Tuesday, September 12, 2006

James Bay Trip. Days 1 and 2: Montreal to Nemaska

Sam and I left for James Bay on Friday night. We’d been planning for a couple of months to travel to Chisasibi, a native town on the northeast corner of the bay. It’s a fairly simple, if long ride. After winding your way 670 kms from Ottawa to Matagami, you get on the James Bay Highway and drive north on the same road for 600 kms. Some time after passing the 52nd parallel you turn left and head to the Bay. However, we decided to complicate the trip. We would first head to Chibougamau, 250 kms north of Lac Saint Jean, and then travel the Route du Nord 400 kms to the JBH.

We suited up on Friday night and left later than we should have. Michael Ignatieff is to blame, but that is another story.

Leaving the Plateau




We rode through a heavy rain as far as Trois Rivieres, and then turned north for Shawinigan. I watched Sam avoid a collision on a combined on/off ramp. I soon did the same. Add another small blessing to the pile.

The bikes performed admirably, as did my gear. Pushing through the rain at 110, I was quite certain I was prepared for the elements farther down the road. After a couple of hours of solid and straight riding we stopped in Shawinigan for dinner. We had set reaching Roberval as our goal, but night and fatigue overcame our best intentions. Winding along the Grane Mere, we finally stopped in Parc des Chutes, just south of La Tuque. We’d pushed 300 kms through the fog and rain. We quickly found a patch of grass beside a parking lot and set up tent. My head went down at 2 am only to be followed by a fitful sleep. I was nervous about the North Road.

Camp in the morning





Sam and I were both awake at 6 am. I think his sleep was like mine. We were both staring down a long day in the saddle and we both wanted to make time. We packed up and scored breakfast in La Tuque at a small truckstop. We then saddled up and pushed into grey clouds and fog.

The gray lifted as we crested a hill over Lac St Jean. Lucien Bouchard once said he would have been a federalist if he had visited Vancouver when he was young. Seeing the sun shine over the Saugenay, with blue mountains across the lake and farm land stretching out forever I was for a moment a sovereigntist. This is enough beauty for one country.

We turned left at Roberval and stopped in at a Canadian Tire for some gear additions. It was noon by now, but we were still cold. We bought more gloves and hot packs for the ride up north. All told, would we finish the day about 450 kilometers farther north, and in near-Taiga. We tried to prepare for the worst.

After we suited up again we headed for Chibougamau, doing to 250 kms in one hit. Sam led most of the way, and I was happy to follow. He is the perfect riding partner. Cautious, but not slow. Adventurous, but not careless. And he is always willing to push a bit farther.

By late afternoon we had reached Chibo. Fifteen kilometers north of the city we found the Route du Nord. Originally built to access cut blocks and hydro projects, the road winds some 400 kms across northern Quebec, running west and then turning North. During the week, the road is filled with logging trucks. As we are running on a Saturday, we are all alone. In the 300 kms we cover on Saturday, we see less than ten cars! Mostly, it is just skimming along on top of the gravel. The guides I have read suggest observing the speed limit, which is just 70 km/h. This is clearly too slow, and soon Sam and I are pushing 110, eyes peeled for large rocks, fighting occasionally against front-wheel dives in the berms, and always keeping an eye out for animals. The bikes love this terrain. We let a distance grow between us, so we are not riding in each other’s dust. We stop to meet up ever hour or so. This is the ride we’ve been waiting for: challenging, isolated, fast, and adventurous. We grin from ear to ear.

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere



It is in the corners that the counter intuitions of a motorcycle become clear. At speed, your wheels want to slide out under the gravel, and the bike wants you to take a straight line to the outside of the corner. The mind tells you to slow down, lean forward, and steer into the corner. The mind is wrong on three counts. Rather, you punch the throttle, stand up a little on the outside peg, and push the bars away from the inside corner. The bike leans and grabs a line and shoots out the corner. Everything you thought was right was wrong.

After 250 kms the sun is diving behind the hills and night is coming fast. We resolve to push as far as Nemaska, where we can get gas for the first time in 300 kms. We will decide then whether to spend the night.

Soon after this we cross the Rupert River. Seeing the river is part of the reason for the trip. The Rupert flows like an artery across the middle of Quebec, emptying millions of gallons of fresh water into the bottom of James Bay. It is spine-shattering rapids and wide, sweeping swathes of water. It will be diverted next year for a hydro project. But for now it flows, and we were keen to see it in all of its majesty. It was literally breath taking.



As we looked out over the river we saw a campfire on a landing above the rapids. We then turned around to see a fellow casually strolling down the bridge toward us. In the middle of nowhere we met Benoit, a Frenchman now living in Trois Riviere. He regularly camps alone in Quebec’s wilds. We enjoyed his brief company immensely, and he obliged us and took a picture of Sam and me above the rapids.



We then pushed on for Nemaska, a native town at kilometer three hundred. We had traveled 700 kms by the time we arrived, and decided to call it a day. But first we rode across a narrow isthmus into the town and gassed up. David, the station attendant, told us we could stay on the beach of the narrows. He said normally we could stay on the beach at the other side of the town, but everyone was there for a wedding party. So we headed back out the narrows and found the most beautiful campsite. A beach ran along a bay on Lake Campion. We pitched our tent and set to making dinner. We soon welcomed what seemed like a parade of visitors. Each one stopped to make sure we were alright. A village elder named Sam offered us the hospitality of his home. We declined, but he did accept our invitation to tea. He told us the story of his birth, brought forth in the bush by the light of embers. The candles had run out. He told us how Nemaska had been built after Hydro Quebec flooded his old home. He told us of his camps all over the region, explained the Caribou and moose hunting seasons, answered all our questions about the local fishing. And then he moved on, but not before extending an offer of lodging again. His welcome warms me still.

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