NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Day 2

Today would be the first day of new territory on the trip – heading north from Gatineau to Matagami, the town in the Baie-James region of Quebec that’s the southern terminus of the James Bay Road. The plan was to roll out of the hotel at 7:00 AM, with about eight hours and 400 miles of driving ahead of us.

The plan was to make it to Val d’Or around mid-day, to get lunch and provisions. The drive is about five hours, including a remote 157-mile leg through the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve. We killed most of the bottle of Fireball the night before, so the alcohol stores had to be replenished, and we needed to get some snacks. Of course, the night before, I couldn’t wait for some of my Canadian favorites – when we went to fuel up the trucks, I picked up a bag of All-Dressed Ruffles and another of Ketchup Lay’s. Canada comes second only to the United Kingdom when it comes to glorious potato chip/crisp flavors.

I rolled out of bed about 6:20 AM, jumped in the shower, put my stuff in the LR3, and walked the few hundred meters down the road to the Tim Hortons for a coffee, maple glazed donut, and Sausage B.E.L.T. Down here in Gatineau, there’s probably more English spoken due to the proximity to Ottawa, so I haven’t had the courage to totally go full-bore French. I have enough pidgin French to get by – I’ve done it in France and Quebec before – but down here “parlez-vous Anglais?” still nets me an Anglophone staffer to place an order with. The goal for today was to get more into speaking French as we head north, without falling back on my native tongue.

We headed west a bit on QC-5 and then north on QC-105, which winds along the Gatineau River’s western shore. The road was full of twisties, passing a vista reminiscent of some parts of upstate New York or Vermont. (Makes sense, I guess, since we’re topographically nearby.) The view changed from ravines to small villages as we wound north, with a smattering of trailer parks and farms in the mix. If it wasn’t so cold and potentially icy, and we didn’t have a chunky LR3 that was close to its maximum GVWR, this road could be seriously fun. The sun started to rise, slowly over a gloomy, grey sky. The snow cover built up as we headed further north. The first snow we saw sticking was a dusting at Syracuse, but here we were closing in on a foot of snowpack. Cows wandered past picturesque rustic barns hoof-deep in it.

At Kazabazua, a sort of misty rain came down. A decent-sized town, it had a few bars, a Benjamin Moore paint store, and a few signs for a horse pull competition. Just south of Maniwaki, we drove past the burnt-out remains of a house or barn, a few cops sitting in the driveway with some police tape. Instantly, my overactive brain started wondering what’s going on, and I got a bit of a vibe of a scene in Louise Penny’s Three Pines mystery novels.

 

 

We stopped at Maniwaki to re-Timmy, and change seats. Milosz and I swapped, with me taking some time with Jarek and Konrad and him hanging out with Bogdan and Ewa a bit. The ridiculous plushiness of the Rangie was a nice change, though honestly as the LR3 has heated rear seat bottoms, it’s not like it was much of a struggle.

We headed into the La Vendredye refuge around 10:00 AM, fog starting to close in as a cold drizzle fell on the windscreen of the Rangie. A sign on the roadside signaled 56km to fuel, with what looked like just four waysides on the road to Val d’Or. The various rest areas were shut tight for winter, the parking lots piled in snow. Moose-aware signs (“prudence!”) showed up on the side of the road. A tractor-trailer started riding our rear bumper, a risky move in the weather – and we had nowhere to go with a line of cars ahead of us. Roadside rock walls had turned into waterfalls of ice.

 

 

The road to Val d’Or got snowier and snowier, with a flurry reducing visibility. Val d’Or was a veritable oasis after a long stretch of nothingness. The first introduction was a line of car dealerships, followed by a centre-ville, where we stopped at the IGA for provisions.

I have a thing for foreign supermarkets, as do a few others in the expedition party, so this was an experience. The beer section was particularly interesting. It was packed with craft brews, but almost none of them were familiar – at that scale, breweries just can’t deal with exporting, I guess. Instead, there were hundreds of unknown Canadian beers, many in 330mL cans.

 

As a Tragically Hip fan, this amused me.

 

 

After about a half hour of provisioning, we headed to get gas, where the pump attendant was fascinated by our American-ness and was excited to buy an American $5, $10, and $20 bill off of us for his currency collection. We filled up with a snow flurry surrounding us and the bells of the Catholic church echoing through town.

 

The gas attendant shows Bogdan some of his foreign currency collection.

 

From here, the highway cut through the outskirts of Amos, the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Amos (which serves this Northern Quebec region), with the Cathédrale Sainte-Thérèse-d’Avila dominating the skyline. The road north cut through flat farmland, before turning into the seemingly-uninhabited thick forest. The road started getting slick, and Jarek did a brake test on the Rangie, with minimal impact. Smooth motions and spacing became the name of the game.

All of the rest areas on the road are closed this time of year, so it seems like the way to handle this function is in the classical outdoors manner; easier, of course, for guys. All day, we’ve passed people pulled over at the roadside taking care of business. It’s kind of funny to see people relatively cavalier about it, by requirement. We pulled over the convoy a few times for a pee break and to check the trucks. While I’m used to these kinds of inspection pauses driving an almost-26-year-old Discovery 1, at this point neither the LR3 or L322 are brand-new either.

 

 

The road is actively plowed, and we passed a number of trucks plowing and laying down salt. There are also lots of tractor-trailers carrying fuel and other supplies to the communities on the JBR. Also, considering we were convinced we needed full-tilt-boogie overland trucks for this trip, there’s a lot of Ford Focuses and Mazdas up here. (Mazdas seem significantly more popular in Canada than the USA.)

It got dark in the 4:00 PM hour, but the temperatures so far haven’t been as cold as we’d expected…they’re hovering around freezing, -2 Centigrade at the lowest so far. I’m hoping it’s colder when we hit the JBR tomorrow because I have a lot of cold-weather gear I bought for this trip. (Though, it’ll get plenty of use at the Maine Winter Romp in February.)

We got to Matagami around 5:30 PM, checked into the hotel, and found out that all of the restaurants in town are closed until January 6th. The options: snacks from the Esso, or snacks from Shell. Katie and I went to Shell, then Esso. Here are some things we found.

 

Back at the hotel, we made dinner on the camp stoves in lieu of a restaurant, or some of us just ate prepacked things. I had a very sad salad kit from Val d’Or, eaten with a titanium Snow Peak fork for some class. Jarek, Konrad, and Milosz went for soup in a can, while Bodgan went for Unibroue beer and cheese.

 

We ended the night with a driver’s meeting in Carl’s and my room, planning our assault on the JBR tomorrow. Tomorrow’s the big day: THE James Bay Road. We saw the big sign at the start today at the turnoff to Matagami, and it’s already hard to believe — it’s time! It’ll be 387 miles to Radisson, with a whole lotta nada in between. I can’t wait!

 

 

 

NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Day 1

Sleep didn’t come easy; it never does when you’re excited about a trip. By 6:00 AM I was awake and getting ready for the day. The last things went in the bag as I finished using them, and then I paced the house waiting for the expedition party to arrive.

Bogdan and Ewa came first, and we started loading my stuff in the LR3. Jarek, Konrad, and Milosz pulled in a few minutes later, and we caught up while I showed Jarek my latest projects in the garage. Will and Katie showed up in the Jeep to fill out the expedition party, and after a lot of rearranging of luggage to insert Carl and me into the vehicles, we took some pre-departure photos and rolled out.

 

The expedition party prepares for departure.

 

We went to grab a Starbucks, but apparently I don’t know what stores are in which strip mall in the town I’ve lived in for thirty years, so we just got on I-78 west towards Pennsylvania. We messed around testing the radios as we headed west across the farmlands of Hunterdon County. We were across the Delaware by 9:15 AM and hooked north on PA-33 to I-80 and I-380.

The drive north was pretty quick. We burned some time on an extended tour of one exit’s various gas stations and restaurants, but other than that we kept a solid pace. After a bit more of that cheap American fuel, we crossed the border around 3:30 PM at the Thousand Islands Bridge. The line was only a few cars deep, the procedures were relatively simple, and then we were headed east on ON-401 and north on ON-417 towards Ottawa.

 

 

We came into Ottawa in the dark, and at some point, Will and Katie separated from us; we took a scenic (but not really, because darkness) tour of Ottawa while they took the fast roads to Gatineau. We met up at the front desk of the motel, where they were in the process of checking us in. Keys in hand, we unloaded the trucks, that sense of excitement in the air that comes with the first day of an adventure.

 

 

We headed to dinner at The Prescott, a landmark in Ottawa since 1934. It’s been the home of the Ottawa Valley Land Rovers’ monthly social for decades, so I wanted to see what it was like. Our friend Dixon Kenner, a long-time OVLR member who spends a lot of time in New Jersey, joined us for dinner. We spent a few hours over drinks and food discussing everything under the sun.

 

 

Back at the hotel, we spent a while planning the day ahead, before solving the problems of the world over a bottle of Fireball.

 

 

Tomorrow it’s off to Matagami, the southern end of the James Bay Road, via Val d’Or. It’s another 400 miles or so, via remote roads through La Verendrye Wildlife Reserve. Morning comes early ’round here.

NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Day 0

There are certain trips that loom large in off-roaders’ collective dreams. Maybe it’s that trip to Moab, or that Pan-American expedition, or that African safari you saw in Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom decades ago. They’re the trips that linger over campfires and long days in the garage, fermented over beers and scotches across the years.

For my New Jersey Land Rovers group, that trip is the James Bay Road. A thread running north in Quebec, it serves the hydro-electric projects that provide power to a large swath of eastern North America. Built in the 1970s across ancestral Cree land, today it links the town of Matagami to the village of Radisson, 620 kilometers/385 miles to the north. It is one of the most remote places you can drive to in eastern North America.

Many have dreamed of the James Bay Road, or JBR. Our dreams had an extra layer, though: winter. Winter in Northern Quebec is unforgiving — temperatures in Fahrenheit start with a negative symbol and are usually double digits. A handful of Land Rover acquaintances have driven the JBR in summer; a select few have done it in winter.

Wikimedia Commons photo of the old sign at the start of the JBR. By P199 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=615154

Thus, winter on the JBR has haunted our conversations for over a decade. We’ve almost pulled the trigger on this trip a few times, but never completely. In 2016, my friends Barbara and Jarek moved from New Jersey to Florida. We almost drove it on the way to their last northern residents’ Maine Winter Romp. Then Jarek and I discussed it this year as part of our “Mark IV Grand Tour,” when he delivered a 2015 Range Rover from New Jersey to Florida via the Eastern Seaboard. But it never happened.

This year, Barb and Jarek are coming north to visit family in New Jersey for Christmas, and from that seed, our date with destiny on the JBR grew. Jarek’s overlanding vehicle of choice right now is a 2011 Range Rover Supercharged, a 510-horsepower beast of a thing that’s already done three round-trips up the Eastern Seaboard this year. The JBR is paved, and even so it’s proven itself in an off-road jaunt we took to Uwharrie National Forest in September. The dreams always involved his “Medium Duty Expedition Vehicle” 1995 Discovery, but dreams adapt. He and his son Milosz would make this pilgrimage north in the Range Rover.

Next to sign up was our friends Bogdan and Ewa in their 2005 LR3, a veteran of many cross-country trips. I met up with them far away once already this year, in fact; I was in Moab with my friend Max and some of his friends from Atlanta, and we rendezvoused. Bogdan also has extensive winter travel experience, another benefit.

We made concessions to purity with Will and Kate, who are the life of the party at many NJLR events. Will’s ex-military Series III, a paintless wonder dubbed “the Battlewagon,” was not in shape for this trip, in that a 74-horsepower 2.25-liter engine could not keep up the pace with the modern V8s in the Range Rover and LR3. So, in the interest of having their excellent company in the party, while maintaining pace, we conceded for them to take Katie’s daily driver, a 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee. It may well be the impure beast that saves us all at some point.

Shotgunning we are three more. Myself, because Duncan is in no state for this trip on this notice, and Butler is still…well, horribly behind schedule. (Who knew restoring a complex mid-1990s luxury SUV would take so long when you have other things going on in life?) Carl’s Discovery 1 needed work, and life got in the way with such short notice. No matter, his good humor and skills as a professional medic were valuable. Jarek’s friend Konrad from Florida rounded out the expedition party, adding new blood and experience with modern vehicles via his career as a BMW technician.

The Route

Over the next week, we will traverse 13 degrees of latitude and 2,500 miles. We will go from New Jersey to Ottawa, then to the northern town of Matagami. From there, we take the James Bay Road, a 385-mile journey with one stop at the halfway point — the creatively-named “Km 381.” We will spend some time at the northern terminus of Radisson, exploring the Cree communities up there and the Hydro projects. Then we reverse the route, coming to America again via Montreal for the New Year on the St. Lawrence.

The JBR is fully-paved, though it’s also snowy and icy. Hydro is the main reason for its existence, but there’s also plenty of truckers to be aware of. There’s just one fuel stop — the aforementioned Km 381.

Logistics

Wikimedia Commons photo of the JBR in winter.By Zulborg – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8320715

Usually, this is a camping crowd, but not at these temperatures. We’re getting hotels in every town along the way. None of them are the Four Seasons, but they’ll all do.

The three vehicles have all been serviced in the past few weeks. We’re running mud+snow or snow tires on all of them. The Jeep has a block heater; the two Land Rovers don’t since it’s extremely complex to install them in an AJ-V8. We’ll see how we do; temperatures are not as cold as we thought they’d be in the current forecast.

As for food, all of the villages we’re visiting have restaurants, and we’ll probably do dinner there. Breakfasts will be at the hotels; lunch on the road. With a bit over eight hours of daylight every day, we have to keep pace.

Preparations

I’ve been keeping our UPS and FedEx delivery crew even busier than usual this time of year. The weather in Northern Quebec is cold. The only question is how cold. I expect to have temps below -10F at some point in the trip, either day or night.

I’ll be taking photos on three cameras on this trip, using digital and film. Digital will be my usual Nikon D800. With film, I’ll have my Nikon N8008, my standby for the past year as I got into film. I also acquired an N90s last week, for the steep sum of $34. As my friend Quentin put it, the N8008 is “the best manual focus camera Nikon ever made,” because its primitive autofocus is very loud and largely useless. The N90s will offer a second body, better AF (it’s very snappy), and the ability to shoot two film stocks at once. I’ve been shooting Ektachrome E100 lately, but the landscapes here and low light beg experimentation. I’ll be using Portra 400 in the N90s and Tri-X 400 in the N8008.

Other than that, I’ve done a lot of shopping for warm weather gear. Extreme cold is one of the few circumstances my outdoors wardrobe isn’t equipped for. I’m hoping this is one of the last trips where I have a big gear spend beforehand that nears the cost of the trip itself!

We ride at dawn on Boxing Day, destination: Canada. I’ll try to keep the live blog up as much as I can along the way.