Walter Muma, lifelong nature lover and traveller, has explored vast regions of Canada on foot, in a canoe and on a moped. He has made numerous trips to the far-flung frontier of northern Quebec and has developed a deep affection for its' empty silence and rugged wilderness. Experience this vast expanse of arctic boreal forest with Muma as he relates his most recent journey to us.
I see the signs of late summer as I pass through the farms and forests of northern Quebec on my way north to the James Bay Road from North Bay, Ontario. The roadside is ablaze with the bright colours of goldenrod and aster flowers and ash trees turning yellow. It was overcast and raining earlier this morning but that has cleared and given way to a sky filled with puffy cumulous clouds.
Six hours on the road brings me to the small northern town of Matagami and the beginning of the James Bay Road. I fill up on diesel since the next fuel is 381 kilometres north of here. This is the last town I will see for seven days.
I stay the night at the campground at Olga Lake, near kilometre 48 of the 620-kilometre James Bay Road. I have the campsite to myself, and I cook a simple meal amid silence and a spectacular sunset. A thin crescent moon peers out from behind the clouds in the darkening sky. Showers pass over after dark. Having not yet set up my tent, I opt for the station wagon-owner's lazy way out and sleep in the back of my car.
After a restful night’s sleep I continue north. It’s another overcast day – I had been hoping for sunshine.
I stop to stretch my legs at kilometre 161 where a short trail leads to the top of a ridge with a fantastic view of the valley below. I see some small lakes dotting the landscape before me in the muskeg. There are still a few late blueberries and I help myself to a snack.
The next stop is the Broadback River where I stop for lunch. There's a very nice trail leading upriver to some rapids. It winds through foot-deep lichens and moss, and fall mushrooms are plentiful amid the boulders and spruce trees. I pause for a while and soak in the ambience of the river and the place then return to my car to continue my journey north.
I soon find myself at the mighty Rupert River. This huge northern river plunges into a magnificent set of rapids that can be heard and even felt over a kilometre away. They are readily seen from the road.
I go for a hike along the north bank of the river and end up at a viewpoint directly overlooking the rapids. These are known as the Oatmeal Rapids because that's what you will become if you try to run them in a canoe. At least two people have died trying.
Sadly, the spectacle of the rapids will be no more after 2007, when Hydro Quebec will divert the river northward to feed our hungry demand for electricity. I spend some time by the Rupert, listening, watching and soaking it in.
I hop back in the car and continue on to Mirabelli Lake, where I stop to camp for the night. It is a nice open campsite, overlooking the lake from atop a broad hill amid jack pines and alders. Once again, I have the campground to myself. It is so quiet I can hear the small rapids half a kilometre away.
After dark the northern lights put on a subtle display of green with the accompaniment of the Milky Way stretched across the sky.
I awake to the sound of loons calling and sunshine streaming into my tent. After a quick breakfast and a dip in the lake, I continue north. I stop to fuel up at kilometre 381 – the only gas station on the James Bay Road. Surprisingly, the price of gas isn’t much higher here than down south.
As I drive I take note of the traffic – or rather the lack of traffic. I can drive for 15 or 20 minutes without seeing another vehicle, and when I stop on the side of the road I can hear a vehicle coming for several minutes before it passes by. This is a function of the silence up here, which for me is a keynote of any trip to this region.
One doesn't realise the extent of background noise that we put up with in the more settled areas of the country. There is a constant underlying hum of machine noise, traffic, airplanes and people. Up here there is none of that. The only thing you hear is the wind in the leaves and the occasional bird.
Reaching the junction at kilometre 544, I turn right onto the gravel of the Trans-Taiga Road. This road heads east for 666 kilometres, almost to Labrador. There are no towns on it and only two places to fuel up. It is the remote-road junkie's ultimate route.
There is even less traffic along the Trans-Taiga than on the James Bay Road. I enjoy the solitude and scenery as I drive. Some of the scenery can be monotonous but at other times beautiful.
I have planned to spend the night at an outfitters camp, thinking it would be a treat to stay in a nice room. As it turns out, the room is no bigger than a large closet and the showers and bathroom are down the hall.
Before I retire for the night I go out for a drive. I find a clearing off the road where hunters dump the remains of their kills and I go there to pick out a caribou skull for my collection of animal skulls. While I am there some wolves begin howling very close by. It's a wilderness treat that few people actually get to hear. To top it off, the northern lights put on a show in dancing curtains across the sky.
I am awake and on the road by 5:45 am. It's just getting light as I continue east. It's a windy, cool overcast day on this lonely, remote road. For the next five hours I only see three other vehicles.
The road narrows as I continue eastward. I stop frequently to admire the scenery, take pictures, and soak up the silence and solitude. Although the country is most definitely not mountainous, there are hills, valleys, rivers and small lakes all along the way. Although many people would find this landscape boring, I love its natural wilderness and remoteness.
By the time I reach Brisay, the sky opens up and it pours. Brisay is the last hydroelectric generating station of the chain that dot what used to be the La Grande River. It is now a series of lakes. Brisay is also functionally the end of the road for most vehicles as the remaining 84 kilometres are very rough and require a four-wheel drive vehicle, which I do not have. The only way to go is back the way I came.
For the next 400 kilometres it pours rain. I am glad I got up early today so I could travel this road in at least one direction while the scenery was visible. The heavy rain cloaks the landscape.
I spend the night at the Pontois River campground on a site overlooking some rapids. As I cook dinner the sky clears.
I spend the morning exploring the campsite, which is a welcome break from driving. I find a number of different kinds of mushrooms. Some boreal chickadees keep me company as I meander about.
As morning wanes, I get back behind the wheel and follow the road along the top of an esker for about 10 kilometres. It's a fairly high esker with nice views of the small lakes below and bright green moss growing abundantly along the side of the road. At my next stop I find bear tracks in the deep lichens of a jack pine forest by a small lake and collect some “ Labrador tea” for later.
Finally, I reach the end of the gravel road and turn south along the James Bay Road. It seems almost surreal to be driving on pavement again after almost 1,200 kilometres of rough gravel and I welcome the smoothness under the tires.
As I drive on, a bear lumbers into the bush as I approach, a porcupine watches with great curiosity when I stop to photograph him, and a wolf trots off the road ahead and observes me from the bush as I pass. And, of course, there are the usual red squirrels making suicide dashes across the road just ahead of my car.
I stop at Old Factory Lake and climb a nearby rocky ridge to stretch my legs and enjoy the view, which is far reaching and well worth it.
I camp again at Mirabelli, my favourite lake.
I decide to take it easy today and take advantage of the dry weather to poke around the area. Out on the lake there are several loons and I quietly sit and listen to their unearthly calls. The lake is utterly still, almost a mirror – a photographer's dream.
But, alas, the inevitable happens – it starts to rain again! So off I go, further south.
I stop once again at the Rupert River to admire the awesome spectacle, this time from an upstream vantage point. By the time I reach the Broadback River I am in the middle of a raging thunderstorm and I don't have the opportunity to repeat my walk upriver to the rapids. I don't wait around, as I have no way of telling how long the storm will last.
I spend the last night of my trip in the remote north at the Ouescapis Lake campground, at kilometre 80. I have company tonight for the first time, a couple at the opposite end of the campground. As the evening progresses, it turns into an unusually warm night.
The atmosphere is hazy and smoky today as I depart and head toward home. There is probably a forest fire to the east or south, possibly started by lightning accompanying yesterday’s thunderstorms.
I stop to climb partway up Mont Laurier at kilometre 10. Threatening rain clouds keep me from climbing more than halfway up, and in any case the very hazy conditions would have made the view from the top mediocre at best.
As I drive south, I reflect on my journey along this remote northern road. It is an experience I will not soon forget - especially the silence. I love these northern lands, their solitude, their silence and their wildness. It refreshes my soul and reminds me of the value of the Earth's wild natural places that we are all too quickly overrunning and destroying.
Lichens and moss
The James Bay Road website
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