Story and Photos by James Stoness
Do you want to get off the beaten path with your RV and visit remote places? A drive to the eastern shores of James Bay near the hydro town of Radisson, Quebec, might just be what you are looking for. Be forewarned, this is a lonely road leading deep into the wilderness. Heavy traffic shouldn’t be a problem.
Radisson is 1300 kilometres from Ottawa and the nearest town, Matagami, is 620 kilometres away. The James Bay road connecting Matagami has only recently been built thanks to Quebec Hydro. It probably would not have been built if Quebec had not been making sure they would have abundant electricity in the future. To do this they surveyed their province for lakes and rivers that could provide abundant water to spin the turbines that produce electricity.
They found their answer in the La Grande River system plus a bit of help from the Eastmain River and the Caniapiscau River. The latter two were dammed and a large part of their water diverted into the La Grande System. When Premier Robert Bourassa saw how much electrical power would be produced, he threw his support behind the development which became known as the James Bay Project.
Using 215 dikes and dams they produced massive reservoirs collecting water running west from the Canadian Shield into James Bay. Then using a series of generating stations they began producing immense quantities of electricity. To do all this construction they needed a highway, and in 1971 they began building the 700 kilometres of road through the bogs, lakes and rivers of the Canadian Shield. It required innumerable culverts and 13 major bridges. Equipment and supplies went in on ice roads in the winter while the wide gravel roadbed slowly grew in length. They completed the highway in the fall of 1974. Now it’s available for adventuresome tourists to travel to the end of the road. Travellers will have to drive slowly in places where the pavement is especially rough. Unfortunately, as soon as engineers had produced a driveable road into the wilderness, logging companies moved in to harvest previously out of reach trees. Repeated passage of overloaded heavy trucks damaged the road, but money never appeared to repair the damage.
If you start the trip by crossing the Ottawa River at Ottawa you will be heading north on Highway 105 towards La Verendrye Wildlife Reserve. Very soon you enter the hilly, well forested parts of the Laurentians. It’s often a curvy, hilly road with six to seven percent grades. This section of the highway has a lot of traffic and small towns with neatly painted buildings. In places small fields break up the steady forest.
Eventually you turn northwest on Hwy 17 and leave the towns and homes behind. Here you enjoy hills, rock-cuts, and lakes surrounded by tall tree forests as you pass into La Verendrye Park. This is a large park which encompasses over 4000 lakes. It’s a park that attracts the ardent fisherman as well as the novice. For extra sport there are hundreds of kilometres of canoe trails, and rustic campsites along the routes.
We stopped at the Lac Vielle Campground which has beautiful sites along a lake that says, “Canoe on me!” Tall evergreens tower over your RV, and their soothing wind makes you nod as you sit in front of a blazing campfire. We had a great visit with a Montreal family who were just learning about camping.
Heading west you will encounter four to five percent hills, but worse are the heavily loaded logging trucks and the occasional stretches of old, rough pavement. Along the highway are tantalizing rest stops, most with easy in and out driveways. This is a route of trees and lakes and campgrounds by the water.
The town of Val d’Or has an old gold mine, offering tours at the Cite de l’Or. Several buildings still exist and your visit will include a visit to the Winch Room where an eight hundred horse power electric motor was used to move people up and down 1200 metres and also raise the ore.
The Analysis Laboratory was used to sample ore for its gold content, and in this way help plan the direction of the mining tunnels. We followed the process through, beginning with the crushing of the ore sample to the end product of perhaps a little bead of gold coming out of the hot furnace.
Our tour included a ride on a motorized cart down an incline to the 91 metre level. Before the ride we dressed up in authentic miner’s gear, attached the light to our helmet, and down we went. On the walk along the tunnels we experienced how it must have been for the miners who prowled the lower depths, picking, and shovelling the rock and the ore, day in and day out, without a touch of sunlight. It’s not a tour for the claustrophobic.
Leaving Val d’Or towards Malarctic we had the treat of fields, and flat roads. The Malarctic Mineral Museum contains a variety of rock specimens from the area, as well as across the world.
The next major town is Matagami.The road cuts through forest with very few indications of civilization. Hills with a five to six percent grade are frequent and through the fringe of trees along the highway we saw small lakes. Unfortunately, clear-cutting by loggers destroyed the scenery for many miles, followed by a section of reforestation. A huge sawmill at Matagami shows where these missing trees have gone. But Matagami is home to several mines, some now exhausted, while other bodies of ore are discovered and take their places. As with all mining towns, they only live while ore is being found and mined.
From there, we travelled on the James Bay Highway. Now we really entered isolated terrain. Traffic was sparse as we passed through the undisturbed forest. Towns and stop signs were definitely not a problem. For the adventurer, just the thought that you are heading north to the waters of James Bay is a dream come true. Henry Hudson sailed into James Bay around 1610. This is not a place most Canadians are going to see, and the ambiance is terrific.
Almost immediately the road crosses the longest bridge on the road and at around Km-38 the Matagami Lake Campground offers a place to relax with full service sites. If you need to dump and fill, this is the last chance until Radisson.
It was August and we really enjoyed the early fall colour show. The aspen, with their yellow leaves and whitish bark, stand out among little plants and shrubs with their scarlets and ambers. The further north we went, the fall colours became more pronounced. As the afternoon slid past we looked for a campground and decided to try the one at Ouescapis Lake but when we got there we saw a narrow dirt road disappearing into the bush. This is not the place to commit the motorhome with a car in tow in the hopes that it won’t be a dead end. So we unhitched the car and I drove in towards the lake. It turned out to be tight, but acceptable, and calling back to my wife on our ham radio network I asked her to bring in the motorhome. It was a great place to stay. There were only a couple of flat sites, looking over toward the lake, and the view was great. That night the stars were bright, and the evening was totally quiet except for the occasional loon shouting out its crazy cacophony message. It’s a nice feeling knowing that there is no one else on the lake, or even nearby. The wilderness is yours alone!
The forest shrinks as you go north, and consists of small trees, mainly straggly black spruce, often growing on boggy flats, and you really notice their small size when you drive through burned areas. One thing you wonder about is where do the little dirt roads that head off the highway lead to? There are many campgrounds near the highway, mostly on lakes back in the bush. Some are basically spots to turn around and dry camp. This is fine, but it’s nice to have a sign at the highway that tells you where you are going because many of these roads go nowhere.
We arrive at the Rupert River rapids and bridge but the water that created the rapids is now going to the La Grande system. At Km-275 we had dinner at a rest area and tables at the intersection of the North Road which winds east and south for 430 km of sand and gravel to Chibougamau. Upon our return we would explore this road.
The road became rougher as we headed north and we stopped early at Km-324, Mirabelli Lake campground. While the immediate area was green, the distant views showed the results of several fires which had desolated the forest. We had spent part of the day driving through old burned areas.
It’s overpowering to think that once upon a time this area had mountains bigger than the Rockies, until a succession of ice ages ground them down into the low, undulating plain of bogs, and rock which we call the Canadian Shield. The next day we left early driving further into the northern Taiga forest, the highway just a strip of pavement lined by forest of black spruce and aspen. The pavement seems smoother, but perhaps it’s because logging trucks operated closer to the Matagami end of the highway.
At Km-381 we got fuel at the only place that there is for fuel. It’s still 200 km to the next fuel going north. We drove across the big Eastmain River, which is a sad ghost of its former self. The water is diverted into the La Grand River. There is a campground a couple kilometres back in the bush with a walking trail to a viewpoint. At the Opinaca River we stopped for pictures of the waterfall under the bridge. Some of the greatest rapids along the route have now been reduced to a trickle because water has been transferred into the La Grande project.
We stopped at Miron Lake, Km-503, to camp but the sites were too small so we chose a wide spot on the edge of the access road near a little pond. The next day at Km-544, we met the intersection of a gravel road, the Trans Taiga Road that beckons us to drive another 670 km to the end. This is for serious explorers only! It would take you almost to the borders of Labrador. At Km-600 we pass the Chisasibi Road which leads to a power dam and the shores of James Bay.
We continue to Km-617 and reach the unprepossessing town of Radisson. It was a place I wanted to see, if for no other reason than the fact that I learned in public school of the adventures of Pierre Radisson and his brother-in-law, Groseilliers, two French fur trappers and explorers who travelled in the mid-1600’s. We pulled into the nice, clean campground on a hill with a good view.
For tours to hydro facilities, you must book in advance. After a visit to generating station, La Grande-1, we drove on past the Cree Town of Chisasibi to the waters of James Bay. We dipped our hands into the chilly waters, part of the Arctic Ocean, and walked along the beach where we saw many boats pulled well up onto the shore, each with high horsepower outboard engines.
The next day at Radisson, we visited a huge generating station with 7722 MW of generating capacity. The dam is huge but it’s the spillway that grabs your attention. It’s a giant series of huge steps carved into the solid rock.
It was a long drive to reach the waters of James Bay, but I don’t regret a single mile. To drive into the relatively empty lands of Northern Quebec, and to be immersed in the vast boreal forest, is a feat not often attempted by the tourist. And the traffic is negligible. We especially liked the friendly folk, who were everywhere we went.