Instead of exhausting his imagination constructing the fictional geography of Middle Earth, the celebrated author could have simply set his trilogy in a real-life landscape of epic proportions: the subarctic wilderness of northern Quebec, where the taiga and boreal forest meet.
It is not too hard to picture Frodo, Tolkien’s star Hobbit, and his merry entourage travelling in traditional Cree style in birch bark canoes along the former highways of the fur trade. As they flow westward into the vast basin of James Bay, rivers like the Rupert and Eastmain offer their own thrills, at times running flat and hard, at others seething in a foam of rapids, as they carry the adventurers through a vast, ancient patchwork of scrubby coniferous forests, granite outcrops and low-lying wetlands. The travellers would begin to understand why taiga means “land of the little sticks” in Russian, as its stunted black spruce and jack pines, bogs, meadows and snaking eskers gradually give way to the most densely treed boreal forest to the south.
It is a deep and old landscape, one carved thousands of years ago by the inexorable grind of glaciers that in places laid bare the billion-year-old Pre-Cambrian rock of the Canadian Shield; in others the glaciers engraved depressions that filled with water, forming a chain of lakes and swamps across the region.
Unlike the immediate, staggering beauty of, say, the Rocky Mountains, the boreal forest and taiga, with its flattish expanses of stone, trees and water that seem to run on forever, are impressive in their scale, in the immensity of the vast, mostly uninhabited, wilderness they contain.
This rugged backdrop is home to the creatures of Canadian legend, iconic animals like moose, caribou, bear, lynx, and the original dam builders, the beaver, animals that are immortalized in the nation’s legends and on its coins. Smaller mammals like martens, voles, red foxes and the snowshoe hare inhabit the forests, while birds of prey such as bald eagles and osprey patrol overhead. The area is also the breeding ground for many varieties of shorebirds, land birds and waterfowl.
With a peek over the side of his canoe, Frodo could be treated to the silvery flash of trout, sturgeon, pike or whitefish, while a glance at the heavens could have rewarded him with the sight of migrating flocks of ducks and Canadian geese painting wobbly Vs across the sky.
Initially the soft cushion of muskeg and peat underfoot would probably enchant the adventurers. Muskeg is literally a wet blanket, a brown and green web of slowly decomposing plants, particularly sphagnum moss, which is so absorbent it can hold up to thirty times its own weight in water. After just a few steps across this spongy surface, though, Frodo would have discovered that traversing a muskeg bog makes for arduous and dangerous trekking, as the surface conceals sinkholes and ponds underneath. Its wet acidity, however, is ideal for the many varieties of moss, shrubs and even stunted spruce that thrive there.
Like some of the more dramatic places on Tolkien’s fictional maps, this is not a backdrop for the feint of heart. Although summer days are long and bright, the mercury does not climb very high and annual average temperatures hover below the freezing mark. Winter reigns supreme for many months of the year, throwing its dark mantle over the land, bringing a long stretch of deep days offering little light and less warmth. But, as the late Tolkien would no doubt agree, any worthwhile quest needs a setting that can keep pace, one that offers its own substantial challenges and rewards.
Matthew Coon Come
Heart of the Boreal Forest
More from our James Bay online exclusive:
Travelling the James Bay Road
James Bay damming project: Water under the dam
Renewable energy: Wind versus water
Climate change: Taking the heat
Tolkien landscape: subarctic wilderness of northern Quebec
A conversation with Matthew Coon Come
A brief history of Cree
How to speak Cree