"First you get on your knees like this. Then you stand up. Hold the paddle like this and start moving."
That is the extent of our stand-up paddleboarding lesson and we are off. One guy in my group makes an offhand remark that he once competed in a paddleboard marathon on a river though, so I figure if things go south I could always cling onto his board while he paddles to safety. In reality though, the toughest parts are when a motorboat goes by and there's a wake. Once we emerge from the tributary onto Lac Saint Jean, the swells are mild. We can paddle along parallel to the beach, admiring the big summer homes.
Lac Saint-Jean looks more like an ocean than a lake from this vantage point. It covers 407 square miles and has waves lapping the beaches around many of the shores. It would take all day to paddle across it, so we just do a small loop for an hour.
We head to lunch at Microbrasserie du Lac Saint-Jean, with bieres artisanales and a very locovore menu. I balance the generous flight of beers I can't pronounce by ordering a salad with smoked trout. It's nice, but when my friend's platter with blueberry sausages and polenta arrives I immediately regret my decision.
Our next stop is H20 Expedicion, next to the Metabetchouan River. As a person who doesn't really like to freeze, seeing "whitewater rafting" and "Canada" together on a travel itinerary fills me with a lot of trepidation. Since are ae going out in August, however, the snow melt is long gone and the water is just cold enough to keep us alert.
We need a good cooling off after getting the rafts to the water anyway. That requires collectively carrying the huge rafts to a wooden stairwell, guiding them down the railings without tripping, hauling them across boulders, and sliding them into the water at just the right place. At the finish we'll do the same thing, but uphill.
Compared to that challenge, the rafting seems easy. The rapids are frequent but not too scary, so most of the time we've got beaming smiles on our face. We're riding a water roller coaster down the river past sheer limestone cliffs and evergreens on the cool splashing river. Despite names for the rapids like The Dungeon, Mouse Trap, and Sphinx Eye, nobody falls out until it's a smooth part and they do it on purpose.
After the adrenaline rushes on the water and the taxing raft transports, we're happy to go back in time to a quiet night at Moulin des Pionniers, a restored mill town from the turn of the 20th century. The water flowing through here powers a mill that can still turn trees into lumber with three saws. Small fountains dance on top the huge incoming pipe, which is made from aspen wood.
A guide who looks like he could have lived in the 1901 house where we have breakfast shows us how everything works and cranks out a few two-by-fours from whole logs. It seems sad that we abandoned places like this that were powered by the elements as soon as fossil fuels came along. He tells us that the mill used to supply electricity to the village, at $1 a month for one bulb each. At 9:00 p.m. when the mill closed, it was lights out for everyone.
Some other types of technology we keep using, however, even when we have far superior tools at our disposal. Exhibit A would be the canoe. Sure, it was a handy way to navigate a river in the days of exploration, when the best way to get around was to carve up a log and jump in. As we try to paddle down the Mistassini River in our double canoes though we seem to be moving at less than half the speed we would in kayaks. I want to just enjoy the fine scenery and ignore the slow pace, but every time I start daydreaming we end up going sideways and starting over from a dead stop, trying to establish a straight line forward again.
Our guide uses his paddle expertly as both propulsion and a rudder, making it look like second nature. Meanwhile I zig-zag down the water like a drunken otter, using more energy per hour than the native Americans who used this waterway probably did in a day. We take a break and climb Blueberry Hill. There's no thrill, but enough blueberries to stuff all of us. In August in the Saguanay region, blueberries seem to be as common as water, appearing wild and in fields almost everywhere we go.
That night we sleep with wolves, or at least the sound of wolves howling. We bunk down in a cabin at Aventuraid Park, a refuge where a French "wolf whisperer" takes them in and keeps them happy on land with space to roam. He's more concerned about what they think of us than us of them when we visit. He waits for welcoming body languge from the animals before we can go in and see them up close. They nuzzle up to him like a lost parent and check the rest of us out, sometimes rubbing against our legs or extending paws onto a shoulder like a large dog.
We leave early the next morning for a drive to Parc National de la Pointe-Taillon, a peninsula sticking out into the huge lake. We rent bikes and hit the 45-kilometer Véloroute des Bleuets. At this time of year the Blueberry Bike Trail is well-named. Every time I stop for a rest or a drink of water there are blueberries at my feet. I snag a handful each time, savoring the sweet juice with the warm sun on my face, a view of the lake beyond. I keep in mind though that the Quebecois word for blueberry is bleuet and that sounds suspiciously like the sound I'll be making if I eat too many of them at once while exercising.
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