Route de la Baie James


James Bay Road in January 2009

Photos and text by Vanessa Campbell

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We wanted to see the caribou migration. We had done the JBR twice in the summer months (2004 & 2007) and always told ourselves that we wanted to go in the winter. I looked at the satellite maps from the past few years to try and get an idea for when to travel:

I also sent e-mails to the tourism boards (municipality and SDBJ) to see if I could get a first-hand answer as to the best time to travel (the satellite maps only track 70 caribou out of 1 million) and all I got out of them was to look at the above link....

So, we picked the 3rd week of January. We also got an idea of the road conditions from these websites:

We expected to average speeds of 60-70km/h given that everything was ice-covered. We didn't want to travel at night either, so we planned on 8-hour days, max. We also packed the tent/sleeping bags/lantern/food in case of a breakdown and having to wait for another vehicle to pass by. We're not equipped with winter camping gear, so we planned on staying indoors! At 60km/h, and with 8 hours of light, it was pretty much a given that we'd have to stay at Km 381.

So, now we've come to the start of the journey. We wanted to make it to Matagami Saturday night, but it didn't happen to due black ice along Highway 11 from Gravenhurst through to New Liskard in Ontario (this was actually the worst road conditions of the whole trip!). So, we stayed in Amos. This put us a little behind and so we made it to km 6 for 11am on Sunday.

The SDBJ does a great job of keeping the roads plowed. They don't lay down a lot of sand, so I wouldn't go near the James Bay Road without snow tires! (We traveled in a Ford Focus with 4 snow tires.)

If you're interested in an interesting trek, the Trans-Taiga Road is definitely driveable in the winter. Since the gravel is frozen and snow-covered, you can drive an easy 70km/h without worries of bouncing off the road. In this light, it's better than the main highway which is ice-covered.

As you can see from the first two photos, the pavement is snow-covered. The plows really push back the snow, well into the shoulders. The shoulders are frozen, so there's no problem driving on them. The road is so wide, it's almost like having 1.5 lanes in each direction. The next two photos were taken 45 min later. The snow-covered road is giving way to ice-covered, which is pretty much what the remaining 590-ish kilometers are like.
Can you drive faster than 60km/h? Absolutely. Is there salt? Not really. Is there sand? Not much. A little bit in the corners, but that's about it. Not enough to rely on for major traction. The plows put down a salt/sand mixture. The salt doesn't really do anything since it's so cold.
Sometimes you can see the yellow line! More often that not, it's through clear ice. But once in a while, bare pavement is exposed.

Since tourists are few and far between, the plows don't clear out the rest areas. If you do climb through the snow to get to the pit toilets, you'll find that they are locked.... Just a heads-up to those with small bladders! (you can see the snow-covered picnic area in one of the Rupert photos)

These pictures turned out fairly well since it was sunny for the first 2 days. Unfortunately, sunny = very, very, very cold!


We averaged 90km/h on the straight sections and 75-80km/h through the corners. We had 4 snow tires on our car and nothing else special.

Commercial logging still goes on during the winter months. The trucks move as if it was summertime and the highway was nice and clear.... Ice? What ice?

The road surface in the commercial logging section is worse than it is during the summer. We hoped that the snow would fill in the rough areas and make things nice and smooth. Not to be.

Like in the summer months, it gets better once you get past the first 200km.

The Rupert River rest area, and a distant view of the rapids.
Rupert River bridge on the James Bay Road.

We were thinking that the highway would be devoid of traffic other than the occasional truck. Not so. Mid-November through to mid-February is caribou hunting season. There was as much passenger traffic as there is during the summer months. So, if you break down, or slide off the road, you won't have to wait for hours for someone to come by.

We were quite fascinated with the frozen mist on the trees by the rapids...
Did I mention that it was cold?
Looking at the timestamps on the photos, we spent no more than 30 minutes at the Rupert.

We planned for minus 30 weather, but there's a huge difference between minus 20 and minus 30...

We stopped on the way south, but it was overcast that day and the pictures didn't look that good. (but it was warmer: minus 20 and light snow!).

We didn't note the kilometer marker where we saw the fox munching on the caribou, but it's somewhere around km 325.

I'm not sure if you like pictures of dead critters. We were fascinated by the bright colour of the fox against the pale colours of the trees & snow. So much for his camouflage! He didn't mind us watching him while he was having his dinner.

This photo is heading north towards km381, and it's only a few minutes to 4pm!

We stayed there for the evening. A single room is $70, and double occupancy is $100. The beds are far from luxurious (they're twins) and the washroom is communal and co-ed.

We learned on the LG-2 tour that the buildings at 381 were moved there from Radisson after the dam construction was complete. So, they're nice, vintage 1970s work camp accommodations.

Gas at 381 was $1.02/litre. We were expecting it to be higher, but we weren't complaining!

Since we wanted to take full advantage of daylight for driving, we left Km 381 as the sun was starting to rise. This pictures was taken from the parking lot at Km 381.
Sunrise over the frozen Eastmain River.
Frost-laden shrubs along the road.

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