I set out on an October Sunday morning, ready to begin what I knew was going to be an adventure. Although I had many kilometres between me and my goal, I was eager to begin, and even more eager to arrive. While I was discounting the long drive there as merely an obstacle, I would eventually realize that it was as important as the destination.
I had decided to break the almost 14-hour drive from my home in Northern Ontario to Radisson, Quebec, into two days. I would layover in Matagami, almost exactly halfway. My reservations had been made, my route planned and I went on my way.
The first leg of the trip was relatively uninteresting. I had driven most of it before, so it held nothing new for me. In addition, it was raining off and on the whole way. Stops were few and somewhat less pleasant than I would have hoped. I arrived at the motel in Matagami, and checked in. To my surprise, that's when I felt some of my excitement building again. I immediately set out to tour the town and see what it had to offer those who would live in such a remote place. After shooting some video from the hood of my car, I turned in for a good night's sleep before continuing on the next morning.
I woke up, had a shower and some breakfast, then gassed up again for the second leg of the trip, the James Bay Road. This, to me, was going to be the most interesting part of the drive. The road is over 620 km long, and includes Canada's longest stretch of road with no service stations, at 381 km. Given that there are no towns along the way, you really want to be sure you have enough fuel for the trip.
I began the drive, and a short distance in, I encountered a checkpoint with a speaker-box. I was asked my name, destination and duration of my stay. With that done, I continued along the road, marveling at the fall colours, and the beautiful sunlight that shone through the leaves on this fantastic day.
As I rounded a corner, I was reminded that, while there might not be much traffic, it was unlikely that I would be completely alone for the duration of the trip. Two moose looked at me and made their way off the road, slowly enough to make clear that they weren't concerned, but quickly enough that they were a mere fleeting feature of my journey.
As you might imagine, there were incredibly long stretches of very little to see or appreciate. I won't sugar-coat it and say that it was all one huge, breath-taking adventure. I took advantage of some of the rest areas conveniently provided by the Cree communities to stretch my legs, get some fresh air, wake up and enjoy the scenery.
Stopping at one rest area in particular, I decided to have a bite to eat. I opened my cooler in the back seat and selected something that I began to eat while standing beside the car. I'd had quite enough sitting for a little bit. As I stood chewing away, I noticed these birds circling about, coming ever closer, but still keeping a mindful distance from me. Given the time of year, I suspected they might be hungry, and I had an ample supply of bread with me. I set up my camera to capture what might happen on video, and then took some bread from the car. It didn't take long for me to make some new friends.
About every 50 km along the highway, Telebec has provided emergency payphones. Each looks remarkably similar with a phone booth, a generator in a building behind that and a tank of fuel. In the distance behind each phone, you can see a microwave tower that is clearly part of maintaining communications between the south and remote communities I was heading toward. I couldn't help but wonder why they wouldn't just hang a cell site off each of those towers and be done with the need for the payphones. Perhaps the expense is prohibitive.
I continued along and after some time, I saw another rest area pass by. I hadn't planned to stop there, but immediately afterwards, I crossed a bridge that displayed amazing rapids a short distance upstream. As soon as I had crossed the bridge, I did a u-turn and went back to the rest area for a closer look.
The rest area included a platform that overlooked this remarkable scenery. I couldn't help but stand and stare for a period of time that I simply can't be sure of. I took pictures, and I took video, but nothing could adequately convey what the senses recorded, and must be experienced in person.
It was early evening by the time I arrived at my hotel. With a minor language barrier, I checked in and moved my things from the car to my very comfortable room. I knew that this was going to be a pleasant stay. Sunlight passed away soon after, as it does this time of year, and darkness wrapped the north quickly as I phoned home to relate my day's experiences. While talking, I happened to pull back the curtain and looked outside. The dark sky above me seemed to shimmer and dance. I grabbed my camera and tripod and headed quickly for the door.
Driving to the edge of town, I found a road leading into the bush. A short distance in, I found that the road was gated and parked the car. I grabbed my gear and walked quickly along the road, putting some distance between me and any ambient light from the town. I didn't have to go far.
As I set up my camera and pointed it skyward, my eyes couldn't perceive what the infinitely more sensitive sensor of the camera did. My jaw dropped when I reviewed the picture. The entire sky was lit with the ethereal green light of the Northern Lights. This was the perfect punctuation to an amazing day.
Continued in Part 2...