North Road

Friday, September 7

5 James Bay Road berm

Today I began the return portion of my trip, always a bit of a bummer. The ride today was cold and rainy – it stayed at 50 degrees all day, and rained enough to keep the road wet all the time. It didn’t seem particularly fun at the time, but looking back on it I’d rate the day as about an 8. I got out my new pin-lock fog-free attachment for my helmet visor which kept it nice and clear. I also found the 3-finger waterproof over-gloves from Aerostitch kept my leather gloves nice and dry.

5 Cree sign

I wasn’t able to read the signs at the road-sides! The writing on the right-hand side is in Cree syllabic text. The writing system was developed by Methodist missionaries in the 1840s and used to translate religious texts. Over the last several generations many Cree lost their ability to write syllabic because their schools were taught in English or French. Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in teaching syllabic, and it is now being taught in the schools.

5 James Bay map

This map at the rest stop shows the James Bay road all the way from Matagamie at the bottom to Radisson at the top. The road is built 50-60 miles inland; side roads to the various Cree communities were added later. The long road at the top going east from Radisson is the Trans-Tiaga. About halfway down the map is the turn-off to the shortcut to Nemaska, shown close up in the photo below.

5 Nemaska shortcut

I learned about the shortcut from riders I met at the Radisson hotel. I had never seen it on a map, but here it was! It branches off at km-394 and goes west and then south through areas that have a lot of power lines from the dams up north. Five power lines, represented by the dashed lines, converge at the Namiscau station. These roads were fairly heavily traveled today (by comparison with the James Bay Road) by work crews with Hydro Quebec.

5 Nemascus shortcut scenery 2

When I turned onto the shortcut it was raining fairly hard, enough to make it difficult to see because my shield was covered in droplets, and my glasses were fogging up on the inside. I had a few pucker moments on the gravel until I adjusted to the feel of the wet gravel road and relaxed enough to let the bike go where it wanted. Within an hour it began to clear, creating some beautiful cloud formations.

5 Nemascus shortcut scenery 3

The scenery along the shortcut road which is built on mostly level lowland terrain was prettier than that he James Bay Road, . Further inland the terrain became more varied including some hills and outcroppings. I was happy to see the sky really clearing, at least for a while.

bear highway   bear gravel road

I saw two bears today, one on the James Bay Road and one on the shortcut to Nemaska. Both were standing in the middle of the road and when they saw me they scampered off into the woods. They must have known I had bear spray along! Both appeared to be young bears.

5 Cree wedding

When I got to Nemaska, my stop for the night, I found a Cree wedding party down by the lake taking photos. Nemaska is situated along a particularly beautiful lake, Champion Lake. Nemaska is the seat of the Grand Council of the Crees and Cree Regional Authority, and my motel room was in the same building as the government offices.

5 supper

When I got to my motel the manager explained the restaurant was closed because all of his staff were at the wedding. So I bought a few more snack items at the gas station and set out my dinner for the evening. Most of the important food groups were represented (veggies – salsa, sausage sticks, fruit, nuts, chips, candy, muffins, soda and booze).

5 motel manager

Jasmine, the manager of the motel, was most accommodating. He offered to make me breakfast in the morning even though the restaurant would still be closed (wedding party will be sleeping). He also recommended I bring my motorcycle inside the building so it wouldn’t tempt the local kids (and drunken wedding party) to create some mischief.

5 indoor parking

So my bike is resting comfortably in the motel lobby. I didn’t actually ride on the North Route today, since I took the shortcut. Tomorrow I’ll have about 200 miles of gravel to get to Chibougamau, where I’ll be staying for the evening, and from there it will be paved all the way home.

Saturday, September 8

6 sand gravel road

I spent the entire day today on the North Road, riding from Nemaska to Chibougamu. It rained off and on the entire day, which didn’t make too much difference since the road was a sand and gravel mix. Even the hard pack tracks weren’t really hard packed. You can see here that the side stand is sinking in pretty good, and the front tire dug in when I braked to stop. I thought I might lose it at times, but it never happened.

6 view from north road

I saw a lot of vistas like this on the North Road. Very pretty and more varied and scenic than the James Bay Road. If you look closely you can see the power lines stretching across just above the horizon.

6 power lines

Just a little further on the powerlines became much more evident. You can find interesting information on Wikipedia about the innovations developed by Hydro Quebec using ultra high voltage transmission lines and designing pylons that minimized the amount of steel used. These are the power lines that collapsed under the weight of the 1998 ice storm causing a power outage lasting several weeks in a large region of southern Quebec province and New York State.

6 Rupert River

The Rupert River again, this time further to the east. As all the rivers in this area it flows to the west, emptying into James Bay.

6 Gilles

I stopped for a pee break, and then decided to have some snacks. This trucker stopped to see if I was alright. Gilles was his name. He was very eager to practice his English, and once he learned my intended route he went to great lengths (must have been 45 minutes!) trying to explain a shortcut I could take over logging roads. I wasn’t getting it, and when it started to rain he invited me into his truck where he proceeded to write down the directions. It was getting almost comical until I began to get impatient and finally said I had to get going…

6 directions

Two of the five pages of directions from Gilles…  I decided to stick with my original route that was on the map!

6 extra gas

I spent most of the day today in 3rd and 4th gear, and as a result my mileage went down. It was a good thing I had my gas can full because I needed it here! If you look closely you can see all the fine sand the bike picked up during the ride today. It was even on my clothes, including my jacket. What a mess!

I enjoyed riding the North Road. The scenery was quite different than that along the James Bay Road, which is closer to shoreline. I also got a lot of satisfaction from riding the gravel, increasing my confidence for doing the Trans-Labrador Highway next year. Riding roads like these makes it more of an adventure, taking you places you couldn’t get to if you stayed on the paved roads.


Five things I learned today about riding gravel roads.

  1. Stand on the pegs, with knees slightly bent. This dramatically lowers the center of gravity since your weight is now on the pegs rather than the seat, plus your weight is sprung letting the bike move around underneath you. Even putting your weight on the pegs while seated makes a big difference.
  2. Let the bike find its own way. Keep a relaxed grip on the handlebars and do NOT attempt to steer it with the bars. The geometry of the bike coupled with the gyroscopic effect of the turning wheels causes the bike to stay upright on its own and move forward in a straight line. When you find your grip getting tight, relax!
  3. Use your feet to steer the bike, putting weight on the side you wish to move toward. This leans the bike rather than turns the front wheel, which is a big no-no. Turning the wheel too much when traction is iffy risks losing traction altogether and down you go.
  4. Faster is better than slower. It’s like when a boat planes the water – it goes over the water, not through it. As the bike goes faster in sand and soft gravel it increasingly moves over the top rather than plowing into the road bed, as can be seen in the photo above. I found that 40-50 mph was about right today.
  5. Look far ahead to pick your line. Looking at the road too closely in front of the bike makes you want to steer the bike when you shouldn’t be worrying about that. The bike will go where you look. 

Synopsis: The bike responds very differently when riding loose surface roads as compared with paved roads. On paved roads the bike feels steady, and sudden sideways or searching movement means you are losing traction and are about to crash. On loose surface roads, however, the bike NEEDS to be free to move around on its own to accommodate the surface of the road. It feels a lot different. I find that after a few minutes on the gravel I get de-sensitized to the squirrelyness and become more relaxed, and things begin to fall into place. You have to learn to trust your bike!