The Saguenay Kingdom

Main artery to the heart of old Quebec

HUGH MacLENNAN October 1 1974

The Saguenay Kingdom

Main artery to the heart of old Quebec

HUGH MacLENNAN October 1 1974

The Saguenay Kingdom

Main artery to the heart of old Quebec


On the north shore of the St. Lawrence estuary, on the upper lip of the great Saguenay fjord which cuts directly into the high plateau of central Quebec, lies the most picturesque, historic, and still recognizable village in all North America. Nestling in a half-moon bay, the mouth of the Saguenay being just short of a mile wide. Tadoussac is the eye and focus of an enormous scene.

At this point the St. Lawrence has long ceased to be a true river. It is almost 20 miles wide and its waters are salt enough to accommodate the white whale known as the beluga. The waters are so cold they can be dangerous for swimmers in midsummer, and so deep that a German submarine prowled in them during World War II.

Tadoussac has rested here for more than three centuries. On May 24. 1603, the year Queen Elizabeth died and Shakespeare wrote Much Ado About Nothing, Henri IV still on the throne of France, Champlain anchored in Tadoussac Bay on his first voyage up the St. Lawrence. From then until the end of the sailing ship era. ships of war and ships of commerce called regularly at Tadoussac to take on fresh water or merely to wait for a fair wind to blow them upstream.

No part of Canada embraces such a close concentration of the paradoxes out of which this country grew and with which she must live. The Saguenay has all the aspects of a hard, subarctic land with an average of only 100 frost-free days a year; yet Tadoussac is nearly 200 miles south of London. Sharp contrasts are everywhere. Lower down, closer to the St. Lawrence, the retreating glacier has left more debris in the form of giant tors and mangled rocks but higher up, above Chicoutimi and Arvida and around the shores of Lac St.-Jean, most of the farmland is rich and smiling.

Paradox is also visible in the social and economic structure of the Saguenay, for this land of Maria Chapdelaine is so traditional of old Quebec that it is sometimes called the conscience of French Canada, yet it is utterly dependent on

anglophone and American industry. And the Saguenay air reeks of pulp mills and aluminum smelters. Contrasts are audible in the noise of rapids and cataracts and the stillness of deep waters ponded by dams. On the tributary streams, trout snick at flies cast by men in silent canoes, moose drink in streams within smelling distance of the pulp mills, and belugas swim up past the bauxite ships in Ha Ha Bay. Finally, as Walt Whitman noted almost a century ago. this is a land of echoes — of resonances that literally reduplicate themselves. merging with one another to create a sound different from the origin of the echo. Like Canada herself.

The Saguenay is not a tributary of the St. Lawrence but a system in its own right, draining some 3Ö.000 square miles of the central Quebec plateau, its principal source Lac St.-Jean. Nor again is the spectacular part of the Saguenay a river, but as authentic a fjord as can be found outside of Norway.

In one of those chances of a lifetime, a physical infirmity combined with perfect weather to present me wfith a single instantaneous panorama of the entire Saguenay fjord from its beginning to its end. The infirmity was the distance-vision of middle age which forced me a few years ago to give up tennis because it turned my eyes into telescopes that blur objects at close range but enable me to see miles farther than I could when my eyes were normal. On a cloudless, brilliantly clear August afternoon, the plane was flying down the central channel of the St. Lawrence at 39.000 feet. Looking out a window I suddenly saw it — the entire Saguenay fjord cutting straight westerly into the plateau, all of it caught in a single vision-frame from Tadoussac to ships docked at Port Alfred and moored in Ha Ha Bay.

From this altitude, in this light the plateau looked more barren than Labrador. There are hardly any glacial ponds between the St. Lawrence and Lac St.Jean and the land has been more cruelly twisted by the ice sheet. There was hardly any sign of habitation — just that

wonderful fjord and the thin, white line of highway that leads through Laurentide Park from Quebec City. For two incredible minutes I gazed at about 70 miles ofthat water lane that leads to the very gates of the Saguenay kingdom. Then the wall of the fjord interposed itself between the water and my line of vision and the spectacle vanished from my eyes. It will never vanish from my mind.

Of all glacial legacies, fjords are the most stimulating to the imagination because they combine in dramatic juxtaposition the opposites of great height and great depth, and the sense of mysterious intimacy created, often, by their narrowness. Literally, they are cracks in the basic rock structure of tablelands facing the sea, and often their walls are sheer cliffs which the retreating ice has gouged and polished. Relieved of the weight of the ice sheet, the land has lifted, in some places for thousands of feet, but the cracks have remained, as deep as they ever were, and into them the glacier-swollen sea has poured to drown what otherwise would have been deep, narrow valleys threaded by small rivers of the sort you find in the Rockies. Fjords tend to be relatively shallow near their mouths but farther inland their depths can be enormous. A stretch of the great Sogne fjord just north of Bergen is 4.000 feet deep. At Tadoussac the Saguenay is of variable depth, not much more than 50 feet near the village, but close to 600 toward the other side of the mouth. Near Cape Eternity the depth is around 900 feet.

Lost in the brine of this mighty fjord is the fresh water that has drained out of the upper Saguenay, Lac St.-Jean and its tributaries, and the separate stream which has passed through the turbines of the Shipshaw dam.

For years, white excursion steamers from Montreal and Quebec used to plv the Saguenay up to Chicoutimi and back, but lately the only passenger ship to include the Saguenay in its cruising schedule has been the Russian Alexandr Pushkin. Hundreds of thousands of tourists, for more than a century, have

Ha Ha Bay, which got its peculiar name from early voyageurs, is one of the grandest, most majestic sights in all Canada

marveled at Trinity and Eternity, sometimes shouting in unison to set the echoes ringing, while the steamer blew its whistle. And while they heard the echoes reduplicating themselves, looking up to a ledge high on Cape Trinity, they marveled at the statue of the Virgin — Notre Dame du Saguenay — which was carved in wood by Louis Jobin in 1881. It took a work crew four weeks to build a skidway to hoist the 30-foot statue to its final perch on the promontory. and they had to hoist it in sections and reassemble it on the ledge.

The terrain of the upper Saguenay is a smaller and more temperate version of the Labrador plateau. There is a similar pattern of glacial debris but there are fewer lakes and, with the exception of Lac St.-Jean, they are smaller than Labrador’s. Nor does any single river have the power and volume of Labrador’s Hamilton.

Central to the entire system is Lac St.Jean, of wonderful beauty and exceptional regularity of contour, 400 square miles in area and 30 miles across. Legend has it that this bowl-shaped lake was created by the fall of a giant meteor, but the truth is even more remarkable. Lac St.-Jean and its surrounding farmlands are relics of the Champlain Sea, which once flooded the whole area. When the waters drained from the land, they left this shallow lake surrounded by land fertilized by the marine organisms that had lived in the waters.

Lac St.-Jean collects the main tributary waters of the Saguenay System, some 40 brooks and rivers, which come coiling in from all sides, twisting and writhing like the tentacles of an octopus. It releases its overflow into the cataract at Alma known as La Grande Décharge, whence the waters flow with violence down the channel of the Saguenay proper to tidewater at Shipshaw. The most important tributary is a third longer than the English Thames. This is the Peribonka, which flows for 300 miles out of the northern wilderness until it comes home into the lake. Not far from the Peribonka, but flowing in a meandering channel out of the northwest, is the 200-mile-long Mistassini. From the south, Lac St.-Jean receives the Métabetchouan and the beautiful Ouiatchouan. The Shipshaw is on its own. When its waters have passed through the great dam opposite Arvida, they enter the topmost reach of tidewater in the fjord. Nor again is the Chicoutimi River, properly speaking, a member of the Saguenay system because it plunges directly into the fjord just above Ha Ha.

Though the Saguenay is a modest river system, in the eyes of aspiring hydroelectric engineers earlier in the 20th century it promised much. It had the advantage of being easily reached both by water and rail, to say nothing of a large resident labor force when the population had become too large to be supported by the farms. As the engineers saw this country, the upper Saguenay formed “a giant stairway which began at upstream reservoirs 1,400 feet above sea level,” with a final plunging drop of 320 feet in the main Saguenay channel between Lac St.-Jean and tidewater.

American tycoons of the highest magnitude, including J. B. Duke and Arthur Vining Davis (whose name was transformed into the name of the city of Arvida — ARthur Vining DAvis) visited the region. Though Duke had made his fortune out of tobacco, his nose told him that the coming industry was aluminum. So the financial spillways were opened and, with the blessings of the Quebec government, the “development” of the Saguenay began.

There can be few places on our planet where the masters of technological nittygritty have so thoroughly put flowing waters to work for them. The principal tributary, the Peribonka, is “developed” at three different sites before it finally reaches Lac St.-Jean, the three powerhouses producing a combined total of

1.165.000 kilowatts. At Alma, where the lake passes through La Grande Décharge into the main Saguenay stream, the Isle Maligne dam is worth 402,000 kw. A short distance farther down, the Saguenay itself is dammed at Chute-à-Caron for 240,000 more kilowatts, and finally there is the famous dam on the separate Shipshaw River — a beautiful thing, actually — which generates

896.000 kw for the city of Arvida and the awe-inspiring smelter on the opposite side of the river. Above Shipshaw the energy of the flow of every cubic foot of water is harnessed five separate times!

We were sitting in the library of La Société Historique du Saguenay and Monseigneur Victor Tremblay, the director of the society, was explaining something that had always puzzled me. It was the origin of the peculiar place name “Ha Ha,” which sometimes is written Ha! Ha!

It is a majestic bight of deep water framed by high cliffs cutting off at a sharp angle to Bagotville and Port Alfred as you sail up the fjord. It is one of the grandest sights in all of Canada and tradition has it that it was called Ha Ha

Bay by the first voyageurs who naturally turned into it on their way upstream and jovially laughed at themselves when they discovered they had paddled several miles into a cul de sac. Only a deskbound researcher could have come up with an explanation like that. Whatever else Ha Ha might mean. I knew at least that this explanation of Ha Ha Bay was incredible.

"The word,” said Monseigneur, “has nothing to do with laughter. It means ‘surprise’ — but also the kind of surprise which presents some sort of obstacle.”

In the purest sense of the word, it was a “ha ha” for me when this learned scholar explained that the word was not Indian, never had been Indian, but was pure old French. He had traced it back through many centuries to Joan of Arc.

Of Ha Ha Bay (which Monseigneur Tremblay believes should be written in French as La Baie des Hahas). he writes that for those who first mounted the Saguenay “it was a surprise which defeated them, a perfect and magnificent haha of a character that could escape nobody.” Likewise for travelers descending from the higher country above, “Whether by the route leading from Lake Kenogami and Latterière, or the crossing from Ch icoutimi, paths frequented in the days of the missionaries and fur traders just as by men of today, the bay offers a sudden and large opening. This is a ‘ha ha’ in the very first sense of the word.”

When we rose to leave, Monseigneur Tremblay, knowing we were going to Lac St.-Jean the next morning, knowing also that I had only seen it previously from the air, said, “Up there quite a few hahas will be waiting for you.”

How right he was! For anyone traveling north from Arvida, the first haha must be the wonderful farmland, so unexpected in that country of rocks and conifers, extending for miles on either side of the highway and bounded by the mountains which 10.000 years ago were the shores of the Champlain Sea. It was a brilliant day, the sun making purple shadows on the mountains and the ripe grain golden. We drove on and on before the moment came. The car reached the top of a gentle roll in the farmland and there — so sudden it was incredible, only a few hundred yards away — was the lake at last. Blue, electric blue and calm, as azure as the mid-Atlantic on a day similar to this. Lac St.-Jean seemed like an ocean itself, for at this point it extends out of sight across the horizon.

My wife told me later that I let out a sudden gasp and said it — “Ha-ha!”