Also available in: French
Our collaborator, Samuel Ostiguy, explorer, architect of adventure and creator of experiences in the outdoors, tells us his latest sea kayak expedition story. Transformed from this journey, he also shares his best tips so that you, too, can adequately prepare beforehand for an upcoming outing on the water.
The Waves are Calling
February 2021. The telephone rings. On the other end: Simon Nadeau, a longtime friend who’s been a sea kayaking guide across the globe for over a decade. He’s planning a kayaking expedition for the end of April and invites me to join him and three other adventurers. A very exuberant yes is on the tip of my tongue, but as it’s been over 12 years since I’ve gone out on a long sea kayaking expedition, I hesitate.
“But Sam, you have so much experience; I feel like you’ll pick up right where you left off. It would be a privilege to be able to do this trip together, and we’ve been trying to organize a trip like this for so long!” he says in what I have to admit is a very persuasive argument.
Granted, he has a point. My outdoor guide training and numerous expeditions of over 15 years have definitely given me a pretty solid grasp of the ins and outs of this type of adventure. So, I agree to join in.
An ambitious itinerary
After several changes to our course due to the COVID 19 pandemic, we finally decide on the 150 km stretch of water from La Baie, in Saguenay, and the Baie-des-Rochers village, in Charlevoix.
The Saguenay region is one of the most majestic places in Quebec for travelling by sea kayak. About 2 km wide on average, the Saguenay River is nestled in cliffs and peaks that can reach several hundred meters. Marine life is abundant there and it is not uncommon to be able to observe it from your kayak. Finally, Sépaq’s Fjord-du-Saguenay National Park is divided on both sides of the river and offers campsites accessible only by water along the entire length of the route.
However, the Saguenay River is also one of the most complex places to navigate and it is essential to assess the level of difficulty it represents. Among the many challenges to be expected, the high tides, the wind rushing into the fjord, the weather variations, the cold water, and lack of docks are only some.
As with any outdoor adventure, it’s crucial to be impeccably prepared, have a solid amount of experience, and have the right equipment. If your experience level is insufficient depending on the activity you plan to do, it’s always possible to go accompanied by a professional guide.
In my case, I was headed out with three experienced kayak guides that know the fjord inside and out. I couldn’t have asked for more!
On April 29, 2021, at the La Baie marina, we make the final preparations during low tide. On the muddy and slippery ground, we load our personal equipment into our respective kayaks and divide up our collective equipment. So, I end up with some meals, stoves, and naphtha. I’m – naturally – a little nervous as I load my kayak, hoping that everything will fit.
After trying a few different methods, I finally find where each piece of equipment needs to go for my packing to work. This game of Tetris will need to be repeated every morning for the next week.
Ready to head out, we look like nautical gladiators with our watersport clothing and PFD’s on our backs. Excited about beginning the adventure, we grab a quick bite before putting our watercrafts on the water.
The midday sun is particularly hot on this cloudless, windless day. We begin our first few paddles with a shout of joy.
I try tasting the water and it is salty! The rising tide forces us to follow the banks, which allows us to take advantage of the counter-current and admire the landscape. The leafless trees and complete absence of other boats in the water remind us that we’ve left quite early in the season.
Day 1: From remembering to mastering
The first day allows me to review different paddling techniques. My fellow navigators are generous about giving constructive feedback and it helps me a lot.
At the end of the day, I already feel like I’ve regained some of the ease I once had when it comes to kayaking.
After a few hours spent on the water and about twenty kilometers crossed, Antoine and Simon direct us to the cove which will host our tents for the night.
I feel that this first night will be particularly good. After the sprint of the last few days preparing and the day out on the water, paddling under the sun, I’m really looking forward to my night’s rest.
Day 2: In good company
By the time I arrive in the kitchen area the next morning, the coffee is already ready and the breakfast sandwiches are almost good to go. I can’t think of a better way to rest my stiff shoulders from yesterday’s strain.
This new day on the water goes by without a hitch. We pass through the municipality of Sainte-Rose-de-Nord, reputed to be one of the most beautiful villages in Quebec.
At dinnertime, while eating the soup I prepared that morning, I take the time to feel and realize how happy I am to be here! Spending the day being active, laughing with friends, being rocked by the movement of the waves, admiring the breathtaking view…I’m simply ecstatic.
Two seals follow us all afternoon, playing hide and seek with our boats. The harmless mammals are super curious and have an attitude very similar to that of a dog.
In the evening, at the camp, we make sure to listen to the weather forecast for the next day. Winds of over 60 km/h are set to hit the area where we are.
Day 3: Forced to rest
The next morning, as predicted, the gusts of wind make it near impossible for us to head out safely. The strong waves crashing on the beach where we are would make taking a sea kayak out particularly risky.
Our decision is made. We’ll take a day off.
I love these days on a trip where nature just tells you to just “do nothing”. It reminds me of snow days where you get to stay home from school.
We take advantage of this forced stop to explore the surrounding area, and to rest.
The afternoon sun warms the sand on the beach, so we decide to do a stretching and meditation session barefoot on the sand. After dark, we eat on the beach, under the canopy of a cloudless sky, and stay up talking very late around the campfire.
Day 4: There she blows
The next morning, wind gusts of up to 90 km/h once again forced us to wait before setting out again. Simon and Antoine don’t remember ever seeing so much wind on this river of all the times they’ve been here.
We plan out a strategy for the next day. Weather permitting, we’ll do double the trek tomorrow.
Day 5: The unexpected awaits
It’s almost noon when we leave after having spent three nights in the same spot. The waves are still strong, but the wind is tapering off and, after discussion, we’re comfortable with the risk-level associated with heading out.
It’s essential to be prepared for the unforeseeable. Twenty minutes go by before the accident happens. I’m right in the middle of paddling when a wave catches me right in my rear blind spot. I try to keep my balance with a manoeuvre that involves using the paddle blade flat on the water, much like putting your hand on a wall if you lose your balance.
I am forcing a little bit too much and have bad posture. When my kayak capsizes, I feel my left shoulder suddenly come out of its socket.
Finding myself with my head underwater, I suddenly have an urgent need to breathe due to the thermal shock and sharp pain in my shoulder.
I open my eyes. Unlike the outside environment, there is complete calm under the water. The light is magnificent. I feel afraid.
I use my teeth to remove my right neoprene mitt and pull the skirt of my kayak to help me get out.
I see Simon approaching quickly and I let him know about my shoulder. I am well aware that for him, too, this situation has just added an additional level of complexity.
His instructions are clear and straightforward. Despite my confusion due to my shock and the fact that I am completely rusty on the procedure to follow, my kayak is emptied in a few moments and I can re-enter it, although with difficulty. In the meantime, I manage to force my shoulder back into place. The sound and the pain caused at that moment cause me to let out a cry of pain.
I’m back in my kayak, but I’m not out of the woods yet. It’s clear that I am no longer able to paddle.
Heading back to the campsite would be near impossible with this wind and these waves. The right thing to do is to stay stable and let ourselves drift.
We form a raft holding on to each other. Antoine tows us for a long time, Vicky feeds me and puts a mitten on my frozen hand, Julie holds my kayak firmly (as I have difficulty using my left arm), and Simon supervises the whole operation. As for me, I try my best to manage my condition by telling jokes and stories, and trying to move my feet to minimize the risk of hypothermia. I couldn’t be in better hands with these companions by my side.
When we arrive two hours later to the first place we may dock and spend the night, I begin to shiver.
While my sea kayak partners set up camp, I put on dry clothes, slip into my sleeping bag, and eat a warm and comforting soup.
Day 5: Every problem has its solution
During the evening meal, we discuss the rest of the trip. We all agree that the best decision is for me to end my excursion the next morning. Luckily, the ideal place to make this emergency exit is right across us on the other side of the fjord.
We contact a representative from Sépaq Parks, in Baie-Éternité, and the director of operations of Fjord en Kayak. Together, they coordinate to be able to help us. The person in charge will open a barrier located higher in the valley to allow the director of operations to come and pick me up by boat. They are most generous and professional.
Day 6: A well-orchestrated rescue
The next morning at around 10:30 a.m., we take down our camp and paddle the few kilometers that separate us from the point of my evacuation. Now is the time to go our separate ways.
Antoine, who lives in L’Anse-Saint-Jean, lends me his apartment while he completes the expedition with the rest of the team. I can rest there comfortably while waiting for my return to Montreal.
A happy finale
In the end, the team decided to cut their excursion short and end it in Tadoussac two days after my exit, after having paddled about 100 km on the water. Simon’s wife and I will meet them there with hot coffee, chips, and beer.
With a final “cheers” before returning home, we recount the countless changes that took place before and during this trip.
No matter what though, in the end, making the most of the moment and spending time together is all part of the adventure!
My takeaways from this experience
- Just as in any outdoor adventure, adequate prep is necessary to ensure your safety and that of others, and to maximize your chances of having the best time!
- This preparation should always take into account the risks of the area you will be exploring, your level of experience, level of training, the gear you are bringing, weather, and your mood.
- Accepting help, making a u-turn, stopping, or adapting an expedition of several days or a few hours is never a failure, no matter your level of experience. Rather, it’s a good way to reassess and plan for more successful moments in the future!
Tips and tricks for your next sea kayak expedition
- Stock up on 5 or 10 L dry bags. They are ideal for packing a kayak. Be careful not to pierce them by avoiding putting them close to sharp or metallic objects.
- Prepare a hot and simple lunch: Put boiling water into an insulated container (such as a Thermos) before leaving the campsite in the morning and add powdered broth and your favourite dehydrated ingredients. The result: A delicious soup for lunchtime!
- If you have one, attach your hydration pack directly onto your PFD. This will prevent you from being cluttered with too many shoulder straps or having to tuck your bag under the rubber bands on the kayak deck and bend down whenever you want to drink.
- Bring along 2 pool noodles per kayak. You can rest your kayak on them once out of the water, which will avoid you having to put it on heavy rocks that could damage it. You may also use tree branches for this purpose.
- Instead of marshmallows on the fire, I’ve discovered that a piece of chocolate (such as Toblerone) grilled over the flames is very, very tasty! Just create some makeshift tongs with two branches and you’re good to go!
Why go with an experienced sea kayak guide?
If you are a beginner or an intermediate kayaker, the services of an experienced guide for safety or emergency situations is strongly recommended. Although, it’s also great to make sure you have someone to ask about what gear you might need to bring along.
In addition, guides usually provide most of the group’s shared materials (burners, tents, camp kitchen supplies, etc.) and are often great cooks. Two advantages to consider!
To gear up right and find the right kayak for you, pass by SAIL to speak to a sales consultant in store.
Article written in collaboration with Samuel Ostiguy, explorer.
Also available in: French