The Long, Cold Highway North

In this deep cut of winter, we are driving 1,600 kilometres due north from Toronto in a Toyota Prius and a Porsche Cayenne Hybrid. Our destination? The James Bay Road in northern Quebec, a pristine slice of isolation far from home.

It’s not lost on me that this region is a curious mix of ideas: the third largest hydro generating plant in the world has forever changed the lives of the natives of the area; the road carved through to this rugged outpost wouldn’t exist without that plant; and without that road, we wouldn’t be here in these technical marvels. The search for energy is all around us.

The unmonitored 620 kilometres of the James Bay Road is daunting. At the base in Matagami, already a thousand kilometres north of Toronto, is a permanently staffed building where it is recommended you check in. With a record 381- kilometre stretch until the next gas, a plunge over an embankment can leave you a distant memory until the spring thaw. If nobody is missing you, nobody is going to look. An early, giddy thought of an unpoliced stretch of fabulous road is sobered by the fact that getting yourself into all the trouble you want also means getting yourself out.

Originally built in the 1970s to bring in the heavy equipment required for the construction of the monstrous hydro dams, the James Bay Road is an engineer’s dream. Flat, broad and ploughed to perfection, the curves are on predictable cambers. In January, with spruce and jack pine bending forward protectively
in their snowy cloaks, the effect is otherworldly. We are driving on ice, as ploughs don’t cut down to the roadbed. The extreme cold has ruled out salt; it’s useless below minus 10 C.

In this part of the world at this time of year, the sun is bright, yet almost guarded. The snow reflects all the sun’s energy: the drive into dusk can be hypnotic, the snow encrusted trees glowing even in the dark. At one point, well before the driver change, I looked at my passenger and told him I had to stop because of snow blindness. The most important part of long-distance driving is acknowledging when the light or the road is tricking you. There are no mulligans on the James Bay Road.

Both vehicles — a Porsche Cayenne and a third-generation Toyota Prius — are equipped with winter
tires that are challenged constantly throughout this trip. The sure-footed AWD Cayenne does everything a
beautifully engineered car worth a boatload of money should do. The surprise for me is the Prius shedding its prissy reputation and handling like a champ.

As we do driver changes every couple of hours or so, it’s soon apparent that all of us are quite happy to drive either vehicle for any length of time. The only — only — issue that arises is the heated seats. The
Porsche keeps your buns nicely toasted; the Prius, before warming up, makes you thankful for long johns.

At the one stop along the way, there’s a mixture of French and English spoken in the pre-fab dining hall — hydro workers speak French, Cree natives speak English as well as their own language. While the parking lot features a steady line of pickup trucks (many with cardboard over their front grilles to block the wind), there is also a smattering of minivans and smaller cars. It’s an accessible road when the weather holds.

And at the end, in Radisson, the town that anchors the top of the James Bay Road, I watch as group after group of hunters assemble their gear, their tracked ATVs coated in ice and killed caribou to head back to wherever home is. The annual caribou hunt has been around almost as long as the migration itself. I snap a few pictures of dead beasts as an older hunter smiles proudly. I’m aware he sees meat and warm hides where I see a blank, dead stare, and remind myself that I am the visitor.

You can see the impact of the last time the visitors changed things. With the arrival of the hydro project, the spectacular La Grande River was dammed, forever changing the landscape, the environment and the Cree people. With the area’s Rupert River now undergoing a similar transformation, it’s difficult to take in the expanse of this area and not take note of the massive hydro towers that funnel the power out to the rest of the province.

Draped in snow, the lines are as thick as a man’s wrist. In Chisasibi, another hundred kilometres to the west, the ordered streets are eerily quiet. Modern houses frame winding streets and several two-story-high snowmen remind you that children live here.

This Cree community was originally located on Fort George Island, but was moved inland in 1981. Every
other backyard sports a tepee of some description, with the community centre, the focal point of the town, featuring the largest. They may have evacuated the people from their land, but the land has remained very much with these people. We are intruders here, and the locals are polite yet guarded. The arrival of strangers does not always herald good things, and I don’t blame them.

There’s just a little farther to drive now, and finally, with the vehicles parked on the frostbitten shore of James Bay, we can see islands that belong to Nunavut. Really not more than rocky outcroppings, this is still a chance to plant foot and flag on a place that many will never see.

Our Cree guide here, Sherman Herodier, has agreed to haul us over to do just that; with four of us crouched in a plywood sled the size of a cord of wood, I glance at the rusty nail beside my handhold. We’re clutching a headrest from each car — “so we can say the vehicles sort-of made it,” insists our editor — and they seem very out of place.

Sherman’s snowmobile pulls us away, with 13-year-old Gerald clasping his grandfather’s back, face
tucked from the biting wind — a wind that beats us with temperatures nearing -48C. The expression on Gerald’s face earlier, as his eyes darted from face to face among the four southerners, was quite clear: He thinks we’re crazy.

I hear only the crunch and squeak of the runners through the hardpacked snow. I see only the hole punched near my feet in the plywood, forming the back of the box that hauls me across the frozen Arctic
Ocean. I am staring out that ragged hole at the jagged ice and kicked-up snow, willing some feeling back into my toes and hands.

The box itself moves randomly with every bump, threatening to come apart at the seams. As my hands freeze in spite of the layers of Sport Chek’s best efforts, I look back at the shore and the yellow gleam of the Porsche I have taken to calling the Leather Womb. Then I just tuck my face down, unable to look left or right. I am cold. I am beyond cold.

On the island, once we unwind middle aged knees and climb out, I glance at the snowmobile. The seat is mostly exposed foam, with bits of duct tape here and there. The engine had perked along with a steady growl, something I’d filed away during the two-kilometre ride as I’d also tried to calculate just how much our tandem weighed while the ice creaked beneath us.

This is the polar opposite of our cars. It is not about style; this is about the blood and guts of life here,
from the gutted caribou to the stripped-down snow machines to the plywood box that is very obviously
still good enough.

Without that road, we wouldn’t be here. But I can’t help but think about the tradeoffs that have taken place to get us here, and the fact that ultimately it is Sherman, as steady as the rock that surrounds us, unimpressed with our vehicles, who we need to get us that last tiny distance — the distance that somehow feels like the reason we came.