Part 1: The Road
I took the 15 North out of Montreal, past the ski hills to where it becomes the 117 and continued northward towards Parc La Vérendrye. The last town before the 200km of untouched nature in the parc is Grand-Remous, a living ghost town since the recentclosure of the local saw mill. So far, I was still on familiar grounds, having been as high North as Senneterre for canoeing trips in the past but that changed after the parc.
I got to Val d’Or near sunset, and noticed that I had been driving straight West, not North, for the past little while, so I bought a map to see what’s going on. You’d figure I would have bought one before leaving, but hey, I already knew how to find the 15.
As it turns out, the 117 heads West from Val d’Or towards Ontario. If I wanted to go North, I had to take another, smaller country road (by now, the 117 was no more than a two-way street itself) called the 111N. That led me to Amos, where I once again had to pick another road to avoid going west. It was 200km of night driving before I reached Matagami, which used to be the end of the world before the James Bay road was built. The cold dark road seemed eerily deserted and I was glad I had a jerrican, just in case. In the sunlight of the return trip, I would find out that this segment of the road actually presents the last northern agricultural communities, tiny and sparsely distributed but beautiful, where the northernmost farms reach the limits of arable land.
Matagami itself is an industrial town of mine and forestry enterprises where I slept in a crusty motel. There I found the start of the last northern segment of the Quebec road network, the James Bay Road, which stretches a lonely 620km North to the only other town along its entire length, Radisson. This road is so isolated, that you have to register at a checkpoint before undertaking to drive it, and you have to start with a full tank since the single gas station at Km 381 is the only fleck of civilization along the whole span of the road. And to make it, I discovered, you need a full tank; with the drag of the canoe on the roof, my “empty” indicator flashed before I even reached this station.
The James Bay road is beautifully desolate, with so little traffic you could pitch your tent on it. Here, the dominance of human achievement over nature is completely reversed, and the infinite vastness of the wilderness feels intimidatingly threatening to the now fragile-seeming human infrastructures. One feels here that if we neglect our systems for just a year or two, if we don’t patch our roads, or clear them of accumulating humus, nature’s freeze-thaw cycle will conspire with her black spruce and lichen to reduce our pavement to rubble and completely reclaim the road. Then it’d be game over for those left at Radisson who, without supplies, would be left defenceless in the menace of her 6 month long winter. These chilling thoughts left me thankful for my tent, food and equipment as I made my way down this desperately lonely road.
There is plenty of time for reflection on this long stretch of road. As you watch the trees get smaller and sparser, distractions are few and far between. I did, however, see some wildlife: porcupines (“delicious” according to a local Cree), foxes, moose and even a wolf. In the winter, you might even cross a caribou herd here. The road crosses a few powerful rivers too, including the beautiful Rupert, which, by the time you read this, will be completely dried, diverted towards LG2 to power more TV and computer screens.
The James Bay road ends at a town called Radisson which is located on the La Grande river, next to the colossal hydroelectric installation of LG2. At 250 inhabitants, Radisson is just a shadow of its former self. 90% of the population left after construction of the dams, leaving the town with only one bar, one restaurant, and one motel -all in the same building. Former suburban-like streets where prefabricated houses once stood now wind pointlessly around patches of overgrown shrubs. What remains is one of the most isolated towns in the world. To go shopping, the townsfolk drive 900Km south to Val d’Or which is the closest “big” city (pop. 30 000).
When they aren’t away, the locals live in a tiny outpost of human presence in an infinite expanse of boreal forest and tundra, where northern lights are seen daily. But here, they also live in Hydro Québec country. The giant state corporation is omnipresent and all-powerful here. Radisson’s only non-prefabricated buildings are the local quarters of Hydro Quebec. The lone SQ police station sits seemingly empty (it was unclear whether it is actually manned) while Hydro Québec vehicles outnumber private ones by a fair margin. Talk to any Hydro personnel and it’ll immediately be clear that to them, the land here belongs to Hydro, not the Cree.
Hydro Quebec offers free tours of their LG2 and LG1 dams, which is an absolute must-see. But do not rely on any corporate courtesy beyond that. The tours themselves must be booked in advance (1-800-291-8486). I booked mine from a payphone the same day and was OK, but French tourists that arrived for the tour without reservations were turned away, despite the ample space remaining on the bus (go figure). The dams were amazing in their enormity although they looked even better from a canoe (more on that later) and at LG2, you can walk right up to one of the massive turbines powering our cities and feel its spin radiate warm air out towards you.
But I hadn’t driven 1500km by now just to look at dams. I was on the edge of a giant river that flowed 120 km straight into James Bay where it hugs a small Cree community (Chisasibi) and I had a good mind to discover the river, the bay and the Cree.