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.
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.
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.
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.
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.