Day Two: The James Bay Road

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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