In the summer, my dad, sister, and sometimes my brother go on a backpacking trip somewhere with me. The first one was in Montana, then we did a trail on Kauai, and in 2018, Marisa planned for us to hike a little farther east. Sentier du Fjord is a 23-km point-to-point trail that follows a fjord as it empties into the St. Lawrence River. It’s very deep and home to many whales.
Marisa and my dad drove to Detroit to see Jason Mraz, then swung through Buffalo to pick up Steve (this made sense somehow), then on to Montreal where they were going to pick me up.
My plan was to leave Oakland on Friday and crash with my friends Betty and Tim (even fresher off the Pacific Crest Trail back then), then onto Montreal. Siblings and father united would then take a day to drive toward Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay and start walking. Well, here’s how that plan went:
Friday | Oakland International Airport to Indianapolis International Airport to George Bush Intercontinental Airport to Austin, TX (3,446 mi)
I awoke to a text letting me know that my flight to New Jersey was CANCELLED, and called right away to get re-routed. They’d send me through Indianapolis instead. Sure, fine.
What I had NOT considered is that there are not that many flights through Indianapolis, so once you’re there, your options narrow considerably. I nearly ended up stranded there for two days. I told the Southwest gate agent to assume I was down for significant additional airport hours so long as I got to Newark by the next day … and together we came up with the idea for me to fly to Houston, then to Austin, have a 6-hour layover, then on to Newark as planned. I ran to board the already-boarding flight to Houston.
Saturday | Austin, TX to Newark, NJ (1,732 miles)
Boy, do I ever have a friend in Austin!! Patrick was working the door at a bar in Austin (where he lives) so I rolled up there right around midnight to pick up his keys (and uh have like 3 drinks he gave me, oops lol), saw my friend Phil who was just down the street at a different bar, then rolled back to Patrick’s house for about four hours of VERY fitful sleep for the pre-dawn flight to Newark. Thank you hero Patrick!!
I napped on the plane to Newark and amazing friend Betty picked me up. I was so tired but it was hot and muggy which always helps. We went for a hike in New Jersey. I did not know you could do this! Betty and Tim gamely probably slowed their pace quite a bit as I huffed and puffed and blamed it on the humidity. Not super great considering I planned to spend the next week hiking with 30 pounds on my back but OK! We found a waterfall and took power crouch pics.
Then we had ice cream, traded books, ordered sushi and watched Fantastic Planet. I felt very warm and fuzzy about this lifelong friendship and fell asleep on another couch before yet another flight.
Sunday | Newark Liberty International Airport to Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport to Saguenay, Quebec (656 miles)
The family was reunited! Our first stop was a restaurant with classic Quebecois foods. When I asked Marisa for things I should be sure to include in this post and she said, “Pizzaghetti is not as delicious as it seems.” As you can see below, pizzaghetti is a small pizza, cut in half, with a pile of spaghetti in the middle.
Then we made the scenic drive north to Saguenay, where we stayed in a yellow house along a lovely river. I made everyone unpack their backpacks to make sure we had the right gear and weren’t taking too much. Marisa took some pictures of the house and I did a power crouch again. We drove into town and came back with a huge amount of poutine.
Steve and I passed a Mountain Dew bottle filled with Jack Daniel’s back and forth and killed about half of it; our giggling and crying from laughing about Dril tweets together probably kept the other two awake. Once again I was proving that I was taking the physical trial ahead very seriously (rated “three boots,” which we were told is “difficult.”)
Monday | Sageunay to Tadoussac to Baie-Sainte-Marguerite to Des Cedres (157 km driving, 8.1 km hiking)
Because this was a point-to-point hike and not a loop, we wanted to hike to our car at the end of the trail. That meant driving all the way to the end of the fjord in Tadoussac, where we’d booked a shuttle months before. On the way from the yellow house to Tadoussac, we stopped for oueffs in Sainte-Rose-du-Nord (because the waitress did NOT have any interest in speaking English, we did our best).
Back on the narrow country road, traffic came to a halt entirely for an accident. My dad got out to stretch his legs and made a new friend — a Quebecois magician/musician named Toby who was wearing a Puffy Shirt and showed him a few tricks right there on the side of the road.
When we got to the hostel in Tadoussac, first they claimed they didn’t have our booking, then they said the driver was out that day, then they charged our credit cards and said they’d find him, then we saw the driver having a beer on the patio, then they said the van was broken and gave us our money back in Canadian cash — in brief, we needed a new plan. Toby magically rolled up to the hostel (where he was set to perform) right about then and about half an hour later, he, my dad, my brother, my sister, me, and our four backpacks were all packed tight in his well-used and economical sedan. He did one final trick for us at the trail head, gave my dad his card, and we finally began to do the hike.
At this point we still found it hilarious to take a triumphant photo at every kilometer marker.
The trail began with a hard surface, accessible to lots of people visiting the Sainte-Marguerite River where it meets the Saguenay River. We crossed a long, low-slung suspension bridge (the first of several moments that reminded me of West Coast Trail), then started our first ascent of what would be more than 1,000 meters over those four days. We passed the rusting remnants of an abandoned timber town once nestled at this junction, then crested the hill at Halte au Béluga (we lack 100% confidence that whales were spotted, but we saw some promising-looking waves).
After several kilometers hiking through the forest with glimpses of the fjord below, we emerged onto a broad, treeless meadow, cleared for some huge high-voltage pylons connecting each side of the fjord. With beautiful wildflowers beneath them, and a low hum issuing from the lines above, their sudden, strange presence was kind of neat.
Our first night’s camp was a lean-to — fairly luxurious! We were basically sleeping on top of one another in this small space (our packs dangling above us in a half-hearted attempt to keep them away from critters). This thing even had a pot-bellied stove, not that we needed it on such a warm day.
Tuesday | Des Cedres to Pointe à Passe-Pierre (16.2km)
Twice as far to hike, but no driving and no magicians. We started the day with ups and downs, some of them on well-constructed wooden staircases, and some scrabbling down smooth, steep rocks that would have been a nightmare if it had rained recently.
The trail cut inland here for a bit, and we passed through a gorgeous meadow filled with yellow and purple wildflowers before traipsing back toward the fjord, where we stopped on some rocks overlooking the water to have lunch and take another group picture for the family album.
Somewhere along the way we had to road-walk a bit, passing a “refuge,” which anyway can book and is really a cozy cabin. I used their very nice pit toilet and then goofed off trying to peer in the windows and fell in a weird way on a rock, twisting my ankle. This hurt but I was sure I was fine.
We hiked down to the water at L’Anse-de-Roche, hoping for a cold drink, but the little cafe wouldn’t serve beers to go. They did give my poor, deprived dad a caffeine fix, and we made our ramen/rice/noodle lunches on the pier with picnickers who could drive their cars back up the hill. Knowing I had to climb back up made gathering the will power to get up off the sun-warmed pier by the river a three-boot task.
On our way back to the trail, we passed a canvas tent where a man was making and selling wooden jewelry (I bought some) and giving away apples (bless him).
But hey guess what, I was not fine in the end. My ankle swelled up a bunch that day, and every step hurt, a little more the farther we went. By the time we stopped for they day I had wrapped my (already sweat-soaked and filthy) bandanna around my ankle because I heard somewhere maybe that helps.
We clambered down the hillside to the rocky spit of beach just below, one of us saying “ouch ouch ouch” with every step, to watch the sunset reflected on the waters of the cove at Pointe à Passe-Pierre. I elevated my foot pathetically and Marisa, Steve and Dad skipped stones.
Back at the campsite we made dinner and chatted with some fellow hikers, a Quebecois couple doing the trail in the other direction. As we drifted to sleep on our wooden tent pads, my sister asked me to explain my process for multiplying two-digit numbers and was horrified.
Wednesday | Pointe à Passe-Pierre to Anse-a-la-Boule (8.3km)
We had such a short hiking day that we decided to stay at camp that morning and enjoy my new hammock. The hammock was also a great way to elevate my ankle.
Marisa was feeling the pain of brand-new boots that weren’t quite the right size. What a pair! (Me and her, but also the boots. Get it.) I lent her the excellent water/camp shoes Maia got me as a gift and she hiked the rest of the trail in them. Incredible strength on her part and a real endorsement of those shoes if you ask me.
The trail opened up to a wider gravel track. We passed more pylons, with wildly pink flowers carpeting the hills below and a clean view of the fjord. We found and ate blackberries here and there as we went, pushing thoughts of attendant bears to the back of our minds.
We had Anse-a-la-Boule to ourselves, so we spread out over the entire kitchen/shelter, and I hung my hammock in a precarious spot in an attempt to keep my foot elevated.
By that night, Steve hadn’t vaped in three days. He was mostly in a good mood about it, as you can see clearly in the photo below (he was lit-er-a-lly saying, “well, actually …”)
Thursday | Anse-a-la-Boule to Tadoussac (8.9km)
Woke up and peered out of our tents — fog had covered the river and filled the fjord, with evergreens in the foreground. It was a relief to start the day a little cooler than before; the cloud cover seemed very nice and not at all ominous. We crossed a boardwalk traversing large beaver pond and I’m sure everyone made super funny jokes about it.
View this post on Instagram
last summer i learned like 20 french words (such as “camping” and “oueffe”), hiked .6 vertical miles and 15 horizontal ones, twisted my ankle, saw a bunch of whales, read a book, and got barfed on a little bit and rained on a lot. co-starring @partypooper88 @steveritt and my dad. guest starring @tropicaldandy_ @phildoesit @betty_cam @timcameronmusic 🔗 link in bio 🔗 #fjordtough
Our final climb was Mt. Adela-Lessard, where we started to meet day hikers coming up from the town of Tadoussac, 1,000 feet below. There’s a special feeling a backpacker gets when they start to pass relatively clean, energetic day hikers. It’s not entirely envy and it’s not entirely disdain.
In our final km, literally the very last one as we emerged from the forests to see Lac de l’Anse à l’Eau, our weather luck finally ran out and we were drenched. We were giddy.
We walked off the trail onto a regular old city sidewalk and back to the truck as the sun came out again, with hours to go before any hotel would let us check in. We ordered huge amounts of poutine (and wine and mussels, in my case) from a restaurant that was really too nice for four people who probably smelled a little bit terrible from 4 days without a shower followed by 30 minutes of an aggressive one.
We found a whale-themed inn that let us check in early, and each of us reveled in a long shower. I ambled next door to a gift shop and saw there was a whale-watching boat leaving in 15 minutes. We all hustled, gathered up sweaters and rain gear, and they sent back the big school bus they use to shuttle tourists just to gather us up.
We saw a lot of whales (both numerically and variety-wise — Beluga, minke, humpback), which were incredible but don’t photograph well on my phone, and also got shockingly close to this lighthouse and heard the dramatic tale of the keepers who rode out a Christmas Nor’easter.
Friday | Tadoussac to Quebec City (214 km)
Showered, sort-of rested, and fed, we hit the road to see some sights before my flight home Saturday night. The basilica in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré had crutches and canes from floor to ceiling, left behind by those cured by the holy place. My dad said it would be a great venue for a Godsmack show.
Onto Montmorency Falls, 30 meters higher than Niagara Falls they’ll have you know. We took the suspension bridge across, and my dad nearly ziplined across too but the line seemed too long.
We’d found a deal for some huge resort hotel outside Quebec City and checked in, making a plan to take their shuttle into the city for dinner and a ghost tour that night. The ghost tour was tough because the tour guides had really thick accents, and also the content was not especially ghostly, and partway through my sister started to feel really sick. We had time before the next (and last) shuttle back to the hotel, so Steve, Dad and I got more poutine and Marisa suffered on a park bench.
We squeezed onto the last hotel shuttle back (it was overfull, but the driver was game), and Marisa barfed all over my brother. Some fellow tourists lent a bag from their souvenir shopping. She basically didn’t stop throwing up all night, and the next morning we waited until the very last minute to get back on the road to let her rest.
I had a flight to catch that evening in Montreal and had been hoping for some time to see the sights, but it was not to be. We stopped briefly at an St-Viateur Bagel near the outpost, where I bought carbohydrates and my second-favorite tote bag.
Marisa, Dad, and Steve had 633 km to go, and then another 307 miles for Marisa and Dad — I beat them home by a hair on my cross-country flight. I think Marisa got better a few days later.
So it all went according to plan, more or less.
Lessons learned: “Change your water filter more than once every 25 years.” – Steve
“3 boots really is pretty steep.” – Dad
“Don’t each too much poutine.” – Marisa