Monday, July 25, 2005

Dancing with whales


By Jerry Lanson

TADOUSSAC, Canada -- Genevieve Lecours, our tanned and well-muscled guide, looked like she'd be more comfortable mushing sled dogs through the Northwest Territory than she was herding a dozen tourists in kayaks through the ripples where the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers meet, her eyes scanning the horizon for whales.

"While we're waiting, look around," she told us as we bobbed in the harbor's mouth, pausing for stragglers to catch up and, in my case, struggling to keep my kayak steady. "You might see a beluga go under you, and I'm not kidding."

My feet, rammed beneath the kayak's canvas in a contorted position, had gone to sleep. My mind imagined Moby Dick rising beneath me and dragging me to the depths. All too aware of Lecours’ three safety rules (“Rule 1: don’t panic, Rule 2, don’t panic. You can guess Rule 3”), I kept my kayak inches behind hers.

And then the whales burst through the water, not beneath us but clear as could be, well within range of the naked eye. A white beluga mother and her darker children frolicked across the horizon, arching above the waves and diving rhythmically a half dozen times before vanishing. There was nothing menacing about them. Suddenly, from the silence of the Saguenay, a 15,000-pound minke whale punctured the surface just 30 feet away and hung suspended, almost posing for pictures before diving deep in search of dinner. What a rush. But was it real?

Such are the adventures of whale-watching in these waters about 150 miles northeast of Quebec city, in fertile feeding grounds where beluga outnumber the French-speaking, year-round residents of the rocky shoreline village by a ratio of 4 to 3. It’s a form of entertainment that often is measured in moments of heart-thumping mania after long minutes of eye strain. But who can pass up the chance to almost hug nature’s biggest beast?

And so, each summer, they come by the boatload. Some of the tens of thousands who flock here choose to watch for any of 13 St. Lawrence species from the decks of 600-person, 60-ton boats -- boats whose weight approaches that of the blues and fins that venture up the river from the sea. On board, tourists crane their necks and train telephoto lenses and binoculars every which way as guides shout "6 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 12 o'clock" and captains spin their boats for a better look. One thing is sure: They'd better look quickly.

"Dad, forget it, your camera isn't that fast," one teen daughter said, mocking her father as he tried to capture a fin whale's back with the 2005 equivalent of the old Brownie camera. Even the fastest photographers can barely frame the spray from a blowhole, a hint of fin, the curve of a whale's back, before the St. Lawrence swallows the mammoth ghosts as they dive into the deep troughs of this glacially carved region, invisible once again.

Other tourists paddle. In the calm mouth of the harbor, on the cusp of one beautiful July evening's sunset, belugas, seals and even the minke whale floated past our silent kayaks like neighbors sharing a summer swim.

In all, 49 whale-watching boats are licensed in the village of Tadoussac, from rubber rafts that hold 10 or fewer to the ocean-worthy vessel we also rode. My guess is none measure up to the self-paddling adventure of the kayak, which costs less, too; $35 Canadian (roughly $29 American) for two hours versus $50 Canadian or more to let someone do the driving for you.

Either way, whales you'll see, an adventurous compliment to a vacation framed perhaps by a few days in the cosmopolitan city of Montreal and a few more enjoying the Old World elegance and haute cuisine of Quebec City. According to Patrice Corbeil, director of the Tadoussac research center that studies the great creatures and works with the tourist industry to protect them, some 1,200 beluga whales alone live along the St. Lawrence coastline within a 10-minute dive or two of the village, feeding, along with a smattering of massive blue and fin and smaller humpbacks and minke, on a rich menu of plankton, krill and fish that swirl in the tidal eddies where the two rivers join.

It was the Canadian folksinger Raffi who brought the story of "baby beluga" to generations of kids. But it’s clear their magic works on parents, too. For though the coastline offers its share of kayaking, beach combing and hiking in the rounded mounds that protect it (the name Tadoussac comes from a Native American tribe's word for breast), it is whales who sustain this village that once was Canada’s first fur-trading outpost.

Back then, in 1600, staying alive was the primary activity; only 5 of 16 original "settlers" survived the winter and it would be more than two centuries before anyone tried to stay year round again. Even today, there's not all that much to the village, a few dozen homes and tourist shops, a maritime museum, an Anglican church dating back to the mid-19th century, an educational/interpretive center dedicated to the whales, and the commanding, 500-foot long, red-roofed Hotel Tadoussac, which dominates the sandy beach along the horseshoe-shaped tidal harbor and offers nearly a third of the area's 520 tourist beds.

First built in 1868 and rebuilt in 1942 after the ravages of fire, the hotel -- and beach it looks out on -- seems frozen in the '50s, when elegant, ocean-going ships transported tourists from Montreal and Quebec to the village well before whale watching grew popular. It was on one of those ships, at age 7, that I first arrived, a trip captured on a dog-eared, fading photograph of my father, standing on a diving board with the hotel's expansive lawns spread out behind him.

Now as then, below the bluff on which the hotel sits, kids splash gleefully in tidal pools. Above, visitors of their grandparents' generation sit beside beach umbrellas on white, Cape Cod chairs, sunning in the breezy, soft, 70ish weather that bakes natives to a leathery tan. A shuffleboard and tennis court complete the ‘50s ambiance.

Inside the 70-by-70-foot lobby, the wooden chairs, stone fireplaces and chandeliers are the same as those captured in framed black-and-white photos taken shortly after the hotel reopened, though couches and a thick blue carpet have softened the room.

I can’t help but wonder if the half-finished jigsaw puzzle spread on a lobby table has been there since my last visit. And if the songs Jean Gagnon plays on the bar’s piano are really Piaf and Sinatra, or just the sounds of childhood memories. At dinner, I imagine my father eating the bountiful buffet back then, pacing himself through plates heaped with shrimp and herring, salmon and rare roast beef, brie and chevret, as he taught us boys to do whenever the family destination was an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord.

Hotel Tadoussac’s contemporary buffet is spectacular, especially at the rather modest price of $30 a person ($25 U.S.), from salad to sorbet. It also comes packaged with room and an equally plentiful breakfast buffet for $220 a couple (about $180 U.S.).

What has changed in Tadoussac is the explosion in whale-watching. When Patrice Corbeil first came in the mid-1980s to start his marine mammal research center named GREMM, he could count all the whale-watching boats on a few fingers. With a friend, he began, on weekends, to study the whales of the region. (“I had been studying birds,” he says wryly, “but I was tired of all the mosquitoes in the woods.”)

Today 45 people work for Corbeil and his busy nonprofit research center. Among their tasks is tagging the whales, tracking their migratory patterns, measuring the impact of tourist boats on them, and helping to write regulations to minimize the tourist industry’s impact. The scientists have even named the most frequent visitors to the Saguenay’s mouth.

In 1991, GREMM opened an interpretive center for the public that today draws more than 38,000 visitors a year, most in July and August. And an impassioned collection of tourists they are. On board the big boats, ooo’s, ahh’s and the occasional scream come with the territory. “There are whales out there with names and no parents,” one woman blurted out.

As mystical as the momentary encounters with these leviathans can be, I’m not sure I qualify as a whale groupie. But even the most circumspect can find plenty that’s fun and interesting in GREMM’s interpretive center. For an entrance fee of $6.25, you can track the daily movements of the St. Lawrence whales (it’s also online at; view a remarkable 18-minute film on the river’s whales called "Encounters with Whales of the St. Lawrence," and find the answer to such need-to-know questions as "how big is the penis of a fin whale." (You'll find out by tugging on a black pulley and stepping backwards -- about 9 feet.)

You can also learn about the strictly wholesale habits of these gargantuan creatures. The fin whale, for example, eats nearly 3 tons of food a day. It doesn't have teeth but instead relies on up to 800 baleen, or “dental,” plates, each of which is anywhere from several inches to a several feet long. These filter the day's nutrients from the salt water. And when the fin dives, it can stay underwater for up to 25 minutes. Even more remarkable is that the fin whale, which we saw, isn't the biggest whale sighted in the St. Lawrence. That honor goes to the blue whale, which, appropriately, eats another ton or two of food each day.

If all this piques your curiosity, perhaps it is the time to steal a page, or twist a title, from Kevin Costner and go dancing with whales. In Tadoussac, everyone says, it's not a question of if you'll see them but where and how many. And besides, thanks to Patrice Corbeil and GREMM, they even have names.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Everybody's Aunt Peg


She's my second cousin by marriage or maybe my first by marriage, once-removed.
No matter. For as long as I can remember she's just been Aunt Peg. Everybody should have one.
She turned 95 this March and now lives in a nursing home in Marblehead, Mass. But that's only temporary -- during her recovery. You know, from her hip replacement surgery. Her second in two years. And she is recovering, making new friends in a new place along the way.

"How are you, deah," she greeted Kathy and me on July 4, a hint of her native New Rochelle, N.Y., still breaking through. It was time for music, singing, laughing and memories.
Around Aunt Peg, it always is. She played the violin every day into her 90s. And though her short term memory is largely shot -- "do you sing, too," she kept asking my brother Dennis -- she can still sing the words and tunes of most old-time favorites. The day after her surgery, she began knitting a beautiful blue wool pullover.

Life hasn't always been easy for Aunt Peg. She lost her husband 30 years ago and a son to cancer in his 50s. You'd never know it from her smile. It rarely deserts her. Her "Carlie" was a man of wit and letters, a man who took his young children to Ireland to try his hand at writing. He had his demons, too, including a penchant for the nip, but that's long forgotten in Peg's memories. She loves the story of the first time they met, when he heard her perform and drove her home in his father's Cadillac. He wasn't much of a dancer then, she confides, but he got better; she suspects he took lessons between their dates.

Peg's reach goes deep through the generations. Last time I visited, one of her grandsons, Andy, played the piano for two hours straight. (Music flows through the family's veins; Peg's brother was a professional trumpet player and she was no slouch on the violin herself.) A granddaughter, Emily, also in her mid-20s, visited three times the week of the 4th alone, coming all the way from Cambridge. But then someone stops by every day; daughter Margaret, who lives a mile away, often multiple times.

For all, these are journeys of love, not guilt. Peg is happy to enjoy the gathering; she needn't be its center of attention. On holidays, more often as not, these gatherings grow larger. My brother's family shows up and and mine. Sundry friends, and the high school and college classmates of Peg's grandchildren, drop over and share time with her before leaving. To them, too, she's Grandma Peg or Aunt Peg or just plain Peggy. She wouldn't have it any other way.

Stop by on one of these holidays, at Margaret's or sister Stephanie's in Carlisle, and you'll likely find Peg, like any Italian mother, in the kitchen, sampling the pasta, helping to throw together a salad, sharing a story. Until a few years back, she'd have had a scotch nearby. Now a rationed glass of wine will do, another of those silly concessions to age.

But some constants haven't changed. Even in the post-operative nursing home, when the music starts, Peg's face comes to life. Her eyes sparkle. Her fingers play their own harmony on an imaginary keyboard.

Soon, she hopes, she'll go back to the Salem assisted living center she has called home the last few years. I'll bet she gets there. And when we all gather around the piano sometime this fall, Peg as likely as not, will carefully put aside her walker, tap her toe and improvise a little dance to test her new hip. It'll be quite a party.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

When summer suspends time


Today's weather report: Two steps from heaven. It is one of those days in which the Sun warms the air enough to sweat, but just a little. In which a light breeze ruffles the maple. In which a bird's song carries and a sweatshirt on the line dries in less than an hour.

I drifted off after a Corona at lunch, my feet propped on the picnic table. I drifted off again in the hammock at 5:30 after turning a few pages of a book. Today Washington is mobilized and exorcized over the search for a new Supreme Court justice. It is a big deal. But I've got other things on my mind; I am immobilized by summer, bewitched by the patterns and play of light on the bike path, busy with more mundane tasks. We cut down four of five saplings before the line along our property becomes a tree farm. I mowed the lawn. OK, I mowed half the lawn. We biked to Bedford and dawdled through back streets we haven't biked on before. And then there was that beer and a chance to catch up on a school year of nights shortened by too many papers to grade.

I'd like to tell you more but we just put up the hammock this afternoon. The coals are on for hot dogs and hamburgers. Kathy's making corn on the cob. And I shouldn't be wasting a minute more on the Internet. That's for damn sure.