This is a remembrance of a trip to Northern Quebec and the awe I felt from meeting new people and seeing new natural and man-made wonders.
The cigarette glowed intensely in the Quebec night as Norman watched his companions who were pouring petrol into the tank of their van. The scents of gas, smoke and nature mingled in the crisp air. It felt as though the stars were the only witnesses to this scene. Then doors slammed and my reverie was broken. Norman and the other Cree went on their way and we on ours.
It had all started as someone’s idea to drive north, as far as possible in 3 days. We were in Ottawa, Ontario. North is Quebec. It was early March, not the mildest month in Canada to be embarking on an adventure of this sort, but at least preferable to the black fly season of summer. We went – all four of us (new cat included). Through numerous towns and past countless logging trucks we went. It was a rather uneventful journey for some time. Then came the Cree, the taiga and the James Bay Hydro-electric Project.
Chisasabi is one of nine Cree towns in the James Bay area. They are part of a re-housing pact between the aboriginals and the Quebec government for loss of lands due to the building of the James Bay project by Hydro-Quebec. It was the first time I had set foot on a reservation. Faced with rifles by the entry guards, we purchased our petrol from a gas station, with everything written in glyphs, and left with a reserved smile and wave. The Cree speak a “whispering language” that had no written form until the 1840s, when a series of symbols was created by a missionary. The only word of Cree that I learnt sounds something like “wajiwa” and I was told that translates to “greetings”. Chisasabi may mean “Great River”, but what stays in the mind of any non-aboriginal visitor to the town is the massive steel wigwam frame – their community centre and focal point. At that time the wigwam was fairly new, just as the homes, pick-up trucks and snowmobiles were. Chisasabi looked like any other rural Canadian town, well, except for that wigwam.
La Route de la Baie James – the road from Matagami to Radisson – is 620 km of seemingly endless taiga, an apparently half-dead forest. The pine trees were nearly bare of needles, as though some great calamity had befallen them. It was only much later that we were told that the taiga is lichen woodland. The lichen and the trees have a symbiotic relationship, though I’ve yet to figure out what the trees were getting out if it. Being seemingly endless, we didn’t know we were supposed to register the car with authorities in case we did not make it to the service station or the other end. That way they can name the frozen bodies. Even without knowing this, we were relieved to see Relais 381, the 24-hour service station with superb hot dogs and steamy showers. The authorities were relieved to see us and the car was duly registered. Further along this 620 km stretch, we happened upon Norman and his friends from Chibougamu, another of the Cree towns. The lads were attending a technical college and on their way home they had run out of petrol. They were patiently waiting for someone to happen along and take one of them back to Relais 381. That someone turned out to be us.
Radisson is a town of 250 people in winter and 500 during the summer. We checked into the L’Auberge Radisson, a hotel with a museum and a store. It was the sort of store that sold rifles (and some decent wines as I recall). In fact it carried all sorts of camping and hunting equipment. Rifles are a necessity in this wilderness, as the larger animals don’t always take too kindly to we intruders. However, the only large animal I saw on this trip was the stuffed elk in the museum. As it was a quiet month, we were able to arrange a tour of the James Bay Hydro-electric Project. Our burly guide, Jean-Marie, drove us out onto the top of the dam, which was only a few feet wider than the jeep itself. I ventured somewhat close to the edge – a sheer drop down to the ice of the James Bay reservoir, thick white ice for miles upon miles. It was, to me, like a glimpse of what the last major Ice Age may have resembled. On the landside of the dam was the spillway, ”the staircase of the giants” – colossal steps covered in an unmoving cascade of blue-tinted water. Jean-Marie took us inside the generating station, an enormous underground labyrinth of surge tunnels (rented out to film crews for action sequences), control rooms and massive turbines – one of which we were allowed to get close to, but not near enough to be sucked in by the centrifugal force generated by 60 turns a second.
These four days are etched in my mind. An excursion characterised by reminiscences of nature’s power, human ingenuity, the differences of culture and no photos as my camera had unknowingly expired. Never mind, I can always return now that Air Creebec flies from Montreal to Radisson.