I learned that the best one could do is stay close to one bank and try to take advantage of any eddies that were curling off the main river flow. Every time we would pass by a headland, the pinch in the river would create an adverse flow that slowed us considerably but then once past if there was a small embayment on the upstream side then often there would be a little countercurrent to help get on the way to the next promontory. Altogether, it was a slow process, but it would have been much slower if the sky had not partially cleared and the wind abated as the morning wore on.
By noon we had reached the parting between a very large passage running straight ahead and a somewhat smaller one that entered from the north side. The passage straight actually is a cul-de-sac known as the Baie des Hah! Hah! With a whimsical name like this, it was hard to resist a little exploration, but anyway things were calmer on the side channel that the map indicates actually is the main channel and so Kobuk and I turned right. Could it be that the name Baie des Hah! Hah! is a commentary intended for those who enter it hoping to travel upstream?
Our destination was the town of Chicoutimi located more or less at the head of navigation. As we traveled on, the mountains settled down to become hills and the river current began to flow with more noticeable vigor. The final few miles were a slow slog up a buoyed channel with the wind on the rise once again. The current was devilishly strong but at least the fetch was too small to permit unwieldy waves. When the jerry can of gas for the Yamaha went dry, instead of refilling it I fired up the main engine and powered to town at high speed. I had no chart of the area or map of the city, but the one yacht harbor was obvious and it took no time at all to tie off, arrange for a slip, prep Kobuk for the night, and take a shower. Scrubbed and shorn, I went off to take a look.
Chicoutimi is famous for aluminum smelting. Early on, this region became a source area for bauxite mining and as a result of it the town developed into a major world center for processing of the ore. The raw material is no longer so abundant hereabouts, but the processing facilities--and there are a number of them--continue to thrive processing ore from elsewhere in the world. This is possible only because the Saguenay is navigable by large ships, of course. The recent history of the town is inseparable from the aluminum industry. With a population of around 75,000, it is about the biggest example of a company town that one might find (although Fort McMurray may have displaced it). In this case, the company is Alcan.
All this conjures an image of a blue collar working town with little to recommend it as a place to visit. But it is not dirty and prosperity clings to it like moss. It is vigorous and lively. That evening when I wandered the main street the two main downtown blocks were cordoned off and converted to a pedestrian mall in which a carnival atmosphere prevailed. People were out in throngs, drinking wine and beer at the string of sidewalk eateries and listening to bands playing rock and latin rhythms at the two makeshift bandstands set up for the evening. There were buskers and there were little temporary stalls where children had their faces painted in swirls of color or adults bought cheap beer. Quite a contrast with Baie Eternitie, and not all bad either.
Chicoutimi Yacht Harbor: 48* 25.827' N / 71* 03.072' W
Distance: 40 miles
Total Distance: 4,027
Saturday, July 22, 2006
This, it seems, is one of the heartlands of French Canada. French is all you hear and whenever I prevail on somebody to help me in English they are eager, but not particularly facile, at doing so. Their uninhibited efforts to cope with this foreign tongue are a testimony to how little affected they are by the outside world of political struggle between the two national groups. The people of Canada always have wrestled with who they are: English Canadians constantly worrying about whether there is in fact anything to differentiate them from the Brits and the Americans, the French Canadians perpetually engaged in a defensive struggle to preserve what they know is a distinct identity. Here in Chicoutimi, however, the people seem to thrive in a little enclave of edenic isolation.
Most places I have visited in Quebec show signs of ethnolinguistic nationalism. When private citizens fly a flag here it almost always is the provincial and not the national one--the beautiful blue field with a white cross on it and a white fleur de ly in each blue quadrant. Even in places that are more public--public squares, business buildings, yacht harbors, etc.--every effort is made to not explicitly accord primacy to the national flag. "If there is going to be a flag, let there be two flown at the same height," seems to be the thinking. Sometimes the nationalism is expressed through architectural ornamentation. In Anse Saint Michel, for example, the building in the public park was white clapboard with Quebec blue shutters, and each shutter had both a fleur de ly and a maple leaf cut right through as decoration, one above the other. The fleur de ly was on top, of course; you can do things with architecture that are considered bad form with flags.
I remember when I was a student in Montreal back in the early sixties that a most controversial political issue was the selection of a design for a national flag. That was when Canada settled on the banded maple leaf and red and white colours. Previous to then, the national flag was really nothing more than a commonwealth variant of the British one--not particularly emotive for the French Canadians. In any event, the design controversy swirled around for months until at last the government brought it to closure with a decision. I remember that Canadians were highly exercised during this time, wrangling interminably over what symbolism would be most appropriate. College students were irreverent, of course, since their parents were generally wealthy and they could afford to be, but they did come up with one clever design that imprinted itself in my mind more indelibly than the final selection has ever been able to do. The student proposal? Nine beavers peeing on a frog.
Quebec is intriguing to me because its people have this divided loyalty: they love their province as much as their country. Throughout the twentieth century this was a thing unknown in wealthy and powerful states (of which Canada certainly was one). It still was common in poorer regions of the globe and of course it was the norm most everywhere centuries ago when countries were a new thing. Now in the twenty-first century we see all these movements arising to challenge central authority. Whether it is Scots in Britain or Basques in Spain or Corsicans in France or . . . well, the list is endless. The point is that central governments are losing control. Even as the power of government increases its ability to do so wanes. If current trends continue, many states will fracture into smaller bits and there is every reason to believe that Canada and Quebec will not buck the trend. They may end up having what in private lives is referred to as "a more open relationship."
But in Chicoutimi I doubt that anybody thinks about these sorts of things. Life is good. Life is simple. Life is French. Life will go on as it has done.
Sunday, July 23, 2006
In the middle of the night I was awakened by loud music. There is no clearance above my bunk so it is a good thing I did not try to sit up. The music was coming from my own CD player which had suddenly decided to work once again. In the crossing of the St. Lawrence nearly a week ago, it had gotten doused by an errant wave that dumped salt water in the cabin. Thereafter, it would not respond whenever any buttons were pushed. It seemed to still have power for there were meaningless numbers in the display window that never went away, but the CD in the machine could not be ejected or played and the radio could not even be coaxed into giving off static. I'll not complain about the inappropriate hour at which it decided to return to life. It is just nice to have it back.
I spent the morning finishing off a book I had been reading: A Visit to Don Octavio by Sybille Bedford. Who has ever heard of this book? I certainly hadn't, but thought it might be worth a try since it only cost a Canadian dollar in a used book store and since it had a very flattering introduction by Bruce Chatwin. Ms. Bedford travelled to Mexico shortly after World War II and then wrote about her trip. Like all good travel books, it really is not about travel. Like all good writing, it takes outrageous liberties with the English language. For those of you out there who love to search out literary excellence that is languishing in obscurity, this is for you. Get the book.
Ms. Bedford wrote at a time when world travel was just beginning to become accessible to the common person (although she most assuredly was uncommon). Airline service was then in place, but many people still relied very heavily on boat and train. She, for example, got to Mexico City by taking trains from New York. Her stay in Mexico appears to have been nearly a year in length, too long to be considered a mere visit by the standards of today but not so unusual by the norms of an earlier era. Wherever she went in Mexico, she spent some time. If today you were in Mexico City and thought about taking a bus to Guanajuato, for example, you might contemplate a weekend excursion. But in that earlier era when the travel time was greater but by less than a factor of one, nobody would have dreamed of making such a cursory visit. It would have been like flying to Paris for dinner. No, nothing less than a week or two would be sufficient to get a feel for the place. These days we seem to have a different view. To stay so long in a city so small as Guanajuato would raise the question of "What shall we do there for all that time?" I suppose we are too pressed by circumstances these days, too much in bondage to the demands of contemporary life. But the fact remains that Ms. Bedford could happily stay in a place like that for weeks on end without getting bored. Doesn't it seem likely that she treated travel as more than merely escapism--that she viewed it as an opportunity to become immersed in a different world? With this as a mindset, boredom must have been left at home.
Books read better when I am on the boat. In the past, I always thought it didn't matter much where I might be whilst reading--the airport, the lunch table, the toilet, whatever. Reading, after all, removes one from the immediate world, shuts it out. At least that is what I have always thought. But now I am beginning to think otherwise. To be constantly visiting new places while reading a book about somebody who was doing the same thing puts you in a sort of comparative state of mind. "Why haven't I been noticing the way that people who speak to me use English in unorthodox ways? How come I didn't find time to do all that historical research before setting out?" That sort of thing.
This journey up and down the Saguenay is turning out to be the best detour of my life. Even so, I am having all sorts of trouble figuring out the equation for most efficient progress. The river current flows all the time, I figured, so it was reasonable to think that going upstream would be harder than going down. Naturally, the tide makes a big difference and progressing when the tide is moving with you should be the best of all worlds. Since I took care to leave Chicoutimi a couple hours before high tide, I thought that two hours of struggle would be followed by hour after hour of easy going. But it didn't work that way; the going never got easy. All afternoon Kobuk moved along slower than her usual speed on slack water and I obviously did not understand what the current was doing. I didn't matter, though. Sunny weather was chasing us from the west and gradually displacing the banks of heavy clouds under which we had started the voyage. By going slowly, the sun caught us earlier than it otherwise would have; we got to dawdle along watching the good chase away the bad.
Baie Eternite: 48* 18.454' N / 70* 19.696' W
Distance: 38 miles
Total Distance: 4,065 miles
Monday, July 24, 2006
I guess the struggle is not yet over. At first this morning when we set out for Tadoussac the skies were promising, but within an hour lowery skies had moved in, bringing with them the constant threat of rain. There was a headwind and a chop on the water, and the air had the sort of coolness that summer rarely brings unless you are getting pretty far north. Our forward progress would vary a lot--at times well below the standard slack-water speed, at times well above it. Clearly, there are eddies and countercurrents in this river but unlike most rivers where the deep channel gives you downstream speed whereas the shallows make upstream progress less painful, there is a complexity to this system that I am not going to unravel in these few days. I could find nothing systematic. No matter where I went, our speed would change a lot from minute to minute.
Not far from Tadoussac, as I was taking Kobuk across the river to get to its left bank, a young man on a jet-ski hailed me with his paddle. He was dead in the water over near shore, and so we went to see what the problem might be. The engine had quit and he was attempting to paddle a few miles upstream to his home harbor of Anse la Roche. As you can imagine, a few miles of paddling a jet-ski is not something that can be done very well, especially on a river. I took him aboard and we tied his jet-ski to a tow rope. Kobuk had her first experience as a rescue boat and within an hour we had the young man in behind the breakwater.
His name was Carol. He was tall and lean, with a dark complexion and short dark hair, and that unusual kind of face that seems afflicted with morose seriousness but suddenly lights up with gaiety and sparkling eyes whenever there is occasion for it to do so. Carol, as it happens, works as a bartender at Restaurant La Bolee in Tadoussac and he invited me to come there for dinner. He would, he said, cover my dinner. He also told me that the food there was as good as I would find.
Well, of course I could not resist Carol's offer. After I got to Tadoussac and made arrangements for Kobuk, I cycled off to find La Bolee. It turned out to be a gourmet restaurant with all the sorts of refinements that you might expect. With floral patterned wallpaper and french windows and proper tablecloths and waitresses who know their business, la Bolee presented itself exceedingly well and I dined in style. As an entree, I had escargot for the first time ever. Even the main course was something totally new to me: bison. The food was so beautifully arranged on the plates that it seemed criminal to deface it, much less eat it. So many mediocre meals, so many downright bad ones cooked by me--and now this. When it was all over, my stomach was giddy with joy. The rest of me, however, was a little less satiated for there is nothing desolate in quite the same way as eating a dinner by candle light when you are alone.
Tadoussac Marina: 48* 08.308' N / 69* 42.973' W
Distance: 43 miles
Total Distance: 4,108 miles
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Yesterday when I got to Tadoussac, there was fog. It was not thick, but it clung to the confluence zone like hair to a shower drain. I am keen to cross this estuary and work downstream to the town of Rimouski because in just few days I have to leave Kobuk for a month and attend to business. Rimouski seems to be the logical place to look for an arrangement because it is a reasonably large town with good marina facilities. I don't know whether the marina there can care for Kobuk in my absence. Actually, I am sure it can but I don't know whether I will be willing to pay the price they would charge for the service. I need to get there a few days in advance so that I do not have to simply take whatever arrangement they propose. I could call ahead but somehow I suspect that a phone call from an English-speaking yachtsman looking to store a boat for a month will conjure an image of American dollars searching for a new home. I think I would rather arrive and have the personnel there see Kobuk's diminutive size and my lack of well-polished shoes before making inquiries about storage fees. This seems perfectly sensible to me, but it does leave things in a very uncertain state and makes me wonder whether I will be able to handily solve the boat storage problem in time to catch an airline flight that already is bought. For the first time in months, I am having to treat time with undue respect. And that means I do not want fog. The sooner I can get across the estuary the better, but I don't want to go in fog.
Well, today the fog is thicker and nobody is going to go out in it. I have concluded that if it persists for a while then come Thursday I will begin to look for a way to get Kobuk pulled out of the water here. Whatever happens, I do not want to get stampeded into making a crossing in soupy conditions.
Arcing around the bay and angling its way up to higher ground is the waterfront street of Tadoussac. As it begins to drift away from the shore and reach towards the church, it passes in front of the landmark Tadoussac Hotel. Just past the church with its graveyard tumbling down below it, the street comes to a T-junction, and there one must turn either left or right on the main street of the town. The layout of the streets is irregular and unpredictable--which of course makes it that much more interesting. Wherever you go, there will be a hill to climb or a descent to be made: there is really no flat ground around here. During the day the fog never lifted and so the town was only revealed in small patches with everything going vaguely obscure in the distance. Actually, fog does a lot for a small town. It makes it bigger. It seems so much more complex and multifaceted when you cannot take it all in with a single glance. Of course, it ruins the grand vista of the St. Lawrence, but then it is good every once in a while to focus on the here and now.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
The early morning light filtered in as if it did not want to wake me. It stayed pale and insubstantial and even before got up I knew that the fog had not yet departed. When eventually I did arise, the boats in the yacht harbor all were beaded and glistening, ripe with dew that stayed ever young in the vaporous grayness. The docks were wet and darkened. The water was still and the air was too. The wooly atmosphere foreshortened the world and made it seem as if even things near at hand were disappearing into the haze of distance.
The weather forecast hemmed and hawed but seemed to be anticipating partially clear conditions in the afternoon. There was even talk about the sun coming out. It was to be a reprieve, though, for subsequent days did not sound promising. I showered myself and prepped Kobuk for a possible departure, and then went uptown to read and drink coffee--in other words, to wait. The white gauze persisted. For hours there was no change, but then near midday the fog began to partition into layers. The main street of town was sharply in focus but higher up the hills disappeared into a thinning whiteness that the sun was gradually corroding away while down below the harbor and the river still lay under an impenetrable blanket.
All this changed quickly in the early afternoon when the fog was swept away and the sun languished behind a veil of high cirrus. The estuary looked calm and although the far shore still remained invisible it appeared to be obscured by haze and not by fog. Besides, the cruising guide claims that this north shore is much more susceptible to fog because the cold Laborador Current flows nearer its side. I resolved to leave.
A flooding tide made progress slow and once out on the river its forcefulness brought us nearly to a standstill. At a rate of only two miles per hour, it would take us until after dark to get to the other side, so I switched over to the main engine and Kobuk began roaring across the calm waters. Anyway, it seemed a good idea to cross as quickly as possible in case the fog decided to return.
The fog did return. At mid-passage it moved in and surrounded us, not so thickly that we had to go slowly but thick enough to bring the visibility down to hundreds of yards. With the glassy waters and the lack of wind and the insubstantial veil of white, nothing seemed to exist but Kobuk and the myriad appurtenances of her little world. We flew across the unreal plain on a mysterious trajectory, as seemingly directionless as a spaceship hurtling across the universe.
Suddenly a dark form surfaced close off the starboard bow. I steered to port to insure that we would not collide and when I looked around I saw many other dark mammalian heads scattered in the water. I cut the engine. From all sides came a sound of asthmatic breathing, deep and slow. There were marine creatures everywhere but they did not look like whales, and yet the breathing could be nothing else. Then, once in a while, I would catch a glimpse of a whale surfacing, briefly, out near the limit of visibility. Whales and seals, all intermingled--but with different levels of tolerance for Kobuk and me. But the closeness of the seals was deceptive for they gamboled unconcernedly with neither fear nor curiosity about our presence in their midst. The distance of the whales, on the other hand, was an illusion because the resonance of their breathing penetrated to the core with more emotional force than live orchestral music.
The closer we got to the far shore, the thicker the fog became. Nothing could be seen on the horizontal plane, but if you looked up you could see the sky at times. It made me wonder what it must be like to be standing on the bridge of a large freighter, moving forward through this cottony mass.. Down below your ship would be shrouded but you would be looking over the top of it all and able to gaze at the distant shores.
The GPS and the depth finder brought us to shore without mishap, and as we approached land the mist ameliorated enough to reveal the entry buoys for a harbor channel. Modern navigational equipment had delivered us to Trois Pistoles and of course this was as far as we would go for the day, given the dicey conditions. How hard it must have been to navigate in those early days of discovery when nobody knew what was where. Shipwrecks were a commonplace, but with wind and waves and currents and fog and unknown hazards beneath the surface--and no maps--how could it have been otherwise?
The harbor at Trois Pistoles is tucked in behind a breakwater and looks across a broad tidal flat towards the town. It is accessible only for about two hours preceding and following high tide; during the other sixteen hours of the day the boats and docks lie inert in the mud. Kobuk is well-suited to this sort of diurnal grounding for her hull is near enough to flat-bottomed that she plants herself well in the muck and does not end up tipped to one side or the other. There appeared to be no formal office for the harbor, but while I was looking around for someone in charge an older man, ruddy complexioned and grizzled gray, befriended me and inquired about my situation. When I explained that I wished to stay the night but hoped to get to Rimouski the following day in order to arrange temporary storage of the boat, he exclaimed "But of course, why not leave your boat here?" He said it would be very safe as long as I removed the outboard and locked it inside the cabin. I thought about it and before long I had become convinced that he was right. This retired gentleman had me moor next to his own boat and arranged for me to leave her for a month. The storage fee is to be $90 and that will include the next three days when I stay aboard doing clean-up and maintenance. The good man who has made all this possible is Roderique Pelletier whose large summer home is within a hundred yards of the harbor docks. Roderique's large extended family uses many of the home's seven bedrooms in what I gather is an ad hoc and come-and-go manner. Roderique himself spends his days with them, but likes to get away and sleep down here on his classic old wooden cabin cruiser. Almost every afternoon he brings his toddler grandson down to spend an hour messing around on it too.
Trois Pistoles Harbor: 48* 07.976' N / 69* 11.067' W
Distance: 27 miles
Total Distance: 4,135 miles