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.
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.
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!