Winter Travel Guide: Saguenay Fjord
Photo courtesy of Saguenay Fjord tourism
You can tell by the dramatic slopes of the roofs that the residents of the Saguenay Ford are no stranger to snow. But right now in the shoulder season, it’s still dry. Outside one of the houses, in the yard, I see a man chopping firewood. He’s taking his time, pausing between pieces of wood to take a drag from his cigar, elevating his knee and resting one of his sturdy boots on the chopping block. He looks up at the sky. Things are eerie in that way. It feels like everyone’s waiting for something, an expected guest that’s due to arrive any day now.
I’m three hours north of Quebec City in the Saguenay Fjord, an outdoor region known amongst locals as a winter playground. As my ferry boat shoves off out into it, I realize I’m a little early in terms of the weather. Yet there’s something in the air, a calm before the storm, that allows me to feel the anticipation building. Just a few more weeks, the captain tells us with excitement in his voice, and this whole waterway will be completely frozen over. People will drive their cars out on it and set up ice fishing huts. Everyone will put on their skis and snowshoes and explore the cliffs around the fjord.
In the aboriginal Innu language, Saguenay means “where the water flows out.” The main draw of the region is the protected Saguenay Fjord, which connects the St. Lawrence River to Lac-Saint-Jean (Lake Saint Jean). The Innu inhabited these waters for a long time, thousands of years, but Jacques Cartier spoiled their party when he showed up in 1535. That brought forth a dark age as the fur trade and lumber industries took over for the next few centuries.
Luckily, the Canadian government stepped in about 50 years ago to protect what was left, which is still a lot – about 125 square miles of preserved land. The original preservation was called Saguenay National Park, but they changed it in 2011 to Saguenay Fjord National Park. Apparently no one outside of Quebec was realizing there was a fjord there, and they wanted people to come see it.
We cruise through the fresh water. I can see kayakers paddling below the rocky outcrops, sailboats catching the wind. The hillsides are full of trees and their brown trunks and green needles stand out against the backdrop of the grey sky. The captain tells us to keep our eyes out for beluga whales that could breach at any time.
Despite the great beauty before me, I’m a little bummed by my early arrival. I still think of, and love, Quebec as a winter destination. The first time I visited was for the Winter Carnival back in 2012. I remember a lot of things about that festival – ice canoe races, ski jarring, mulled wine, and parties in igloos – but the lasting impression had not to do with individual activities. It was more the collection of them. It went beyond a love for skiing and high alpine living into something more personal, more intimate, all these singular passions adding up to a rooted, historic connection for the Quebecois.
It got me thinking. In America, we tend to tackle National Parks during the summer. But around here, the opposite approach makes sense. Visiting Canada during the winter may sound backwards, but it is only during the cold months that we can truly embrace the spirit of the Quebecois and their ferocious appetite for winter sports. It is only then that we can see, feel, and experience the true passion of the locals in their own backyard.
Below, we provide some insight to help you plan your trip.
How to Get There:
Fly into Quebec City, rent a car, and make the scenic 3-hour drive to Saguenay. Or, fly into Saguenay’s small airport, Bagotville Airport, via Air Canada.
Hotel Chicoutimi: The town of Chicoutimi is the most fruitful hub of the area, offering an array of hotels, restaurants, and services. A full-service hotel, the Hotel Chicoutimi is best for those looking to retreat to its walking-friendly downtown area after a day in the wilderness. www.hotelchicoutimi.qc.ca
Pourvoirie Cap au Leste: This former fishing lodge sits atop the cliffs and offers individual cabins with views of the lake. www.capauleste.com
Villages Vacances Petit-Saguenay: Wilderness cabins with direct access to the water and full kitchenettes. www.vacancesviva.com/petit-saguenay
Les Gîtes du Fjord: Cabins and condos in the small, sleepy town of L’Anse Saint Jean. Walking distance to the lake and marina. www.lesgitesdufjord.com
Snowshoe and Cross Country Trails: Saguenay Fjord National Park offers more than 30 miles of trails to explore, with many more in the surrounding areas. Rent cross-country skis or snowshoes for a walk through the pristine winter wilderness and views of the fjord. Two of the more popular are the trail to the Mary statue at Cap éternité, or the route between Anse des Roches and Baie Sainte Marguerite. You can see a map of other trails here. Stop by the visitors center for trail conditions and recommendations based on ability and time.
Ice Fishing: The lake may be frozen over, but that’s a good thing around these parts. Embrace this local favorite activity by renting an ice fishing cabin or linking up with one of many companies who offering excursions. http://tourisme.saguenay.ca/en/activites-et-attraits/aventures-hivernales/peche-blanche
Whale Watching: If you find yourself here between May and October, you can cruise the fjord’s icy waters on a whale watching trip for Beluga whales. http://www.lesecumeurs.com/croisieres-en.php
Via Ferrate: If you do decide to go in summer or shoulder season, you can experience this brand new via ferrate that climbs the cliffs above the fjord. Moderate difficulty with spectacular views. http://www.viaferrataquebec.com/fr/viaferrata/parc-national-du-fjord-du-saguenay/
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