Lowell Once More

May 1, 2014 in Lowell, Photos, Renewable Energy, Utilities, Vermont Energy Projects, Wind by Stephen J. Maas

It’s been quiet around here lately, but don’t mistake the silence for lack of progress…more details on that soon!  For now, we will be catching up on some of the production activities that haven’t made it to the website as of yet.

In October of last year, we returned to Lowell and drove up the ridge one more time, to have a look at the turbines in full swing and to survey the conditions now that construction was complete.  Master drone builder/pilot Tim Joy came along and captured some amazing aerial footage for us, this time using his Blackmagic camera on his custom-built stabilization gimbal, operated by Dan.

Day 7 – Chisasibi

April 18, 2013 in Education, Hydro, James Bay, Location Reports, Photos, Policy, Renewable Energy, Utilities, Wildlife by Stephen J. Maas

It was our last day of production in the James Bay region.  We took a little while in the morning to get our gear in proper order before heading out; yesterday’s 16-hour day had further impressed upon us the need to have our stuff organized.  We expected today would be another long, but hopefully satisfying day.

On the way to Chisasibi we had good weather, so we stopped a few times to get some landscape shots and footage of power installations that we had been seeing all week but hadn’t had the chance or weather to properly capture.  We stopped at the DC line again, as well, making sure that we had enough coverage of that important feature.  We finally had the chance to see a little wildlife, as well; I nearly ran over a small flock of ptarmigans who steadfastly refused to leave the road.  It was a pretty cold day, but sunny, and I think they were clustering on the pavement to try to absorb some of its meager stored solar warmth.

We had a few options on deck already when we pulled into Chisasibi, and it quickly became a juggling act to fit them all in, particularly as some of the people we were after didn’t stay in one place for very long.  Our first item was to connect with Judy Washipabano, the interim principal of the James Bay Eeyou School at the center of town.  We had been coordinating via phone tag with her on arranging an interview session with a group of students.  She was as busy as one might expect a school principal to be, but she proved to be very friendly and helpful to us, which we greatly appreciated.  We’d sent up a release form for the children’s parents to sign before leaving, and getting those forms back had apparently taken a bit of work; they were still being collected as we were setting up.  One concerned parent called Judy to ask her about the form, which had some legalese in it that was a little daunting; she handed the phone to me and I was luckily able to explain what we were doing, to her satisfaction.

Eric spoke with the kids for about half an hour, asking them questions about their energy supply and consumption, about the development and their lives in general.  For the second time since we’d come to the region, we heard a young person answer the question “Where does your power come from?” with “Water.”  A logical and perhaps even obvious answer if you’re from that region, but one that I don’t think you’d hear very often in Vermont, despite the fact that hydro power is greatly utilized here.  In terms of looking at the personal connection people have (or don’t have) to their energy supply, that answer struck us as significant.

After the school interview, we walked across the way to the building referred to as the “Commercial Center.”  This proved to be essentially a tiny mall, housing a grocery store, a departments store, a central common area and a few other places of business. We walked through the grocery store and were amused to find an ice cream cooler with a Ben & Jerry’s placard on the side.  Unfortunately, it was empty.

Then we went to the radio station, to see if Kevin, the manager, was in.  He had chatted with us a bit after our radio interview on our first day in town and had had some interesting things to say, so we were definitely interested in following up with him.  We ended up catching up with him at the administration center, and sat down for a chat.  He was a former Youth Chief, and we learned that in the Cree culture, you’re considered a “youth” until you are 35 years old.  He was able to give us a perspective from the point of view of the younger portion of the Chisasibi population, as well as his own take on the hydro development.  It might be technically renewable, he told us, but he sure didn’t consider it “green,” despite the acknowledged benefits it brought with it.

Our definite “catch” of the day, though, was Violet Pachanos.  From the first day we arrived in the region, people had been telling us that we needed to speak with her.  Cree people and Hydro-Quebec employees alike told us that she was someone who could tell us a lot about the kinds of things we were looking for.  She was kind enough to sit down with us for an interview.  Quiet, modest and unassuming, she struck me as someone with great intelligence and resilience, but also possessing unbounded warmth.  Her modesty was disarming, but the fact was that we were sitting across from the very first female Chief in the history of the Quebec Cree, as well as the first female to serve as Deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees.  Despite having such a storied professional history, she spoke of her past with pragmatism and simplicity.  When Eric asked her if young Cree women looked up to her as a positive role model they could follow, she thought about it and said she supposed they might — as if the thought had never occurred to her before.

That evening, we had dinner with Chris at the town restaurant.  I tried my best to procure some local fare, but the only two options I saw (walleye and Inuit herbal tea) were unavailable.  The rest of the menu was very close to what you’d find in any diner in Vermont.  A friend of Chris’s named Roger House joined us, and we got to talking about music.  As it happened, Roger was a musician and had recorded some songs that had found some notoriety abroad — one in particular, “Beaver Man,” supposedly made someone hundreds of thousands in Europe, but Roger wasn’t involved.  He was looking at the legal action he could pursue.  That evening he was setting up a sound system in the adjacent gymnasium for an event, and invited us over to hear some of his songs.  He played them over the PA and we were both impressed by their quality.  I bought a demo from him before we left.

Our last stop of the day was once again the radio station, where we sat down with Chris Napash and talked about our visit.  Eric made sure to mention that we were sorry we weren’t able to interview everyone who had expressed interest, due to time constraints, but we were open to people sending us their stories via our website, Facebook or other means after we had gone.  He thanked the community for being so open and welcoming to us.

We said our goodbyes to Chris in the parking lot outside the station, then got on the road to Radisson for the final time.

Day 6 – Chisasibi, La Grande, James Bay

April 15, 2013 in Hydro, James Bay, Location Reports, Photos, Renewable Energy, Utilities by Stephen J. Maas

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After we wrapped up at LG1, we headed west again for Chisasibi.  Word had been filtering out about our project, and Chris had been collecting names for us.  There were quite a few people already interested in sitting for interviews with us, which was good because our time was very limited.  We had only the rest of the day and the next to fit in everything else we wanted to do.  We were encouraged, though, because especially after the morning’s events, Eric’s master list of things he wanted to get was rapidly turning into a list of crossed-out accomplishments.  That was a good feeling.

The council chamber at the administration building was unoccupied today, so were able to use that space to conduct some interviews and admire the artwork and architecture of the room.  Like the outside of the building, the council chamber was a fascinating mix of non-native and native influences; a modern command center-like board room that was literally housed in a giant tipi.

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Two of our notable interviews for the day were James Stewart and Samuel Cox, elders who spoke to us about their memories of the development, the river, their traplines and the many changes they had seen over the years.

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We probably could have hung out at the admin center all day, just talking to more and more people, but we had still had some other things on the agenda for the day.  One of them was to drive a few kilometers west and lay our eyes on the actual James Bay itself, a body of water which is technically part of the Arctic Ocean.  Chris offered to guide us there, and we happily took him up on his offer.  We drove out on a few dirt roads, and suddenly found ourselves in an onslaught of snow and wind.  We were at the Bay, and the conditions were incredible.  It was violently windy, extremely cold and visibility was down to just a few feet.  It felt like an intense snowstorm, but Chris told us it was just the wind picking up the fallen snow.  It had drifted in so much snow that the road was blocked and we had to stop short of where we normally would have driven to see the Bay.

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We got out of our vehicles and tried to document what we could.  It was so intense that I could not stand it for very long, and was concerned for my camera’s well-being within just a few minutes.  I was using a rain jacket on the camera, which provided decent protection from snow in normal conditions, but this was more like a snow hurricane.  Almost comically, Chris retrieved an umbrella from his vehicle and opened it, apparently to block the wind.  He seemed quite comfortable in his baseball cap and bare hands.  I, meanwhile, was so cold I couldn’t feel my fingers and was having trouble breathing by the time I got back into my car, despite wearing wool gloves and a heavy down jacket (and being someone who is generally known for being relatively insusceptible to cold compared to people I know).  Something else amusing was that we encountered about three or four other vehicles while we were there, and they all seemed to be carrying couples.  I had heard that some people had camps along the coast, so it’s possible that they were just heading out there, but I also wondered if this was Chisasibi’s version of a “lover’s lane.”  Cold place for a make-out session, but romantic in its own unique way, perhaps.

From the Bay we headed back toward town, stopping at the crossing to Fort George Island.  This is where the community of Chisasibi was originally located.  We heard various versions of why the town was relocated (by Hydro-Quebec, which organized for the town to be moved to the mainland).  The most common story is that Hydro-Quebec was concerned about the erosion that the changes to the river would have on the island, and that it would no longer be safe to live there, as the island might no longer exist in a few years.  Chief Robert Kanatewat told us that this was not the case; in fact, he had decided to move the community because he saw the changes that were coming and knew that they were going to need more room and access than the island could provide.  I suspect the objective truth is something of a combination of these.  In any case, Chief Kanatewat was correct in that the Chisasibi population exploded after moving, growing by almost 500% to present day.

We heard many times that it was once possible to cross the river by foot to reach Fort George.  Since the development, that possibility had literally been washed away.  The river no longer froze the same way it once did; access to the island had become unpredictable.  Nearly everyone we spoke to from Chisasibi talked of this.  With all of the benefits that modern development had brought to Chisasibi, it was clear that the river and the island were significant parts of the people’s culture and history that they were not happy to see changed.  I started to feel that there was almost a sense of mourning when it came to Fort George and La Grande.

To end our day, we drove through town again, taking some pictures of the town in the last minutes of the fading daylight.

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Day 6: LG1 & Cree Culture Camp

April 9, 2013 in Education, Hydro, James Bay, Location Reports, Photos, Renewable Energy, Utilities, Wildlife by Stephen J. Maas

Gary, our liaison from Hydro-Quebec, had a flight to catch at about midday.  That meant that we had an early start.  We were outside the hotel, warming up the car at 7 AM.  The car needed the warm-up, too; the weather had gone back downhill a bit.  It was blustery and cold, though not as windy as it had been earlier in the week.

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Our first stop of the day was under a unique transmission line.  Although there are transmission lines crossing the landscape almost everywhere you look in this region, this line in particular was something interesting.  As Gary explained to us, it was a direct current (DC) line that ran from the La Grande hydroelectric system all the way south to Boston.  It forms an enormous circuit that stretches for over 1,000 miles.  Hydro-Quebec uses this line to deliver power directly into the ISO New England grid, selling power wholesale onto the regional market.  In a way, we were standing at the other end of the power line that turns on everybody’s light switches in Vermont.  This was a major reason we were here.  Vermont purchases up to 30% of its electricity from Hydro-Quebec, and that share is likely to increase significantly as the state implements its plans to be powered by 90% renewable energy by 2050.  If a Vermonter were to ask “where does my power come from?”, we could now literally show them, at least for a third of their power anyway.  The power lines themselves are only the tip of the iceberg that is the answer to that question, of course, but as one of our goals is to connect Vermonters to their power consumption in a more concrete and personal way, this was an important shot for us.

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From the DC line, we headed further westward along the La Grande River, stopping next at the LG1 dam and power station.  This is the first power station on the La Grande.  It has an installed generating capacity of 1,436 megawatts and is a “run-of-river” facility, meaning that it is built directly over the river and its generation station doubles as a dam.  According to Hydro-Quebec, more than 22 million cubic feet of concrete was required to build it — the same amount as a sidewalk from Montreal to Miami.

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As the weather was not ideal and we had appointments for interviews, we took only a few exteriors and then headed into the offices to set up.

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Our first interview was with George Pepabano, a Cree who had worked for Hydro-Quebec as an electrician for 25 years.  We followed that up with an interview with Marc Larocque, who preferred to answer in French.  Luckily, Gary was kind enough to interpret on the spot.

After we wrapped up at LG1 (and, incidentally, with Hydro-Quebec), we continued on our way for Chisasibi.  We intended to stop a few times on the way there to pick up some landscape shots of areas that we had seen on our previous trip.  Eric also wanted to try to get some footage of wildlife.  We had seen precious few animals so far, far fewer than I had anticipated.  In a region so remote and wild, known for its large numbers of geese and caribou, I had thought we’d have seen something interesting by now.  But the most we had come across were a few sparrow-like birds, for the most part.  I saw a couple of ptarmigans for a split second one evening, snow-white and barely distinguishable from the snowbank they were ducking behind, and we saw two strange animals on the James Bay Road in the dark that might have been foxes, or something else entirely.  But that was it.  We figured it might be because we had so far stuck only to well-traveled, paved roads, although this didn’t really make all that much sense considering that the roads would have been some of the best scavenging grounds for a lot of animals, as a result of the trash output from the humans traversing them (even this far north, littering is unfortunately still a reality), and you see plenty of wildlife along the roads in Vermont.

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We came upon what looked to be a “bush road” and decided to stop and get out for a walk.  If we had been able to fit our snowshoes in the car, we could have struck out for the woods, but that hadn’t been possible.  This road looked to be an easy way to get a bit deeper into the forest, though, and it was maintained well enough that we had no trouble walking it in our boots.

I was shooting the falling snowflakes at high frame rate, trying to capture some of the natural magic of our surroundings, when a large SUV pulled up next to me.  I looked over and saw that it was an officer from the Cree police.  He was very friendly and told me he’d heard us on the radio.  Eric joined us, and the officer gave him a deadpan look and told him, “You’re trespassing on native lands.”  That stopped Eric cold for about half a second, before the cop let loose a hearty laugh.  The Cree are not lacking in a sense of humor.  Down the road was the officer’s wife, he told us, who was teaching some of the local children at what was called “Cree Culture Camp.”  He encouraged us to walk down and say hi, wished us well and then departed.  We continued on.

Cree Culture Camp turned out to be a small collection of cabins in a clearing.  Outside the cabin, a woman was helping a group of about 8 children don snowshoes.  We introduced ourselves and asked if it would be okay to film.  She said her name was Elsie House, and that it would be fine to film.  Eric asked her about what she was doing.  What followed was one of the most magical experiences we had during our entire trip.  Unfortunately, it is something that is rather difficult to convey in words.  A paraphrasing may have to suffice.

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Elsie told us that she was normally the teacher for the girls, and that there was usually someone else teaching the boys, but that person wasn’t there today.  As a result, she was feeling a little overrun, though one wouldn’t have guessed it from her calm demeanor and confident handling of the kids swarming around her.  Cree Culture Camp was where the kids came to learn the old ways, she told us, so that their theoretical learning in school was supplemented with the practical teachings handed down by their ancestors.  They learned how to lace snowshoes, make clothing, snare rabbits and other small game, as well as forestry, science and animal studies.  She told us that many things have changed since the hydroelectric development.  The animal migration patterns have changed, she said, and the geese are no longer found where they once were.  The river no longer freezes, and the traditions surrounding the freeze-up and break-up of the river are already lost.  Food changed dramatically for the Cree after the development, she said.  They never had frozen, processed food while living on Fort George Island (where the community lived before the construction of the dams).  With the building of the roads and the clash of cultures came an influx of processed food and a distinct rise in diabetes and other health concerns.  As a result of these changes, and others, it was important to teach the children what the adults still knew of their traditional ways.

As if to illustrate the point, one of the kids came over to ask for help with her snowshoes.  They were traditional-style snowshoes, but they had a modern strap system attached to them, which clearly was not working.  “This is a store-bought thing,” Elsie said, “We find they don’t work very well.  That’s why I make my own from moose hide.”  Most of the other kids had these homemade straps on their snowshoes, and their simplicity and effectiveness were immediately apparent.  They were lashed on by two simple lengths of moose hide, but there was clearly a proven technique that had to be mastered to learn how to tie them on properly.

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Elsie said she could have taught grade 4 in English, but she said no, insisting on teaching in Cree.  She wanted to teach her language and culture.  She has done so for the last ten years.  “It’s very rewarding to know your culture,” she told us.

It was rewarding to us to learn just a little about it first-hand, that was for certain.  What’s more, in a single impromptu interview we had captured a huge percentage of the concepts and images we wanted to come away with from this trip.  That single chance meeting nearly made the entire trip worth it, all on its own.

Day Five: Hydro-Quebec (LG2)

April 8, 2013 in Hydro, James Bay, Location Reports, Photos, Renewable Energy, Utilities by Stephen J. Maas

We weren’t scheduled to meet with the representatives from Hydro-Quebec until shortly after midday, so we took advantage of the free time to catch up on data logging, blog posting and equipment management.  We were still dialing things in so that we could be most effective, but yesterday’s time in Chisasibi had clearly demonstrated to us the need to be ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.  We spent some time refining our “run and gun” package so that we’d be ready for anything.

Our contacts at Hydro-Quebec were Gary, a PR representative who flew up from Montreal to meet with us, and Eric, a long-time employee of the company who was based in Radisson and gave tours of the hydro installations.  We learned that Eric had essentially grown up with the project, living in Radisson when he was a kid and the construction of LG2 was still underway.  Eric’s firsthand knowledge of the La Grande hydro projects combined with Gary’s extensive knowledge of Hydro-Quebec’s operations made for a wealth of information that we were grateful to have access to.

We started with a chat in a conference room, going over some basics and the plan for the day.  We would watch a presentation first, and then head out for the Robert-Bourassa generating station, or “LG2″ (La Grande 2 — the second dam & power station in the La Grand River hydro system).

On the way into the presentation, we passed through Hydro-Quebec’s “museum,” which featured a number of informational exhibits about the hydro projects.  In the center of the room stood an impressive representation of a wolf taking down a caribou, both animals perpetually frozen in mid-clash.

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The presentation “room” was actually a theater, which would easily rival almost any movie theater back home.  Eric’s presentation first covered the distribution of various power sources in Quebec and the USA.  We learned that 98% of Quebec’s power comes from hydro, and that the province generates more power than they can use, subsequently exporting a great deal.  Vermont is, of course, one of its customers.  Quebec was speckled almost entirely with blue dots on the power source distribution map, representing hydro; the USA by contrast was covered mostly with black and brown dots representing coal, oil and natural gas.  We have some significant hydro generation in a few regions, primarily the Pacific Northwest, but the sheer volume of water available and exploited for power generation in Quebec is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

The presentation then moved on to look at the generating station itself, describing how it was designed and how it works.  It is no exaggeration to say that the LG2 power station is one of the most significant engineering marvels of the modern world.  Commissioned between 1979 and 1981, it is the largest underground power generating station on the planet.  The excavated machine hall housing the 16 giant turbines, each of which can move an Olympic-sized swimming pool’s worth of water in 10 seconds, is four stories tall and nearly 1,600 feet long and sits 450 feet below the surface.  There is a two-lane road which leads from the outside down to the power station and is large enough to accommodate tour buses and tractor trailers.  The dam itself is almost two miles long and over 500 feet tall.  There is a spillway, nicknamed the “giant’s staircase,” which features ten 32-foot high steps rising over nearly a mile with 8 gates at the top.  The enormous spillway can discharge twice the flow of the St. Lawrence River at Montreal.  The Robert-Bourassa system has an installed generating capacity of 5,616 megawatts.  A second generating station, La Grande 2A, was added on the same reservoir in the early 1990′s, and adds an additional 2,106 megawatts of generating capacity.

After the presentation, we headed out for the dam.  Security is a concern, as one would expect, and we weren’t allowed to film at the checkpoint.  Once beyond it, though, we were able to roll our cameras on the exterior features of the installation.  We had luck that it was a spectacular day — cold but clear and very sunny.  We captured some footage of the enormous dam from a ways off, before heading for the power station.

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Unfortunately we were not allowed to film inside the power station, either, due to security concerns.  We heard that a reporter hopped a fence a while back and was able to gain access to the facilities.  Since that time, security was tightened.

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Hydro-Quebec was currently engaged in refurbishing the turbines, so the access road was closed due to the movement of large-scale equipment.  This meant that we had to take the elevator down to the machine hall.  We walked through the hall from end to end and saw some of the giant turbines sitting on the floor, being prepared for installation.  There are two giant cranes which run on rails on the sides of the hall and carry the huge pieces of equipment back and forth during installation, repair and refurbishing.  There is also an office area, with completely ordinary-looking office spaces (which struck me as a little funny, considering their subterranean locale) and a command center featuring a workstation that had more monitors than I could count.  After touring the machine hall, we took another elevator down to the lower levels under the turbines, and were able to actually view one of the turbines in action, spinning around incredibly fast.  We put our hands on the outside of the spiral case and felt the chill of the water surging through on the other side.

Back on the surface, we hopped back into the van and headed out for the spillway.  Looking slightly reminiscent of an Aztec pyramid, though much less precise, the spillway is the most alien of all of the features of the Robert-Bourassa installation.  It is a giant channel gouged into the landscape, falling away in huge steps below a series of gates which can be opened and closed as needed.

By the time we rolled back into Radisson, it was nearing dark.  We backed up our footage, ate dinner, and went to bed early.  We had an early start the next morning, and it would prove to be a long day.

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Day Four: Chisasibi

April 3, 2013 in Hydro, James Bay, Location Reports, Photos, Renewable Energy by Stephen J. Maas

Chisasibi is a small town by American standards, but we were surprised at how large it was, given its locale.  We knew that the town had about 5,000 residents, most of those being native Cree, but after coming from tiny Radisson and driving through a broad expanse with no visible signs of civilization for 60+ miles, it was an abrupt change to come upon a bustling town.

We took a few minutes to drive around town for a while, trying to get our bearings and sort out where the key locations were situated.  It was a bit difficult, as the wind was so intense that visibility was very low and we couldn’t see much further beyond the sides of the road, but we did manage to locate the school, the commercial center and the administrative offices without too much trouble.  We pulled into the latter at around 12:30, and set up to have lunch in the car before going inside.

We had been in contact with the Assistant Director General of Operations of the Cree Nation of Chisasibi, a Mr. Christopher Napash, but hadn’t established a specific appointment, since our travel plans had to be so fluid and we were very uncertain of whether we’d be arriving at any of our planned locations at the times we were targeting.  So we figured we’d just drop by.

The administration center building was a very unique structure.  Like many of the municipal buildings in Chisasibi, its architecture was clearly influenced by native designs.  It featured a roof structure reminiscent of a tipi, but with a modern flair.  Many of the buildings in town exhibit similar architectural lines, echoing the culture by which they are inhabited.  I have never seen buildings of this sort before, anywhere in the world.  They are, in a sense, a very effective reflection of the Quebec Cree today — a people of strong traditions, making their own way in the modern world. [Due to the weather, I don't have photos of the buildings yet; I'll post some later].

Inside, we learned that Mr. Napash was at lunch and would be returning soon.  We decided to wait.  This gave me the opportunity to peruse the James Bay Cree telephone directory, which was an exciting document for me to discover in the lobby, as strange as that sounds.  I usually toss the phone book into the recycling bin without even glancing at it at home, knowing that I’ll never open it and that the Internet will give me far more information than the phone book ever could.  Here, though, Internet access was at a premium for us, and I had already found that it would give us only a fraction of the information we might be looking for.  The phone book was a convenient primer to the entire region, showing not only a list of names (which were fascinating on their own) but advertisements and listings for all of the businesses and services in the area.  Reading through it felt like a crash course on the identity of the town.  What’s more, there were several pages that were written in the Cree language, which we had so far seen only in small pieces on road signs.  As a professional linguist, I found the bilingual version of the introduction from Matthew Coon-Come, the Grand Chief of the Cree, to be a fascinating diversion.

After a while, Mr. Napash arrived.  Eric and I both liked Chris immediately.  He was friendly, unassuming and had a sense of humor that snuck up on us now and then, a dry wit that we both appreciated immensely.  We went upstairs to his office and talked for a couple of minutes about the things we’d like to do in town.  Within five minutes he was on the phone to the radio station, arranging for us to go on the radio and talk about what we were doing and to introduce us to the town.  Just like that, we were off to the station.

Eric was admittedly nervous going on the radio, having been completely unprepared for it in the moment.  We’ve talked enough about what we are doing and what we hope to do with the film, however, that he performed very well and gave a great impromptu interview with Chris.  We learned later that the radio station is an important part of the community’s communication system.  It’s used almost like a central bulletin board here, with sort of an open-door policy to all of the citizens.  It is used as a medium to inform everyone in town about what is going on and to facilitate the connectedness of all of the citizens in a rapidly growing community.  That seems like kind of an obvious explanation of what radio does, but coming from a region where radio is highly commercialized and used primarily for entertainment and advertising (with the exception of Vermont Public Radio), it was a notable difference to me.

The radio interview proved its efficacy almost immediately.  By the time we had returned to the admin center, we had word that there were two people who wanted to speak with us.

We spoke with Patrick Maillet, a non-native resident of Chisasibi who was originally from Quebec but had spent many years abroad in China, and other places.  He told us he had come to Chisasibi because he wanted to continue to “travel abroad,” but couldn’t leave the province due to health reasons.  James Bay was home to a culture that was so different from the areas of Quebec he was familiar with that, to him, it amounted to living in another country.  He had some interesting things to say about Canadians’ consumption of electricity and his own outlook on the Crees’ place in history.  He also gave us some great leads on other contacts for future interviews.

We also spoke with Robert Kanatewat.

Robert Kanatewat was a former chief of the Chisasibi Nation (the Fort George community, at the time).  It is his name that is at the top of the injunction that was filed, and ultimately upheld, against the James Bay Development Corporation to stop development of the James Bay project.  That injunction led directly to the negotiations that resulted in the James Bay Agreement.  One of the major surviving players of the history of the Quebec Cree had just walked in and sat down for an interview with us.  The significance of Chief Kanatewat’s presence in our film was not lost on us.

Luckily for us, he proved to be an enormously charismatic, endlessly entertaining, vastly informative and deeply profound person.  I know that it may sound like I’m laying it on a little thick, but had you shared the room with him, you would think otherwise.  He really was a gem, and I’m incredibly grateful that we were able to speak with him at such length.  When we are home, I hope to see about posting some clips from the interview.

By the time we were through with the interviews, it was getting close to an hour before dark, and the wind had not yet relented.  We wanted to stay longer, but we knew that we had to get on the road soon for our own safety, so we packed up and headed back to the car.  The drive back was much smoother; the plows had clearly had some time to do their work.  We arrived back in Radisson as the last remnants of light were fading.

It was a fantastic day of production.

Day Four: Radisson to Chisasibi

April 3, 2013 in Hydro, James Bay, Location Reports, Photos, Renewable Energy, Utilities by Stephen J. Maas

When we woke up, the wind had not abated; if anything, it had gotten worse.  We heard plow trucks clearing the parking lots outside and a quick glance out the window confirmed that sunlight would not be much of a factor in any of our exterior shots for the day.  Our goal was to shoot as much footage as we could, though, despite the weather, and we had come prepared for it in any case.

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I went outside to get the car ready, and found it to be sitting in a strange little bowl that the snowdrifts had made for it.  There was almost no snow on the car itself; the wind had just swirled drifts in to surround it, as if curiously inspecting it from a safe distance.  I started it up, then kicked some of the snow away and drove out of the snow circle without any trouble.  The snow was very dry and light, which was encouraging because our car was very small and light.  We wouldn’t be powering through any heavy snow very easily.

We loaded up with our day kit, and oh what a joy to have a car only 1/4 loaded with gear!  Eric marveled at how easily it was to reach everything — we wouldn’t have to unpack half the car just to reach something we had inadvertently buried anymore.  I was delighted that I could now see through the rear window (although that would soon no longer be the case, due to the build-up of snow and ice cast on the window from the road).

Our cameras mounted and readied, we set out for the town of Chisasibi, about 60 miles to the west.

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The wind was unrelenting over our entire drive, and it was an experience not quite like any I’d had before.  Although the road is maintained by plows (we saw at least one), they clearly had a hard time keeping up with the intense drifting.  At some points, the road was half covered by three feet of snow that had been blown over it.  Where there weren’t large drifts, there were smaller, more frequent ones that reached out and striated the road like the infinite fingers of a giant hand.  Driving through them slowed the car in brief surges, reminding us of the bounce of a speedboat over water, or of the constant rebounding of mogul skiing.

The wind brought the snow alive, making it dance and swirl over the pavement in strange, ghostly forms.  It was nothing I hadn’t seen before at home in Vermont, of course, but the enormity of the steel transmission structures towering over the weather-stunted black spruce trees lent the sight a coldness that struck me as unfamiliar and remote.

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As we drove deeper into the territory surrounding Chisasibi, we began to see road signs we hadn’t before.  As part of the James Bay Agreement, the Cree have exclusive hunting, trapping and fishing rights on their land.  No one is allowed to pursue those activities there without the Cree’s permission.

It was not a relaxing drive, but it was certainly an interesting one.  We arrived in Chisasibi proper around midday, and set out to get our bearings.

Day Three: Radisson

April 2, 2013 in Hydro, James Bay, Location Reports, Photos, Renewable Energy, Utilities by Stephen J. Maas

Our first day with “boots on the ground” in the far north was a holiday; Easter Monday.  We had planned on using this day to get settled, organized and recuperated, so the fact that most businesses were closed worked out just fine in that regard.

We got our room sorted out, putting together a makeshift kitchen by the window and figuring out a method for cooking that wouldn’t set off any alarms.  A fan in the open window worked great for evacuating the steam from our stove.  We had a late breakfast of eggs and bacon with green onions.

I spent most of the day on the computer, writing up blog entries about our trip north and getting photos together for the website.  It took a lot longer than I thought it would; there was a lot to digest and to condense into a palatable length.  Eric spent that time working with his camera, which was still quite new to him.  He pored through the manual and ran tests while I hacked away at the keyboard.  Outside, the weather had gotten decidedly worse.  It was very windy, and snowing lightly.

After a while, we decided to take a break and have a walk around town.  It was still blustery and cold, but nothing worse than we’d both experienced in Vermont.  The weather in Radisson that day was approximately the same as a January or February day in Vermont.  The only difference was that it was, in fact, April.

Radisson is a small town, home to approximately 500 people by the accounts I’ve seen.  During the construction phase of the James Bay hydroelectric projects, it had a population of several thousand.  Now, it’s a relatively quiet hamlet.  Most of the activity we saw was Hydro-Quebec vehicles heading in and out of town.  There’s a small gas station and convenience store, a couple of restaurants and a few small shops and businesses.

Strangely, the slushy pop stand was closed.

We stopped into the convenience store for a couple of things, and I noted that the stock on the shelves was instantly familiar, for the most part.  As we were walking back to the hotel, I mused on how no matter where you go in North America, you can generally find the same items in convenience stores, wherever you are.  Eric was recently in Mexico and confirmed that it was the case there, as well.  It is a little odd to drive one thousand miles into the northern wilderness and to then find a store that sells the same Snickers bars and M&Ms that you can buy at home.  In one sense, it’s a disconcerting reminder of the pervasiveness and relentless expansion of western culture.  On the other hand, it’s also a reminder that people everywhere aren’t so different, no matter where they may be, and everybody likes a tasty snack now and then.

Back at the hotel, we readied our gear for tomorrow’s adventures.  Our plan was to drive to Chisasibi in the morning.

Day Two: The James Bay Road

April 2, 2013 in Hydro, James Bay, Location Reports, Photos, Renewable Energy, Utilities by Stephen J. Maas

At kilometer 6 on the James Bay Road, there is a checkpoint where travelers are asked to stop and register.  In addition to being provided with important information about the road and the region and being able to make lodging arrangements for the northern destinations, this also ensures that the checkpoint personnel are informed about when people are expected to arrive.  If they don’t turn up, there is a record of who they are and when they passed through, so their absence won’t be missed.

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Inside the checkpoint, we met a very friendly employee named Gilbert.  He gave us the informational spiel he presumably gives to everyone who passes through, and handed us a paper with emergency numbers for use at the SOS phones along the way and information about landmarks on the route.  We chatted a little bit and learned that he used to be a bush pilot.  He came to Matagami for two weeks, he said, and that was 25 years ago.

For the trip up the James Bay Road, I had printed out a kilometer-by-kilometer guide from a website that I had found, called jamesbayroad.com.  It proved to be extremely accurate and incredibly helpful, both for ensuring that we didn’t miss any key locations and for passing the time.  We had to drive 385 miles, and the scenery didn’t change a whole lot.  It helped to check off landmarks as we drove.

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The road was generally in good condition.  There were potholes only occasionally; the worst we had to deal with were frost heaves, but almost all of the really bad ones were marked with orange diamond signs.  It’s pretty impressive to think that this road, stretching for almost 400 miles into the remote northern wilderness and regularly traveled by enormous logging trucks and mining vehicles, is in better shape than a lot of the roads at home in Vermont…or maybe that’s just an aggravating thought.

There are a lot of rivers along the way, some of them very large.  One of the most impressive that we passed was the Rupert River.  This section of the road featured a large (relatively speaking) suspension bridge just downstream of some rapids.  This river was the subject of some controversy a few years ago, when Hydro-Quebec revisited its plans from the 1970′s to divert the Rupert River to the Eastmain River and the La Grande hydroelectric watershed.  The diversion was ultimately approved as part of the Paix des braves agreement between the government of Quebec and the Cree, and the Rupert Dam was constructed, though not without opposition.  Remnants of this can still be seen on the pylons of the bridge; graffiti on one reads, “Why kill me?  I gave you life.  Love from Rupert River.  Please save me.”

The landscape features a lot of black spruce trees, tall and thin.  We passed many areas that had been ravaged by forest fires in years past.  In some, reforestation was underway.  In others, the land remained permanently scarred with no sign of regrowth.

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We passed the 52nd parallel, taking a break for a photo op.  At some point we passed the 53rd parallel, too, but we never saw a sign.

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By about 550 km, or 340 miles, we were quite ready to arrive.  The large transmission lines had begun to increase in frequency and number.  By the time we got very close to Radisson, they seemed to be everywhere.  Driving along the final stretch of road to the town of Radisson felt almost like driving through a maze of metal, enormous towers and high tension wires criss-crossing the landscape as far as the eye could see.

We pulled into town at around 7:45 PM.  Our hotel was easy to locate; Radisson is not a very large town.  We checked in and laboriously hauled all of our gear up to our room on the second floor; there was no elevator.  The first thing I did was to download and backup footage.  We connected to the Internet (everywhere now, it seems, even in such a remote location) and made contact with our families.

We were both exhausted.  I had not expected to be so tired, just from driving.  It turned out to be  more of a mental exercise than I had anticipated.  We had traveled nearly 1,000 miles in just two days.

 

Day Two: Matagami

April 2, 2013 in James Bay, Location Reports, Photos by Stephen J. Maas

We arrived at Matagami (Cree for “Where waters meet”) in the late morning.  This little town is the last settlement before the vast expanse through which the James Bay Road winds its way.  We made sure to stop and fill up our tank completely, as we knew we would not find any more gas for another 381 kilometers.  As a safeguard, we were also carrying 5 gallons of fuel in the car.  It took up a fair amount of space and the potential risk of vapors escaping wasn’t exciting to either of us, but it was far preferable to running out of fuel in the middle of the wilderness.

The little gas station had a great stock of supplies — everything from frying pans to USB car chargers.  There were bathrooms, a shower, and laundry machines. They clearly catered to people like us, about to head for James Bay, and it was reassuring to find a place like that, even though we had brought everything we needed with us.

After fueling up, we took a quick drive through town, to see what Matagami was like.  The primary employment for the town comes from mining and wood processing and its character reflects what one might expect from that sort of setting — efficient, utilitarian, no-nonsense.  We both liked it immediately.  We drove by an “arena” with a lot of cars parked outside; presumably there was a hockey game going on inside.

From Matagami, it was on to our final stop before the James Bay Road — the checkpoint, just a few kilometers north of town.

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