James Bay Trip, Matagami – Radisson

Today I’m up early, pack the bike in the new manner I had in mind, and dress for cold (extra socks, warm shirt, electric vest, heavier gloves). Off at 7:30. I stop at the gas station and carefully fill the tank all the way to the brim.

It’s cool, but the sky is clear blue with only a few clouds, and it looks like it will be a beautiful day. There’s a lot of industrial traffic — big trucks, small trucks, mining logos on the sides. But all the traffic seems to turn the other way as it leaves Matagami — in the few minutes it takes me to get organized and get moving, I see no vehicles turn right to head toward the James Bay Highway. That’s promising — I think it will be a pretty quiet, low-traffic route.

6 Km from town is a “park office” building at the beginning of the James Bay Highway, with a sign saying you must check in before moving on up the highway. There’s actually a gate and gatehouse on the highway, but it’s unoccupied and open. I pull into the big parking lot and head into the office.

I have a broken conversation with the two very nice ladies who work in the office. (French only, and my French is 30 years out of practice, from when it was minimal.) They give me a bunch of brochures about the region and the highway, and have some specific concerns:

Am I going all the way, why, and how long do I expect to take? I have the impression they keep track to send out rescue if people don’t show up.

Do I really understand that it’s 381 Km to the next gas, and another 350 after that? They seem a little sceptical that this is a good idea on a motorcycle. I tell them I have brought extra gas with me, and that seems to convince them that I have thought this through.

Do I want to book a tour of the hydro dam now? Reservations are required, they explain. I say no thanks, I’m not yet sure I’ll want to do a tour and will book in town if I do.

Back on the road and off. I know the bike can do 381 Km on a tank, so I’m not worried, but it is on my mind. I resolve to keep my speed to a fuel-conserving 100 Km/H, and to limit the use of the electric vest.

The highway is wonderful. Reasonably new pavement, few cracks or heaves. Long sweeping curves and long gentle hills. No traffic. None whatsoever — after an hour I have still not seen another vehicle. I have to constantly remind myself about my plan to keep the speed at 100.

It’s cold. I alternate 5 minutes on, 10 off, with the electric vest, just enough to keep some heat inside my suit, while preserving energy, and fuel.

After a second hour, I stop for a stretch at roadside. There’s no pull-off here other than a wide spot in the shoulder, but there is no traffic at all and there’s good visibility. I’m at Km 200 for today, or 928 from home. Standing here beside the road I notice the trees aren’t very big. I wonder if they are getting smaller because of distance North, or if I’m looking at the results of a forest fire or logging. (I later learn it was a fire.)

Back on the bike for another leg. The road is so empty (still have not seen another vehicle) that I fish my camera out of my bag and play with it with one hand while riding — I’m trying to capture some sense of what it’s like from on-bike. It fails to capture the feeling, though.

Another hour of great twisty roads passes, and I stop at a marked rest area. I’m at Km 1000, exactly, from home; about 300 today. A pleasant surprise: it’s very windy, and this seems to make life difficult for the bugs — there are none bothering me, so I can take off my helmet and open my suit a bit and relax. In the last hour I’ve encountered traffic. I have seen about a dozen cars going South and I’ve been passed by one going my way.

There’s a tourist sign here, written in French and Cree, that describes the area and explains this is regrowth after a huge forest fire in 1989.

Looking around, the devastation is pretty impressive. That was 12 years ago, little saplings are starting to sprout up.

It’s silly, but I’m getting a great kick out of the signs being bilingual, with the second language being Cree. It serves to finally drive home to me that I’m getting a long way from home.

I have a good long rest, then head back out. My calculations suggest I have about 100 Km left to go to the gas station at the town of “Km 381”.

Nothing eventful for the next hour. What can you say about 100 Km of great winding roads and no traffic? I just enjoy the ride for a while.

At exactly noon, I arrive at the gas stop, “kilometre 381”. 390 Km from my fill-up in Matagami, and I’m still on the main tank of the Concours. When you’re 400 Km from competition you can charge what you like, so gas is expensive and choice-free. (Connie is supposed to burn premium, but I choose regular instead of nothing.)

“381” is a little village of pre-fab buildings. There’s the gas station, a restaurant, some sleeping accommodations, and some maintenance buildings. None of these attract me right now, so after gas and a stretch I head back out. I’m now at Km 1100 from Ottawa.

Another hour of empty twisting highway passes, and I pull into a rest area for a stretch. I seem to be riding into heavy overcast skies and although my Aerostich suit is waterproof, I want to put on waterproof gloves before I hit the weather ahead.

Shortly after pulling back onto the highway, I ride into a constant drizzle. It’s not raining hard enough to accumulate on the road, though, so the ride remains enjoyable.

By 2:00 it’s raining more steadily, and I’m ready for a stretch. Another roadside stop appears at a convenient point, so I pull in. 1273 Km from Ottawa.

This is “Lake Yakinski” which, if I’m reading the signs correctly, is actually part of the system of reservoir lakes created — or at least greatly enlarged — by diversion to feed the James Bay Hydro project. That makes sense — the lake shore here doesn’t seem natural somehow — trees aren’t where you’d expect them to be in relationship to the water, and so on, so it’s easy to believe this wasn’t always the shoreline.

There’s also a Ministry sign here that says these huge waters are an ideal environment for Yellow Perch (Pickerel where I grew up, and Walleye to many others) and that they are an important part of the local economy.

Back on the road for the last leg. I get to intersections and industrial development about 3:20 and pull into the town of Radisson a few minutes later. The private campground is right on the edge of town, and there is a very nice park warden who quickly switches to good English when I start to struggle with French, and sets me up.

One disappointment is that campfires are absolutely forbidden. Apparently a run-away fire nearly destroyed the town some time ago, so they are now prohibited. Not a problem, as I have a gas stove with me, but it would have been nice. The warden sends me into the grounds to pick a spot and then come back. She also asks if I’m interested in the Hydro tour, and phones to make a reservation for me. Alas, the next English language tour isn’t for a couple of days, but I can go in French tomorrow, and I agree to this. Report to the brown building in town by 12:30 — it’s walking distance. So, by 3:40 I’m parked at my site, with the odometer reading 1355 from Ottawa.

My micro-tent sets up easily, and I stretch out to relax for a bit, then wander around the campsite to explore. The site is on a bluff, and you can see down into the town, and across town, to the sluice gates of the hydro dam in the distance.

After spending an hour setting things up, I pop into town to fill the bike with gas, and take a quick tour. Interesting mix of pre-fab buildings and permanent homes, showing the town’s history of being created to support the construction of the hydro system, then becoming permanent. There’s a good-looking school, some hotels, and a community centre, along with a combination gas station — grocery store — service centre.

Back home, and a fine meal of freeze-dried stew over the micro stove, and fresh coffee to enjoy as the evening comes on. While eating I put a big pot of water on to heat so it’ll be available for doing dishes. There’s a rhythm to motorcycle microcooking. Make coffee, cook, heat water, eat, soak dishes, coffee, wash dishes, heat water for more coffee.

By 7:00 dinner is done and dishes are cleaned and stacked, the tent is up and my gear is stowed inside. Still very cloudy, so I’m not expecting to do any sky-watching tonight. It’s been very windy, but that is dying down as the sun drops. The campground is almost empty, so it’s very quiet.

The black flies are thick but they’re not biting. They are, however, very annoying as they buzz into ears, nose, and eyes. Feeling a bit stupid, I don a mesh bug-hat to keep them from driving me crazy.

I relax at the table and look over the guide material the park warden gave me. I have a map on how to get to James Bay, information on the dam, tours, and other activities. I can stay here only a full day, two nights, so most of these activities will have to wait. I would like to see the Bay, so I plan to get up early and ride out there in the morning, getting back in time for the noon tour.

Exhausted from the long day, I turn in fairly early, read for a while in my tent, and easily fall asleep.

It is cold during the night. I wonder how cold? I have to pull the hood of my sleeping bag tight around my head to stay warm; inside the bag is nice & toasty. I should have thought of bringing a light toque to wear while sleeping, and that goes into my packing list for next time.

Turn the page to go on a touring day tomorrow.

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