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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

When we tell people about our road trip, they almost always ask, “Where is Chibougamau?”

Since childhood, we’ve been asking the same question.

We grew up in the suburbs of Montreal, and we listened daily to CBC weather reports.

The announcer would share the projected temperature of the day, then go on to list current and projected temperatures for other places in Quebec, and one town on the list was Chibougamau (pronounced Sheu-BOO-Ga-Moo): “And in Chibougamau, the temperature is currently minus 26 F with an expected high of minus 22.″

Back then, we had no idea where Chibougamau was, but it roused our imagination and became a playful name we loved to say!

We waited almost our whole lifetimes to solve the mysteries of Chibougamau.

In August, 2021, our globetrotting is grounded because of COVID-19. But we want to escape daily routines of online meetings, neighbourhood walks, and streamed movies and series. Recalling our childhood memories, we zero in on a road trip through Quebec. Destination: Chibougamau.

From our home in Ottawa, Chibougamau is 900 kilometres away. We are avid drivers and opt to do the trip there in two days, driving beside the St. Lawrence River east of Montreal and heading north at Trois-Rivières. We plan to overnight in La Tuque.

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Aside from booking hotels and reading Wikipedia, we do little planning. We want to be surprised.

The road up to Chibougamau from Trois-Rivières is well-paved and the weather in August is cool and overcast. From Trois- Rivières the route we take is along the Saint-Maurice River to La Tuque. On the one side we see a gently curving river with a long history, and on the other, majestic trees in boreal forests.

Our main travel companions along Highway 155 are behemoth logging trucks, each full with logs of immense length. Throughout our trip, we count over 70 trucks.

The leg from La Tuque to Chibougamau is enchanting. We are spellbound to see Lac Saint-Jean in its vastness as we crest a hill near Chambord. Then a winding northward route follows the shore of Lac Saint-Jean, and we pass Roberval, Saint-Prime and Saint-Félicien. “Are the trees becoming shorter and scrubbier as we move north?” we wonder.

It turns out Chibougamau is over 200 km north of Lac Saint-Jean. We follow the blue-grey tree-lined ribbon, feeling almost complete isolation, taking care to start off with a full tank of gas.

It’s mid-afternoon when we arrive in Chibougamau. We are surprised by the extent of the town despite its only 7,500 inhabitants. We note few buildings exceed two storeys. One of the first persons I see is a teenager with long flowing black hair expertly navigating her skateboard on the sidewalk of the main street. We drive by Lac Gilman adjacent to Chibougamau and notice a recreational trail around the lake.

To reach our bed and breakfast, we travel 10 km eastward down a bumpy dirt road, past a stark, closed copper and gold mine. We spot a black and yellow fox along the way and finally reach our destination on Lac Chibougamau.

Our Gîte, or B&B, “Le domaine de la mine d’or” (“Inn of the realm of the gold mine”) used to accommodate mining executives. Now Claudy and Jean-Eudes welcome travellers.

We learn that Chibougamau is just north of the 49th parallel, slightly more northerly than Winnipeg. We also find out Chibougamau is Cree for “meeting place.” The origin of the name reminds us we are on Cree ancestral lands and admire the hardiness of the Cree who made this land their home for millenniums.

Chibougamau was the end of the paved road for many years – although now the paved road extends 180 km farther north to Lac Albanel. During the Cold War it was a military base and radar station as part of the Pine Tree Line. Now among other things, it is a gateway and service centre for northern Quebec.

For us, the centrepiece of our visit is Lac Chibougamau, beside the Gîte. The lake is so large, so silent on a windless day, so remote and desolate! To enjoy the sunny, warm day, we go skinny-dipping on our own private beach, in celebration of both our 39-year marriage and of making it so far together through the pandemic. We find the lake surprisingly warm – or is it our imagination? It is certainly an act of escape and freedom. Later, we are enthralled by the deepening shades of cobalt transfusing the landscape at sunset.

We realize Chibougamau’s destiny is tied to Indigenous peoples, to the hydroelectric dams, to the logging and mining industries. Chibougamau is also a cultural meme in Quebec, a word used to designate any faraway place. Musician Robert Charlebois and the group Les Cowboys Fringants have songs that mention Chibougamau.

Now when folks ask us “Where is Chibougamau?” we get a faraway look in our eyes. Through our all-too-brief five-day road trip, we became closer to our country and closer as a couple for solving the enduring mystery of Chibougamau together.

Barbara Lukaszewicz and Hendrik Siré live in Ottawa.

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