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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Out there bike tours: Northern Quebec and Labrador

Despite the "eh" weather this month, I have been thinking about bike tours. This year is going to be on the "light" side for bike tours. This is a relative term, since compared to being on the road for four-plus months straight last summer, pretty much anything we do will be considered light. The tours we'll do this year will be close to home, around Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Maybe a week to two weeks tops. We still want to complete our Cross-Con Tour at some point, maybe in a year or two, picking up from where we left off in the Midwest. And I would really like to tour the U.K. at some point as well.

I admire those who are really into "Adventure-Touring", the people who either find the rough out-there spots in the Developed World, or anywhere in the Developing World, and those who ride around the world. Last year's tour made me realize I'm not a Round-The-World cyclist as I'm good for a couple months, but three months is pushing it and four a bit too much. I would like to do some touring in more exotic locales outside of North America, but I'd also like to do some Adventure-Touring  within the U.S. and Canada.

Now this Adventure-Touring would most likely be in this part of North America, as there is a lot to explore out here. But then I'll come across other obscure regions and then start thinking about what it would be like to bike there as well.

We like to think that the Western US is sparsely populated, and that's true to some extent. We also like to think of areas like northern B.C., the Yukon, and Alaska as distant wilderness. And that's also true. But these distant wildernesses are popular destinations with the adventurous. How about a distant wilderness not popular with adventure travelers, even more remote than some of these locations?

"But what can be more remote than the Yukon?" you ask. Well, I'm thinking of lands east of there. Northern Quebec and Labrador.

Quebec? Yes, Quebec.

When most people think of Quebec, they think of cities like Montreal (pop. 1,649,519, 2nd in Canada, 15th largest in all of North America ) and Quebec City, all located in the southwest corner of the province, close to the U.S. But Quebec is Canada's largest province,* its area larger than Texas and California combined (but still smaller than Alaska), and its population concentrated in the south. Its north is vast and very sparsely populated.
Route du Nord. From wikipedia. 

I got to thinking about Northern Quebec when I came across the wikipedia page for the Route du Nord. This highway cuts roughly a northwest-southeast arc through northern Quebec. It is 407 kilometres (253 mi) long, all of it unpaved. No towns. All gravel. Pretty much nothing but flat to rolling terrain, and trees. (There is "periodically" service at kilometre-post 290, and services in Cree village of Nemaska, 10km off road at kilometre-post 296 during the day time. Some call the scenery boring, but I think the charm of this area is there is pretty much nothing. (Note that I say "pretty much", we'll get to that later.)

James Bay Road at km 464km. From wikipedia/user FargomeD

The Route du Nord connects to the James Bay Road, another remote northern Quebec highway. This one connects the communities of Matagami and Radisson while heading north-south along its namesake bay (though way inland by at least 100 km). This road is 620 km/385 miles long, and also has pretty much nothing along it. (But it's paved!) There are a few Cree villages along the way, all off the main road and connected by gravel extension roads. All of these villages are about 60 miles off the main highway. The only service along it a full-service station at 381 kilometres (237 mi) from Matagami, open 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, with cafeteria and rudimentary lodging. This road is so remote that there is a check-in station at the beginning, where every traveler has to register to travel on it! There are six emergency telephones scattered along the route. Cell service? Ha!
The checkpoint. From wikipedia/user Fenerty
There is little traffic, and beside a smattering of First Nation houses/hunting camps along the way, no people. But you will probably see some bears.
From wikipedia/user Fenerty
And even a wolf. Yes, a wolf.
From flickr user mdmarkus66

And the Northern Lights? Spectacular!
At the Rupert River Bridge. From flickr user -AX- ... off until may!

But even these two roads can't compete with the remoteness of the Trans-Taiga Road, which branches from the James Bay Road at kilometre 544.

From flickr user peupleloup
This gravel road extends from the James Bay Road northeastward for 666 demonic kilometres (414 miles) to the 55th parallel where it...dead ends. No town there, nor really any connections along the way. Dead end into nothing. The eastern terminus is the farthest point from any town (745 km (463 mi) from Radisson) via road in all of North America. (The eastern terminus is "relatively" close if you consider 190 km (120 mi) to be "close" to the community of Schefferville, but there is no road between the two, ATVs can't negotiate the terrain, and a flight would set you back about $2,500!)

The services along this road are pretty much non-existent. There's a couple of outdoorsy outfitters along the way that can sell you food/gas/lodging...if they're open. There are a few company towns for all the hydroelectric business up this way...but they're not open to the public and off the main road by several kilometres. (I'm sure if you were utterly desperate or dying, they'd do something for you. But I wouldn't want to get to that point to find out.)

And these dams are the reason why any of these three roads exist. These giant hydroelectric projects were built by the government of Quebec starting in the 1970's and provide a lot of power to Eastern Canada--and the Northeastern United States. These roads simply exist to service these dams and the communities they have created. There is also some logging operations along it.

So a lot of this area can't be considered unspoiled any more, with all this damming business. Much  of the Rupert River, which the James Bay Road crosses, has been diverted to lakes for hydro purposes in 2009, as this story from NPR/PRI's The World points out. (The biggest irony is this story only came out on March 20th, just as I was starting to formulate this blog entry!) The Rupert River was possibly the last free-flowing river in this part of Quebec. No more.
Rupert River at Route du Nord. Wikipedia/p199
Neighboring Labrador is also feeling the hydroelectric pinch, as evidenced in another recent (March 21) story from The World.

Anyways, riding in this part of the world would definitely be a challenge, to put it lightly. It is an area bereft of pretty much any services. The only thing that is plentiful is water. My touring bike would need to be solid and dependable, possibly completely overhauled and upgraded before departing. I would have to have quite the tool and parts supply, and knowledge to do pretty much any type of repair. But the biggest challenge would be food. I'd be going hundreds of kilometres without seeing any stores. I would need to carry more food than I would even think I would need, in case I got stranded somewhere.

Now I don't think I may ever do a tour here, but it's nice to think about what it's like. But folks have bike toured this area, and are doing it every year. For a good read, check out this journal on Crazy Guy on a Bike. His tour hasn't started yet, but I really dig his thought/planning process. And not only will he be hitting up all the roads above mentioned, but he'll also cross the Trans-Labrador Highway as well. Adventure! It will be fun to check in after he completes the tour.

Do you have any "Out There" tours you'd like to do at some point?

*Nunavut is larger, but it's a territory, not a province.


  1. I admit I've had a long-time fascination with taiga/boreal forests, just the idea of the great expanses of the rural north. Here are my main concerns:

    If you get hurt, what are you going to do?

    Having to carry so much food



    Yeah. Not happening.

  3. Yeah, I like the IDEA of a remote tour, but as I read your post all I could think about was the clouds of mosquitoes. Billions of blood sucking insects all wanting your blood.

    1. While in a gift shop at Glacier last year, I was reading a book with information about mosquitoes. And according to said book, if you were to go outside naked on a summer day in some parts of the Yukon, you would die of blood loss within a couple of hours from the mosquitoes.

      I realize that Yukon =/= Quebec, but still.

      And considering that when surrounded by mosquitoes in swarms I have the tendency to run around screaming trying to get away from them even when I know it's futile.... I'm getting the jibblies just thinking about it.

  4. Re: Mosquitos: I think you need to switch out your blood for straight DEET for a trip like this.


    And yeah, it's pretty slim that I'd ever do a tour like this. Falls more under the category of "armchair touring."

  5. Other than the "how to carry all the food" question, this sounds wonderful. I've dealt with black flies and they are nowhere near as annoying as some of the people I've had to deal with this week. :grump:

  6. I bicycle toured in a semi-remote, forested region in east-central Saskatchewan:

    It was a great experience, perhaps all the more so because I didn't really know what I was doing (low expectations) and the trip came off as a success.

    Bugs were generally bad in the evenings, but can be reasonable during the day, especially in August. I've only been in “the north” in late July and early August and have yet to be bitten by a black fly. It helps to avoid muskeg areas, northern Sask is Canadian Shield which cuts down a lot on bugs. On the other hand, bugs don't usually show up in photos, so it's easy to forget reality.

    There are roads in Northern Saskatchewan that are quite remote (and not as far from Portland), although I would rather take a canoe than a bike if I'm traveling that far. If you toured it by bike though, I'd be jealous and want to cycle it too.

  7. Hello
    I did the James Bay road with my Surly Big Dummy in the summer of 2011. I strongl encourage you to do it.I have images of it on Picasa where my name is Ange urbain
    I would like to hear form you about that.
    Mosquitoes are terribles but you will survive to them...

    1. Hello Daniel- Cool! Looks nice. Maybe I'll do it someday...

    2. the James bay road and the north road are not as hard as it would seem and as for the mosquitoes, black flies and deer flies, you learn to live with. Having been on the James bay twice and on the north road once, the beauty, solitude, scents, all the animals you meet along the way outweigh the small hardships of that particular trip...I will be returning in September on the North of my trips on picasa...michel bayard (brooklyn)

  8. If you want to see photos of my journey on the James bay road you go at : Picasa web album ange urbain scrapbook photo
    It is good to have bike touring dreams...

  9. I've been enjoying reading Bill's journal over the past several months at coffee breaks, thanks to the tip on your blog. He's added entries beyond August now.

    "I think you need to switch out your blood for straight DEET for a trip like this."

    Your above comment about DEET was eerily prophetic considering Bill's DEET situation! He basically discovered what happens when you have too much DEET in the bloodstream.


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