The vastness of northern Quebec

 

In February of 2007 I got a call from my friend Hans Carlson, an environmental historian in Vermont, who has been researching the cultural and environmental history of eastern James Bay in northern Quebec. He proposed the idea of making a winter drive to the village of Chisasibi, the farthest Cree village accessible by road on the northwestern edge of Province Quebec, around latitude 54.5 degrees. Very few people visit this region, and even less choose to do so in winter. I said "When do you want to leave?"

In summer of 2005 Hans and I had teamed up for a three-week, 4000+ mile drive/ferry expedition to New Brunswick, Cape Breton, Newfoundland, and Labrador, eventually returning to Maine via the Trans-Labrador Highway and south to the Saint Lawrence Seaway. During that trip we kept wondering what the region would be like in winter. This was an opportunity to expand our travels to a new geography and experience it in winter. We put together an ambitious 11-day, 3500 mile route that would take us north of Montreal to Val D' Or, on to Matagami and the James Bay Road, and up to Radisson and Chisasibi. We would return south to Waskaganish, then drive the Route de Nord to Nemasku and Mastissimi. After two nights in Mastissimi we arranged to join a culture walk with the Cree of Ougi-Bougamu, which meant two days and two nights on snowshoes and sleeping in tents. After that we would return to Val D' Or for one night, and then make the drive back to the States.

Knowing full well that our plans were merely notes and hopeful thinking, and that we were always at the whim of the weather gods (and mechanical gods), we set off to see what was at the end of the road, literally. The weather gods took good care of us, providing blue-sky days on our longest drives, and snow squalls only on our shorter days and overnights. The 1997 Nissan Pathfinder performed flawlessly, and although we carried 10 gallons of fuel on the roof, we never needed it. It was good piece of mind, as we did on two occasions roll into villages with only a couple gallons to spare.

The distances between outposts are often more than 200 miles with only boreal forest and taiga in between. The occasional Cree camp was occupied along the roadside as they tended trap lines, but other than the few transport trucks or personal vehicles the landscape is empty of concentrated human occupation. It is beautiful, vast, silent: both welcoming and hostile, and represents a cultural and environmental juxtaposition that is complicated, fascinating, and at times disturbing.

The largest hydro electric project in the world is in the municipality of James Bay, a municipality larger than Texas, or France, or Germany. These incredibly large watersheds are being diverted to fill a series of lowland basins to funnel water through a series of turbines, generating more hydro electricity in one spot than anywhere else on the planet. This electricity is sent south to Quebec City on a series of giant power lines, which hum loudly as the juice buzzes along a very unnatural corridor across an otherwise natural landscape. The diverted rivers and newly built reservoirs are on a massive scale, and they disrupt the native Cree way of life as historic hunting grounds, village areas and burial sites are flooded. The project also affects the ecosystem on a grand scale by fundamentally changing the relationship of land and water, of seasonal migration, of chemical and physical balance - many of these changes are only recently being understood, and the longterm effects remain unknown.

Hydro Quebec calls this "The Project of the Century" and they are most proud of their engineering feats, and rightfully so: in many ways this is an industrial wonder of the world. But at what cost? The "The Project of the Century" displaces the "People of the Millennia", and radically alters an environment and ecosystem that has been relatively unchanged since the last Ice Age. And for what? To drive the energy needs of the modern cultures living in southern Quebec and the northeastern United States. The valleys used by the Cree for over 4000 years have been traded for air conditioning in Boston and NYC. I'm not qualified to weigh the pros and cons of this very large and complex socioeconomic puzzle, but I do feel the need to simplify it to those very basic terms. I doubt the good people of NYC who turn on their air conditioners have the slightest idea they contributed to the destruction of an entire ecosystem to do so. And I fully admit to being part of the problem, as a Maine resident buying electricity from Canada, which remains a problem with no clear solution. In addition to satisfying our core curiosity about experiencing this remote region of Quebec, we were also thinking about some larger consequences of the industries which have become a very real part of this landscape. Hydropower is considered a 'green' energy, a renewable energy, but as with all engineering projects, there are trade-offs. It's increasingly harder to get at the truth.

 

Our MapQuest search provided a map with no roads...which is perfect. Of course there are roads north, well, one road north, and individual roads east to the communities on James Bay. Some were even paved. The B symbol is Val D' Or , the C is Radisson.

The Quebec Tourism map offers only this small inset map of the region.

The purple lines are the power lines, green lines are roads. Not just some of the roads - all the roads.

 

Preparing for the journey

Anytime I prep the Nissan for a long distance road trip into remote territory, I baseline the truck with a thorough mechanical inspection. I check all the fluids, belts and hoses, suspension components, tires and brakes, as well deciding what should be brought along 'just in case'. This time all it needed was an oil change and a new air filter. Since we would always be in below-freezing temperatures I packed six bottles of dry gas and two gallons of antifreeze. Four quarts of oil and a filter, brake and power steering fluid, just in case. Four spare headlight bulbs and extra wiper blades, as losing either can substantially halt forward progress. A basic tool kit, flashlights, matches/lighters. Jumper cables, although with an Optima RedTop under the hood I wasn't too concerned with needing a jump. Two 5-gallon NATO fuel cans were lashed flat to the Yakima rooftop basket, which would give us an extra 150 mile range if needed. Given that most villages are more than 150 miles apart, this was only mildly reassuring.

I always carry a full trail recovery kit, with two heavy duty straps, assorted D-shackles, a Hi-Lift jack, shovel and Sven Saw. I packed an additional avalanche shovel and hatchet; Hans threw in his trusted full size axe. Even though we weren't planning on camping by the road, a small tent and two sleeping bags are always included in my travels. A propane stove and foods that could be made with boiling water (snow) were packed. Propane is less than ideal in sub-zero climates, as the gas contracts and often cannot maintain pressure to burn. A white gas stove is preferred, but we didn't feel the need. If we were intending to cook regularly on the stove we would have gone with a white gas model. I originally stowed an additional full size (31 x 10.5 BFG MT) spare, but decided to leave it at home to gain more room inside. With much of the trip on snowpacked roads, the risk of a puncture was less than it would be in summer. The factory spare is almost full size (not quite a match for my 31 x 10.5 tires) which will work, but will compromise 4wd if needed.

Of all that gear, we only needed a single headlight bulb, as we lost a high beam mid-trip. But given the remote areas we traveled, it was important to be as self-sufficient as possible.

I've been running Goodyear MTRs with good results on dirt roads, mud and rock, but they don't work that well in winter conditions, and have the usual trade-offs for extended highway use. For this trip, I purchased a new set of 31 x 10.5 Goodrich BFGs, which carry a severe winter duty rating and work much better on snow and ice. I've had nothing but good experiences running this tire over the last 12 years on a variety of vehicles. I mounted these on a separate wheelset so now I have two sets of tires to choose from. We ended up driving well over a thousand miles in 4wd-high, and hundreds of miles on pure sheet ice, and the BFGs worked very well.

I was going to have a block heater installed, as many hotels in this region offer electrical hookup in the parking lot, but the install cost was pretty steep. Although the temps were cold, commonly reaching 20 below zero F, they weren't that different from Maine, and I decided the Nissan would be OK without it. I did have the dealer perform a fuel injector cleaning, at 115,000 miles and ten years old it was probably a good idea regardless. I was concerned with fuel mileage, and a bad injector can cost a few mpg, which we couldn't lose given that the longest stretch between gas depots was close to our range of 250 miles.

As with all trip preparations, we agonize over the gear list, and if everything goes well on the road, we use none of it. It was this kind of a trip for us: smooth sailing, friendly people, no mechanical problems, and reasonable weather. Our most difficult driving was early on Day 1, on I-81 in Vermont, as we hit the road at 5am. In the dark, our opening hour was the most difficult pitch as we went in and out of zero-visibility fog and had the occasional rear-end surprise drift on black ice. We should have slept in. By sunrise we were at Canadian Customs, which let us in the country without much fuss. Perhaps the fact we both work for Canadian Studies Centers at U.S. universities makes a road trip to the end of James Bay Road seem almost normal... although the Customs Agent commented he had just been to Radisson and it was most beautiful. About 100 yards into Canada a fat racoon sat up on the snowbank and eyed our passing; I took this as a good sign.

 

Day 1: Vermont to Matagami, Quebec (650 miles)

Doctor-Professor Carlson, looking quite smug somewhere north of Montreal as the 4-lane highway ends.

No need for any 'Picnic Area Closed' signs up here.

 

Downtown in the mining city of Val D' Or , home to about 25,000 people. The name Val D' Or is French for "Valley of Gold", which was discovered here in the 1920s. Today mining copper and lead is the principle industry, found in volcanic rocks that were deposited on the seafloor over 2.7 billion years ago. (from Wikipedia). It also services the needs of northern Quebec.

Val D' Or 's main street has the feel of western frontier town, complete with bars, banks and hardware stores. Heading north, this is the last large town between here and, well, up and over the north pole to somewhere in Russia. Our destination for the night was still a couple hours north, at Matagami.

Matagami is home to about 2000 people at 49"45' degrees north latitude.

They turn the town square into a skating rink this time of year.

After a 650 mile day that began in pre-dawn Vermont, traversed Montreal north to Val D' Or and then left most of civilization behind, we arrived at our hotel. We laughed at the simple menu: chicken, hamburger, caesar salad, spaghetti, pizza. Little did we know this would become the only menu offered everywhere we stayed for the next 10 days. My caesar salad was pretty poor, with semi-rotten salad and a dressing that I wouldn't have identified as caesar, smothered in bacon-bits with an undercooked piece of chicken on top. The Molson Export made everything go down easily. We didn't make this trip expecting an outstanding culinary experience.

 

Day 2 and the James Bay Road

 

The James Bay (Baie James) region of northern Quebec is located in northeastern Canada along the eastern side of James Bay. It is a vast wilderness area of taiga/boreal forest, reached by a single road - the very remote James Bay Road (Route de la Baie-James) - 620 km (385 miles) of forest and taiga and not a single town along the way.

THE LONGEST SERVICE-FREE ROAD IN CANADA

The 381 km (236 mile) stretch of the James Bay Road that is without services is the longest service-free stretch of road in Canada, and the second longest service-free stretch of road in North America. This is second only by a hair to the Dalton Hwy in Alaska, which has a 394 km (244 mile) stretch without services. The Dempster Hwy running from the Yukon to NWT in Canada has a stretch of 363 km (225 miles) without services.
 
THE FARTHEST FROM A TOWN ON A ROAD IN NORTH AMERICA
The end of the Trans-Taiga Road is 745 km (462 miles) from the nearest town, which is the farthest you can get by road from a town anywhere in North America. (We didn't take this tangent east).
 
THE LARGEST MUNICIPALITY IN THE WORLD
The Municipality of James Bay covers an area of 350,000 square kilometres (135,136 square miles), making it by far the largest municipality in the world.

(From www.jamesbayroad.com, with many thanks to Walter Muma, who has written the most comprehensive website about the road and region.)

At dawn we began the James Bay Road, 620 km (385 miles) from our destination at the company town of Radisson (pop. 500). This would be a short day compared to yesterday, but unlike yesterday, there are no communities along this road. One gas depot exists halfway.

 

The mandatory checkpoint as you enter or leave the James Bay Road. They provide a detailed mileage sheet and make sure you realize what you're getting into. The woman commented we were lucky she was on duty, because her co-worker speaks only french. Although the data sheet they provide is helpful, a much better resource exists on www.jamesbayroad.com

The very first thing we noticed along the James Bay Road was the Ptarmigan, and the fact that they do not move when you approach. We soon realized the frozen, black chunks scattered about the road were chunks of Ptarmigan which seem to be oblivious to the dangers of trucks. In a region the size of Texas, that has only one main road, this makes sense. We encountered flocks of smaller birds as well, which were also slow to fly away, and I killed one within the first few miles as it bounced off the windshield. This saddened me, yesterday I began my day under the watchful eye of a racoon, today I was driving into birds. We began to slow for the birds in the hope that they would be spared, but we continued to either run over some or have them bounce off our vehicle, depending on what our collective options were. With only a narrow strip of dry pavement available, evasive driving was limited. The roadway was filled with birds attracted to the gravel left by the plow trucks, as these birds have a gullet digestion.

 

This red fox did not have a good morning. In all my travels I've never seen a fox roadkill - they are usually far too quick and road-savvy to be hit. But up here this may have been the first time this fox had ever reached a road, and the instinct to crouch low and wait did not fare well against a vehicle. I asked about this incident as we continued north, and one person thought it was a rare occurrence. However another suggested it was hard to judge, as many locals would stop and gather the fox for its fur.

Morning photo from the James Bay Road, looking east.

As the sun rose and we headed north, the open pavement narrowed to a thin strip, and eventually gave way to all snowpack. The trees were frosted and slowly melting out, the sky became a rich blue, and we sat back and enjoyed the drive. Some people would feel uneasy knowing there were such distances between communities, but we felt perfectly content as all the concerns of our southern, urban, too busy, day-to-day lives faded away. One road, one direction, one day: nice and simple.

 

Every 35 miles or so there are emergency phones along the road. When they can find power and a cell tower, we would pass such a station. This is a direct line to the checkpoint station at Matagami, and will allow you to alert someone to whatever emergency you have. Exactly how fast they can do anything for you remains an unknown variable.

 

The Rupert River

One of the reasons to make this drive was to see the Rupert River. This is, perhaps, the last winter the Rupert will see, as Hydro Quebec is diverting this wild river in 2008 to feed its reservoirs. The river is accessible by only two roads: the James Bay Road and the Rout du Nord. We would have the opportunity to pass over the James Bay site on three occasions this week, and the Rout du Nord once. This was our first encounter, and to feel the power of this river, at Oatmeal Falls, was truly a wonderful experience.

Activists have painted messages on the bridge structure. We learned quickly that the wind can gust at very high speeds, seemingly out of nowhere. I was standing on the edge of the low wall to take photos, and from a completely still, silent, environment I was hit with a highspeed wind gust that almost knocked me off the bridge. (Stupid tourist!) I moved to the large guide-wires which gave me something to hold on to. We would get used to this phenomena, as I commonly stand on the roof of my truck to take photos, and was always ready to crouch low when the need arose.

'Why Kill Me? I gave you Life, Love from Rupert River, Please save me.' Gabriel believes his name is more important.

Looking east from the bridge at Oatmeal Falls

We think these are Lynx tracks coming up from the river. Much too large to be rabbit, and not caribou.

The only other tracks were ours.

 

Soon we encountered our first caribou in the road, just shy of latitude 52. I slowed and they jumped into the woods.

A random sign announces the 52 parallel. We never saw any other signs like this.

In about 4 or 5 hours we arrive at the fuel depot midway to Radisson, with a couple gallons of gas to spare. During that time we saw about a dozen other vehicles, all heading the other way. As the sign says, we wait for the Gas Boy.

Gas Boy arrives, as does Gas Dog...

...who takes up residency at the entrance to the cafeteria, where we get a hamburger and cup of coffee.

And since this is the only stop on the James Bay Road, you can get a room, some food, a phone, a mechanic or an ambulance.

We continued north, stopping at many of the larger bridges to take in the view. Most had caribou tracks running along the frozen river.

This is the Trans-Taiga Road, which heads 462 miles east along the hydro reservoirs. At 310 miles between fuel stops we would need to use the fuel we carry on the roof. We'll save this road for a return visit.

Massive powerline structures appear on the horizon, and we know we are close to Radisson.

And here were are in Radisson, the last outpost at the end of the James Bay Road. As the sign below suggests, we are far from everywhere, and right where we want to be.

Day 1 - 2 of the James Bay Trip

Day 3 of the James Bay Trip

Day 4 - 5: Radisson to Waskaganish

Day 6 - 7: The Route du Nord

Day 8 - 9: in the bush with Oujé-Bougoumou Crees