See what you're made of on the cliff-hanging Via Ferrata or sea kayaking in Fjord du Saguenay.
By Doug O'Neill | June 02, 2021
Aperitifs or adrenalin? Those were the choices we weighed late one summer afternoon while settling into our B&B in L’Anse Saint-Jean, a village of 1,200 squeezed between the tree-covered peaks of Mont Édouard and the Fjord du Saguenay in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec.
You’d think we would have defaulted to the aperitif, considering how much energy (nervous and physical) we’d already expended earlier that day. Mais non: we came to Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean—a long-established mecca for lovers of the outdoors—to immerse ourselves in the rugged landscape and step outside our comfort zone.
Via Ferrata, Saguenay Fjord National Park
Pushing ourselves well outside said comfort zone is how we spent the first part of that day in nearby Saguenay Fjord National Park. In addition to being home to one of the most southerly fjords in the northern hemisphere—inhabited by four species of whales—the 300-square-kilometre Saguenay Fjord National Park is a magnet for adrenalin junkies who want to tackle the high-flying—or, rather, high-scrambling—Via Ferrata.
For the uninitiated, a via ferrata (Italian for “iron road”) is a hybrid of rock-climbing and serious (upward) hiking while decked out in gear familiar to anyone who’s zip-lined. You’re handed a helmet and strapped into a full-body harness and use innovative carabiner hooks to lock and unlock yourself into steel cables, iron rings and occasionally narrow metal ladders as you propel yourself upward—under the watchful eyes of a professional guide—to the summit of a rock face.
The rock face in this case is a slab of rock that towers about 280 metres above the verdant forests and blue waters of Baie-Éternité in the southwestern sector of the park. The outfitter offers three circuits: the three-hour La Passerelle for beginners, which covers a distance of 295 metres; La Grande Dalle, for intermediates who are capable of covering 570 metres over four hours; and L’Odyssée, for the more advanced, who can withstand six hours of gruelling heart-in-your-mouth climbing.
We chose the four-hour option, which included a swinging walk on an 85-metre-long footbridge at the halfway mark—a great photo op. (Taking selfies while climbing gets tricky!)
After initial instruction from our guide, we commenced our climb in a group of eight. Safety lies in the methodology, which our guide reinforced along the way. I settled into a rhythm after the first 20 metres or so. Clip, unclip, grab hold, pull upward, stop. Slide your hand to the next iron ring or, occasionally, the rung of a narrow ladder, all while practically French-kissing the rock face. The climbs are sometimes horizontal—and that gets challenging. You blindly slide your foot along until it connects with a “stirrup” nailed into the rockface. Clip, unclip, find your next foothold, pull your body, climb again.
My heart lodged in my throat when I dared to look down at the halfway mark: anxiety and sheer exhilaration at the same time. I discovered an intimacy with the rock face I hadn’t expected. I became attuned to the hard surface, the cold touch of the iron rings—and the sense of achievement as I climbed higher, until the coniferous trees below looked like small ferns. Upon reaching the summit and surveying the stunning views, I felt a mix of elation and mental fatigue. I sighed contently. “I need an aperitif!"
Clip, unclip, grab hold, pull upwards, stop—all while practically French-kissing the rockface.
Sea kayaking, Fjord du Saguenay
Our next adrenalin-laced adventure took us off dry land and into the choppy waters of the Fjord du Saguenay in sea kayaks, which were new to me, a seasoned river kayaker. Firstly, I wanted to explore the park’s namesake, the 105-kilometre-long Fjord du Saguenay, and a sea kayak was the only way I could get up close to the 150-metre cliffs that jut straight up out of the water at the edge of the fjord.
My guide from Fjord en Kayak didn’t mince words: Sea kayaking in a deep fjord is different from river kayaking. For starters, there’s little chance of coasting with the current. Equally important, the Fjord du Saguenay reaches a width of four kilometres, which means I’d be vulnerable to open winds—not to mention the tide. And totally new to me: I’d be kayaking in a water body that is 93% salt water (thanks to the St. Lawrence River estuary) under a layer of freshwater.
Once I was squeezed into a wetsuit and seated in my kayak, we set off from the sandy beach of L’Anse Saint Jean. Being told that sea kayaks are designed long and narrow to enable the paddler to navigate in a straight line didn’t make the initial foray easier. It felt weird—which made sense: I had never kayaked in waters so deep. I also discovered that sea kayaking requires some serious upper-body work. And the tippy nature of the sea kayak? I got used to it soon enough and stayed the course as we headed toward the opposite side of the fjord.
The first set of waves sprayed my face, which remained wet for most of the outing. At times, I bounced around like a rubber ducky on the Atlantic and braced myself repeatedly as I paddled directly into oncoming waves, which were higher than anything I’ve encountered on a river outing.
Reaching the other side of the fjord, we were rewarded with close-up views of the immense cliffs and an unexpected sighting of a seal. Even better—I hadn’t flipped my kayak. Mission accomplished. Time for another aperitif.
When You Go
Kayak for three hours or six days with Fjord en Kayak, exploring the Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay and the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park.