6 mins

Self-drive along the St Lawrence River, Canada

The road from Quebec to the coast offers French-Canadian history, fog-draped forests and a glimpse of beluga whales

The St Lawrence Rive from Quebec's city walls (Simon Chubb)

A river more enticing to explorers would be hard to imagine. The gaping mouth of the St Lawrence seems to gulp at the North Atlantic, its curling 1,200km-long gullet perfectly framed in the wolf-head profile of Québec. There’s even a tongue, the Gaspé Peninsula, drooping above the dimpled chin of New Brunswick. The St Lawrence River, known simply to locals as La Fleuve, is a hungry invitation to the heart of a continent.

However, were it not for a fierce storm and a chance encounter with an Iroquois fishing party, Jacques Cartier might never have entered this mighty waterway in 1534. Granted, it wasn’t quite the shortcut to the riches of the Orient that the master mariner was hoping to find. But nevertheless he was quite content to wade ashore, plant a cross and claim the territory for France. Thus began North America’s long and tenacious French connection.

Tracing the St Lawrence

In Québec City, 700km upstream from Cartier’s historic act of colonialism, I sipped a café au lait and contemplated a more modest river exploration of my own. Unlike Cartier, I would have no need of the navigational skills of the Iroquois. My route would be a straightforward drive, following the north shore of the St Lawrence downstream from Québec City to Forestville before crossing the river by ferry and continuing east around the Gaspé Peninsula – to the tip of the tongue. Hopefully (with a fortnight of French-Canadian cuisine to look forward to) I’d also be able to steer clear of cedar tea – something the Iroquois administered to Cartier’s crew to prevent them all from dying of scurvy.

Despite Cartier’s best efforts, it was not until 1608 that another visionary navigator, Samuel de Champlain, finally planted the seeds of the New World’s first French colony. To begin with, Québec City was little more than a few frail shacks. But Champlain, having forged strong alliances with the locals, soon established a prosperous fur trade with Europe.

The following morning I drove towards Tadoussac, where Canada’s first fur-trading post (albeit a replica) still stands. A thick sea fog had crept in from the Atlantic and nuzzled, white and fluffy like a seal pup, against the banks of the St Lawrence. The road climbed through sombre swathes of boreal forest – a green mantle for the billion-year-old rocks of the Canadian Shield – and dipped into sheltered valleys where whitewashed, clapboard houses loomed out of the mist. A short ferry ride across the Saguenay River (the northern hemisphere’s southernmost fjord) finally brought me to Tadoussac where I made straight for the reconstruction of the 1600 Chauvin Trading Post.

Inside the simple wooden building, with its high-pitched roof and central chimney, was a curious assortment of Montagnais (the modern-day Innu) peace pipes, pelt scrapers and birch-frame snowshoes, alongside European trade goods such as rifles, metal knives and blankets. Some of the finest exhibits were made by contemporary craftsmen striving to preserve the culture of their ancestors.

A large drum fashioned from birch, caribou skin and goose feathers – a teueikan – caught my eye. ‘The Montagnais elders used a teueikan to see the invisible, to dream the future…’ explained a caption beneath the instrument. I wondered how revealing those visions were. Could the hunters, induced into a trance by the rhythmic beating of the teueikan, have foretold the arrival of French sailing ships – and the new trade, religion and diseases that came with them?

Integrating 'the savages'

However well-informed the spirit world kept them, the Montagnais, Iroquois and other ‘First Nations’ of the St Lawrence Valley were destined to be squeezed from their homelands by foreign settlers. Jesuit missionaries, who began arriving in Tadoussac and Québec City during the early 1600s, proposed to integrate the ‘savages’ into French society by converting them to Catholicism and ‘initiating them into the practice of soil cultivation’. It seems they were oblivious to the fact that the Iroquois, at least, already grew everything they needed for a year-round food supply. One of their chiefs was even called Cornplanter.

A short walk from the trading post, I paused beside La Vieille Chapelle, Canada’s oldest wooden church, built in 1747 – a century after the first mission was founded in Tadoussac. Shafts of insipid sunlight flickered through the fog as it swirled around the chapel’s red spire.

The next day, I realised I should have offered a prayer for some divine intervention in the weather. The fog was thicker than ever and I was standing at the railings of a strangely quiet whale-watching boat. I’m sure there were whales out there. Somewhere. But we might as well have been bobbing around inside a giant translucent light-bulb for all the belugas we had seen.

I desperately wanted to see the St Lawrence belugas. Like Cartier, Champlain and the Iroquois, the fabled white whales somehow evoke the irresistible lure of the St Lawrence River – often against overwhelming odds. Since 1900, pollution carried downstream from several major cities around the Great Lakes has found its way up the food chain to leave the beluga population riddled with toxins. Down from 5,000 to fewer than 700 individuals, the survivors suffer from suppressed immune systems and low pregnancy rates. And yet they endure. Sighting a beluga would be like glimpsing a lighthouse in a storm – a sign that the recently declared Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park was offering a lifeline to these beleaguered cetaceans.

Onze heures! Onze heures!” Two hours into the cruise, I felt a cool breeze on my face and watched it tear a window in the fog. I’d barely locked on to the bearings our guide had given before the belugas submerged again. It was the briefest glimpse – three backs (pale and smooth like polished pebbles of quartz) rising above the surface; the gentle sigh of leviathan breaths lingering in the stillness.

The lugubrious mood on board the M/V Dufour began to dissipate as rapidly as the fog. Glazed eyes became focused; the guide’s commentary took on a keener edge. She was explaining that 11 other varieties of whale – from diminutive minkes to mighty blues – migrated here to feed on the krill that bloomed in the icy, upwelling currents. It was little wonder, I thought, that Tadoussac has become such a popular centre for whale-watching.

Something to Gaspe at

Continuing my drive eastwards the following day, I caught up with the fog as it shuffled stubbornly back to the ocean. Once again, I was cocooned in monotone forests. From Forestville, I took a ferry across the river (now some 50km wide) and pushed on towards the Gaspé Peninsula. La Gaspésie, as it’s popularly known, is ensnared by a coastal road, but its interior remains wild and largely untamed – an emphatic full stop to the rambling Appalachian Mountains.

As I drove on past the regional centre of Matane, with its timber mills and shrimp fishery, the fog conspired with leering sea cliffs to snuff out the tip of the peninsula. But a no-nonsense wind, whipping in from the Gulf of St Lawrence, had other ideas. By the time I reached land’s end at Forillon National Park, the sun was shining. I parked the car and walked to a pebbly beach strewn with drift logs. A trio of terns skipped along on the wind, calling to one another with harsh, urgent cries. One of them held a small silver fish in its bill – no doubt destined for a hungry chick.

For people and wildlife, summer has long been prime time for fishing on the St Lawrence. It was fish, not fur, that was Canada’s original export. Europeans were harvesting the Gulf of St Lawrence not long after Cartier’s arrival. In the early days they used seasonal camps to cure their catch before sailing home in winter.

Tucked into Gaspé Bay (on the southern edge of Forillon National Park), I visited Hyman & Sons General Store, one of 26 restored buildings in the Grand Grave National Historic Site which bears witness to the gradual transition to permanent settlement. During the 17th and 18th centuries, entire families of Jersey and Guernsey islanders, Acadians, Irish, Britons and French Canadians moved here to work the bountiful cod fishery.

Faithfully reproducing life in the early 1900s – right down to shelves laden with Quaker oats, fishing tackle and oilskins that fishermen bought on credit to get them through each cod-salting season – William Hyman’s store was a veritable time capsule.

Winters must have been unbearably hard. In late autumn, when the last schooners set sail for Europe and the West Indies, their holds laden with barrels of dried cod, Gaspé Bay’s fishing communities braced themselves for seven months of ice and isolation. The traditional recipe for soap seemed to sum up the hardiness and adaptability of these people – ‘Take water and mix with beef or pork suet, cod liver oil and sifted ashes from the woodstove’.

At Percé, a short distance south, I took a boat trip to Île Bonaventure where a blizzard of gannets fussed noisily above their clifftop nests. Bonaventure also contained evidence of a long-abandoned fishing community – a few restored houses; determined faces staring from black-and-white photographs; a palpable sense of the hopes and dreams that the New World must have kindled.

The migrant story

Nowhere portrayed more poignantly the story of immigration to Québec than my penultimate destination. To reach Grosse Île I travelled inland through Gaspésie National Park, a forested haven for caribou and moose, before driving back towards Québec City along the south shore of the St Lawrence. En route, I stopped at Bic National Park where swathes of wild roses packed a perfumed punch – a heady aroma that early sailors are said to have used to help them navigate to Bic’s safe anchorage.

The following day, at Berthier sur Mer, I boarded a small boat and, an hour later, stepped ashore on Grosse Île. Offshore, a small flotilla of yachts clutched the brisk easterly in their taut sails, skimming the surface of the St Lawrence like a skein of snow geese driven before an autumn gale. As I watched them beat eagerly past, their wakes sparkling in the afternoon sunshine, it seemed like nothing could stop them.

Québec City, just 50km upstream, was theirs for the taking – just as it must have seemed for every explorer, trader, missionary, soldier and immigrant to have plied these waters. But during the late 1840s new arrivals were dealt a devastating blow as they waited to be ‘processed’ by the quarantine station on this tiny island.

They were mostly Irish – fleeing the Great Famine in their homeland – and they had just endured a gruelling 60-day voyage from Liverpool or Limerick. But while the sailing ships cluttered the St Lawrence River off Grosse Île, like snagged pieces of driftwood, typhoid spread through them like wildfire. The death toll was crushing – in 1847 alone over 5,000 men, women and children were buried on the island.

A summer festival

Québec’s story, however, is as much about triumph as tragedy. You only need spend a few days in the capital to sense the vitality and richness of a culture derived from its French ancestry. When I returned to Québec City at the end of my journey, the Summer Festival was in full swing. Beneath the fairytale façade of Château Frontenac, the bustling boardwalk of Terrasse Dufferin pulsed with the antics of street performers. A steady tide of locals and tourists ebbed through pavement cafés and outdoor restaurants, and flowed through the boutiques and galleries of Rue du Petit Champlain.

Weaving my way through the crowds, I climbed the steps to the Citadelle, a magnificent 18th century fort, that still commands the river approach to Québec City. As a jazz band struck up a jaunty number on the boardwalk below, I tapped my foot to the rhythm and traced the curving reach of the St Lawrence River. It narrowed dramatically at the cliffs beneath the old walled city and then swung away to the west, out of view. A small ship was making steady progress upstream, perhaps heading towards Montréal or even the St Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes that lay beyond. Now wouldn’t that be an enticing journey...

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