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It looks like I’ll be getting to my hotel room under my own steam. My host, Raphaël, is clearly amused by my concerned look as he hands me a paddle and a life jacket in lieu of a key. Baie des Chaleurs may be loosely translated as “Bay of Warmth,” but the 50-metre expanse of water between the shoreline and my lodging – a yurt on a floating wooden platform – has me in a cold sweat. No worries, he assures me with a mischievous smile, the yurts almost never go adrift. As it turns out, the water is only 90 centimetres deep, so my biggest concern is my paddle dripping all over the luggage tucked between my legs. Although this is a protected lagoon, there’s a slight current that makes navigating the kayak a bit of a challenge. But after honing my technique, I find myself paddling proudly toward my floating lodge.

Aux 4 VentsThe yurts at Aux 4 Vents will float your boat.

Later, back on dry land, I’m enjoying the last rays of sun on the terrace of Le Naufrageur brewery in downtown Carleton-sur-Mer. I soon come to realize that, unlike me, the locals aren’t afraid to get their feet wet. This corner of southern Gaspé, bordered by the Gulf and Estuary of the St. Lawrence, is full of adventurous types who’ve plunged headfirst into quirky projects that give this remote region of Quebec its personality. “We started brewing in the basement of the bakery. We wanted a little brew pub because we didn’t have anywhere to go out, and now we’re the ones that are getting people to go out,” explains Sébastien, one of the owners and a baker by training. He brings me a circular tasting tray with a compass rose engraved in the centre, a beer at each principal point. I try the Corte-Real first, a pale ale with a bright taste of grapefruit peel. Although this particular brew was named in honour of a Portuguese explorer who sailed the local waters in a caravel, many of the 30 beers brewed in the metal vats behind the bar are named after ships that sank off the Gaspé coast. And the name of the brewery, Le Naufrageur (the Wrecker), references a rough-and-tumble past when pirates would cause shipwrecks by misleading passing boats with lights set out on the shore. Evening descends. A small fire is lit on the terrace, and the patrons, beers in hand, gather round it. As the last swig of my Léonne goes down, I note with satisfaction that these latter-day naufrageurs have developed their own clever techniques to draw people to these shores.

 A fridge? A dryer? A dishwasher? Dany, a sailor, co-founder of the co-op Écovoile and boat builder in his spare time, wants me to guess what the cockpit of his boat is made of. The canary-yellow catamaran that’s skimming along at 12 knots is a mashup of two boats and a household appliance so cunningly repurposed that it’s unidentifiable. As a breeze from the northeast pushes the TaxSea out into the bay, I admire the Gaspé landscape. Minus the roads and houses, this is probably exactly what Jacques Cartier saw from the decks of the Grande Hermine before he renamed what the Mi’kmaq called Mowebaktabaak (the big bay) the Baie des Chaleurs.

ÉcovoileThe region is a fishing playground; Écovoile’s makeshift catamaran makes good time.

Christian Fraser, a local geomorphologist, had cautioned me: You have to look beyond the surface of the land and the sea to really get this place. The waters of the bay are rich in seagrass, which forms an underwater forest full of flitting fish. Off in the distance, the Notre-Dame Mountains conceal agates the size of fists. And the immense rivers harbour fish that weigh as much as 25 kilograms. At the bottom of the bay, in Miguasha National Park, 380-million-year-old fossils have been found, one of which is a key link in evolutionary history. As we prepare to come about and head back to shore, Jean-Louis, a member of the crew, points to the uninhabited Île aux Hérons and tells me, in a conspiratorial whisper, that the other end of the island boasts a long beach of white sand where he goes swimming all summer long.

There are more than just nature’s secrets around here. At the Cascapédia Smokehouse, Anne Trépanier sprays brandy from a bottle over a freshly smoked salmon before slicing it. As she places the thin slices one by one on a golden packing tray, my eyes follow her hands as though I’m watching a tennis match. The smokehouse, barely larger than a garage, sits inland, away from the hubbub of Route 132, the main road that circles the peninsula. Trépanier, a schoolteacher during the week, and her son Jordan, a fishing guide, spend their weekends pickling, basting, smoking, slicing and packing salmon, which she ships out to the four corners of the province. If it weren’t for the mosaic of hunting and fishing photos affixed to the wall alongside ceramic fish, I would think she’s pulling my leg with her tall fish tales – except that it’s not the size of the catch on the end of the hooks that’s surprising but rather the people holding the rods. The fishing here is so incredible that for years it attracted the British upper crust, including Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. In 1880, the princess purchased a hut in Quebec City and had it towed to the shores of the Cascapédia. Nowadays a different kind of royalty frequents the area’s luxury fishing camps. Trépanier mentions Bobby Orr and Oscar de la Renta, then turns to her son: “What was the name of that fashion lady again? Wintour?” I try to picture the editor-in-chief of Vogue in hip waders; maybe she was inspired by the furs and feathers I had seen earlier at tackle shop Sexton & Sexton. With its impressive wall of multicoloured feathers, dyed furs and bright-hued fishing line, the store would even thrill costume designers from the Crazy Horse cabaret. At a table outfitted with a small vise, artisan Tod Cochrane was busily creating his fantastical flies, wielding a tiny pair of scissors and assembling individual bits of material on the hook with surgical precision. When I called him a “fly designer,” he blushed and assured me that he makes his choices based on function and not esthetics.

Sexton & SextonSalmon flies handcrafted by Sexton & Sexton’s Tod Cochrane.

Even though, technically speaking, I can’t go fishing – it’s strictly regulated, and licences are awarded annually by lottery – hardy souls like me can actually swim with the fish. When the people at Cime Aventures, a sort of back-to-nature Club Med on the Bonaventure River, suggest a snorkelling expedition in a salmon-fishing hole called Trou Creux, I jump at the opportunity.

After 15 minutes of steady paddling to get past the Fosse du Malin (Devil’s Pit), whose shoals and tricky rapids put my sense of balance to the test, we arrive near a beach of smooth pebbles on the edge of a pine forest. The guide, Mathieu, brings up the canoes and leads us to a picnic table perched on the rocks, then briefs us on where to enter the water to observe the salmon that swim upstream on the river bottom – it’s like rafting, except we’ll be the boats. The clear waters of the Bonaventure, free of debris and filtered over kilometres of rocks, have a hallucinatory quality. On a sunny day and at a certain depth, the shadows of the canoes on the riverbed are so clearly defined that they almost look like they’re flying. But for the moment, the waters are churning, and we’re struggling not to capsize in the eddies.

Bonaventure RiverWild salmon (and a salmon-suited diver) brave the current in the Bonaventure River.

In my bright red dry suit, I feel more like an astronaut than a diver, but at least the air in this getup will keep me on the surface. Mask over my eyes and snorkel in my mouth, I proceed just a few steps before the current carries me away. Once immersed, I do the starfish and begin twirling over the rapids. The riverbed beneath me isn’t particularly unusual (a medium-size rock, a bigger rock, a smaller rock), but in water as clear as this, I can make out every striation and crevice. As the current gently pushes me toward the other bank, a reflection catches my attention. I am reassured by the knowledge that when salmon swim upstream, they aren’t feeding – useful information because the creatures swimming below me are as big as small reef sharks, and I am the colour of bait. While they nimbly manoeuvre among the rocks, I make a clumsy attempt to get closer. The current, though, has other ideas and it becomes obvious that resistance is futile. I whirl around one last time before running aground farther down the river. Then I scrabble up the beach, jump back in the water and stubbornly try again to battle the force of the current. On the third try, I gather my strength and, exiting a whirlpool, take a deep breath, dive down and, kicking my legs with all my might, manage to advance a few metres under the rushing water. Victory!

Warm and dry back on terra firma, I am greeted at the main lodge by Cime owner Gilles (a cross between Quebec chanteur Richard Desjardins and Indiana Jones) and by a plate of still-sizzling duck wings. A bottle of red ale – a Bonne Aventure from the Pit Caribou brewery – is dispensed, and I begin recounting, with much gesticulation, my attempt to get up close and personal with the salmon. Gilles studies me, nodding his head with a sly smile. He seems to approve of my determination and the idea that in these parts, you sometimes have to swim against the current. But first you have to be willing to take the plunge.

Travel essentials

01 See the Baie des Chaleurs just like Jacques Cartier did (or almost) while testing your sea legs aboard the TaxSea, Écovoile’s eight-metre catamaran. 

02 The salmon at Cascapédia Smokehouse is smoked the traditional way: cold and using maple sawdust. Get your fill here or you’ll have to order it by mail from Anne Trépanier. (418-392-6207)

03 In eclectic surroundings (panelled walls, wood-burning stove, colourful tajines), Mustapha and Mohamed Benhamidou from Marin d’eau douce serve up melt-in-your-mouth Amerindian-style Atlantic salmon, sprinkled with maple sugar and finished in the smoker. 

04 Try a few of the 30 beers brewed at Le Naufrageur microbrewery; they’re made from 99-percent Quebec-cultivated barley, wheat and oats. The next day, soak up your excesses with a pure-butter croissant at the adjoining bakery, run by the same owners. 

05 Channel your inner explorer with an early-morning paddle on the crystal-clear Bonaventure River with Cime Aventures. Then spend the night in one of the company’s eco-lodges on stilts, deep in the midst of nature. 

06 At the Cascapédia River Museum, check out the pretty Lady Amherst fly, identical to the one used on the Cascapédia in 1939 to hook a giant 25-kilogram salmon. 

Tags

BAIE DES CHALEURS     GASPÉ     OUTDOOR TRAVEL     QUEBEC     SPORTS & WELLNESS    

Getting There

Air Canada Express offers three daily non-stop flights from Montreal to Bathurst. A two-hour and fifteen minute drive gets you to Carleton-sur-Mer, in the heart of Baie des Chaleurs.

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