James Bay tour February, 2006…
A narrative with photos by Jim Leach
First, a bit of background… There was an odd noise from under the truck. This was to be expected as we were about to depart for a 3,000 mile trek into some of the coldest places accessible by wheeled vehicle. It seemed to be coming from the transmission area, but since it's merely a year old, there must be another answer. A few phone calls to the helpful folks up at Rovers North shed some light: it seemed possible the clutch arm is cracked; a fairy common problem with the R380 transmission. So, we order a pile of parts, drop the transmission two weeks prior to departure, replace everything that can be replaced, and find the odd noise remains; naturally. All the associated parts were tested and/or inspected, and seemed to be perfectly fine. The rear lower control arm was found to be loose at the axle while the wheel was re-installed, allowing an inordinate amount of movement at the rear pinion. This was causing a bad pinion angle (more on this later). We had scheduled a stop at Rovers North anyway, so perhaps an evaluation in person by the experts will shed some light on the cause of the mystery noise from below...
Day 0: The night before departure… I had driven up from Long Island where I had put in a typical eight-hour day. The two and-a-half hour drive up to Connecticut went without incident.
Arrival at the local brew pub was around eight PM, with a plan for a quick beer, then off to Mike's Home for packing of his items and an early bed night. Well, that was the plan; what actually happened started with leaving the pub a bit later than expected, and the packing/unpacking/repacking of the truck taking far longer than expected. Actual pillow contact was well after midnight.
Day 1: We awoke at 6:30 am, with a plan to depart at 7:30; therefore we were underway at 8:30, as expected. Breakfast at McDeath, and a quick stop to pick up a spare CB antenna and a quart of oil; OK then, all set.
We made reasonably good time, arriving at Rovers North at 12:30 PM to visit and investigate the odd sound that just wouldn't stop, regardless of how much money we threw at it. A lower control arm was replaced with an attractively priced used piece, and after the surgery was complete the rear universal joint was found to be completely devoid of needle bearings. I have honestly never seen a worse universal joint in a functional car before in my life (and I've seen some pretty scary ones). It seems the pinion angle was severe enough to destroy the universal joint in short order. Another few miles, and we would have been in a much worse situation- in rush-hour traffic on the Champlain Bridge for example…
The Canadian border went, well, poorly. The officer at the border was not impressed by Mike using his cell phone while I was being questioned: "Please park to the left and proceed into the building for a full cavity search" Oh, joy. A few uncomfortable minutes later, and we were underway again.
"Not far now" was heard a few too many times… The local Montreal police are very friendly, quickly assisting us when we inadvertently run through an invisible stop sign. Fortunately for us, they felt bad for us (we were, after all, driving a Land-Rover) and decided to let us go with a warning.
The navigation program, which sent us into a few too many U-turns, driving in the wrong direction: "now arriving at your destination" in front of Canada Tire; uh, NO we are NOT at our destination… We had sunk to a new low: we called the hotel for directions. Not a bad start at all. This should be an interesting week…
The hotel was a breathtaking structure. Built in about 1965, and never redecorated; the shower curtain reminded me of a trash bag; mirrored ceiling, hourly rates available- you know the drill. An unmistakable smell: something like bingo night at the local retirement home. Sweet dreams…
Day2: We were dragged out of sleep at 7:00am to the soothing screech of a $10.00 digital alarm clock. The general feel of the "retro" hotel reminded me of a post war third-world nightmare…
It had snowed overnight, with about six inches accumulation on the ground. Traffic was heavy, with the street crossing to the Pennzoil shop for our oil change taking several minutes. The rest of the expedition group arrived shortly thereafter; however our cement-like gear oil from the overnight refrigeration made us one of the last trucks out of the shop. The typical four-hour "ten minute" oil change.
An entirely forgettable 5$ breakfast of ham and egg with cheese, while waiting for the group to finish their oil change and decaling, rounded out the morning's activities.
A very scenic drive over roads that give North Africa a run for its money culminated with a 110 running out of fuel on the roadside at -4F (and that's without the wind-chill); a frozen gas cap lock on the 110 made the experience complete.
The group arrived at the luxurious Hotel Forestall in Val D'Or - running water, clean sheets, minimal contagion content; this will be a restful night; a safe haven from the burden of our travels.
Dinner in the evening proved entertaining; however the hotel bar proved even more entertaining – the first night get to know our traveling companions over a fine single malt…
Day3: We drove a bit, ate a lot. Drive. Eat. Drive. Eat.
We stopped at Tim Horton's for key supplies, then drove for about an hour to Amos, Quebec, where a local festival was underway in our behalf (well, maybe not for our behalf), where snow tubing and dog sledding were the main attractions.
Interestingly the festival was held on the grounds of the local cathedral.
A curious contrast: 1920's Catholic Cathedral and mammoth inflatable green alien kid-bouncing attractions…
One interesting attraction at the festival was the booth were yellow snow eating was encouraged - boiled maple syrup is poured into the snow, were it solidifies quickly into a wonderful tasting filling-removing adhesive (the local dentist was on hand to clean out wallets).
Later, we visited the local bistro for Bison burgers and drinks on the way back to our trusty steeds.
We found it to be quite scenic along the way, with a brief detour for the requisite photo shoot at a very old covered bridge. No, we did not just stay in Vermont; this is really up there
A few short and (fortunately) uneventful hours later we rolled into Matagami and stay at the luxurious Hotel Matagami. Our sprawling suite offered a breathtaking view of the Esso station across the street, and was fully equipped with indoor plumbing!
A few drinks in the bar, accompanied by an enthralling game of pool on the worst table yet seen on two continents, followed by a surprisingly tasty dinner in the hotel restaurant.
Day 4: This was the coldest morning so far.
We met for breakfast at 7:30am, and afterward, began the epic journey 400 miles to colder regions, but, not until we managed to get a group of five trucks lost in a one-street town. A bit of fuel to take us on our way (we don't want another episode on the side of the road now, do we?
We were required to check in with the local authorities on our way up, (presumably to help with identifying the bodies), which afforded a brief chance to pick up local maps and other trinkets. The bathroom was a welcome sight as well.
We stopped briefly to photograph a set of semi-frozen rapids running under an imposing bridge
At "381" (the only fuel/food stop on the way, and named for the distance in kilometers that you need to travel to get to it) we ate (again), and fuelled up with 5 minutes to spare- it seems they were closing the fuel pumps down, NOW.
A friendly, nomadic dog (who we named Rover) was happy to receive affection, yet refused the gift of a cookie from the cafeteria. We ate it, but he wouldn't. Do you think Rover knows something we don't?
The rest of the ride was spectacular, with a breathtaking sunset that, by the end of the trip, would become commonplace. It's just beautiful every night here it seems
Later, we saw several groups of Caribou in the road, which caused a serious risk to the group – it was dusk and difficult to see them until we were nearly upon them. We had to slow down, shut down the lights and we were then able to snap a few poor photos of the magnificent animals in their natural habitat.
We rolled into the town of Wemindji about an hour after the hotel closed, but fortunately, we were able to get our keys from the restaurant, but, unfortunately, no food.
In this small (I'm not sure if small really conveys it) community, the restaurant and motel provide significantly more limited service than the usual Holiday Inn. No problem; there is a ready supply of (slightly frozen) MREs to keep the crew fed. Other items retrieved from behind seats and the bottom of coolers rounded out the menu for the evening.
After a rather comprehensive, yet amusing 'training course' in the finer points to MRE preparation, the crew was ready to eat – well, let's say, the crew was willing to examine closely the contents of these nine year old meals, with an eye to possibly eating it.
In our make-shift kitchen (AKA the bathroom), we were able to provide a delicious, high-carb, high cholesterol, high calorie (read: BOMB) dinner for the entire crew.
Some of the items were a bit off, such as the "digestible" crackers, "chopped and formed beef steak with grill marks" and the ever popular "beef frankfurters".
On a positive note, the nine-year-old MRE peaches actually tasted better then the "fresh" peaches we had with breakfast that morning; all-in-all, a wonderful meal. Well, the beer and scotch helped I think (a lot perhaps?)… How the hell do we win any wars eating this crap?!?
Day 5: Sixteen below zero, still driving north- on purpose.
The day started with an obligatory photo op on James Bay where the temp was closer to 50 below with the wind chill: the wind was like a freshly honed razor; slicing efficiently through the best 'Woods' and 'Canada Goose' had to offer.
Our first trial with the extreme arctic gear, and all went well, with the exception of a few exposed areas.
Frozen fingers are a very serious concern while photographing the group in these conditions; removing a glove for just a few seconds brought on numbness.
With the experience of the day before under our belt, we managed to navigate this one-road town with the assistance of $12,000.00 of GPS navigation equipment spread over the group without incident.
The CB radios are still leaving much to be desired, and several may end up in a snow bank by the end of the trip. We were forced to rely on hand signals…
The relatively short drive was interesting, however the blowing snow was drifting into the road causing some rapidly changing surfaces and interesting driving. Absolute concentration was the order of the day, where the slightest distraction could be fatal (fortunately, there was no danger of seeing any bikini-clad co-eds along this road).
A minor white-out near the airport along the way made for some spectacular photos, which also nearly caused a crash while taking the aforementioned spectacular photos.
We arrived about noon at the hotel Radisson, adjacent to the Grand Dam complex, one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the world.
We checked into the hotel and headed for lunch at the only open restaurant in town. (By the end of our time in Radisson, we'll have had at least three meals here…). After lunch, we received a very informative tour of the Grand Dam complex. It is worthy of note, the machine room of the dam was running at about 850 F, which, when bundled for 40 below zero, can be a bit uncomfortable- so close to heat stroke in one of the coldest places in North America accessible by road- this makes perfect sense on this tour.
Upon our return to town, we were amused to find the power was out. What the hell is up with this!?! The support town for the largest hydro plant in the Northern Hemisphere has no power: a perfect end to the day.
Apparently, we had "stole" the power outlets reserved for the vehicles that Hydro Quebec uses to warm their engines; however the very friendly and accommodating Hydro Quebec employees un-plugged our vehicles for us, nearly destroying our chances of ever starting the two diesel vehicles in the group in the morning. The generous application of Scotch eased our pain with the outlet dilemma. We (finally) started the vehicles, after having them plugged in again for a few hours, and moved them across the lot to a more "socially acceptable" parking location.
We were also having other serious repercussions from the extreme cold: the beer was freezing! As you can well imagine, this is a very serious situation which needed to be handled with the utmost care. We had beer slushies!
"Stumbling the streets" in 40 MPH wind-blown snow at WAY too cold with a belly full of scotch was fun, however, as we made our way to dinner.
Day 5: Breakfast: Food again at the "ashtray" restaurant, as we affectionately dubbed it. A chimney sweep on a bad day smells better than this restaurant on a good day. The problem was no other restaurant was open. Oh, well; at least the food was good.
Photo-op afterward under the "M*A*S*H"- style road sign with mileages to interesting (and far warmer) corners of the globe. This took about an hour, maybe two- to get just right.
An intrepid rover owner decided it was a good idea to drive down the front lawn (or, where the lawn would be, if there was not two feet of snow) of the hotel to get his truck into the photo. This went reasonably well, except he couldn't get back out from the front lawn. Another truck, strap and two people pushing freed the mired beast.
After this minor event (which set the overall theme for the rest of the days activities) we were on the road again to the town of Chisasibi. Along the road to our destination, we were honestly looking for trouble. The map showed us a "short, long cut" which would start and end keeping us on course, only lasting a bit over a mile. We couldn't find the beginning of that road, so we pressed on looking for new and creative ways to damage our vehicles… We found the road to the Fort George peninsula, just past Chisasibi, which would put us literally in James Bay. We arrived directly after the road grader, who was just starting to clear the road – perfect. Another hour or so, and this would have been just another ice road.
Snow had drifted across the road in several locations from the prior evenings four inches of freshly fallen snow, on top of the several feet of existing snow. We were on point with the 110, blasting through the smaller drifts with all the fanfare of eating corn flakes. But, certain doom was lurking on the horizon… The drifts were getting deeper and deeper (as was the BS coming over the CB) so we steadily increased speed to just shy of "What the hell were you thinking?" and promptly got stuck in a land-slide sized drift.
The Disco-II following behind nearly collided with us as we ground to an unexpectedly short stop. Thanks to the reduced ground clearance of the Disco-II, he stopped short, narrowly avoiding a collision. A snatch strap had him free in a few minutes, but we were stuck much better than he was. The winch was employed to extract us from our icy grave.
By now, the thoroughly un-amused road grader driver was on hand to clear the drift for us. Unfortunately for him, his progress into the drift was far short of ours. Yep, he was stuck.
About a half hour later, his supervisor showed up; prognosis: front end loader. The grader managed to finally wrench free and clear enough for us to find further trouble, so we pressed on.
At a fork in the road ahead, we pulled aside to assess the situation. The group leader took matters into his hands with his Disco-I, and pressed on in the lead position, with perhaps a bit too much speed. We followed at a (well, what we thought was) a safe distance, and watched the drama unfold before us.
The main event was when the lead truck had impacted a drift about 1/3 the height the Disco, catapulting a column of snow over 30 feet into the air as well as propelling the vehicle into a geosynchronous orbit. No time to smell the roses; this monster drift was approaching the speeding 110's bumper faster than we could fill our pants- the point of no return. The impressive drift was impacted like a supertanker hitting an iceberg (and with a similar grace). The ensuing white-out nearly caused us to join the lead truck in their rear seat. A last second course correction sent us into a snow bank to the right of the roadway rather than the aforementioned lead vehicle's right rear seat. Apparently, the lead truck had stopped to avoid a titanic drift, partially hidden by the first. Had this drift been struck, serious damage to the vehicles (and possibly occupants) would have surely ensued.
All hands on shovels- we began to clear a path through the shallowest part (about waist deep) as the front-end loader arrived to save us from cardiac arrest caused by clogged arteries from all the greasy food consumed over the past several days... We followed the grader (who arrived shortly after the loader) to the end of the road for the obligatory photo shoot in the sub-arctic bliss of the Fort George peninsula.
Day 6: Breakfast at the chain smoker's arm pit, followed by fuel-up with a complimentary lottery ticket (it turned out to be a looser; by the way fortunately, my bad luck did not extend any further…).
Driving south to Nemaska, with plenty of snow drifts and other deadly obstacles such as plow trucks rolled off the road along the way.
A bit of falling snow produced some white-out conditions on its own. These new snows, combined with the blowing snow as well as the usual drifts, glare ice and churned up snow from our group as well as on-coming cars, trucks and highly volatile gasoline tankers kept us on our toes.
We stopped for lunch and fuel at the requisite "area 381", as well as a visit once again with Rover, the trusty dog. A faulty radio was the worst of the mechanical failures, for a refreshing change of pace from previous expeditions- with the exception of a terribly traumatizing grilled cheese (with ham) sandwich episode.
The passing of the buffalo-chicken-wing flavored pretzel chips was fortunately for the group, the most excitement of the day. Imminent doom was just around every corner due to the drastically changing weather conditions.
Day 7: Breakfast in the Nemaska Hotel restaurant.
One of the group members negotiated a deal for snow mobile rentals from the carpenter repairing the roof of the hotel. After several hours of: not going over safety concerns, not establishing insurance coverage and not receiving comprehensive operation instruction, we were off to meet our maker. First stop: the gas pumps. Several minutes (and swearing in Cree to the pump operator for spilling fuel on a sled) and we were finally on our way.
We started our journey through the back yards of local residents and then almost immediately up the side of an imposing mountain. A few mishaps did occur despite our vast expertise of snow mobile operation, and the thorough instructions we received. Early on, someone decided to veer off the trail an inch. He was rewarded with a load of snow in his undergarments, as the snow was about three feet deep in this location.
Our guide (with the assistance of the bulk of the group) was able to right the hindered mount and we were off again, but not before a small tree suffered the wrath of an angry snow mobile.
Later, the earlier spill was re-enacted. This time, the snow was over four feet deep, and stepping off the sled was similar to stepping out of a perfectly good airplane at altitude. We managed to tangle up three sleds this time- a course record.
We pressed on, and at the summit, we spoke with some of the locals, including someone with a uniform, who obviously held a position of great importance and found time in his busy schedule to meet us at the summit for idle chat in the chilling breeze.
Later, we were heading down the hill; breaking a new trail to the edge of the mighty river. Further important instructions were given as to the appearance of "slush" and, if seen, that it should be avoided at all cost. "Just drive off to the side" was the encouraging advice from our guide. Um, OK…
We carefully hauled-ass down the slope (which is often used for sledding) to the frozen river's surface, and then blasted across the ice with all the grace of a logging truck.
We arrived safely across the river, and visited a traditional hunting village still used by the Cree Indians during the hunting season. Abandoned while we were here, it was a stark contrast to our opulent accommodations back at the hotel.
Back now to the river- the only way back to our hotel. Allegedly frozen solid, what could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot could go wrong.
We were attentively following our highly experienced guide, when all hell broke loose. The dreaded slush was spotted; however the "small" area covered about 20 square feet. The guide was nearly lost to the icy depths as it opened up beneath him. His sled dropped severely in the rear, and the rider behind him narrowly missed a far worse fate. Quick thinking prevented disaster as he headed for trees at wide open throttle. Later, a few "minor" slush holes caused riders to go around, just as the comprehensive instructions given earlier dictated.
The ride culminated back at the hotel where we paid our dues to our guide, and kissed the solid earth. The combination of exhilaration and pure terror felt was like none other.
Once we had all caught our breath, we were invited into the cook shack. This crude, yet impressive, structure was decorated with three large wood stoves, and several Caribou quarters hanging nearby cooking.
Despite the large, full-length opening in the roof peak and lack of insulation, this shack was easily 65 degrees inside. An adjacent room (unheated) made a perfect freezer to keep the meat awaiting their turn at the fire. We had missed lunch, but many weren't very hungry at this point, after nearly losing our lives, despite the wonderful smells from the cook shack.
We gassed-up our oil-leaking behemoths and pressed on toward Chibougamau for well-earned rest. But first, we had to endure several hours of mountain roads and homicidal tractor trailer drivers.
Day 8: Breakfast, then, shortly thereafter, we were picked up by Christian, our dog sledding guide, at the hotel Chibougamau. We followed him to his camp, where we were drowned in the sound of barking, howling dogs. Yep. This is the place. A brief tutorial, punctuated by "VERY IMPORTANT" several times in a rough French accent had us ready to tame the savage beasts. The view really is the same unless you're the lead dog. Actually, it was a quite nice- impossibly deep snow load supported by spindly Black Pine trees- reminiscent of an M. C. Escher painting. Within minutes of departure, the lead group lost the rest of the crew, reminiscent of a Monty Python skit. Holding back the eager dogs was a challenge, but no show. In the bush there is only one way out –forward.
One of our drivers, leading a ten dog sled, jumped off the sled, to avoid a spill and was caught up in the 3 foot deep snow. Dragged along behind the racing dogs, he managed to pull himself up and recover control. Despite all the barking while not moving, the dogs are almost completely silent while running, further adding to the extremely peaceful feel of the outdoors. No engine noise, just the gentle squeak of snow under the runners and an occasional creak from an overburdened tree nearby. Back at the shack, the team looked as if they themselves had run the entire 30 kilometers. Dog sledding is a lot harder than it looks… A little Irish coffee helped cheer the group.
The arduous drive to our final resting place was nearly uneventful, with the requisite speeding trucks blowing the snow into our view. The snow drift constituent was also well represented, providing much needed diversion for the weary travelers.
Day 9: The final day.
We awoke more sore than any of us ever thought possible. We were up way too late the night before, reviewing photos, eating the worst pizza ever experienced by anyone in the group (and this experience spanned the better part of the entire globe) and doing the early goodbyes.
Once again we were packing all the gear into the waiting vehicles, eager to get back to civilization, yet also sad to leave our new 'family' behind. Living and playing together, sharing experiences like these, this is what owning a Land-Rover is all about. Not how big the tires are, or what brand of lights you have. The people who use and love these vehicles are the real adventure. Get out there and see the world. To coin a phrase: "One life. Live it."
Ted Matthews (driver and event coordinator) and Mary Kaye
John Cockell (driver)
Steve Hoare (driver) and Kim Groenendyk
Peter Wood (driver)
Jim Leach (driver) and Michael Ladden (navigation expert)
Epilogue: From start to finish (excluding my trip to and from Long Island to CT and back again) we covered 2,892.9 miles in this trip. Our moving average speed was 51.4 MPH, and our maximum speed was 78.6 MPH. There HAD to have been a tail wind on that one… Moving time was a total of 56 hours, 16 minutes. Fuel economy was a decent 17.6 MPG with the 300Tdi pulling a fully loaded 110 regular.