Heart Of Darkness In The Near North

Posted on June 23, 2012


My friend Martinez is the sort of guy who well understands the notion of doing something simply to do it and going somewhere simply because it can be done.  A little while ago, inspired by his purchase of a Jeep Liberty, he put to me an idea.  “Want to drive to James Bay?”.  There was no reason to think on this proposition at all.  I simply said yes and that was that.

Everyone looks at maps and fantasizes about the places they could go.  For most people it’s exotic locales (think Fiji or India or somewhere), or romantic spots (Paris), or places of some special significance to them (Juno beach, a buddist temple).  For me, though, it’s always been the vast expanses of the atlas with lots of green, very few lines, and even fewer dots.  The North.  For as long as I can recall I have always wanted to see the arctic, Siberia, the tundra, the tree line, and any other cold and desolate place you could name.  There’s something intoxicatingly alluring about these places which I am at a loss to explain exactly.  I suppose some of it comes down to my arch Canadian-ness; I just find our remote lands magnetic.  There’s something powerful and indescribable about being totally isolated and adrift somewhere, and I suspect that even a brief such experience would do a person a world of good.

Let’s start with some basic geography, shall we?  Here’s Canada.  James Bay is that very large inlet off of Hudson Bay which separates Ontario and Quebec at their northernmost intersection.

The Dominion

Here’s a better look at the modern day situation.

The route to James Bay.

See that little road that runs up from Ottawa, through Val d’-Or and Matagami?  And then to La Grande River?  Thats the way to the near north.  Martinez did a little research into things, and I purposely learned as little as possible about the road and the area, so that the journey would be a surprise.  He picked me up at 8:00 on a Thursday in Ottawa, we piled a bunch of gear into the Jeep, and set out through rush hour traffic in a city of a million people.  The end of our journey would be the precise opposite of its beginning.

The way up takes you through some very fine hilly baby-mountain type terrain.  There is a giant game preserve between Maniwaki and Val d’Or called La Verandrye, with lake upon lake upon lake to behold.  It’s strangely not very popular, given its size, beauty and proximity, but that’s not a bad thing.  Martinez and I resolved to investigate it in future and maybe do some canoeing there but it was not our destination.  We stopped and had a sandwich next to a lake and listened to the intermittent sounds of a frog which I failed to locate.

The terrain slowly starts to change as you go further, as the land gradually flattens out.  James Bay is a giant basin, fed by the lowlands around it, which in turn roll out of the higher terrain further inland.  This high terrain is where the many great rivers, which feed the Bay, originate.  And these rivers are why there exists a road up there in the first place.  The road from Matagami to Chisasibi, our ultimate destination, was built in the 1970s to enable work on the massive James Bay Hydroelectric Project.  In short, the government of Quebec build a series of absolutely massive dams in the 1970s along a couple of rivers in the area, which ultimately wound up producing the huge amounts of electricity that the province uses and sells today.  The dams wrought gigantic, irreversible changes to the landscape, though, flooding vast tracts of wilderness and at least diminishing (if not killing) the once mighty rivers.  These changes were not limited to the landscape, either.  They also changed the lives of the local Cree (and some Inuit) people who lived scattered about the area by changing the lands they lived on and bringing them into permanent contact with the south, for better and for worse.  I won’t detail the whole story here, but google it.  It’s very interesting.

The road is called the James Bay Highway, and it is exactly 600km long, with kilometre zero located at Matagami.  Behold:

The beginning of the route to the end of the world

On the way there  you are pretty isolated, but there are other drivers.  There are farms, homesteads, roadsigns, fences, and other indications of civilization.  At the beginning of the James Bay Highway there is a 24/7 station where you must stop and sign in, so they can send word to your next of kin if you never come back.  The effect is a little jarring, and indicates to you that your trip is really beginning.  There is one gas station located at Km381 and that is it.  Run out of gas or have any trouble and you are screwed.  Daunting?  Maybe.  But that’s why we were there, to cast aside the little protective bubble that is city living, even if only very briefly, and put ourselves out of the reach of help.  Away we went.

Señor Martinez and I departing from Matagami

The first thing you notice is that the road is actually in pretty good shape.  It has to be, for the big trucks that run up there all year round.  The second thing you notice are the occasional, significant bumps, which should properly be considered jumps to get the right understanding of the situation.  It took us a day to realize that the little orange diamonds next to the road indicated the presence of these jumps (one orange diamond = clank; three orange diamonds = leaving your seat).  I hit a pretty good one at 140km/h and got some nice air.  The cargo in the back hit the roof, and Martinez tensed up a little at the thought of his ride being destroyed by my less-than-conservative driving.  I tried to slow down, but you just try driving reasonably on a flat stretch of road in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of kilometres away from any police force.  It can’t be done.  I don’t know if my partner could see the speedometer from the passenger seat.  He probably wanted to tell me to cool it, but he didn’t.  Though he did volunteer to do a disproportionate share of the driving…

The road snakes north, along vast rolling plains, and crossing the odd river here and there.  Much of the land has been savagely clear cut and outright demolished.  Certain stretches open up to reveal vast hydro towers and power lines, with absolutely monstrous cuts gouged out of the forest.  Other stretches appear to be the remains of forest fires.  Scores of tall, blackened pine trees line the road and you imagine what the place would have looked like lit up by a massive fire.  You can’t but wonder what the animals would do, and how they would survive.

As we came around a long turn, in area barren on both sides of the road, we noticed a cyclist plodding away by himself.  Martinez had me pull over and we said hello.  We were at Km150.  As it happened, the fellow’s name was Dylan.  He was originally from Alaska, but had set out on this trip from Minnesota.  Minnesota!  That’s something like a 2,000km journey.  He was a quiet guy, but friendly, and you had to wonder just what sort of guy would be out there like that, all alone, completely exposed, and grinding for probably 10 hours a day, every day.  It’s the same impulse that brought us out there, I think, but far more pure.  Neither Martinez nor I said a word about it, but I think we both felt as though this guy had somehow put us in our place and reminded us that we weren’t nearly as hardcore, being out there, as we’d thought.  I suspect we were both a little bit envious of this guy for doing it, and for having the sort of life that he could do it, take off for weeks and disappear into the bush, just for the hell of it.  The modern salaried man simply can’t pull up stakes whenever he feels like it.  We have friends and families and jobs and mortgages and obligations, and it diminishes us.  We offered Dylan some water, but he didn’t need it.  We took our leave, and watched him recede in the rearview mirror until he was a speck, and then he was gone.

The James Bay Highway has several camping spots along the route, and we planned to sleep in one of them.  The Broadback River stop seemed like as good a place as any, so we pulled in.  I had this ridiculous notion (dashed to smithereens immediately) that there might be other people around with whom we could commune.  Like hell!  The campground was a series of four little picnic table areas with flat ground for a small tent, and that was it.  There was a burn ban in effect so we couldn’t start a fire, which was a shame because foraging for wood is one of my favourite camp tasks.  We set up our camp and then set to fixing dinner: hot dogs, boiled in water.  Yum.  The river near our site was mighty fine, I have to say.

The Broadback River, from under a bridge

So we got a stove working (and I almost set a picnic table on fire by spilling gas on it) and then Martinez noted the large amount of blackflies that had congregated around us.  I insisted that it wasn’t really so bad, right?, and that they weren’t really biting us.  I was desperately trying to convince myself, but the regular spitting out of flies, and the nips behind the ears had me thinking otherwise quick enough.  The sun was still blazing, at 7:30 in the evening, and there wasn’t even the slightest breeze.  We were exposed and at the mercy of the insects.  As there was no relief at all, and we didn’t want to track food into our tent, we ate in the Jeep.  I must have killed two or three dozen of the damned vampires on the passenger side window alone while we ate.  The hot dogs were fairly gross, our flesh was a buffet, and we both got to thinking…  It wasn’t just the bugs, mind you.  It was the bugs coupled with the fact that the sun stays up in the sky for so much longer up there.  It wasn’t even eight o’clock and we knew we’d have some two hours before dark, meaning we’d have to sit around in camp for that time before we could go to sleep.  Sitting for a couple of hours in a brightly lit tent with nothing really to do stinks, trust me.  And so, fleeing both boredom and predation in equal measures we looked at each other and said “wanna just keep driving?”.  Yes.  Let’s go.  It was the fastest camp breakdown in recorded history, as we jammed everything into our vehicle as quickly as possible and set out at top speed for the fuel depot at Km381.  I spun our last remaining hot dog around like a nunchuck and sent it off into the forest for some unlucky bear to find.

This was probably the most difficult stretch of driving of the whole trip because the windshield at this point was a bug holocaust; it was just covered in insect remains which, when lit up by the setting sun, made seeing a rather challenging endeavour.  I tried the windshield wipers and managed to smear a wet bug paste all over, which made visibility effectively zero for a short time.  No matter, we sped along, racing the sun, and finally pulled into the rest area.  The place is built as somewhere to house hydro workers and truckers (and probably van-loads of prostitutes from Chibougamau, four times a year) and consists of an open, paved expanse, littered with trailers and some abandoned-seeming trucks.  There is a tiny little gas stop with three pumps that haven’t changed a bit since 1974, and a sign that says “WAIT FOR THE GAS BOY”.  We filled up our tank at a $150/L, which isn’t so bad for one of the remotest gas stations on the continent.

Your last and only hope

The Gas Boy was in fact a grizzled, quiet man who was – as far as I could tell – the only person in the whole place.  He was there that evening and he was there when we woke up, perched in his claustrophobic little kiosk which smelled like stale cigarettes from long ago and terrible coffee.  He was accompanied by a faithful grey dog that he ignored completely.  I asked about a room, and he seemed puzzled at first, asking us where we were ultimately going, and then slowly conceding that yes, he did have a room.  We followed him up to one of the big trailers, and he showed us inside.  The trailer was a very large rectangle consisting of probably a dozen small rooms (singles and doubles), a common bathroom area (with open urinals, so obviously the prostitutes stay somewhere else), and a low-lit lounge to chill out in.

Our lodgings at KM381

The lounge

Tellingly, the place was lit up 24/7 with incandescent lights and boiling with full blast electric heat that you couldn’t turn down or off.  I’m guessing they get a pretty nice rate from Quebec Hydro.  The room was very modest, but did the trick, and after watching the end of an episode of the Simpsons on the satellite TV we crashed.  Because of the super high heating we opened the window a bit, and hoped that the bugs wouldn’t find their way in.  For the most part it was fine, but at some point during the night I was awoken by the feeling of an incredibly painful bite on my left ear.  It was purple and swollen the following morning, and hurt like hell.  Nonetheless, it was a fine night.

Morning

That morning we awoke to a brutal wind sweeping across the large asphalt plain.  We fixed some oatmeal in the parking lot next to the Jeep and had a devil of a time getting the stove lit.  The wind poured over everything and went right through you.  Our oatmeal was a fitting but hard-earned reward.  We departed, after a brief visit from the gas dog looking for scraps, and got back on the road.

The next major landmark we crossed was the Rupert River (which we actually investigated in more detail on the return trip).  The Rupert is an utterly wild, raging northern river.

Our hero, in Icelandic kit, at the Rupert River

There are two little lookouts from which to observe the river (the one on the north side is down a long path, don’t give up!), and as you stand there you can’t but be overwhelmed and somewhat terrified by its sheer power.  The rapids I’m pictured in front of, above, are called the Oatmeal Rapids, and they are just ferocious.  Were you to fall in you would have absolutely zero chance of survival, a thought which consumes you as you peer down into the water and think about jumping in, or not jumping in, or something dangerous.  The Rupert, though, is only a shadow of its former self.  It was diverted in 2009, as part of an expansion of the hydro project, and now has only about 50% of its former flow.  I wish I had known about this sooner, as I would love to have seen it at the height of its powers.  Now it’s gone forever, and even though there’s an upshot, it certainly feels wrong.  If it was some river in the Amazon we’d all wring our hands and wail about the great loss, but if it’s just some place in the North no one really minds.  An English-sponsored expedition went up the Rupert in 1668 (giving the river its name) and this ultimately led to the establishment of one of the first Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts at the site of the present day Cree village of Waskaganish.

After some more driving we finally arrived at Radisson, the main hydro town at the end of the road.  It’s orderly and fine, and boasts a well-equipped store where I bought a chocolate bar, and we picked up a little treat for Dylan, hoping that we’d see him again on the way out.  But we hadn’t come to buy chocolate bars, so we unceremoniously left town just as soon as we’d arrived and set out due West for Chisasibi and the water.  As we approached town we put Iron Maiden’s Run For The Hills on the stereo at full blast.  The town of Chisasibi is surprisingly large, at 4,000 or so people, and quite modern.  I admit that I was expecting something more ramshackle and, in truth, poor, but that wasn’t the case at all.  The joint was bustling with activity (in fact, it might be the most lively seeming small town I’ve ever been to), and there were modern buildings of all sorts.  It’s funny, though, that there are virtually no signs in the town.  Want to get gas?  Want to find a bank?  Want to find a store to get some provisions, or maybe some local handicrafts?  Forget it!  So far as we could tell there isn’t a single bit of guidance for the visitor, which is more alienating than you’d think.  The general feeling is: if you don’t know your way around, then too bad for you. There is even a giant teepee themed building in the middle of town, but utterly no indication of what it is.

The Chisasibi mini golf and bingo centre

Unfortunately / inexplicably, though the town is well appointed, it is covered in trash.  Lawns are littered with broken snowmobiles and junk, and the whole place feels very unkempt.  From what I could see all Chisasibi residents are required to have some sort of non-functional machinery on their property at all times.  I know this is hopelessly southern and WASPy of me, but I couldn’t stop thinking that the place needed a cleanup, and bad, and that it would be a much cheerier place to live if it were a little less cluttered with detritus.  And this, it struck me, was all the more important given how damned bleak the place was without any help from anyone.  It seems to me that you’d want to do everything you can to make a place like that extra cheery, but by the same token I can see how that climate would suck the cheery initiative out of you, and fast.

We also observed that the Cree of the area love to drive minivans.  I had expected trucks and SUVs, but there are a surprising number of minivans on the road, and boy do they drive the hell out of them.  No slowing down for the bump/jumps, let me tell you.  We asked the guy at the gas station there what we should see or do.  He seemed genuinely stumped by the question and finally said “well there’s the bay, and the dam, and uh…. that’s about it”.  The end.  So we left.

Chisasibi is not actually on James Bay.  To get there you have to leave town, heading west, and drive down this unmarked dirt road.  It looks like this:

The way to the Bay, eh?

As you proceed along this road the temperature just drops and drops, and the trees get stubbier and stubbier, until everything is just brush and nothingness.  And then at long last the Bay itself comes into view as this grey sliver squashed between a foreboding sky and muted rainbow of arctic flora.

First glimpse of James Bay

We continued up the road and there it was, a vast,  stunning expanse.  When you arrive you find yourself at the end of a rocky point.  There is a little shack there, some more busted snowmobiles, some parked cars, and probably 15-20 long, deep canoes with 40hp outboard motors mounted on them.  The boats are all lined up on the little rocky beach, tied down, but ready to go.  There is garbage all over the place.

When we arrived there wasn’t a soul around, which was odd given the cars and boats and things.  You can’t help but feel like an intruder.  We stepped out of the Jeep and were immediately met with the fiercest, most punishing wind I have ever encountered.  It was four degrees outside, but the wind made it feel like it was fifteen below.  It streamed off the water, from somewhere deep in the north, and relentlessly battered you.  We were well bundled up, but your hands would freeze instantly if you were trying to take pictures.  Looking around, the Bay was dotted with little islands, but not the fun “hey let’s paddle over to the island and have a party” kind of islands you remember from cottage days gone by.  No way.  These are just barren spits of land with nothing on them at all.  Nothing could grow on them; any soil would be swept into the sea in an instant.

The best description I can give you of the place is that it is and feels to be unrelentingly hostile.  Up here nature is trying to kill you, and will probably succeed if you don’t know what you’re doing.  I have no idea how the Cree, let along the Inuit, could have survived in places like these, particularly before the arrival of Europeans and their technology.  Don’t get me wrong, the place has a great beauty to it, but I’m trying to put myself in the place of someone actually trying to survive there, with handmade tools and weapons.  It would have been a very hard life.  I’m sure it still is.  I respect the hell out of anyone who can make it up there, and am somewhat envious of their skills and hardiness.

James Bay

Boats and such

Our hero, in true hoser garb, pelted by wind

We lingered, staring out at the water, and just taking the scene in.  You get to thinking things, there.  Me, I’m already working on a new EP called James Bay based on some of the things I was thinking there.  It should be ready for you soon.  After a time a truck pulled up and some Cree hunters got out (a man and two kids), and started prepping a boat to go out on the water.  They loaded a couple of guns and started putting on waterproof camouflage gear.  I wandered over tentatively, hopping to catch their eye and maybe have a chat.  They completely ignored me.

The received view of the Cree, from a southern anglo perspective, is that they are a quiet people (at least with respect to outsiders) and my experience seemed to show this (but let’s not get carried away, as the sample size is so close to zero as to be zero).  I finally screwed up my courage and approached them.  The old man did the talking, and the kids just stared at Martinez and I, utterly mute.

“Hi there!  How’s it going?  You’re heading out hunting, eh?  What are you hunting for?”

“Geese.  Canada geese.”  No greeting, no evident interest in us at all.

“Oh…  Where are you headed?”

“See that island out there?  There.”

“I see.”  We asked a few more annoying questions that didn’t get a whole lot of take-up, and then we mentioned that we’d been through Matagami the day before, which elicited my favourite observation of the whole trip.  The old man perked up and said:

“Matagami?  I don’t like to go there.  It’s too hot.”  And that was about the last we had to say to each other.  We wished them good luck.  The funny thing about the Cree there, at least in my experience, is that while they might not be talkative, they’re in fact quite friendly.  It’s a very different manner of interaction, because in the south if you greeted someone like that you would be perceived as almost aggressively dismissive, but in the (near) north it’s different.  I think after a time up there one would probably learn to actually think about what one was going to say before opening one’s mouth just for the hell of it.  I’d like to spend more time amongst them, and my only regret of our trip is not getting to meet and talk to more Cree people.

We lingered some more at the water’s edge, not really wanting to leave, even though there was nothing to do there exactly.  Finally we took a few more pictures and agreed to pack it in.  We nursed the jeep back down the dirt road, leaving a vast cloud of dust in our wake, and headed south at maximum speed.

*    *    *

We had lots of daylight left and a reasonable amount of stamina, so we decided to make for Matagami that day, making our total driving distance for the day something like 900KM or so.  Not so bad!  We didn’t talk much and just took in the scenery as we went.  But around KM300 on the highway we both perked up, looking for something in particular.  After a time there he was:  Dylan the cyclist.  His eyes lit up when he saw us and we quickly pulled over while he crossed the road to greet us.  You can see just how inherently social we humans are when you observe just how much a not-very-familiar-really familiar face perks you up.  We chatted with him and he asked us about Radisson and the Bay.  We didn’t want to get his hopes up but we didn’t want to disappoint him either, so we said “well, there’s not much there.  But the Bay is cool”. He nodded with understanding.  Like us, he wasn’t really expecting his ultimate destination to be interesting, exactly.  We advised him to hitchhike the dirt road from Chisasibi, as it would be hell on a bike, and we also advised him of a little beach we’d found off of one of the rest stops where he could camp.  The major advantage of said beach was not its scenic properties, but rather that it was wind swept, and would therefore provide some relief from the insects.

We asked him if he would like some snacks, and he gratefully replied “I’d love some snacks” in a weirdly calm tone of voice.  We opened up the back and revealed our travelling grocery store, which was (again) more than a little embarrassing.  We filled up a plastic bag with apples and carrots and bread and some other stuff, and then I cut him off a huge piece of Abner Baumann’s mennonite sausage, which might be the greatest camping food ever conceived.  He was a very happy man.  Then I said “Oh but wait, we also got you a little treat in Radisson…” and produced the very large can of beer that we got for him.  Good idea by Martinez, that.  His eyes got really large, and we definitely made his day.  He told us that two days earlier he’d camped somewhere beside a couple, who had provisions and brews, and didn’t even offer him anything.  For shame!  Any true woodsman knows that you are honour-bound to share your supplies with fellow travellers.  That mission accomplished, we wished him luck and set out again.

*    *    *

We checked back in at the waypoint in Matagami, to assure them that we had survived and that no search party was necessary.  They directed us to the Hotel Matagami, which was just fine, and had decent stationary, which I took.  We awoke to a persistent fog which blanketed the town and surrounding forest.

A little itchy, bleary eyed, and regretting the absolutely horrid pizza we’d had for dinner, we plunged into the fog and made our way home.  At every little meadow, creek, and clearing I wanted to get out of the car and head off into the mist shrouded woods, just to see what was there.  It was disappointing to see houses, riding lawnmowers, and livestock.

We arrived home without incident.  I’d recommend this little jaunt to anyone and everyone, especially any Canadian who needs a reminder of the northlands and would like to exercise their imagination.  I would like to go back and learn how to hunt caribou, and acquire certain survival skills, and maybe even have something go horribly wrong.

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Posted in: Journalism