Beluga whales are incredibly sociable, gregarious creatures, often traveling in groups of 2-25 whales, with an average pod of about 25 belugas. However, in the summer, they can often be found in pods of hundreds or even thousands of belugas in estuaries or shallow coastal areas. They often hunt together and engage in what can only be classified as play – they chase each other, rub against each other, surface and dive together, and play with objects they find – pieces of wood, dead fish, plants, and even bubbles that they create. They also at times display physical affection, including mouth to mouth contact. The pods generally fall into one of three categories – “nursery pods”, which consist of mothers and calves, “bachelor pods”, which consist of all males, and “mixed pods”, which includes members of both sexes. Belugas often move from one pod to another.
Belugas have a number of distinctions from other whale species. They are white in color, and are among the smaller of the whale species, growing to about 18′ in length and weighing up to 3500 pounds. They are migratory and live primarily under the arctic cap in the winter and migrate to northern waters around Russia, Greenland, and North America in the summers. Belugas have adapted to artic living; one adaptation is that they have no dorsal fin which allows them to swim under ice more easily. They generally swim a short distance under the surface, but dive an average of about 40 dives per day, sometimes nearly a half mile deep! They slow their heartbeat from an average of 100 beats/minute to 12-20 beats/minute to conserve oxygen, diverting blood flow during the dive from other organs to their brain, heart, and lungs.
Belugas eat mainly fish, but also consume invertebrates such as shrimp, clams, crabs, and the like. They feed mainly in the winter to build up blubber mass, and consume 2 1/2% – 3% of their body weight daily. Unlike other whales, they can turn their necks which greatly aids in finding food. They have highly developed hearing, and communicate through a series of 11 different types of sounds.
Mating season is generally February – March, and the gestation period is 12 – 15 months. Babies at birth are about 5′ long and weigh 180 pounds or so; they can swim immediately at birth, and nurse from their mothers for up to 2 years. There are an estimated 200,000 Belugas in the wild today, but are considered endangered in some locations, including the St. Lawrence River. They generally live for 35 – 50 years.
How does all this fit into our journey? More on that below!
The morning after our hike up Cap Rasmussen, we moved about 2 miles to a separate docking facility directly in the town at the end of Baie des Ha! Ha! There we visited a museum that focused on the fiord, the Saguenay River, and the fascinating history of the people of the river valley. Researchers created a massive data base of births and deaths in the river area from 1842 to 1971 in earlier times. Large families were commonplace, in part because of the influence of the Catholic church in French Canada, and partly because of the need for offspring to perform the many farm chores. Here are some statistics from the study that will surely grab your attention, especially by the women reading this:
Information in the museum also solved a mystery for us. The mean tidal range at the end of the river (68 miles from the St. Lawrence) is about 14 feet, with maximum tides up to 20′. However, beyond the town of St. Jean (about 22 miles from the St. Lawrence), there is virtually no tidal current. How can the tide rise at the end of the river by up to 20′ with no water flowing up the river? The answer is that there are two separate layers of water. The cold, highly oxygenated water from the St. Lawrence River slips underneath the surface layer of relatively warmer, brackish water that flows downriver to the St. Lawrence. So there are two separate layers of water flowing in different directions, with the tidal flow hidden on the bottom. This phenomenon removes the large tidal flow from the surface of the river; in addition, by juxtaposing the two water layers with different salinities and temperatures, the river also enables freshwater and saltwater species to coexist next to each other.
Another unusual attraction in the town was called “The Pyramid” (for obvious reasons. It’s built using roadside “yield” signs. Why? I don’t know…
From Baie Ha! Ha!, we backtracked about 6 miles in the dead-end bay, then ran upriver the town of Chicoutimi. A pleasant town with a great riverfront bike path, a unique attraction was the Little White House Museum. When the house was built in 1900, the owner insisted on digging the foundation to bedrock and anchoring it with steel bars to the rock. In 1996, a massive flood caused the floodwaters to overtop the dam above the village, destroying the homes and other buildings in its path – except the Little White House, which clung to the earth to challenge the floodwaters. Here are a couple of pictures:
The next morning, as we prepared for the 68 mile run down the Saguenay River back through the fiord, Trish, Pat, and Chrissie prepared to head home. A bus would take them to Quebec City, where Chrissie’s car was parked for their trip home. They awaited the arrival of the bus as we started our long run downriver back to Tadoussac. We’ll miss them!!
Our 68 mile run to Tadoussac was a reminder of the unpredictable and fickle weather that seems the norm on the rivers up here. It started perfectly calm, then a few hours later an unforecasted 15 knot wind on our bow came from nowhere, then disappeared an hour later, only to reappear further down the river. We prepared for a difficult docking event, only to arrive in flat calm conditions.
In one of those rare coincidences in time and place, Paul’s friend and neighbor from Glendale, Massachusetts just happened to be in Tadoussac, Quebec on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River on the same evening that we were there (!)! John, his wife Donna, and their friends Carl and Stephanie Bradford brought drinks and snacks for cocktails on the boat!
After our guests left, I took a hike up a trail overlooking the marina at Tadoussac. The St’ Lawrence and the continuation of our journey south stretches into the background:
We left Tadoussac at 5:45 AM the next morning, anticipating a potentially challenging 60 mile run across and down river to Rimouski, Quebec on the south shore of the river. The passage was more pleasant than we had anticipated – it was calm at the start but built throughout the day to 15 knots and 2-3 foot waves. However, the wind was on our stern and the current was favorable for a good part of the day, so it was quite manageable.
The highlight of the day emerged as soon as we merged into the St. Lawrence. The current from the Saguenay and the shoals at the junction of the two rivers creates a whirlwind of swirling currents, eddies, and whirlpools, creating a perfect storm for prey and a bonanza for predators – especially beluga whales! We tiptoed through a pod that must have been 25 – 50 strong. I wasn’t quick enough to get great photos, but here are a few:
The meeting of the currents also created a “rip tide” in certain locations which creates turbulence, which in turn brings small fish and invertebrates to the surface. The birds hunt along the rip tide, looking for easy meals:
Our next stop was Rimouski, on the south shore of the river. Jim and I rode throughout the city looking for ice cream and provisions, and I stopped at the Museum of Rimouski looking for some interesting history. There were some history exhibits, but they were all in French, so I didn’t learn much. It turns out, however, that it was primarily an art museum. This piece was unusual:
Back on the river the next day, we ran 45 miles in mostly calm, pleasant weather to the town of Matane. A few images from the St. Lawrence:
In Rimouski, we had met a sailor from Quebec who had previously sailed the waters of the St. Lawrence and the areas to which we were headed. Jerry joined us for a beer aboard the Joint Adventure to give us some tips. One of the tips was that we had to go to Chef Fred’s Poutinerie in Matane and order a shrimp poutine. If you’re not familiar with poutine, it’s a dish consisting of French fries mixed with cheese curds and drowned in gravy. I this case for this particular dish, Fred added shrimp on top of the poutine. We were very excited to experience Fred’s masterpiece, so despite a rainstorm and a fair distance to get there, off we went to Chef Fred’s Poutinerie:
Our next stop down river was Saint Anne des Mont. By the way, I think we’ve now seen about six villages and/or mountains named “Saint Anne”. In any case, one of the reference books we use said that, approaching the town, we’d see the church well before we saw the harbor or anything else. There are so many spectacular churches in French Catholic Quebec – in fact, at least one in every town, no matter how small – thay I stopped putting photos of them in the blog. However, since this one was so prominent, I decided to include it here:
There were a number of public art pieces along the waterfront and throughout town in St. Anne. Here is one that I thought was quite….different:
Back on the St. Lawrence the next day, we continued to see amazing scenery as we edged our way closer to the mouth of the river:
On this day, we passed a milestone on our journey:
Our next stop was Riviere Madeleine, which turned out to be the smallest marina we’ve stayed in so far, and a step back in time. Like so many others we have encountered both in the US and Canada, the town is suffering from a lack of economic base. The copper mine that sustained the town for decades closed about 15 years ago, and the commercial fisheries have consolidated in larger ports, so the town has struggled ever since. As I rode my bike through town, I encountered an old and shuttered general store, a shuttered restaurant, and no other commercial activity other than the small marina. The marina included a small restaurant, which now seems to be the gathering place for the town. However, the people we met were positive and proud of where they live, and ever-so friendly.
Here’s an image of the marina:
I can’t think of a better example of the friendliness and attitude of the people in this area than the following. I was walking around the docks taking a few pictures, and I stopped to take a picture of this small fishing boat:
Coincidentally, as I was taking this picture of the boat, the owner happened to come by. He greeted me, and the next words out of his mouth were: “Would you like to go fishing”. Just a friendly, generous gesture to a stranger from somewhere else. I said “Sure!” I asked if Jim and Paul could come as well, but both declined. So off I went with my new fishing buddy Dan and his friend Chris. Here are some pictures from our two hour expedition:
The next morning, we left at 5:45
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