Plein Nord: an unfinished adventure

by Simon-Pierre Goneau

I’m a daydreamer. I live part-time in my head, disconnected from the world around me. I have many ideas, some good and some bad… mostly bad ones. On average, my ideas last for a few seconds before being swept away by the flow of my thoughts. Believe me, it’s best this way, given all the stupid things that go through my mind. A few ideas on the other hand, good and not so good, anchor into the abyss of my neurons and withstand the storms raging in my head. While I was still in my thirties, I had one of those kinda silly ideas. A brain fart, as I often say with a hint of humor. It has become firmly anchored to the point of becoming a dream, not to say an obsession: to make, by bike, the first integral crossing of Quebec in the north-south axis. As simple as it sounds, it took me almost 12 years to put the pieces of the puzzle together and have enough confidence to dare to take on the project. The reason is simple, the road is only halfway there. The other half has to be improvised through the taiga and tundra of northern Quebec.

On February 15, 2020, after years of imagining this adventure, I finally left the terminal marking the southernmost point of Quebec. Alone on my fat bike loaded with nearly 100 pounds of equipment, I have 1,500 km of road in front of me to the village of Chisasibi, then 1,300 km on the ice floes and the coast of Hudson Bay before reaching the northernmost point of Quebec. A huge challenge, even surreal, that I intend to complete in 10 to 12 weeks. Despite intense months of preparation, planning and training, it is only with the first pedal strokes that I realize the full extent of the project in which I have invested myself.

The first days pass without a major incident. Valleyfield, Oka, Lachute, Mont-Tremblant, Mont-Laurier … I quickly and happily completed the first 250 km… I finally made my dream come true. Despite some fears, my cohabitation with road traffic is going well. I implement all possible initiatives to keep a safe distance from vehicles, even if it means stopping and pulling into the snowbank when the shoulder is not safe. These frequent stops slow me down, but I can’t leave the responsibility of keeping me safe to others. The only unforeseen event is the weather. It is shaping up to be warmer than normal for this time of year. The mild temperature and the sun melt the snow on the pavement and everything from my gear to my clothing is covered with a layer of calcium. The transmission of the bicycle suffers in particular. The latter resonates like a mill, crushing the grains of salt that are thrown into it. Despite frequent cleaning (including one in a car wash), a chain replacement becomes essential after the first week only.

On the fourth day, a slight skin irritation begins to be felt where my butt touches the saddle. I have just started my crossing of La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve and, driven by adrenaline and the joy of being on the bike, I convince myself that it is nothing very serious… I have already had such symptoms and I always recover quickly. So I walk forward with my head down despite the discomfort. The following days will prove to me how wrong I was… It is with infected wounds and excruciating pain that I join Val d’Or where I force myself to take a day off. I take this opportunity to get an antibiotic cream, a new saddle and work on my position on the bike.
With less intense, but still present pain I somehow reach Matagami, where the James Bay Road (JBR) begins on February 24. Arriving there, I am relieved to learn that a 10 inch storm with strong winds and blowing snow is forecast for the next three days. Indeed, this forced truce will be the perfect opportunity to heal my posterior before continuing my journey on this isolated road where few vehicles circulate compared to the roads in the south.
As cyclists are rare in winter on this portion of the territory, I quickly get noticed by regulars of the JBR. The Crees, who use the latter to travel between communities, seem to make a lot of my presence and spread the word on social networks. Overnight, I get the horns of encouragement and thumbs up. Vehicles slow down for safety and children roll down their windows to greet me. Many stop to make sure I’m okay, find out about my plans, or just to chat a bit. I am generously offered to drink, to eat … I, who thought I was living my first moments of isolation here, all this attention gives me energy that exceeds the calories contained in my daily menu.
It will take me 7 days to cover the 686 km that separate Matagami from the Cree community of Chisasibi, on the shores of James Bay. I arrived there on March 5, happy to finally conclude the road portion of my journey. Having become the sensation of the moment in spite of myself, a small welcoming committee welcomes me at the entrance to the village. I’m invited to community radio and the local newspaper wants to write about me. Teachers offer me to meet the students of primary and secondary schools. Driven by the enthusiasm that surrounds me, I respond to these requests and benefit from the experience.
I almost forget that I’m only halfway through my adventure. Before going any further, however, I must obtain as much information as possible from the elders of the community, who know this territory better than anyone. I was quickly made to understand that my project was greeted by some with skepticism. It is considered unnecessary and risky for a stranger to want to travel this land alone, by bike and during the winter, for me and for those who would have to assist me in case of need. These concerns have earned me a summons to the Head of the community where members of the local first responders are also present. However, I am not offended by this initiative, quite the contrary. In my view, this process is an extension of the generosity and sense of community that are at the heart of Cree culture. Attentive and understanding in the face of their concerns, I share my experience and my preparation with them. I explain my project to them, my motivations. I have children, responsibilities and a life to live. I repeat to whoever wants to hear it: I am not here to be a daredevil. If the situation requires it, I will make the necessary decisions to ensure my safety and the safety of others, and I make it a point of honor. Mutual trust eventually sets in.
I must admit that this is all facilitated by the unconditional support I have from an influential member of the community. We met on social media during my preparation and barely know each other, but she believes in me and my project. Thanks to her and her family members, I get a lot of information about the terrain, the wildlife and the conditions to anticipate. These conditions, I am often told, have changed a lot in recent years. Some rivers only partially freeze, others not at all. The snow is also softer than it used to be. I finally understand that this unpredictability imposed by Mother Nature is the source of my many concerns. People in the community, even with experience in the field, have recently paid with their lives.
I resume my journey after a few days in Chisasibi. My equipment is no longer the same. My sled has replaced the saddlebags while I swap my helmet for a gun, which will come in handy in the event of an encounter with a polar bear. I approach a snowmobile trail that makes its way along James Bay. This covers the first 85 kilometers and should allow me to quickly and safely reach Hudson’s Bay, 115 km further north. After only a few kilometers on the bay, when a squall of snow momentarily reduces visibility, I turn away without realizing it onto a secondary path. Finding myself too far east at the end of the day, I was forced to cut westward between the islands of the bay for 7 km in order to get back on the right track. This little off-trail ride gives me a first glimpse of the conditions that await me in a few days. I had been warned, the snow is not as hard as it used to be. It will take me 4 hours to cover these 7 km … a pace slower than my most pessimistic forecasts.
The day ends as usual on the satellite phone, with the daily call to my family. As I talk to my boy, he bursts into tears. I am unable to comfort him. After a while, my wife gently takes the phone away from him and tries to reassure me that he misses me, that’s all. I miss him too. Although this is not the first demonstration of sadness in our daily exchanges, this one deeply saddens me.
When I wake up the next morning, the thermometer reads -30 ° C. At least the sun is there. Today, wildlife is more and more present: ptarmigan, hares, traces of moose, lynx and wolf. The landscape changes with each pedal stroke: I cross large expanses of frozen water, I travel through some woods… I even make foray into the territory of Nunavut. Indeed, all the islands along the coast of Quebec on James Bay and Hudson Bay are part of it. The trail is a little softer than the day before, but my 37 km progress is still encouraging.
This evening, I dread my call home for the first time. I don’t want this one to end the same way it did yesterday. This time, however, emotions aren’t what grab my attention. Rather, it’s my daughter who tells me about closed schools, packed grocery baskets and a shortage of toilet paper. When I finally talk to my partner, I learn about the isolation measures and the upheavals that lie ahead in the weeks to come.
I pulled myself together and began my third day off-road. My state of mind is messed up, of course, I tell myself that this is a temporary mindset and that eventually everything will work out. From the top of a hill, I can see Cape Jones and its installations dating from the Cold War in the distance. Hudson’s Bay is right there, I can almost smell it. With incredible effort, I managed to cover 32 km before the end of the day. The snowmobile trail I have been using for the past three days stops right in front of me. From now on, I’ll have to make my own mark.
With twilight comes the time to take stock. I have 130 km left before reaching Kuujjuarapik and 9 days of food. I’ve spent my day figuring out and recalculating how many kilometers I expect to cover in the next few days, but the equation doesn’t balance. Those 7 km off trail in 4 hours two days earlier are now a parameter that I cannot ignore. Based on that, I can’t hope to do better than 15 or 20 km per day from here, not counting the forecast for the next two days, where winds of 70 km/h are expected from the northern sector. Doubt sets in: am I able to cover the distance with the food I have? Since Chisasibi, my biggest fear now is to be forced to seek help from local communities. I fear that such a request will be seen as a cry for help.
At the end of the day, you have to know how to trust your instincts. Mine tells me that continuing is not the wisest decision. Turning back is never easy and in this case I know that it will take a long time to come to terms with the aftertaste of abandonment. I, who undertake this adventure in the name of perseverance … the threat is not imminent, however. I have no shortage of food yet, no one in my family is sick, and boredom has never killed anyone.
The next day, however, I take my courage in both hands and point my bike in the opposite direction. The strong winds announced now being favorable to me, I retrace my steps in two days rather than three. These two days of retreating help me to digest the situation and find inner peace.
My adventure is drawing to a close and the last hours, filled with emotion and admiration for this landscape that I will not see again soon, will remain etched in my memory as the most beautiful moment of the expedition.
I have often been told that there is no podium or medal at the end of an adventure. It’s the encounters we make, the anecdotes we experience and the landscapes we see that are the real rewards. Adventure is not a competition, of course, but there is always a winner.
I’m back home after more than a month on the road, nostalgic but happy to be with my loved ones. My luggage is barely on the ground, I have already started dreaming again. A somewhat stupid idea has already taken hold in my mind: to cross Quebec by bike from south to north.