The Kingdom of Saguenay

5 Dec

 

It was the French El Dorado. Iroquois legends spoke of blond men rich with gold and furs that lived north of the Saint Lawrence River. Whether it was based on early Norse settlers who arrived in Newfoundland centuries before or a fabrication created to appease early French explorers and traders is unknown, but in 1536 Jacques Cartier discovered the entrance to a great fjord and his interpreter explained that it lead to the Kingdom of Saguenay.

LaViolette Bridge crossing the St. Lawrence River to Trois-Rivieres

LaViolette Bridge crossing the St. Lawrence River to Trois-Rivieres

Fluorescent reds, oranges, and yellows have streamed across my vision for most of a day while riding north through Vermont and the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Immediately after crossing the 1.6-mile long Laviolette Bridge over the Saint Lawrence River into Trois-Riveries it was time to pull into the Coconut Motel so my retinas could rest. Inside, the deep red light punctuated by day-glo blue in the surreal tikki and wicker Polynesian palm-frocked motel bar seemed almost normal in comparison.

The Coconut Motel lounge

The Coconut Motel lounge

The Saguenay is often described as being an oasis in the wilderness, yet it is not difficult to find. One only has to follow Interstate 91 north to the US-Canadian border at Derby Line, Vermont where it becomes Autoroute 55, that eventually becomes two-lane Route 155. When Route 155 ends at on the shore of Lac-Saint-Jean you’re in the Saguenay.

Settled in 1608, Trois-Riveries (Three Rivers) was the second permanent settlement in Quebec, but its importance diminished after a fire destroyed most of the city in 1906. The downtown area of this old mill town has dozens of cafes and restaurants whose tables spill onto the sidewalks of Boulevard des Forges making this a popular weekend destination for regional riders.

Downtown Trois-Rivieres on a chilly morning

Downtown Trois-Rivieres on a chilly morning

The dungeons at the Old Prison

The dungeons at the Old Prison

Borealis

Borealis

The historic portion of the city—a small area the great fire didn’t consume– is only a couple of blocks from Blvd. des Forges. The Old Prison was established in 1822 and in continuous operation until 1986. In the subterranean basement are the dungeons, something straight out of a Medieval nightmare, and the upper floors are not a place one would choose to spend much time, either. However, groups can book a overnight stay as touristic prisoners—if they aren’t afraid of ghosts. The interpretive museum for papermaking, Borealis, is another interesting place to explore. While not creepy, the catacombs where water once was stored is not recommended for claustrophobics. Continuing on Blvd. des Forges I arrive at St-Maurice Forge, the oldest industrial complex in Quebec and now a national historic site. Operation began in 1735 and it was the most advanced foundry in North America during the first century of operation.

Just a few kilometers to the north of Trois-Riviere is, Shawinigan –ashawinigan, the great portage— known for fine gastronomy and several microbreweries. Lunch is at one of my favorite microbreweries, Le Trou du Diablo (the Devil’s Cauldron) so named for the mighty whirlpool at the foot of Shawinigan Falls. After lunch a visit to the 377-ft high observation tower at Energy City (La Cité de l’energie) provides a bird’s eye view of the city and the river leading north.

Resto 57 in Shawinigan

Resto 57 in Shawinigan

Trou du Diable: a great restaurant and fantastic brewery

Trou du Diable: a great restaurant and fantastic brewery

Can't beat the view from 377-feet in the air

Can’t beat the view from 377-feet in the air

The observation tower at City of Energy

The observation tower at City of Energy

Autoroute 55 becomes two-lane Route 155 in Shawinigan and soon is following the eastern bank of the broad St.-Maurice River as it winds through the Laurentian Mountains. These are among the oldest on earth, but after 500-million years of erosion and four glacial epochs their once lofty peaks have been humbled. Great cliffs, often featuring spectacular waterfalls, border the broad river and signs warning of falling rock are frequent along the highway. Logging trucks seem to dominate the road, yet the pavement is in excellent condition.

The St.-Maurice River viewed from Grand Piles

The St.-Maurice River viewed from Grand Piles

Painted rocks: graffeti innocence.

Painted rocks: graffeti innocence.

View along Rt. 155

View along Rt. 155

Fall foliage along the St.-Maurice River

Fall foliage along the St.-Maurice River

A highway sign warns there is no gas available for 156 km, so a left turn into La Tuque becomes mandatory. The village has several gas stations, a few hotels, restaurants, some familiar American fast-food chains, and a downtown strip that is a throwback to another era. Although it has less than 12,000 people the town encompasses 10,849 square miles, making La Tuque the sixth-largest town in Canada.

From La Tuque, the highway leaves the river and winds into the mountains. No houses, no farms, and no cell phone reception, lie beyond the hamlet of La Bostonnais: just forest and a great, wide, road with curves and elevation changes. The fluorescent yellow, orange, and red of foliage along the river have given way to dark green spruce, tamarack turning from green to gold, and the bright yellow leaves of birch the farther into the mountains I ride. Unfortunately the dramatic mix of mist and sunshine along the river has given way to dark gray clouds and a light, but steady, rain.

A gas station in Lac-Bouchette marks the return to civilization. From here it’s cruising down into the basin where a vast, post-glacial sea once existed and Lac-Saint-Jean now stretches to the far horizon. This is an oasis in the wilderness. The lake is large enough to modify the weather, creating a slightly warmer and longer agricultural growing season.

Lac-St.-Jean

Lac-St.-Jean

Route 155 ends in Chambord and Rt. 169 encircles the lake for 138 miles. I head west, although the highway signs proclaim this to be nord (north) and it’s a mere 8 km (5 miles) to historic Val-Jalbert, the best-preserved ghost town in Canada. At the end of a box canyon the roar of 236-foot Ouiatchouan Falls (clear falling water) thunders in full spate. When a pulp mill, established in 1901 to harness the power of the falls, abruptly closed in 1927 the mill village became abandoned. Recently it has become a major attraction with a number of buildings having been restored and the old mill transformed into a first-class restaurant. A gondola will take visitors to the top of the falls, but the real view is from the glass-bottom platform located above the raging water.

Val-Jalbert, Canada's largest ghost town

Val-Jalbert, Canada’s largest ghost town

236-foot Ouiatchouan Falls in Val-Jalbert

236-foot Ouiatchouan Falls in Val-Jalbert

Route 169 runs along the shore of the lake—one of only two places it does so—to Robertval. The highway cuts across the base of Pointe-Bleue, but I detour into the Mashteuiatsh Indian Reserve where First Peoples (Native Americans) had been using this point of land for their summer encampments for thousands of years. The Museum of Cheddar Cheese in Saint-Prime is closed for the season, but fortunately the cheese store is open. A bottle of the local brew, some organic sausage, and fresh cheese curds get stashed in my saddlebags for later.

Mashteuiatsh

Mashteuiatsh

Situated at the mouth of the Ashuapmushuan River on the west side of the lake, Saint-Félicien is a large town with ample services and a scenic waterfront. I pull into Hôtel du Jardin for the night. I’ve covered just over 200 miles today, but the wind is picking up as I cover the bike in the special parking area reserved for motorcycles.

Today’s plan is to deviate from circumnavigating the lake and follow Route 167 to Le Doré. The primary attraction in this area is Zoo Sauvage, but I continue past to visit Moulin des Pionniers (c. 1889), one of the last water-powered sawmills in Quebec. The equipment in the mill is not antique, but is driven by wide belts whose motive force derives from a water turbine.

Moulin des Pionniers

Moulin des Pionniers

Inside the water-powered sawmill

Inside the water-powered sawmill

The shortcut from Le Doré to Route 169 at Normandin is Rue St-Joseph (St. Joseph Street). It crosses the Ashuapmushuan River at Petite chute â l’Ours (Little Bear Falls). Majestic waterfalls and raging rapids are the norm up here; anywhere else this would be a major tourist attraction. Sand dunes testify this once was a great inland sea while extensive fields of blueberries, leaves turned deep red in the autumn season, run across the otherwise flat landscape.

Petite chute â l’Ours (Little Bear Falls)

Petite chute â l’Ours (Little Bear Falls)

After going through the city of Dolbeau-Mistassini and immediately after crossing the second bridge, make a quick right turn instantly followed by another. The road looks as if it goes to the back of the Môtel Chutes des Péres, but actually follows the river to a park with picnic tables, a pavilion, and camping that’s located at the foot of awesome rapids that only world-class kayakers could tackle and survive. It’s a great place for an impromptu picnic lunch.

The new Rio Tinto Alcan smelter is visible in the distance even before reaching the city of Alma and the Isle Maligne power station can be seen when crossing the bridge. When this hydro-electric generating station came online in 1925 it was the largest in the world. The first Alcan aluminum processor was built in nearby Arvida in 1926 to take advantage of cheap electricity and two more massive power plants were constructed soon after the first. By the end of WWII Saguenay was the world’s largest power-generating and largest aluminum-processing center in the world and both remain as the primary employers in the region.

One of the aluminum smelters

One of the aluminum smelters

Arvida aluminum bridge

Arvida aluminum bridge

blueberry fields (forever)

blueberry fields (forever)

Three small cities- Jonquière, Chicoutimi, and La Baie– have been amalgamated into the municipality of Saguenay, but maps can be deceiving. Instead of one sprawling city there are vast stretches of rural landscape around and between the downtown centers. There are a number of roads connecting Alma to Saguenay and I choose Route 170.

Turning onto Route 372 is not only the most scenic route into Chicoutimi, but allows me to check out the Arvida Bridge, the world’s first aluminum bridge, by making a short detour on Route des Ponte (Bridge Route). Alcan built their first aluminum smelter here in 1926 and created a company town called Arvida—allegedly built in 135 days—that same year. Vast amounts of power are required to transform bauxite into aluminum by electrolysis and from the highway the processing plant is almost hidden by huge electrical transformers and towers.

The Old Pulp mill in Chicoutimi

The Old Pulp mill in Chicoutimi

The Little White House, symbol of resilience, after surviving the 1969 flood

The Little White House, symbol of resilience, after surviving the 1996 flood

Downtown Chicoutimi

Downtown Chicoutimi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Route 372 merges with Route 175 in downtown Chicoutimi. The local café scene is along the river, but my destination is up the hill at biker-friendly hotel, La Saugeneenee, where major retail stores, gas stations, and restaurants are established along Route 175.

Bagotville Air Museum

Bagotville Air Museum

Bagotville Air Museum

Bagotville Air Museum

Route 170 is the quickest way to reach La Baie and the Bagotville Air Defense Museum is difficult to miss. Outside the museum various aircraft are visible, including 101B Voodoo fighter poised as if taking off. There are other fighter jets and helicopters on display, including a MiG-23.

Dropping down to Ha! Ha! Bay the docking facilities are readily visible. Bauxite arrives on freighters from the far corners of the world and aluminum is exported; huge gleaming white cruise ships sit at anchor in this deep-water bay at the head of the famous Saguenay Fjord.

Pyramid de Ha! Ha! in La Baie

Pyramid de Ha! Ha! in La Baie

Low tide at Baie Ha! Ha!

Low tide at Baie Ha! Ha!

The red and silver Pyramid of Ha! Ha! rises at the junction of Route 381. Built of 3,000 aluminum yield signs, this public high-tech performance stage was constructed after the 1969 flood. Almost across the street is a parking area next to the Cultural Center and Fjord Museum. This is one of the better vantage points for photographing Ha! Ha! Bay, although there are a half-dozen belvideres (scenic overlooks) along Rt. 170.

Baie Ha! Ha! (foreground) and the Saguenay River (background).

Baie Ha! Ha! (foreground) and the Saguenay River (background).

Baie Ha! Ha!

Baie Ha! Ha!

The Saguenay Fjord, like those in Norway, was created by the advance of mile-high glacial walls during the last Ice Age and is hundreds of feet deep. However, the same glacier also cut two other parallel channels. While not as dramatic, they offer two very scenic roads: Route 172 on the east side to Tadoussac and Route 170 on the west to Saint Siméon. In a few rare places, other rivers have cut narrow channels through the rock walls that separate these troughs from the fjord.

Morning on the Saguenay River looking towards the fjord

Morning on the Saguenay River looking towards the fjord

I head back to downtown Chicoutimi on Rt. 372 and take the bridge across the Saguenay River. There won’t be another crossing until reaching the ferry in Tadoussac and not another gas station until Sacré-Coeur. Route 172 follows the shore of the river to St.-Fulgence and then climbs into the mountains and runs parallel to, but out of sight of, the fjord.

To get a glimpse of the fjord from the east bank, one must leave the highway and ride down to the beautiful little village of Ste.-Rose-du-Nord. The other vantage point is St-Basile-de-Tableau, but this is a little more difficult to locate and only one access is paved. Both are well worth the effort.

The Saguenay Fjord from the dock at Ste.-Rose-du-Nord

The Saguenay Fjord from the dock at Ste.-Rose-du-Nord

The pure joy of riding this road, especially the canyon-like valley through which flows the Marguerite River, makes it one of the best motorcycle-touring roads in Quebec. The campground at Marguerite Bay is a special treat during the summer months because a pod of white Beluga whales spends its time in this bay.

Leaving Ste.-Rose-du-Nord

Leaving Ste.-Rose-du-Nord 

Rt. 172 along the Ste.-Marguerite River

Rt. 172 along the Ste.-Marguerite River

Along Rt. 172

Along Rt. 172

Tadoussac is where the Rt. 138 ferry crosses the mouth of the Saguenay and on a busy day the waiting line can stretch up the hill for over a mile. This pretty little village has a number of great restaurants, CIMM (Center for Interpretation of Marine Mammals) where visitors learn about whales, the reconstructed trading post that Pierre Chauvin established in 1600, the original Indian Chapel (circa 1747), and Hotel Tadoussac (circa 1864).

I ride out to the great sand dunes and a parking area that overlooks the St. Lawrence River. From this vantage point one can often see whales that have traveled 600 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to spend their summers here. Beluga, Minke, Humpback, Fin, and Blue whales—the biggest creatures that have ever lived on our planet—come for the feast of krill and herring found here. With 12-foot tides and an abundance of whales, it’s not surprising that the earliest explorers thought this was the fabled Northwest Passage to China, but it would take over a hundred years after Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Tadoussac in 1536 before the first European would see Lake St.-Jean. The Kingdom of Saguenay, it turns out, was simply a legend, but this oasis of civilization in the wilderness certainly has a special essence that makes it unique and, at times, almost mystical.

Tadoussac Bay

Tadoussac Bay

Chauvin Trading Post

Chauvin Trading Post

The Indian Chapel

The Indian Chapel

At the dunes and overlooking the St. Lawrence River

At the dunes and overlooking the St. Lawrence River

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: