Ah, Radisson and Chisasibi in Québec-du-Nord. Yep, I went there, in the vacation of a lifetime. As you will see, I have the photos to prove it.
Why did a friend and I choose to go there? In general were drawn by the remoteness of the taiga forests, and in particular by the desire to see 1. the James Bay, a part extention of the Arctic Ocean, frozen, and 2. the grandeur of the Stairway of the Giants, part of the Hydro-Québec hydroelectric facilities. In other words, the best things of God and the best things of man.
My father has, over the years, occasionally teased my mother that we would move to Hudson Bay because she dislikes the cold. One day in early 2013, I finally grew curious, and looked up communities on Hudson Bay, and its southern extension James Bay, on Wikipedia. Wow, I was taken aback by their splendor, and particularly fell in love with Radisson, a Hydro-Québec company town of about 300 at the terminus of the James Bay Road, a 620-kilometer road through the taiga so gargantuan it has its own fan site, and nearby Chisasibi, a Cree settlement near the mouth of the La Grande River of 4,000. Not being a driver, for months I was without much hope I could ever venture there, but thankfully, there was my close friend, Louise Chicoine. Vocalist for the area band Rabbit Rabbit, she is a decidedly adventurous soul, having already undertaken a solo journey to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and later a road trip across the entire United States with a friend. Having already seen the breathtaking documentary Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, she was also well-disposed for a subarctic adventure of our own, and upon the merest mention in late August 2013, she expressed interest in a road trip to northern Quebec. It took eight months of saving, planning, and stocking up on tasty treats, but by late April 26, 2014 we were ready. This is how it went:
April 26 was a day of numerous delays, but by the late afternoon we were on our way in earnest! The vehicle of choice was a 1998 Saturn that saved us plenty in gasoline (about $5.50 a gallon even in southern Quebec), even if the diminutive car did have some difficulties a few times over the long trek. For a rainy, overcast day, it was quite pretty, and we had great fun listening to a few cassettes in the first indication that it was to be a journey, seemingly, back in time as well as up the road.
We stayed in Montreal the first night. Louise, part Quebecker, had been there several times, while I was there once for an 8th grade French class field trip; I never did learn French, having no knack for foreign languages, but we were able to get by. We ended up in a small "bed and breakfast" (the latter consisted of a muffin or croissant, and about 8oz each of orange juice and your choice of coffee or tea) on Rue Saint-Denis, a major party district as it turned out, but rather pleasant lodgings even for two wholesome individuals.
As a Catholic in Montreal, the subdued Sunday morning April 27 was a happy occasion, and my first time attending a Traditional Latin Mass in over two years, at St. Joseph's Church, the metropole's SSPX outpost; Louise took photos with a film camera, so these are from the website (for anyone planning to attend Mass there, despite the outdated website info the Sunday Mass is 10:00 AM, not 11:00; thankfully I checked out the PDF bulletin ahead of time and knew). Certainly it was a beautiful Mass, alien as both the Latin and the French were to our ears, and I was happy to be partaking in an act of liturgical defiance while the canonizations of two lackluster-at-best pontiff-saints took place in Rome, and of the city's degenerate culture: on the way out I spotted numerous banners advertising a rally against "homophobie". There were not as many families as in most traditionalist churches, but there were still enough children to cause the trademark happy ruckus after the long liturgy was over, and the four altar boys (one a university student) looked like prime priesthood material. Afterward, as we were about to leave, we were invited to coffee and croissants downstairs, and received the warmest kind of welcome! Always a lover of snacks, that was the first of many excellent croissants I would enjoy during the journey, and I was happy to have French Canadian cuisine. Several of the church ladies spoke English, so despite one facetious "Americans? Go home," we sat down for a good half hour talking about our trip, Louise's French Canadian heritage, the SSPX, and the contents of the sermon (the gist was: however baffling the current crisis in the Church is, it was nothing like the devastation the Apostles experienced after the Crucifixion). They even introduced us to the priest, a gentle young soul who promised to keep us in his prayers. Helpfully, bags of produce and bread were provided for parishioners to take home for free; we grabbed (along with divers holy cards) a baguette, which we devoured over the day. And so we left and took the highway to the northwest.
The drab multilane highway soon gave way to the country, and we found ourselves surrounded by boreal forest for the first time. The mountains roundabout were crisscrossed with ski trails, but more excitingly, many of the lakes below were still frozen! Full from the after Mass snacks, we didn't have to stop for a meal until Mont Laurier, the last sizable town before the first true stretch of wilderness. There we dined at an A&W (the only chain restaurant we settled for the whole time), and were pleased with the root beer. Whereas in Montreal everyone we ran into had some comprehension of English, rural Quebec is more francophone than western Massachusetts is anglophone, and no one there spoke a word of English! Bless them, for I support Quebec sovereignty, cultural and political, despite the usual Marxist connotations the movement has taken on since the Quiet Revolution, and would be devastated to see Quebeckers assimilated into Anglo-Canada, which I also cherish, and derive some ancestry from.
Minutes later we drove over a bridge spanning the Gatineau River as it runs through Grand-Remous. The river sports beautiful cascades, especially beautiful swelled with the progressing thaw. The spot, home to a Restaurant-aux-Cascades we would stop at on the way back, was one of my favorite on all the trip, and Louise snapped several wonderful pictures.
Not long after that, one embarks on the long road to Val-d'Or, which is essentially the halfway point from Montreal to Radisson. As someone who had spent nearly his whole life in New England, and before left only to visit upstate New York, North Carolina, or Montreal, even with my informed expectations I got such a chill driving through the taiga in the afternoon and evening, and seeing nothing but icy lakes, frigid but uncovered rivers, camp sites, and hunting lodges for two hours! Well-maintained as the road was, and though by the time we reached Val-d'Or eight cars were tailing us, it was thrilling to know what real wilderness was. Oh, I raved about the dense lake country to Louise. If a vast lake like any of the ones we saw along that road had been in Massachusetts, it would have been enmeshed by resorts and multimillion dollar "summer cottages", but in such a place, it was left to the hunter and occasional tourist.
We entered Val-d'Or with the last dusk. As the name implies, the community, actually more populous than Northampton, was founded because of gold mining operations, and while other metals are more important to the economy today, mining brings in a great deal of money, as was evident from the variety of pricey-looking boutique shops. We went for pizza. The one pizza place then open, Pizza Show, offered mediocre but satisfactory cuisine, and no crowd. As we ordered, the cashier asked us where we anglophones had come from.
"Massachusetts? What are you doing in Val-d'Or?"
"We're on our way to Radisson and Chisasibi?"
"Why do you want to go there? There is nothing in Chisasibi."
"There's too much down where we're from. We are going there for nothing."
"Well, if it's nothing you want, you'll get it!"
As Louise interpreted the amusing exchange, which closely mirrored the attitudes we discovered in others we encountered in the area (Abitibi-Témiscamingue), despite the relative remoteness, the people there still had enough of a taste of civilization to envy, say, the partygoers of Rue Saint-Denis, rather like the residents of farming communities who spend their time in Northampton pitying themselves for not living where the action is. That night, we continued a little further (but not before stopping at the Kool Café for tea), and got a room in Rouyn-Noranda. This turned out to be an hour out of the way, but we got over it.
We spent the morning of April 28, Monday, walking around the Sovietistically industrial town, the "Copper Capital of Canada", waiting for the currency exchange at the bank to open, but enjoying the streets. Again, it was a moneyed place, complete with a sushi bar (despite the cosmopolitan establishments, though, the population was monolithically Quebecois. In fact, after Montreal, excluding the native Cree peoples, there was little to no "diversity"). The lake in the center of town remained frozen, and the shore was a pleasant place to stop a few minutes before moving on.
Correcting the wrong turn, we cut across to Amos, another population center in Abitibi and the seat of the diocese. While we only stopped once, for gas, we were really surprised by what we found as we drove by: there is farming that far north! In some cases the horses and cattle were already about and gorging themselves on hay. As we discovered at the gas station, they even brew beer there! However, as the more interested party was a teetotaler, Louise knew we couldn't bring any alcohol back to the US, we passed. But of all the places we visited, Amos was among the loveliest, and perhaps the one I can most easily imagine living in. There are even several roadside crucifixes, folkish expressions of the Catholic faith. Actually, we had encountered several the day before, too. However the province has been afflicted by secularism, the Faith remains ingrained and seemingly strong in the country areas.
After Amos, it was another long drive to the last community before the James Bay Road, Matagami. The weather was almost cloudless and bright, and would remain so for three days. Already, we noticed the very daylight was changing: the sun shone with a pure, white light, not yellow like further south, and was really beautiful. We traveled through less-than-virgin forest, but that was among the most interesting parts. The taiga was logged in sections every year, and new trees planted to replace those harvested. Quite a spectacle. These are some of the views.
As you can imagine we were more careful afterwards, but were still keen to stop when a vista presented itself. After about 100kms we got out and walked to the top of a low hill that had a nice view. There were snow shoe prints, but not having any ourselves we sunk into knee deep wet snow with every step, and it was very hard going. Already soaked to our socks by the time we reached the top, we had a jolly time playing around, and enjoyed a nice view.
As you can see from the foreground, the composition of the terrain was very ususual, and we believed it to be debris from mining or roadbuilding. Despite their young age, the hills were home to some nice plants. We thought this, just below the surface of a pool of water, especially nice.
Driving and shotgunning barefoot for a while, our next stop was the Rupert River. However, our best pictures from the Rupert River are from the return, as you will see below, so none here. While we had the heat on to dry off, it was remarkably warm out given how much snow remained on the ground. Louise even strutted around in her Cape Cod tanktop just to make a point.
The road winded on for hours more, all beautiful, but surely a trial on the driver. Louise is tough though, and we managed to avoid to many more stops before reaching the 3/5 of the way rest stop/restaurant/motel/supply station, Relais Routier 381. My, my, I RAVE about how good the fish & chips was! There was only one harried chef to take orders and makle everyone's food, but he did a marvelous job! The crisp, thin breading over the perfectly tender fish really made the dish a standout. I think if word of this place got out, they'd start to see cars drive the 381 kms up to the rest stop, dine, and then right back down again! Like most of Canada they stocked Crush cream soda; not bad, but on the way back I opted for a juice that seemed like the one distinctively Canadian product.
The pastel dusk was fading as we returned to the road. Even in the dark the well-kept road was very safe, and traffic was minimal, so we kept the brights lit most of the time. I was anxious to reach Radisson lest Louise get too tired, but we did stop once to get out some snacks -- and took a peak at the chandelier of stars above us. Being, even from Northampton and Florence, modern urban souls, how the stars burned into our eyes like needles of pure fire. Rather than look flat to the eye, they really did hang over one, an arced, glazen empyrean. Meteors were plainly visible, travelling from here to there like spiders spinning silvery webs. We were even able to see a satellite make its was by far above.
The hours went by fast. Right before the town, the power plant was illuminated stunningly after all the darkness. Some twenty minutes after midnight, we finally entered Radisson, and parked at the Hotel Carrefour La Grande. The only customers that night, we had to ask the bartender at the adjoining Bar Boreal to call and wake the manager. We settled in, and I managed a triumphant call home before bed.
The fourth day, April 29, may just have been the best. We didn't do any more driving, just explored beautiful Radisson after breakfast at Resto Chez Mika, connected to the Carrefour La Grande like the bar. Yes, we really made it! I hadn't noticed at the time, but looking at the pictures now, they never bothered taking down the Christmas/New Years lights!
Not far from the famous trilingual welcome sign is the novelty sign listing the humorously great distances to various cities. It was unshoveled, so we had to tramp over to get to it for the photo op.
Before exploring Radisson any further, we located the Inuit/Cree handicrafts gift shop, which al my online reading assured me would be closed. Yet we walked in, and open it was. The kind, explanatory, and talkative proprietor explained that this was the first day the store opened this season, so we were truly in luck! Less so her: she was supposed to be on her beach vacation as we spoke, but had broken her hand three days before she was to depart. She tried to steer us toward the tamarack goose decoys, but they looked too fragile for my tastes. As is my wont, I zeroed in on what I wanted (a bison horn carved into an eagle, a leather Radisson bookmark/strap, and a few postcards with pretty views. But oh, Louise! Let's just say she went all out. Of what she got, my favorite was an doll with a rabbit fur coat for a friend who watched her four quail chicks while she was away.
[View from the balcony.]After shopping, we took a stroll down the side streets. On the above James Bay Road website, the creator Walter Muma memorably says "Radisson is a functional town, not a pretty one." Having gone there myself, I wholeheartedly disagree. True, the central complex for Hydro-Québec workers (and the location of the vaunted Auberge Radisson) is astoundingly drab and gray, but the residential homes are made of bright and colorful siding. The streets are clean, and the atmosphere cheerful and cosy. A snowmobile trail began right outside the Carrefour La Grande, and we walked that for some time before looping back into town. For lunch, we went to the grocery store, which had ample selection. The main course was a bunch of grapes (the least pricey of the fresh fruits, a rarity up there), along with crackers, trail mix, a single serving of champagne for Louise and tea for me! As the afternoon wore on, I became really restless, and returned to the trail; Louise snapped a shot of me just as I am about to disappear into the woods.
As it happened, I was out for hours. While one could traverse the snow without sinking in by staying to the beaten path, it was slow going. Atop one hill, I went off to the side to scale a bit of the Canadian shield jutting out of the height. it was really a lovely outcropping, and I remained there for some time to say a rosary in the midst of the true God's country. The white landscape took on a gold glint as the sun came lower. Once I got up, I walked on further, and was delighted to glimpse a very distant first view of the Stairway of the Giants, chiseled out of the hills beside the La Grande River. According to maps, I would eventually have reached the river by the trail, but night was to come soon, so I turned back. Warmed by all the walking, the nearness of spring really hit me as I glimpsed a few insects that had already come alive after the winter.
Meanwhile, Louise had gone for a stroll of her own in town, and took many nice pictures with her phone. Later, she worried I was lost, and tried to find me along the trail, but thankfully we were both back by dark.
Majestic even from the road, eh? We ate at a nice restaurant in town. We had some difficulty deciding what to get, but both ended up with soup of the day along with an entrée. In the process we got talking to the cashier, a kind and amiable fellow who'd moved to Radisson for the work opportunity. Expenses, he noted, are higher in Radisson, but so is the pay. As usual, I was quite the art critic, and had Louise take a picture of the art, a reproduction which beautifully represents the spearlike, vertical look of the firs that grow in that country.
That night, we hit the bar. Yes, our dear Pundit hit the Bar Boreal (wearing a Rabbit Rabbit t-shirt over his iconic button-down) where, he assures you, he clinked his soda to his friend's beer for a long-awaited toast: God save the Queen! Excluding the line of customers playing gaming machines in an adjacent room, and ignoring the American pop music playing, no one else was there, and it suited me well. I spent the while we were there doing my very favorite activity: lecturing on political philosophy as it applies to present problems. We had a very good time, staying late, but not too late to sleep adequately for an invigorating drive the coming day.
The next morning began with a familiar breakfast at Resto Chez Mika, where the food is delicious and, this time of year, the area charm is only enhanced by the attention provided as the only guests, save one or two tables of passing Crees. Louise and I really fell in love with the individual serving metal tea pots; while obviously not a local specialty, they were but another detail we wished we could wake up to every day of our lives.
Chisasibi is only 100 km (62 miles) from Radisson, so the drive was hardly formidable in itself. First, though, we decided to make our way to Longue Pointe, the furthest north one can drive on the coast in eastern North America! Even before the turnoff to access Longue Pointe, we saw caribou bounding across the road! Apologies if the pictures are lackluster; they were before us and gone in seconds! After their crossing they congregated in a clearing across the road, with forty or fifty of them in total.
Like native peoples generally, the Cree have adopted modern living in the last few generations. We were informed, however, that they have done much to assure that younger generations continue hunting, and that at this time of year pupils get a week off from school to engage in hunting as well as events encompassing the whole Cree nation.
As mentioned before, Louise ended up buying a traditional tamarack decoy at the gift shop. On the road to Chisasibi, we saw Cree hunters out with modern plastic decoys, and got to greet the fellows, who happily agreed to have their pictures taken. One of them remarked, "It's beautiful, eh?" -- the only time, being in French Canada, we heard anyone say the iconic "eh", but more importantly encapsulating the deep reverence for the beauty of the environs evident in the Crees and area Quebeckers alike.
We crossed a road over La Grande-1 generating station. Very impressive. You'll also get an impression of what a beautiful day it was! It was briefly overcast later.
The memorial to those who built the grand facility.
I had only time for a cursory survey of expressions, but I can guarantee we turned more than one head when the 16-year-old Saturn finally rolled into Longue Pointe, which has its own garage, and from one point of which perhaps 20 native hunters were coming and going in snowmobiles. But ah! We made it to that ultimate vastness, the frozen Arctic Ocean! We sat down on some Canadian Shield rock (which you can see on the Wikipedia article here) and had some crackers and bottled water.
It was a real ultima thule. Feast your eyes!
The dog at left is chewing on a caribou leg!
And here he is with the spillway in the background.
Majesty. I procure great solace from thinking that, surely, centuries after New York, Los Angeles, and the other rotten metropolises are fallow fields that live on in ancient tales alone, the Staircase of the Giants, which definitely merits enumerations among the wonders of the world, will remain, its original purpose long forgotten as it towers over the natural wonders of the La Grande River area.
The river basin below the spillway and dam holding back the Robert-Bourassa Reservoir. Louise and I were impressed when Hamel told us that the original forests had been left largely untouched by the construction. Evidently he is well versed in explaining that aspect of the project; he told us that a year or so before we arrived he'd taken Governor Deval Patrick to discuss the environmental impact of the hydroelectric operations (if only I'd gotten to the guide first he could have passed on my stern message of disapproval!)
Louise really liked the murals in the alcove with the larger tables.
We managed to keep moving at a fine pace, and stopped a while only once: the Rupert River crossing. I'd spotted a viewing platform some way into the woods, so we stopped and set out to reach it. However, the snow had not been shoveled, so that meant a grueling march of hundred of yards through wet, knee deep snow, but we persevered! This is a photo from the woods.