The whale made its presence known before I saw it. Crossing the River Sauenay where it empties into the St. Lawrence River, it was the expression on the faces of the French Canadian couple next to me on the ferry that told me it was there. Gazing in childlike wonder, before smiling, laughing, and pointing with animated gestures, I turned to see the waters boil and froth as the giant creature slipped back into the cold, dark, water. Sending large ripples that slowly melted as they spread towards the ferry’s wake, the presence of this huge beast sent my pulse racing and slapped a jaw-stretching grin on my face that stayed with me the rest of the day. Feeding in the nutrient rich waters at the mouth of the Sauenay, our Canadian friends informed us it could have been a sperm, humpback, finback, or blue whale. Call it what you want, but the chance to see a 100,000-lb marine mammal alive in the rugged wilds of the St. Lawrence Seaway was instantly consigned to a top-travel high in my personal files.
Journeying again with the usual suspects, Dennis and Sam Gage, as we roamed around Quebec filming another episode of our Speed Channel documentary series “Trippin on Two Wheels,” gave us the chance to explore one of the most fascinating places we have been in this series. Riding three identical Buell Ulysses also gave us a chance to sample one of the most eclectic motorcycles currently produced. Part dirt bike, part sportbike, with some distinct adventure travel genes infused, the big paint shaker V-Twin was icing on the character cake of this totally eccentric motorcycle.
Taking a ride down the side streets in Montreal, one can get a feeling for the city’s history with brick roads and classic-styled buildings.
Always the man with the plan, Dennis had charted our rendezvous in the French Canadian city of Montreal, the Atlantic Ocean’s Gateway to the Great Lakes, in early July. Boasting a predominantly French-speaking population of over 1.5 million, it is credited with being the tenth-cleanest city in the world. Also hosting an International Jazz Festival the week we arrived, it would have been easy to spend a couple of days here. With Dennis’ time schedule ticking, we had to satisfy ourselves with a ride into town for an early lunch this time. Here we found street performers, crowds of tourists and plenty of fascinating architecture. With a distinctly European flavor, in the fashion of a Scandinavian city like Stockholm, or perhaps Oslo, the temperatures were hovering around the high ‘50s. Thankfully, the sun was shining, but watching the clouds roll in from the north was a stark reminder of the wild open land ahead of us.
Taking the opportunity to ride to the Monte Royal Lookout for a better view of the city, by the time we had made the climb, there was no blue sky left. We quickly decided we should strike out for Quebec by the most direct route. Picking up the four-lane Highway 20, it was plain sailing for the first hundred miles as we left the city behind and rolled across flat, open farmland and lots of heavily wooded sections. With the big V-Twins running happily around 70 mph, with deceptively low rpm registering on the tachometer, it was good to be moving. The Buell is very comfortable, extremely smooth, and does a fantastic job at these speeds. Affording a nice view of the world as we made our way north, we rolled by apple orchards, Christmas tree farms and vast forests of pines with the occasional gas station appearing like an island in the sea of green and brown.
A hundred miles in, the rain came, but thankfully it was fairly brief. By the time we rolled into Quebec, the city was bathed in afternoon sunshine, covered by a light blue sky peppered with lofty cumulus clouds flying high in the strong breeze over the St. Lawrence River. It felt like riding into a travel brochure. Making our way to the most prominent building in Quebec, the Chateau Frontenac that stands majestically atop Cap-Diamont, we quickly unloaded and checked into our rooms. Quite how they took a bunch of motorcycle riff raff in I’m not sure, but everyone seemed polite enough as we took off to ride around the city before the sun went down.
Welcome to Quebec City, known for its city walls, historic architechture and popular tourist attraction, the Château Frontenac.
Finding our way into the Old Town (Vieux-Quebec), we learned it is the only remaining fortified city north of Mexico and that Quebec has been around since the early 1600s. Making for a fascinating history lesson, we enjoyed the labyrinth of old streets and buildings as I reminded myself we were in North America. Later, leaving the guys to do their own thing, I made my way to the Dufferin Terrace, the boardwalk in front of the Chateau Frontenac. Here, as I enjoyed the sweeping views across the St. Lawrence River and the busy cloud formations still decorating the sky, I sat a while and cast my mind back more than 20 years. Fresh out of England with a bag on my back and the world in front of me, I had met friends here. It seemed familiar, but the abundance of Canadian beer we enjoyed at the time had erased most of the memories. It was interesting though to remember, I was just as crazy about motorcycles then as now.
The amazing landscape and blue skies were quickly exchanged for
dark clouds and lots of rain as we continued our journey.
The following morning, after having to surgically remove ourselves from the luxury of the Frontenac, we hit the road, with the sun back in full force and the land lit bright around us by its golden rays. Spinning out of the city, the three identical Buell’s purring, we made our way toward Bai-St. Paul on Highway 138. Riding north on the west side of the St. Lawrence, the winding road gave us stunning views of this magnificent waterway. The air was warm, enjoying the company of my good friends, and a comfortable motorcycle beneath me, it was an awesome start to our day. The joy didn’t last too long unfortunately, as within the hour the sky started to darken and the temperatures began to drop. That said, we made our destination without rain, but the situation wasn’t looking too positive. Knowing it was coming, we parked and walked around the marina enjoying the wide-open spaces and spectacular views across the water. Lunch was found back in town, as was an opportunity to stretch our legs and do the tourist thing in the small, quaint town.
Back on the road, tucking in behind the Buell’s small fairing was little more than a token effort at deflecting the hammering rain. Seeming like it was coming sideways, as well as down, its ferocity was only equaled by the incredible amounts of spray thrown up by the trucks. Lined up in formation, we were hunkered down in our rain suits just making miles and waiting for reprieve. To our sides, thick, mist-shrouded forest looked dark and foreboding, as the temperatures dropped and the clocked ticked slower and slower. Making our way to the small town of Tadoussac through the small coastal towns of St.Urbain, La Malbaje and St. Simeon, it seemed a long time coming as the rain beat relentlessly down.
While it isn’t quite as old as some of the other architecture in Quebec, the Hotel Tadoussac is a very popular tourist destination.
Thankfully, by the time we were watching our first whale with our French Canadian friends, the rain had passed, and our evening in Tadoussac, at the hotel bearing the same name, was another one of those travel gems you often stumble into when on tour. Built in 1864 and situated at the crossroads of the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay Fjord, I knew it was going to be interesting when we were chased out of the main dining room for not wearing proper shirts. Reminding me somewhat of an old summer camp from years gone by, the buffet-style dining was first class, even if the décor was already out of date by the ‘70s. Ending our evening as the last of the late summer sun’s rays colored the horizon a deep, burned gold, we sat quietly watching the smooth water of the St. Lawrence interrupted occasionally from a whale breaking the surface.
Morning started with a traditional breakfast usually found in Great Britain, before we navigated our satiated bellies behind the gas tanks and did a quick victory lap around the small town. We were actually lost and looking for the road that would lead us out to the headlands so we could indulge in more whale watching. But with Dennis in the lead, we will make it looked planned for this story. Once out of Tadoussac, we spent some time blasting up and down a few miles of dirt roads, and even though we had sportbike tires, we managed some serious fun. When we parked the bikes, picked a spot on a good-sized flat rock, and gazed out to watch the whales, once more the awe returned. With the whales surrounded by boats full of tourists, we watched a bizarre game of cat and mouse as the whales drew the boats in ever-increasing circles. The Gage boys and I have traveled a good number of places in the world and have seen some incredible things, but this has to be one of the highlights.
While we saw plenty of old rusty ships along the waterways, it was the jet black water that caught our attention.
Leaving the vast palette of colors across the St. Lawrence behind, we made our way back across the ferry and south to the town of St. Simeon. Here we cut inland through dense forest and had the best ride of the trip. An undulating two-lane highway cut through the thick pines and with no side roads, we hit the gas and took off. With Dennis up front and Sam in hot pursuit, the next half-hour was spent at high-speed on the deserted road as we put the Buell’s handling to the test. Highly capable as a form of rapid transport, we were certainly not sightseeing as we carved our way through the unspoiled land.
Making for the small fishing village of St. Jeanne, the rain almost held off, before falling more steadily as we took lunch. Exploring a small marina, its inky black waters looking as dark as oil, it was almost bizarre to see brightly-painted yachts bobbing at anchor as the mist and rain rolled in across the fjord. Sailors in these parts must be hardy stock.
Unfortunately, the rest of our day was seen through a rain-splattered, steamed-up visor. Splashing our way to the town of Chicoutimi, we took an uninspiring modern hotel out of convenience to get out of the cold and wet. It had a bar and a decent restaurant, and the heaters in the room almost took the paint off my helmet, so there were no complaints from the three cold, wet riders that night.
Breakfast the following morning brought the reality of heavy rain and even lower temperatures. It was also the last day of the trip and thoughts of home were beginning to creep in. As seasoned travelers, Dennis and Sam are not ones to let the weather ruin the ride, so we blasted off into the rain fueled on strong coffee and good humor. Splashing out of town, we made our way south through the interior on Highway 175 through the National Park des Grand Jardins. A tad frustrated to realize what a spectacular ride this would have been if we could have seen anything, we pressed on hoping for a break in the torrential rain. Lucking into a small reprieve about midway back to Quebec, we did some off-road riding back into a series of small lakes. Here “Captain Dennis” exploited some ancient American law and commandeered a small rowboat for a time. Putting it back where we found it after some fun and games checking out the lake from the water, we donned our rain suits once more and paddled off down the highway.
Despite the heavy downpours, Quebec yielded some amazing landscapes and sights that would make any motorcycle tourer wonder why they didn’t come here sooner.
Quebec City rose up on the horizon too soon, and replacing wild open spaces for houses and cars was a jolt to the system. We had to return the bikes, drop our cameraman at the airport, and blitz back to Montreal to catch our flights early the next morning. Thanks to Dennis, we hit our marks with military precision, and gliding south out of Quebec in the rental, we had plenty of time to reflect on a wonderful journey. It was markedly different to our European trips, but not for one second any less interesting. With warm, friendly people speaking French, European-style restaurants and architecture and wide-open spaces where the air is fresh and clear, the Province of Quebec with its incredible opportunities for whale watching is without doubt one of North America’s finest jewels.