This time of year always reminds me of trips I used to take to Quebec. My wife owns a kayak company and I used to guide her customers on trips north in the late summer/fall. Although kids, a bad shoulder and other circumstances have put these voyages on the back burner the last few years, one of the last trips I led taught me a valuable lesson that has influenced the models I employ to manage portfolios.
The destination for these trips was the “North Coast” of Quebec. You can get there by heading north on I-81, crossing the Canadian border and hanging a hard right. At that point you just drive along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River until you literally can’t anymore. We would camp on the cliffs outside the villages of Tadousac, Les Escoumines, and Grand Bergonnes.
North Coast, Quebec (all photos courtesy of Northwind Kayaks, Ltd)
I have kayaked as far north as the Mingan Islands. We chose this time of year because whales from all over the north Atlantic would also head there in the fall. In this area the Saguenay Fjord empties fresh water in to the brackish waters of the St Lawrence estuary. The constant tidal upwelling currents bring cold water upward where it mixes with the warmer water at the surface. The depths along this coastline can reach 1000-1300 ft just a stone’s throw from the rocky shoreline. These depths and currents produce Krill “blooms” that attract the whales to the area. Species we commonly encountered included Beluga, Minke, Humpback, Fin and Great Blue Whales.
Humpback Whale (photos courtesy of Northwind Kayaks, Ltd)
Clients for these trips would come from all over. On the trip that is the subject of this novel I was guiding a group from South America. Two of them were extremely athletic and two were obvious hostages on this type of adventure. Those two made it clear that cities, hotels and room service were more their thing. The week went very well except we did not encounter whales with the frequency or proximity of prior trips. I felt extremely bad about this because these folks had travelled a greater distance than any of our prior clients and I really wanted to get them up close and personal with some of the larger whales. This led to a terrible decision on my part.
Humpback Whale (photos courtesy of Northwind Kayaks, Ltd)
Towards the end of the week I decided to take this group about 6 miles offshore to a place called “the canyons”. It is directly out from the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord. Rock formations protrude from the bottom (about 1000 ft down) and in a few spots they top out just 20-30 ft below the surface. This structure effectively breaks up the strong tidal and river currents and forces krill in to a very dense cloud on the backside of the rock formations. The whales then congregate in this area very much like trout will school behind an obstruction in a river to use the current to bring them food.
Minke Whale (photo courtesy of Northwind Kayaks, Ltd.)
On a trip like this it is imperative that the tide charts be utilized in planning and while on the water. Your launch and return times are dictated by time of hi/low tides so you can benefit from those currents rather than fight them. It is very important, especially at this location, to get back before the tide turns against you. This last part was where I completely miscalculated and almost punched a one way ticket to Portugal.
Our trip out was without incident and I was extremely pleased (prematurely) with my plan as we encountered Beluga and Minke Whales all the way out. Once at the Canyons we encountered Humpback and a Great Blue Whale and my clients were thrilled. Humpbacks breached a couple times and we were very close to the Blue. I was very cognizant of the time and we headed back on schedule and things looked great….for about an hour. Apparently the NOAA weather people are no more reliable than the people we watch on TV. We encountered a very strong unforecasted head wind and two members of our group were slowing us down enormously. As luck would have it some thunder storms appeared to the west. The forecast and radar indicated these would pass to the south of us but unfortunately none
of these storm cells looked at our radar and they swung our way. When my GPS showed zero progress after a 30 minute span of relatively hard paddling I cabled my slowest partner to my kayak and began towing. This helped some but as darkness began to envelope the region we were able to see massive lightning strikes and hear thunder only 10 or so miles to the west.
I made my decision to tow too late and did not adequately factor in how much fatigue would slow some of my crew on our return trip. The headwinds we experienced were growing more intense. We were still 4 miles offshore when we should have been hitting the beach in Tadoussac
Pectoral fin of a Great Blue Whale
We never stopped paddling and my GPS now showed 5.2 miles offshore. We were rapidly losing ground. A crab boat zipped by us and I tried to signal with a rescue whistle. This is not like the whistle you hear at a sporting event. If you blast this thing in your house I think it could crack a window. I blasted the whistle and that boat did not even slow down. It was raining pretty good now and the boat crew were all inside.
I pulled my radio and made a call for help. No response. Called again. Nothing. I banged through some of the nonemergency channels and was still unable to raise anyone. I was beginning to have serious concerns for the safety of my people. Elated shrieks due to the whales were now being replaced by shrieks of another nature. I pulled some flares and fired. PFFFFT and a red ball skipped across the water behind me. The wind took that flare right off the muzzle and sent it flying laterally and was extinguished in the water. I checked the expiration date and they were good. I fired another and it did a little better but did not get anywhere near the elevation I thought necessary.
Humpback Whale and calf
The lady I was towing began to really freak out. Strangely her biggest concern was sharks. The water was 39 degrees and the wind and waves were sweeping us out to sea. Our dry suits would keep us alive for a long time but an overnight on the open gulf was more than a little concerning to me. It felt good to tell her I was extremely confidant sharks were not a concern. It got darker. I fired two more flares and kept the group paddling in a tight formation. The waves had now grown to where visibility was an issue for kayaks more than a few boat lengths a way.
We were now over 6 miles from shore. We were nowhere near the Canyons (we were being pulled out and east towards the Gulf) but we had the same water to cover as when we began our return. I was seriously considering lashing the kayaks together and riding out the duration of the tide cycle. Hopefully some rest would help my clients make another stab for shore.
I started to organize some rope when my radio clicked. I adjusted it and made another call. A guy in a bar in Tadoussac was screwing around on the radio and I was able to connect and convey my situation and location. My horrible French and his weak English made this a much more involved process than it needed to be. Space Shuttles have been launched with less dialogue. As we exited the exchange he told me to “keep a look for big red boat” .
“The Big Red Boat”
I learned later he thought he saw a flare but wasn’t sure so he started monkeying around on the radio to see what was going on. He ran down to the docks and woke up the guy who was supposed to be monitoring the radio for the harbor. 15 minutes later I saw boat lights and spot lights headed out our way. I heard a chopper and seconds later we had a spotlight illuminating our position from above.
We were picked up without incident. I was extremely pleased that my clients went from panic mode to a tour of the rescue boat and pictures with the crew. All four of them were laughing extremely hard. I started to get the impression that they thought this was all part of the trip. I was not laughing because I was pretty sure I had a massive bill coming from The Canadian Coast Guard.
There are many takeaways from this trip. The most pronounced, for me, is never limit yourself to one play. People die on the North Coast regularly. I have seen many people leave shore with a only a radio, or only flares, or just a whistle. Some head out with nothing. If I had only the flares or just a radio- I am reasonably certain nobody would have been laughing when this adventure was over.
Great Blue Whale