It is the winter of 1992 and we are getting ready to make a trip in our half-ton truck to Moosonee on the winter road. Few people are using the road at this time. There is not much development happening in the north at this point and the winter road is only wide enough to accommodate one vehicle. The regular transport-trains of tractors and their trailers make the run on the road sporadically during the winter. This means that there is no regular maintenance so you take your chance at making it through to Moosonee in a car or half-ton truck.
We leave in the afternoon. We know that it will be dark soon but this is part of our plan. The evening and night time provide a colder temperature that will freeze the road into a solid mass. The freshly groomed trail becomes hardened ice and snow that will be strong enough to support our truck. It is partly cloudy on our way out of town and the light is fading fast.
Two hours into our trip, the wind begins to blow hard from the north behind us. The sky is dark as a sudden blizzard blows up. We drive on into the swirling snow confident that the tractors have plowed the road ahead of us. The road is perfect for our trip. The tractors have dragged heavy logs on chains behind their trailers to smooth out the road as a courtesy to others. As we move ahead, the wind continues to howl around our vehicle. I am travelling with my brother Anthony and my sister Jackie and her husband Clarence. Three of us sit in the front while the fourth, my brother Anthony, lies bundled in heavy blankets, his skidoo suit and warm clothes in the box of the truck.
We sit quietly in the truck, watching the storm brew into a blinding grey mist in front of our vehicle. The road is easy to follow when we can see it. There are two huge banks of snow that have been pushed away by the tractors that mark the trail ahead. As we continue we are often blinded by the blowing snow in the open mushkeg flats and tundra. Once we get near creeks or rivers the forest protects us from storm and we are able to see the road clearly again.
An hour after the start of this blizzard we are at a point of no return. We begin to notice the accumulating snow on the road ahead of us. The high banks of snow that were plowed by the tractors are building deep drifts on the road. We pick up our pace and plow through the lightly packed snow, hoping that the frozen and solid winter road underneath will provide us traction.
As we continue, the drifts grow deeper and we drive faster to keep from getting stuck. It is a continuous cycle. The longer the storm develops, the deeper the snow and the slower we move. The strategy is to keep moving at a good speed to plow through the snow.
At one point we cross a barren stretch of tundra to make it to the next tree-lined riverbank. A small stand of trees appears in the middle of what looks like a cloud of blowing white dust. We are moving fast and guess as to where the road starts and ends. Once we reach the stand of trees we realize we are facing a 10-foot-high wall of snow.
As we race across the flat white landscape, we consider our options. We could stop and get stuck, then work for the next several hours at trying to dig through this enormous drift or just crash through it at speed. We have no time to ponder, so we race the truck faster into the wall of white snow. It feels like driving over a cliff and into an abyss, we have no idea what is behind this wall of white. We brace ourselves for the impact.
The truck abruptly slows and almost stops then lurches up as it plows into the bank. The snow flies over the windshield like a wave of water. We see nothing but white. The truck lurches like an animal caught in a trap. Then slowly the tires find some traction on the freshly packed winter road and we are on our way again. We break though the white wall and head off into the black night.
We are happy to see the faint glow of lights from the community of Fort Albany. As is the case with everyone up north, we have relatives and friends in most stops on the James Bay coast. It is a relief to make it to the safety of a warm house in the midst of this raging blizzard. There is shelter from the storm.