So far north that OnStar couldn’t find us

From Toronto, drive to North Bay, then north again to Matagami (where the map ends), and then north yet again for 400 more miles. That’s where we were

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Not only were we so far north the OnStar system couldn’t find the pre-production Cadillac SUV, but we were also 500 feet underground in a Hydro Quebec power plant | Larry Edsall photos

Call it fate, irony, or even the Hand of God, but in 1997 I had planned to drive as close to Hudson Bay as was possible. I’d selected that destination because it was one of the few places in North America that my father had not driven.

Dad, now 88 and his health in decline, was certainly not what we’d consider a “car guy.” But he loved to drive, and between family vacations when my brother and I were young to trips he took with my Mom later in life, I think he drove in all of the contiguous U.S. states and in every Canadian province, missing only the three territories of Canada’s far north. 

As it turned out, you don’t drive to Hudson Bay, but you can drive to James Bay, its southern appendage. Anticipating the challenge, I’d made arrangements with Land Rover to do my drive in one of its new Discovery vehicles.  

It was just a day or two before the drive was to begin that I received an apologetic phone call from Land Rover, informing me that the ship from England had been delayed and the new 4x4’s delivery to the AutoWeek magazine office in Detroit would occur a day later than expected.

That day’s delay turned out to be a blessing. Instead of driving north in the Discovery, we did a drive to Florida. Dad died the day I was supposed to head to Hudson’s Bay. In the days before I went everywhere with a cell phone in my pocket, I might not have learned that news for several days. As it was, I was there for his wake and funeral service. 

The Cadillac Escalade atop the dam

A year later, I wrote, “Even OnStar can’t find us,” when I finally did that drive north, with my Mom riding along. Instead of the new Land Rover Discovery, we were in a Cadillac Escalade, a new vehicle not yet available at Cadillac dealerships. This was a pre-production example the company was loaning out to the buff books to do their early driving impressions.

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The big, white SUV certainly made an impression on our drive. The first morning, we were stopped for breakfast when an older woman diner saw the SUV, noting that she had a DeVille and had just received a brochure about the new Escalade. Not long after we’d crossed into Cadillac, a local Lincoln dealer asked if he might take a look at our vehicle. 

A few hundred miles to the north, the Caddy earned us a special treat, but we’ll get to that later in this article.

You can’t drive — or at least you couldn’t in 1998 — to Hudson Bay. But to provide electric power to such cities as Montreal, Hydro Quebec had established a major hydro-electric-generating station on La Grande River near what had been a wilderness outpost established in 1672 by French explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson. The power company built a town as well as the dams, and named the settlement for the early French explorer. 

There’s one place on the James Bay Highway to stop and refuel
Spillway is a granite stairway that stretches 2 kilometers

To build the power plants and the company town, the power company also built the James Bay Highway, which is wide and strong enough to support flatbed trucks carry 300,000-pounds of turbine parts and which winds its way 400 miles north from Matagami, which itself is several hundred miles north of North Bay, which is a couple hundred miles north of Toronto.

Ask someone in Matagami where they live and the answer is “Two inches above the map.”

Technically, the James Bay Highway is a private road, and it wasn’t opened to the public until 1986. However, “opened” meant you had to register your drive at a guardhouse, inform the staff when you expected to return, and become informed of the rules of the road, including news that that there was just one filling station located beyond the midpoint, and while the gas would be expensive, you didn’t want to risk running dry in what was still very much Canadian wilderness.

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When Jacques Cartier visited the area in the 16th century, he wrote that it was “the land that God gave to Cain.” Until the mid-1970s, the only way to visit was by boat or aircraft.

Between Matagami and Radisson, the highway crosses a dozen rivers, rivers raging with spectacular rapids.  We didn’t see any of the caribou herds, but we saw moose and enough bears to convince us that running out of gas was not an option. On the way north, we noticed a lack of traffic. On the way back, we counted — 8 vehicles, or about 1 every 50 miles.

While in Radisson, we drove 100 kilometers to the west, to Chisasibi, a Cree village on James Bay. There, we learned about the walking-out ceremony and why the poles of the tepees are left up year round. We also met a native family preparing to launch their boats into the Bay for their annual goose hunt. Before the highway was built, such hunts provided food to get the families through the bitterly cold winter months. 

Cree family heads out onto James Bay for annual goose hunt

Back in Radisson, I’d made arrangements to tour the LG-2 power station. The station’s features include a spillway that descends like a spectacular, carved-in-granite stairway over a span of 2 miles. The tour also includes a visit to the power station, also dug into solid granite and some 500 feet below the town.

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When we arrived, the Hydro Quebec host saw the Escalade and suggested that we take it rather than his tour vehicle down into the station. 

Did you know that when driving in such tunnels, the rule of the road is keep to the left? The reason: Even when it becomes so foggy from condensation that you can’t see what’s in front of you, the driver can at least roll down the window and, in some cases, literally feel the way by reaching out to touch the tunnel wall.

Car brand, Quebec city share name of French explorer

As my Mom had learned in all those trips with my Dad, the road less traveled can be more fun to travel.

It was also on that trip that I learned something about my Mom. As we left my home to start out, my Mom asked how we were going to handle expenses. I’m paying, I said. No, you are not, she responded. 

At this point you need to know that Mom had been a Navy nurse who during the war had been stationed at a hospital in England when V2 rockets were falling each night. When she was bound and determined, well, we came to a compromise. I’d pay for gas. On Day 1, I’d pay for meals and she’d pay for a motel, and we’d reverse roles on subsequent days. It will balance out, I assured her.

Trip over, back at my house, she handed me a check, as I remember it for less than $200. I asked what the check was for. She pulled out a notebook in which she had kept track of all of our expenses and who had paid for what and the check represented what she owed me. 

The check was never cashed, and the memories of that trip remain cherished.

A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Very cool story. Yes travelling roads less traveled can be a lot of fun and very interesting as you get to see a lot you would not see if you are on a busy highway. Northern Ontario has a lot to offer in the way of scenery and wildlife.

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