Most people go on normal vacations for New Year's. Maybe skiing, or to a beach. Not many people decide to spend their holiday driving into sub-freezing temperatures in Northern Quebec, in search of the end of one of the northernmost roads in North America.
I'm not most people, though. I've had a dream for a long time, along with some local Land Rover friends. Take trucks up the James Bay Road, north to the 53rd parallel and the remote town of Radisson. Built in the early 1970s to provide access to the sites of the massive James Bay Hydro Project, a massive public works project that provides much of the power to eastern Canada and the northeastern United States, it also provides an excellent adventure to some of the native Cree villages that had their traditional ways of life turned upside down for the hydro project.
We've also discussed adding an extra level to the challenge: doing it in winter, where these northern reaches of Quebec spend months under below-freezing temperatures. The remoteness of the place made it adventure enough in summer, snowpack and ambient temperature adds a new level to the thing.
So, on Boxing Day, we headed north from New Jersey with a convoy of three trucks. The James Bay Road is paved, so we didn't need heavy-duty off-road trucks. Our fleet numbered three. Jarek, Milosz, and Konrad came from Florida in a 2011 Range Rover Supercharged, riding on beefier tires but otherwise stock. I rode with Bogie and Ewa in Bogie's 2005 LR3, a veteran of many cross-country trips. Will, Katie, and Carl joined in Katie's daily driver, a 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee...their Land Rover is a 1972 Series III, which could handle the terrain ahead but not the pace set by the other two vehicles and required by everyone's available time off over the holidays. Exceptions were made for the benefit of having good company along.
The trip would be a lot of driving -- almost 3,000 miles. From New Jersey, we drove up to Ottawa, where we spent the night. The next day we drove up to Val d'Or, a town of about 30,000 people, before taking the road to the relatively-remote town of Matagami, at the start of the James Bay Road. It was 850 miles over two days of driving just to get to the starting point, the same as driving from New Jersey to Atlanta or St. Louis. With the holiday break in full swing, every restaurant in Matagami was closed until January. The only option: make something resembling dinner from one of the two gas station convenience stores. We adapted.
The next day, it was off for the flagship component of the trip: The James Bay Road north to Radisson. It was 385 miles, 614 km. We gathered around the sign at Kilometer 0 for a group shot, propping my camera on one of the trucks with the ISO cranked up to get as much light in the frame as we could, using the headlights for extra lighting. Then, the adventure began. We checked in at the safety checkpoint at the start of the road, where we got a briefing on the adventure ahead and gave our names and passenger counts, with the expectation to check in again on the way home.
The scenery was pretty basic: trees, trees, and more trees. Not that that was a bad thing -- with everything covered in snow, and not a sign of civilization in sight, it was a true Winter Wonderland. Considering the remoteness of where we were, the road was constantly being plowed, and we passed several plows. We stopped a few times for either a biobreak or to take photos, including at the famous Oatmeal Rapids on the Rupert River. These rapids have run wild for thousands of years, but thanks to recent expansion of the hyrdro power project, they were effectively dried up to put more power through the water turbines in new dams.
It was about five hours to the rest area at KM 381, which has the only fuel on the entire route. We filled up the trucks, and also our bellies at the cafeteria. I got my first poutine of many this trip. The traditional Canadian dish of french fries, cheese curds, and gravy can be prepared many ways, and I tried several of them this trip, from the original with regular gravy to Italian red sauce to au poivre sauce.
The second half of the road has slightly different scenery than the first half, as you transition to being in a full-blown northern taiga landscape. The snow covered the more subtle elements of the transition, but the trees looked different too; scragglier, sparser, more evergreen. There was also evidence of several forest fires in the area, which are caused by lightning strikes up here, with no considerable manmade influence on the landscape.
It was another few hours of this to Radisson, and we arrived around dark. Dark came around 4:00 PM, so we found ourselves with massive amounts of time in the dark -- sunrise the next morning was not until after 8:00 AM at these northern reaches. We checked into the hotel and found ourselves getting an earlier dinner at Chez Mika, the main social hub restaurant in Radisson. Far from being a remote canteen, we were massively surprised by the excellent menu. From the universally-adored French Onion Soup to the lasagna and pizza that passed muster of Italian food expert New Jerseyites, from the almond-encrusted walleye to the various poutines, I've never had a better meal in such remote surroundings. We dined there two nights, and "but is it as good as Chez Mika?" will be the in-joke for anyone who was on the trip for years to come.
We planned a full day in Radisson to explore the region, including our primary objective: to actually visit James Bay itself, and thus say that we drove from New Jersey to a tributary of the Arctic. This meant driving about 50 miles on a paved road to the Cree town of Chisasibi, on the shores of the bay. We carved the thick snowpack on the road, finally making it to the shores. Cree canoes were parked on the shoreline for the winter, with the bay frozen over. I set up my tripod, lined everyone up for a group shot, and ended up doing a powerslide into the frame to make it in the shot before the timer went off. It's not easy to walk on ice in massive Sorel boots, nevermind within ten seconds!
Our other goal was to visit the Robert-Bourassa Generating Station, one of the key components of the Hydro project. The spillway here is massive -- 4,900 feet long, 360 feet high, with ten massive steps blasted into the land. If need be, this can provide relief on the dam, putting the water from the reservoirs made from damming the rivers up here back into the La Grande River. You can drive on top of the floodgates, part of the road that continues further north, and you bet we did that.
After a day of exploring, followed by another dinner at Chez Mika, we hit the bar in the hotel. Bar Boreal is the de facto social hub at Radisson, and we spent time chatting with the locals and jamming the jukebox full of Bruce Springsteen hits in a tribute to home.
The next day we headed south the way that we came -- no other options! There wasn't anything different to describe about the route, except we made it to the KM 381 cafeteria in time for breakfast, not lunch. We stayed in Matagami again, arriving again as darkness fell before 5:00 PM. The trucks were thick with snow at this point, jammed in the wheel wells and plastering the tailgates. Jarek's Range Rover, a Floridian sunshine queen, was probably having a mild panic attack, although it drove like a boss the entire trip. With restaurants open again in Matagami, we dined out, a far cry from the bags of chips and premade salads a few days prior.
The next day, New Year's Eve, we drove to Montreal -- a massive, 450-mile haul. At this point, we were on roads that were technically remote compared to most of the North American road network, after what we'd just done it felt like driving down Broadway. We made it to Montreal in time to find out our room had an excellent view of the St. Lawrence. With the adventure done and our bodies worn out, we ordered pizza for delivery and waited for midnight.
On the first day of the new decade, we drove across the border back to America and home. There was so much to process from the adventure. We'd driven so far, to one of the most remote places you can drive on the continent. I'd spent a week speaking (very-okay) French, and not having to translate was suddenly jarring. The cultures we'd experienced, the scenery we'd seen, the below-freezing temperatures we'd lived in...it all seemed like a dream now.
The James Bay Road is about as far as you can get in a car on the Eastern Seaboard, though there's one more spur off of it that's even more remote -- the 666km/413 mi Trans-Taiga Road, a gravel adventure that goes east from the northern reaches of the JBR almost to the Labrador border. Next time...and in summer.
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