DEAD RIGHT THERE - James Bay Road, northern Quebec
This is a cautionary tale of personal incompetence, good fortune, endurance, isolation and the kindness of strangers.
Let me set the scene. Over the last few years I have been using my 1972 Moto Guzzi Eldorado for increasingly long trips to the middle of nowhere. If you are interested, you can read about some of them on my web site (www.adamsheritage.info). This year, I decided it was time to tackle the Trans-Taiga Road (http://jamesbayroad.com/ttr/index.html) - a 600+ kilometre gravel road into the centre of northern Quebec.
40 year old bike, aged rider, thousands of kilometres of virtually unserviced empty road in the middle of bear, wolf and blackfly infested wilderness - what could possibly go wrong?
The Trans-Taiga Road branches east from the James Bay Road (http://jamesbayroad.com/jbr/index.html ) about 80 kilometres south of Radisson, but to get there you first have to ride most of the James Bay Road. I won’t bore you with the technical details here, since you can read about it on the web site link above, but let’s just say, it’s a long way.
My journey started just north of Kingston, Ontario, through Perth and Calabogie, crossing the Ottawa River into Quebec at Portage du Fort, just north of Renfrew. From there, it’s a pleasant ride through the wooded hills and lakes of the Pontiac District to Maniwaki.
Covered bridge south of Maniwaki
Could this be an Omen?
As always, at the start of one of these journeys, I’m tuned in to the bike, listening for any rattles or knocks which might spell trouble. I had adjusted the valves the night before I left, and if the ticking from the upper end of the motor sounded a trifle louder than usual, I put it down to the generous clearances stipulated in the manual. Old Guzzis have loud valves - that’s just the way it is when your jugs are hanging out in the air on either side of the gas tank. I like to hear them while I’m riding - like the constant chirping of crickets. As long as you can hear that mechanical cacophony, all is right in the world. What I didn’t know at that time was that the slightly heightened chirping was caused by a loose generator mount, adding its own vibratory message to the chorus.
Beyond Maniwaki you join Quebec Highway 117 heading through the Réserve faunique La Vérendrye (La Vérendrye Park) for the best part of 250 kilometres until Val D’Or. This is the most scenic portion of the journey, the road winds between granite hills, past massive lakes and moose pasture. Although it is a well travelled, nicely paved route, there are few services and one starts to get a sense of the vastness of Quebec.
Lake - Didn't record its name - there's lots of them....
The Eldorado was running well, maintaining a steady 60mph (indicated 70, courtesy Veglia Instruments) at a comfortable 3500 rpm. Other than stopping occasionally to add gas or check the oil, it was just a case of droning along in the sunshine. I like droning. It becomes a meditative state where the lizard brain takes over the mundane stuff of keeping the bike between the gravel shoulder and the centre line, while the other parts go off to some other place. Don’t ask me what I think about on long rides - everything, and nothing.
I spent the first night in Amos, settling down in a motel with a few beers and some nasty orange corn chips - the kind that old married guys like to indulge themselves with when they are out of reach of their more health conscious spouses.
stay tuned for more...........
Its about 200 kilometres between Amos and Matagami and the start of the James Bay Road. I’ve ridden that stretch before, but for some reason this time it seemed interminable and I just wasn’t reaching my ‘Zen’ state. The kilometre marker posts seemed to crawl by and time itself seemed to have slowed down.
You would think that 200 kilometres of road flanked by forest extending endlessly to either side would give one a sense of being ‘out there’, but the real ride doesn’t start until you are past Matagami. The little town is about a kilometre off the main road, but bypass it at your peril - the next gas pump (and little else), is 381 kilometres to the north.
Needless to say, I topped off with gas, checked my oil, then rode the 6 kilometres to the checkpoint where you register your trip.
From this point on, there are no services, only a handful of (often uninhabited) First Nations cabins, usually tucked in the forest just off the road.
I derive a perverse pleasure heading out on to an empty road. I’m not sure why. I am conscious of the dangers. Misjudge a single corner or fall asleep in the saddle and you could fly off into the bush or swamp, leaving virtually no trace that you’d gone that way. You and your bike could simply never be found. Stop, and within a few moments hordes of blackflies descend. Its not wolves and bears you have to fear out here - it’s the blackflies that will tear you to pieces. The emergency phone installations only serve to remind you just how remote it is. It can be hours between vehicles.
Unmanned emergency phones
The landscape has a subtle charm. There are no outstanding features - indeed, featurelessness is one of its defining characteristics. At first it just seems as though you are riding through an endless tunnel of trees, but the further north you go, the trees get smaller and the bones of the landscape become more apparent. Here and there a bit of bedrock will be visible between the stunted spruce, or perhaps an area of bog. Occasionally you can get a glimpse of the true immensity of the landscape - it just seems to roll on forever. The road is a thin line across this enormous terrain.
Stunted spruce, bedrock and bog stretching to any horizon
Apart from what was in my mostly full tank, I was carrying an extra 20 litres of gas. Contrary to expectations, the weight of the gas on the rear rack had almost no perceptible affect on the Guzzis razor sharp handling characteristics. It wallowed through the corners a fraction more, perhaps, but not enough to be worrisome. So when I reached where the Trans-Taiga Road meets the James Bay Road at mid afternoon, I had more than enough gas to make the first leg of that journey.
But I dithered. Was it a premonition or just cowardice? I rode up the road for about 200 metres. The gravel was loose and dry, but neither better nor worse than roads I have ridden hundreds of kilometres on before. I turned around and decided to have one more night of luxury in a motel in Radisson, before setting out in earnest.
Twenty kilometres later, the Eldorado was DRT (Dead Right There) at the side of the road, out of cell range, with oil gushing from a broken feed line.
I'm almost embarrassed to add this video, in the light of what happened, but heck, I did say it a cautionary tale about personal incompetence.
I was stranded about 60 kilometres south of Radisson; pushing the bike was out of the question, so I set about preparing myself. First things first - I rooted my bug net out of my tank bag. The little bleeders (and I use that term quite accurately) had already descended and were starting to rip holes in my flesh. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of encountering blackflies - I do not exaggerate. They land, bite a little piece of flesh invariably drawing blood, leaving their nasty toxins in the wound. Individually they are a minor irritation, but they descend in the thousands. My tank bag contained all the portable stuff, such as my cameras, phone and wallet, and I had barely pulled it off the bike when I heard a vehicle approaching.
The instant my thumb was in the air, the driver jammed on the brakes. I didn’t catch the gentleman’s name - let’s call him Pierre - but Pierre had immediately read the signals, and, well, you just can’t go past someone in distress on these roads. Within moments I was in the cab, negotiating a mutually intelligible language, and we were back up to Pierre’s normal cruising speed of 140+kph. We settled on English, since my French only extends to a few words, whereas despite his protestations to the contrary, Pierre’s English was fully functional. I could tell it was going to be a terrifying journey in either official language.
One thing you have to understand about the James Bay Road is the frost heaves. It was well built 30 years ago but has received little attention since. Every so often, very often, there are enormous frost heaves which extend right across the road and rise abruptly up to 6 inches or more from the surrounding pavement. Ironically they are relatively easy to manage on a bike but transport trucks, and as I was to find out, pickup trucks, are thrown around vigorously. And of course, the heaves always seem to be worst on the bends, especially when Pierre’s truck was already almost on two wheels and he was fiddling with his darn cell phone trying to find some reception. He must have been in control, but there were plenty of times I imagined us barrel rolling into the muskeg as the truck shook like a dog with a rat.
By the time we reached the edge of Radisson, Pierre had found a signal, called the local garage and we had been instructed to call CAA (Canadian Automobile Association), who would then call them back and authorize a tow truck. I had barely finished talking to CAA as we pulled in to the garage. It doesn’t take long to cover 60 kilometres when there is zero traffic and a maniac at the wheel.
The folks at the garage were equally helpful. Within a few minutes I had met my driver, let’s call him Etienne, pulled myself into the cab of the flatbed, and was heading back up the road. I had been worried about leaving my bike at the side of the road but I needn’t have - it was untouched on our return. Etienne and I loaded the bike, strapping it down with some monster straps. I’d thought the journey in Pierre’s truck had been bumpy, but it was nothing compared to the shaking and pounding we endured in the tow truck. Fortunately the bike didn’t move an inch. It was as if it was welded to the bed.
Once I’d checked in to the motel, I set about stripping the bike. If there’s one thing I am reasonably smart about, its making sure I have all the tools necessary to do most stuff on the road. I know which wrenches I need for each part of the disassembly and have become quite quick at it. With the tank and seat removed, the problem was obvious: the generator had been able to vibrate enough that a) the front stay had snapped, and b) the mounting bracket had been touching the oil line where it passes though a hole in the bracket. It had partially worn through the line, but more importantly, had been vibrating against it, causing the pipe to crack.
Here’s the confession part - I knew when I installed the alternator (replacing the original generator) I had done a lousy job of securing the main bolts that hold the bracket to the motor. Over the years the threads had become warn and were subject to loosening (the same had happened on the Trans-Labrador trip). I just hadn’t done a proper, permanent fix when I had replaced the generator with the alternator. Mea Culpa! Will I never learn that half measures don’t work?
Now, what to do about the split pipe? No Guzzi dealer in Radisson! I know - what about JB Weld?
As Pierre had humorously informed me, Radisson doesn’t have a Rona, a Home Hardware, a MacDonalds or much of anything else for that matter. It’s a Hydro Quebec company town with limited services and facilities.
Street view - Radisson
Imagine my shock then, when I found a hardware section (about 5 feet wide) in the general store and there, hanging on the panel, was JB Weld. I overcame my natural parsimony when I saw that the asking price was $15.99, with my unfounded conviction that here, indeed, could be the solution to my dilemma. Never mind that I have never once managed to do a successful JB Weld repair to anything - I guess I’m just serially optimistic. This time, I counselled myself, I will actually follow the instructions on the package, and do it right! The alternatives didn’t even bear considering.
Back at the motel, I cleaned the oil from the fractured line by dunking it the gas container on the back of the bike. I gave it a moment to dry off then went inside. By carefully reading the instructions, I learned that multiple thin coats are best, and that curing time could be accelerated with heat. It was 9pm. when I applied the first coat then hung it below the bathroom light fixture to cure. I applied a second coat at 3am. giving it a bit of encouragement with a hair dryer before hanging it up again.
Oil line repair (a bit out of focus but you get the idea)
The metal pipe was encouragingly warm when I checked it in the morning, and the JB Weld I had applied had become dry and no longer tacky. Still, not wanting to rush anything, I went for breakfast where my pathetic attempts to order oeufs and jambon were interpreted as eggs with jam-on until we got the language thing sorted out again.
I had noticed that the garage carried a few bits of automotive hardware so thought I would see what I could substitute for the broken front bracket. I also needed some oil to replace the stuff I’d spilled all over my pristine engine cases. The fellow behind the counter, I didn’t get his name so let’s call him Jacques, said that he didn’t have anything that would work, but perhaps his mechanic could make a replica? It turned out that his mechanic was Etienne - the flatbed driver - who was also his dad! I love the way small towns work.
It took Etienne less than half an hour to re-manufacture the bracket and I walked out of there clutching my new Guzzi part and three litres of 20/50. Life is good.
Back at the motel, the motelier (what do you actually call someone that runs a motel?) said that there was no need for me to rush the bike or to vacate the room - she wasn’t in any hurry. I double checked the oil line and carefully reassembled everything before gingerly starting the bike. My Eldo has a gloriously slow and regular idle, so I let it burble away while I looked for any signs of leakage. Damn. Almost immediately oil started pouring out - but not from the ‘fix’, but from the banjo bolt on the right cylinder head which I had forgotten to tighten properly. OK, let’s try again.
This time the bike started, with no signs of oil escaping from unwarranted locations. Even the worn out alternator belt (the shaking of the alternator had ground off all the rubber blocks) was doing its job. I left it to idle while I assembled my gear and put my tools away so that all the metal parts could get nice and warm. Still no leaks - could this be possible?
I'm in! :lurk
Part 5 (Final)
PART 5 (Final installment)
I was packed and heading out of town by mid-day. I expected to experience the discouragingly warm feel of hot oil on my feet and legs at any moment. A kilometre out of town I stopped and had a good look. So far so good - no leaking or spurting fluids.
As time went by, my speed and confidence gradually increased. I passed the spot where I had been stranded then pulled to a stop at the junction of the Trans-Taiga Road. Was I daft? Not this time! To head down 600+ kilometres of unserviced gravel road with a bike whose vital fluids were held in with epoxy metal and whose alternator belt was hanging on by a thread was simply asking for trouble. I headed south.
Its 620 kilometres from Radisson to Matagami. To my utter astonishment, I made it to Matagami that evening without further trouble. I checked in to the overpriced motel and celebrated with half a dozen Rickard’s Dark and the obligatory Doritos.
Up and on the road before 6 the next morning. From Matagami to home is quite a haul. For starters, there’s the 200 kms between Matagami and Amos, then add to that the total distance of my first day - so a total of 866 kilometres. Whether its canoeing, hiking or bike riding, I always find that by the third day I’m in the groove. My mind has begun to shut out the bum soreness that long distances inevitably create, my neck and hand muscles have just about given up bothering to scream about being held in one position for so long.
I was definitely ‘in the groove’ coming south through La Vérendrye Park - so much so that I completely missed the turn-off to Maniwaki and had travelled an extra 30 kilometres through Mont-Laurier before I noticed that I no longer recognised where I was. Rather than face the grotesque prospect of driving through Gatineau (formerly Hull) and Ottawa, I opted to retrace my steps until I hit a road which would link me up with my original route. Damn - an extra 60 kilometres added to my day through sheer inattentiveness.
I should mention at this point that all was not exactly peachy with the Eldorado. The re-manufactured bracket had fractured in exactly the same spot as the original so I was in a constant state of worry that the bracket might start eating its way through the oil line again. To prevent that from happening, I now had the alternator clamped down with a rat’s nest of nylon webbing and zip ties. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it kept the critical parts from destroying themselves.
Back in Ontario, safely across the Ottawa river, I stopped briefly in Calabogie to empty my remaining 10 litre jug into the gas tank and check my oil. As I was crouched next to the bike in a public park, a fellow on a Harley saw me, stopped, turned around and came to see whether I needed assistance. I thanked him for stopping, and after a brief chat - during which he looked increasingly disturbed at the condition of my bike - he rode away. I think he may have been even more disturbed when I blasted past him a few miles later. He was out for a nice evening ride - I was hurrying home and had the bit between my teeth.
The final chapter in this minuscule, 4 day saga occurred within a few kilometres of home. I had been tailing a jeep on the road south from Westport. He wasn’t going quite fast enough for my taste, there were few suitable opportunities to pass, and something about the way he was driving - some intangible - really annoyed me. Once I get the chance, I’ll show him, I thought. Finally, just past Loughborough Lake I was able to gun by him, only to have the bike suddenly die.
Despite all the oil line and alternator troubles, the old Eldorado had plugged along flawlessly, never missing a single beat during over 3000 kilometres of steady flogging, with daytime temperatures reaching 30 degrees C. Now, she just quit - almost precisely as my friend Norm arrived in the other direction on his Burgman. Norm and I chatted for a couple of seconds then I tried the starter. The old girl just fired up as though nothing had ever been the problem and continued to run perfectly the rest of the way home.
Personally, I think she was chiding me for being a show-off. Its as if she was saying “No matter what, I’ll get you home - but not if you behave like an ass!”
the route (minus mistakes)
Missing Part 4
My apologies folks - somehow I missed posting Part 4. I have now inserted it in its rightful place between 3 and 5.
Well, if it's any consolation I didn't come along until you'd made the change to your narrative, so it read flawlessly to me.
I'm always heartened to read confessions of similarly distracted mechanics. I feel no less of an ass, but quite a bit less isolated in my assedness.
Glad you made it back safe and sound; good job on the fix and much credit to les habitantes.
Thanks for sharing!
well written and interesting
Thanks for taking us along.
I've spliced together some video clips from the trip. Its a bit wonky - most of it hand-held with the GoPro out of its case. My poor computer is struggling to handle the extra HD data, so it isn't as polished as I would like.
The idea is just to provide a flavour of riding the James Bay Road. If you're looking for outstanding scenery, I'm afraid you'll have to look elsewhere. Congestion free road? This is it.
Anyway, here it is, for what its worth.
Thanks for posting a link to this ride report in that other thread. This was a good read. Glad to hear everything worked out for you in the end.
Cool report.:clap Thanks for sharing.
Love that Eldo!
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