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Benny Beattie's Tadoussac

If you ever visit Tadoussac, there’s a good chance a tall man with an engaging smile will come up and introduce himself: “Hi. I’m Benny Beattie.” Beattie has spent just about every summer of his life in Tadoussac, knows the region where the Saguenay River meets the St. Lawrence intimately, and loves to share his knowledge.

For the last several years, Beattie, a retired teacher, has guided Elderhostel groups around the area, and he has written a book, “Tadoussac, The Sands of Summer,” in which he weaves memories of childhood summers with local history and legends.

Tadoussac may be a small village, but it has a long history. The Naskapi (also known as the Montagnais) people occupied the region long before any Europeans arrived there. In 1600, Pierre Chauvin established the first trading post in New France on this spot, although it did not become a permanent settlement. Eventually, sawmills and a few farms formed the basis of the village economy. For more than 100 years, this French Canadian village has also had a handful of summer cottages belonging to English-speaking families from Montreal, like the Beatties.

The sand dunes near Tadoussac

Today, Tadoussac has reinvented itself as a tourism centre, especially popular with Europeans. The tourist season lasts from mid-May to late October. For those who love nature and scenery, it has a spectacular location, perched on the edge of a vast wilderness and overlooking two broad rivers. For those who enjoy the comforts of civilization, the village has numerous restaurants, bed and breakfasts (known in French as gîtes), campgrounds and hotels, including the landmark Hotel Tadoussac. There are sand dunes and hiking trails to explore, and beaches for picnics, although the salty, tidal river is far too cold for swimming.

But the area's main appeal is the whales, including the huge fin whales and smaller minke whales that are summer residents of the nutrient-rich St. Lawrence. There is also a year-round population of white beluga whales.

Several tour operators here, and in other towns along the lower St. Lawrence, offer whale-watching excursions. If you really want to be near the whales, you can suit up in water-proof gear for a Zodiac trip, but if you prefer a more comfortable cruise, you can opt for one of the larger vessels with enclosed areas. Either way, there is a very good chance you’ll see a whale surface for a breath before a deep dive, or perhaps a family of belugas will accompany your boat for a while. If you don’t have time for a boat tour, there are a number of good whale-watching spots on shore.

Beattie usually takes visitors to the Centre for the Interpretation of Marine Mammals, housed in a modern building near the harbour. Here, exhibits educate the public about the whales while, behind the scenes, scientists are at work studying these giant mammals. Tadoussac is also the headquarters of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, a national park established to protect the unique habitat of the whales and other salt-water creatures.

One of his favorite spots in the region is Cap-de-Bon-Désir Interpretation and Observation Centre at nearby Bergeronnes. On the shore below the lighthouse, divers bring up some of the starfish and other creatures, and put them in a small pool to show visitors. Then they put them back where they belong. Beattie also takes visitors to the archaeology centre at Bergeronnes and on trips up the spectacular fiord of the Saguenay River.

As Beattie knows, just getting there can be a pleasure. When he was a child, there were few roads in the area, and summer visitors such as the Beattie family travelled aboard the fleet of luxurious steamships that plied the river. He has also paddled to Tadoussac by sea kayak, once from Montreal and once from Quebec City.

Tadoussac is about a two and a half hour drive east of Quebec City on Highway 138, although there are many villages to explore and views to admire in the Charlevoix region along the way. Finally, the road rounds a corner and dips down to the edge of the Saguenay. Large, modern ferries operate around the clock, and the fare is free, but, during peak tourist season, there may be a long lineup of cars and trucks. Tadoussac is tucked into the hillside on the far shore of the Saguenay.

Whatever your mode of travel, the Saguenay-St. Lawrence region area has a lot to offer.

Copyright Janice Hamilton 2007