3000 km and four day’s of “road freedom” is what was available to me and no I have not escaped from jail, but this is one place that if I had escaped, would be a location worth considering. Quebec is the largest province in Canada and the vastness of the northern section of the province can fit small European countries inside it.
The plan: Drive up the James Bay Highway to the most northerly town accessible by road in eastern Canada, spend a day (and a bit) there, then turn around and drive back to Toronto. Oh and the JBH is paved too and since the highway is privately owned by Hydro Quebec you have to check in at the station booth before travelling. This means no Police patrolling! But be careful or you can wind up in a lot of trouble because help is far away. Emergency phones are located along specified intervals along the JBH, but those too can be quite the hike. It is also useful to mention that there is only one gas station with a service centre at mile marker 381. The JBH starts at Matagami and it's another 617 KM until the next town. The ONLY service station is at mile marker 381. So for the entire trip there is basically nothing in terms of; no service facilities, no cellular telephone communication, no car radio stations. In other words, it is peaceful, . Radisson was our destination.
Radisson is a small town built in the early 1970’s as a support town for the construction workers during the building of Hydro Quebec’s Mega Dam Projects. The largest of the dam projects is the LG2 Dam or otherwise known as Le Grande 2, the world’s largest underwater power generating station with a depth of 140 meters below ground! A small tour bus takes visitors along the top of the dam, which is 53 Stories high! The Dam spill way called the StairCase is so massive that each rung is several stories high and and it is 2km in lenght. Apparently the next time they will open the spill way doors is in 2070. Mark that down on your calendar. LG2 alone is most certainly worth a visit. So too is the Native Cree community of Chissasibi located on the edge of James Bay. Several other Cree communities are located off the James Bay Highway, but the majority of them are many kilometers (60 or more) from the highway. Eastmain, one of the Cree communities is where the Hudson’s Bay Company formally had a fur trading post during exploration times. The out post is still there, but don't count on buying fur :-) The beautiful Eastmain River, with its white rapids visible from the roadside but sadly this year the rapids will be no longer because a mega dam project is to be constructed up river. The northern lights (Aurora Borealis) kept us company during the night drive until we stopped for a two-hour rest next to the Eastmain River. The James Bay Highway cuts a path through the Boreal Forest, the largest and longest continuous forest in the World. The scent of the forest surrounds you and the freshness of the air is simply wonderful. Peaceful is the only word to describe this area and to experience peace is a wonderful and fortunate experience one can have. Along the JBH there are educational plaques that appear to describe the terrain or area immediately surrounding you. Unfortunately, the plaques are not in English but rather in French and Cree, so I can not comment on their content but rather guess.
Radisson will serve as home base. It has a population of about 500 people, mostly Hydro Quebec workers and their families. The town has a small hospital, grocery store, an Esso gas station (the only station between mile 381 and Matagami) restaurants/bars and a hotel. The Hydro Quebec offices established an education exhibit of the dam projects, provides visitors with a brief history of the area and an overview of the Mega Dams project. Visitors can also take a four hour guided tour of either of the two local dams, LG1 and LG2. A must do on the to-do-list, but do not forget to reserve. There is also a full service hotel, appropriately named, Radisson Hotel, but I preferred to camp rather than stay in a hotel. The campsite near the entrance to the town is equipped with full service ammenities, meaning, it has water and hydro connection. A large converted trailer house on the premises has a shower and laundry facility, a small kitchenette and it is very clean. The hotel will serve me well when I return in the winter months.
Chissasibi is a wonderful community approximately 110 km from Radisson. It has all the amenities, pizza parlors, restaurants, banks etc, but the most distinctive feature when approaching the town is the large T-pee in the centre of town. I did not spend anytime outside of the car around town because my objective was to see James Bay and drive to the end of the road! Of interest, the word Stop, on the stop sign is written in Cree.
We made it to the end, and what is at the end you may ask? Well, a very large bay of cold water, beautiful scenery and the knowledge that where I stood, centuries before, this area remains the same as it did for hundreds of years after the explorers landed on the shores and the Cree continue with their way of live. A wonderful and appropriate sign posted on the single hut house near the shoreline read “Speed Boyz”. While my friend, an amateur photographer, roamed about to take photographs, I prepared my lunch and relaxed in the “Speed Boyz” hut looking out onto the bay.
Later that day, we were back in Radisson, made supper and hung out by the fire. We intended to stroll into town to catch the nightlife and mingle with the locals, but it was not to be. With only two hours of sleep in two days, we slept in our tent on the ground because my friend did not bring the sleeping pads! Note to self: bring your own.
The next morning we hung around the camp area knowing that we have a 600km drive to Matagami. Not wanting to drive the JBH at night we departed at noon. The remainder of the drive back to Toronto was uneventful stopping for a few hours of sleep in the car before the final stretch. We were back at my apartment Sunday morning at 7a.m. I had promised my wife that I would return on time to have breakfast with her and I did. She knows I am never late! We had started our trip (on Thursday) after a half day at our offices, both starting at 7 a.m. and arriving in Radisson early Friday morning and back in Toronto Sunday morning.
So, where to next? Happy Valley Goose Bay. With a name like that, it has to be a pleasant place. Or any where in Quebec.
If you plan on driving to James Bay in the winter check out this article.
other useful links:
Power Station tour info
Information about traveling along the James Bay Road