Mont Laurier, Quebec is located about 200 miles northwest of Montreal. It is sort of on the edge of civilization. Mont Laurier supports a host of businesses; hotels, markets, restaurants, small industry, and good sized hospital. North of this large town on a road known as TransCanada 117 the scenery changes dramatically. There are a few small towns immediately north, and then as one pushes farther north the boreal forest borders the highway, along with lake after lake. At first the hamlets are 20 miles apart and then after a while they spread out to being 50 miles apart. Before you know it there is a hundred miles between settlements. Just about when you think you have seen all of the forest in Quebec TransCanada 117 intersects another numbered highway, TransCanada 113. This paved road, where locals drive as if they were on a mission to death, passes through a small town called Seneterre where hardy French speaking Quebecians eek out a living in various jobs that are mostly dependent on the abundant natural resources found in the nearby forests. The town seems to have a fierce pride about its existence, primarily because it has endured the harshness of winter amidst the wilderness of Quebec for more than a hundred years. In a local restaurant there are pictures of the first car town in 1924 and the first gas station in town more than a decade later. There are also photographs of old churches, a town celebration in the 1950’s, and a scene showing local businesses at some time in the distant past. In all photographs there are smiling faces of people long since gone. Today, the people are friendly, and are quick still to smile as I speak bad French or butcher the name of a local place. About an hour up the road there is an even smaller town called Lebel-sur-Quevillon. Quevillon is the name of a sizeable lake. This town consists of clusters of houses that appear to have been put up quickly and without any logical planning. If you study the buildings you can identify the vintage of each era of construction. The oldest houses are small two story houses. The houses built in the 1950’s and 60’s are terribly small ranch style homes with everything on one level. The newest homes are prefab construction, usually long and narrow with vinyl siding. There is a large wood products plant in the area that appeared to be closed or under utilized during our most recent visit. The town has a downtown area consisting of a cluster of stores; grocery, pharmacy, hardware, and a pizza/chicken palace (which is for sale to some perspective entrepreneur). There is also a small liquor store that is also for sale, perhaps the sign of a bad economy gone worse. There is an excellent hospital in town (I once took a friend there with a broken collar bone after an accident in the wilderness). The large lake seems to be the focus of the town. Fishing is more than just a past time here. It is a life style. Lebel also supports two motels and, strangely, a very small golf course. Of course, multitudes of fishing bait and tackle are sold at both gas stations and the local Depannier (store).
The past two years I have gone on this journey on my way to Lac Wetetnagami. This fabulous lake, carved by glaciers more than 12,000 years ago, is part of the Wetetnagami River which flows north into the Hudson Bay. It takes patience to reach Wetetnagami. Getting to this wonderful lake requires travel on more than 50 miles of dirt logging roads which challenge the suspension of even the toughest truck. Travel on these rocky dirt roads is interesting. The trick is to find the right speed. If you drive just fast enough you can skim the surface of the 10 of 15 million rocks that comprise the road surface. If you drive too slow you will feel each and every bump, which eventually takes a bad toll on your back and other critical sitting areas of your body. Along the way you might see an occasional local resident coming home from work, likely logging, driving at about 70 miles per hour with a trail of dust that does not settle down for quite some time. The skills to travel these roads at excessive speeds are way beyond any abilities that I have. It seems second nature to those that travel these roads on an every day basis. Along this dirt and rock super highway we noticed logging trucks, the tractor trailer variety, speeding along at abut 80 miles per hour in the middle of the road. Only the dumbest of the dumb would not yield to these freight carriers loaded with tons and tons of logs. There is also a logging camp located on the side of the road at about the 30 mile point on this logging road. The modern logging camp consists of RV trailers and campers parked every which way and without regard for organization. Here hard forest laborers who build new logging roads and harvest large sections of forest spend their evenings during the work week before returning to their families on weekends.
The last 12 or so miles of the journey to Wetetnagami are very rough. The branches from trees on the side of the very narrow cart road polish your truck exterior along the entire route. Top speed is about 20 mph. In most areas you are actually travelling along at about 12 miles per hour. The problem here is that due to the hills, dales, and curves along the road you cannot see anyone coming who is also travelling along at the same rate in the opposite direction. Worse, they will be travelling in exactly the same lane as you. It is the only travel lane there is.
Lac Wetetnagami is a medium to small sized lake, perhaps 12-14 miles in length with many large bays and fingers. This boreal forest lake holds quite a few islands that range in size from acres of land growing boreal forest to small, naked, rocky outcrops surrounded by water. Our reason for travelling here was to seek peace in the wilderness (and I do mean wilderness) and to catch a few fish on which we could dine.
Although I have visited this lake before, this was the first time for both of my sons. Liam and Brendan have heard about all my adventures in northern Quebec, but this was the first time that they have accompanied me. I started exploring the wilderness of Quebec years ago. About twelve years ago I started to go at least once a year with my two best friends. For various reasons I have never had the opportunity to go with Brendan and Liam. Now that they are both adults I felt the need to show them the beauty of the Canada wilderness. Finding time for us three guys to enjoy the wilderness was almost miraculous. Liam is still completing graduate school, and Brendan is pretty busy as the producer of a television show so finding a time when all three of us could make this journey was quite a feat. With great effort and many schedule changes we finally pulled it off.
On July 3rd the three of us stood on the edge of Lac Wetetnagami. I really enjoyed the looks on their faces as they gazed at the shimmering blue water dotted with islands topped with conifer trees. The back drop of hundreds of miles of boreal forest finished the scene. Even after years of exploring northern Quebec I am still mesmerized by these wild places. Seeing their look of appreciation for the beauty of the wilderness is a memory that I will forever hold close to my heart.
Our week would be filled with plenty of laughter, some very good fishing, dinners whose center piece was most often Walleye, and exploring the shores and borders of the lake. Although we saw no moose that week (unusual in an area rife with this large king of the north woods) we witnessed multitudes of loons, bald eagles, beaver, large numbers of ravens, every type of water fowl known to inhabit these parts, and a marauding mother bear and cub who shared our garbage and managed to make our camp area look like an abandoned land fill. We even heard wolves howling late one night. Our isolated camp was small but quite comfortable. It was complete with a shower that fortuitously worked every now and then. Our gas refrigerator kept food cold in the freezer section which was way more than we asked for. The camp was even equipped with solar lights. These were not needed for long periods of time given that daylight lasted about 20 hours at this time of year.
We spent at least ten hours a day in our 12 foot aluminum boat equipped with a newer 15 horsepower Yamaha motor. The motor ran flawlessly which was very important given the stiff winds that could build on the lake in a matter of moments. The weather was typical for this region. One can experience bright sunlight, heavy cloud cover, mist, heavy rains, and a thunderstorm every few hours. If you don’t like the weather it will be glad to repeat itself six times a day just so you can fact check your opinion.
On one particular day we were travelling a long distance between fishing spots. Wetetnagmi is surrounded by boreal forest recovering from a gigantic forest fire that burned countless acres more than 15 years ago. The scenery around us was amazing. The dark, cloudy skies contrasted handsomely with the steel gray water. Conifers dotted the shore line. Green branches on black spruce, balsam fir, and tamarack trees provided the perfect back drop. In the distance there was a hint of sunny sky; a patch of blue peaking between ominous clouds. The boys chatted as the boat skated along on top of the water. They smiled and joked and seemed free from all the burdens of the world. It was one of those rare perfect moments. I love those short pieces of time when every thing is just right. I took a mental snap shot and told myself to hold this memory for times when I needed to be cheered up. God knows we all have those moments.
That evening I sat on the porch of the camp. It was about 11:30 at night and the western horizon still held splashes of yellow and pink. Venus was rising in the southern sky. The boys were laughing in the back ground from the inside of the cabin while remembering some old experience from their younger days. For some unknown reason I thought about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I consider this the greatest crime in my life time against our planet. This thought, in contrast to the beautiful surroundings and the cherished memories of the day, created a powerful experience. It seemed to renew my mission in life; to help people understand the precious nature and balance of the planet earth. I knew that when I returned to civilization there would be a life time of work ahead. That thought framed with the reality of one man sitting at a computer keyboard writing about nature and, during the school year, passing on knowledge to graduate students was more than a bit humbling. It was somehow strangely daunting.
Loons called out to each other over quiet black waters. Their strange laugh somehow seemed significant and related to all my thoughts. This part of the world was at peace, at least for the moment. I looked at the heavens above. The stars were just appearing at midnight as the sun faded into the black abyss to the west.
And I wondered if there was still time to pass on the words that would be helpful and hopeful to those that would continue the challenge of maintaining a beautiful planet into the future.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in July of 2010.