NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Driving Up the James Bay Road

After discussing this trip for a decade or so, it was strange to wake up and realize that this was the day we’d do it. The roads of Matagami were covered in a few inches of crunchy snow, and since we knew it’d be the same the whole way up, our winter James Bay Road dreams seemed fulfilled. The weather was chilly, in the negative teens Fahrenheit, but we weren’t looking at any blizzards or heavy winds. A Great Day for James Bay…

(We rejoin the James Bay Road trip log several months later, in July 2020, with the rest being written in retrospect. What have I learned? Day-by-day live blogs are too hard to keep on the road. Future trips on this site will be written up in thematic posts like this one, instead of blow-by-blow daily journals.)

We rolled out of Matagami early, just before sunrise. Since we were within but a few days of the shortest day of the year, we were already pressed for daylight; it’d be dark before 5:00 pm. We’d heard the conditions were decent on the JBR heading north, but we wanted to leave as little to chance as possible.

The Hotel Matagami was just a few kilometers south of the beginning of the JBR, so the first thing was to get a group shot by the entrance sign, creating whatever kind of fill lighting we could taking advantage of everyone’s high beams, without burning our corneas too much.

The first thing to do on a journey up the James Bay Road is to check-in at the booth a few kilometers up the road from the KM 0 sign. On such a remote road, there’s reason to take an interest in who’s on the road, where they’re going, and when they’re due back. The attendant took our information in a large ledger book, with prior returnees stricken out when they check in on the way south. The attendant also goes over safety and regulations and points out some of the more interesting spots to stop along the way.

The signs at the beginning of the JBR are intimidating, and really convey the scope of this journey. 375km — that’s 233 miles — to the first and only interim fuel stop, at the “KM 381” rest area. There would be no services in between. No food, no fuel, nothing but a hell of a lot of trees and some remote seasonal camps.

The topography actually changes quite a bit along the 385-mile stretch of the James Bay Road. As you move further north, you get deeper and deeper into true taiga territory. The trees spread out from each other, become shorter; there’s far less of a growing season up here. By the time we got to Radisson at the end of the day, the day would itself be a good bit shorter than it was in Matagami. Sunrise wouldn’t come until 8:30 AM, and the sun would be well down by 4:00 PM.

For how long we’d been waiting to come up here, I actually found myself zoning out on the scenery. It was certainly stunning, but it was also stunning in its monotony. The scenery was repetitive; Bogie, Ewa and I tried rough counting trees, before we decided there were millions of them and we were happy with that fact.

There aren’t many individual highlights along the JBR; the route itself is more a collective destination than anything specific. But the one natural feature that stands out above all the others is certainly the Rupert River, one of the great rivers of northern Quebec that has now been drained and redirected to power the massive James Bay Project to power the province. The JBR crosses the Rupert at the Oatmeal Rapids, once a massive, raging torrent of water. Now, redirected towards other uses, it’s somewhat more placid than it once was. This place had raged wild for millennia, but now instead its immense power is turned into electricity for Montreal and New York.

The Rupert is crossed by one of the larger public works projects of the entire road, a large suspension bridge. Simple in design, it’s no Golden Gate or Brooklyn Bridge, but still impressive in this otherwise stark landscape, and offering an interesting shot on Tri-X black and white film.

The drive from the security shed to KM 381 was about five hours, leaving us there right in time for lunch. I spent a lot of the drive in the backseat dozing in and out of sleep, the monotonous, peaceful scenery relaxing me and calming me after a hectic holiday season.

The JBR is plowed constantly, so a lot of our concerns on snowpack were pretty unfounded. This was something we really saw throughout our entire Canadian trip — plows everywhere. Following behind them was a dream…being in front of them in proper 4x4s could be fun. This road is so remote, but what we really realized was that the communities we were visiting were still pretty connected to the world. We thought of this as an expedition, and we had hoodies made up with the trip logo. One guy at a gas station laughed at the idea that we thought like this — to him, the JBR was just his commute. It really did hammer in that what a lot of us consider an “epic overland expedition” is just daily life to people with vehicles far less built than ours.

When you haven’t encountered much in the way of man-made attractions on a drive like this, a big rest area is pretty exciting. I mean, you can get gas!

And food!

And there’s a cafeteria!

And POUTINE, the great Canadian treat!

Katie made some new friends, too.

After KM 381, the remainder of the road was a relatively quick 239 kilometers/148 miles. At this point, the scenery was becoming much more stark and barren, as we marched on further and further north. One diversion we took was to the entrance to the Trans-Taiga Road, another road in the network up here and technically even more remote than the JBR.

There would be no time for the Trans-Taiga this trip. It’s even longer than the JBR, and there’s almost no services along it. It’s all gravel, as opposed to the paved James Bay Road. The last 84 kilometers are very rugged and rough, with a 4×4 vehicle recommended. It’s a good adventure for a summertime return one year — something we were all already talking about doing. For now, some photos at the entrance and dreams to return would have to suffice.

The sun got lower and lower, not that it had ever gotten all that high to begin with. The golden hour was a stunning, stark panorama of golden snow upon trees, silently beautiful and transfixing in a way I’d never seen before. Unfortunately, that also meant that darkness, and further cold, was coming. There was no time to dither to take photos; we had to get to Radisson and find our hotel for the night.

By 4:15 PM, the character of the road was starting to change. All day, we’d marched north in a pod of the two Land Rovers and the Jeep. Now we saw other vehicles, and the edges of civilization that made up the town of Radisson, where we’d be staying the next two days so we could explore the northern reaches of the Quebecois road network here. Then, with a bit of anticlimax, we turned left into the Radisson access road, and soon the town was in front of us, a collection of simple buildings that could more or less be any industrial village in the world.

We’d conquered the James Bay Road, after years of discussing it, and now here we were — Radisson, Quebec, a town that had taken on almost a mythical character in our late-night campfire talks. It was hard to believe we’d finally pulled it off.

Now, we needed somewhere to stay…