“You can bang your paddle on the side of the kayak if you want to keep him away,” the guide told us in a thick Québécois accent. A nervous-looking woman in a rig behind me started knocking her paddle. Before my rational mind could take over, I followed suit. The minke whale, which, a moment ago, had been making a beeline of shallow dives right for us, disappeared down below again and surfaced farther away, at a different angle. I breathed a sigh of relief, and immediately regretted my actions.
Of course the beast wouldn’t have done us any harm. Minke whales are small (26 to 31 feet long is small for a whale), notoriously skittish, and have baleen rather than teeth (unlike the orcas in the area, which I was simultaneously desperate to see and desperate to avoid, in my snack-sized kayak).
Still, 26 to 31 feet of marine mammal barreling toward you through the frigid waters of the Gaspé Bay is enough to give anyone pause. I did get the distinct impression, however, that the gray and harbor seals sunning and swimming beneath the cliffs behind me were having a chuckle at my panic.
At the eastern tip of the Gaspé Peninsula, a largely undeveloped region that stretches over New Brunswick and Maine, and is bordered by the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Gaspé Bay, sits Forillon National Park (or, je suis désolée, Parc national du Canada Forillon, for all you Québécois out there), nearly 60,000 acres of mountains, beaches, boreal forest, and cliffs. Formerly the home of the Mi’kmaq Indians, today the park attracts campers, kayakers, hikers, fisherman, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
The peninsula itself is famous for its picturesque, French-speaking towns; its cliffs, from which you can glimpse pods of orca whales; and its numerous lighthouses. The interior is mostly parkland and largely inaccessible by road. A trip around the perimeter is best done over several days, with stops in the towns, all with incredible ocean views.
There are three semi-serviced campgrounds, and two of them have hookups for RVs. Wilderness sites are available for backcountry hikers, and Otentik sites offer large, furnished tent spaces. If you’re like our group, you’ll want to stay a couple nights at each site, which are spread throughout the park, to get a feel for the land.
For landlubbers, nine hiking trails offer a range of difficulty, with possible views of the area’s numerous black bears. (Read all safety warnings before proceeding on your hike!) For those more aquatically inclined, outfitters within the park offer scuba diving, snorkeling, whale-watching, and, our favorite, sea-kayaking, which offers opportunities for spotting up to seven different kinds of whales, along with the aforementioned, rather nosy, seals. Cap Adventure offers kayak tours off the beach at Grand-Grave, on the southern side of the park, to the seal colonies. The colonies’ curious residents have a tendency to get close, so keep your camera handy; they might even lay a flipper on your boat! Be aware, however, that the tour guides mainly speak French. We lucked into one who had a basic grasp of English, and since we had kayaked plenty before, were fine just following along with the group, but, if you’re a first-time kayaker, this might not be the tour for you.
If you want the best of both worlds, be sure to take a nap on one of the several pebbly or sandy beaches in the park. I was awakened from a light doze by the sound of huffing coming off the water. I sat up to see another minke (or possibly the same one) surfacing mere yards off the beach. This time I stayed perfectly quiet, and just enjoyed her company.
Details: Kayaking tours, $52 for adults, $167 for family of four; Forillon National Park, Québec, Canada; www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/qc/forillon/index.aspx.