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"The money is not as useful as the land was before we lost it." -Chisasibi Cree Native
About 9,000 years ago, the glaciers receded on the Laurentian Plateau of the Canadian Shield, leaving pockets of lakes in their wake. The rivers were fast and ran with snowmelt, and lakes covered the landscape. Lake Caniapiscau was one of those lakes, providing food and habitat for the people and wildlife in the area for thousands of years. Recent history, however, has significantly changed both the lake and the lives that depended on it.
To describe the Nord-du-Quebec region in the Quebec Province of Canada as sparsely populated is an understatement. With less than 40,000 people in the entire region, there are over eight square miles of land for each person. The population is primarily aboriginal, made up mostly of the Cree and Inuit peoples who have been living in the region for over 4,000 years.
Covered with boreal forest, or taiga, made up of weather-stunted spruce and pine interspersed with bogs and rocky crags, the region is largely inaccessible except by bush plane. Winter stretches from late October through early May with temperatures as low as -50 degrees Celsius (-58 degrees Fahrenheit). Summers are short but moderate and very bright. The land is rich with natural resources, and has been mined and logged extensively for timber. In 1975, construction began on the James Bay Project and Hydro-Quebec found a way to use another of the region's resources. Caniapiscau Reservoir is part of a project that generates hydro-electric power for the rest of the province.
Caniapiscau Reservoir bears little resemblance to its earlier incarnation as Lake Caniapiscau. The reservoir was created as part of Phase I of the James Bay or La Grande Project. The project includes eight generation stations and eight reservoirs which together generate eight times the power of the Hoover Dam. Caniapiscau Reservoir is at the headwaters of the Caniapiscau River, and after the dam was constructed, 180-square mile Lake Caniapiscau grew to nine times it original size and incorporated four additional natural lakes: Delorme, Brisay, Tournon, and Vermouille. The massive reservoir grew to over a million acres with over 3,000 miles of shoreline. Measured by surface area, it is the largest reservoir in the James Bay Project, stretching 75 miles long and 84 miles wide.
Built as an access road for Hydro-Quebec, the Trans-Taiga Road opened to vehicle traffic in 1981 and provides another way to reach Caniapiscau Reservoir. The gravel road is 414 miles long and 52 miles of it wind around the reservoir. It is safe for car travel, but 4WD vehicles are recommended for part of the road. There are no permanent settlements in the area, but some wilderness outfitters have sprung up along the road offering hunting and sport fishing services. A few also have gas, food and lodging, but both amenities and necessities are far enough apart that careful planning is required for anyone driving on the road.
Construction on Caniapiscau Reservoir was completed in 1981 and the reservoir reached full pool in 1984. After the reservoir filled, water levels on the Caniapiscau River went back up to earlier levels. Unfortunately the caribou in the area had grown used to the lower water levels and the sudden influx caused 10,000 of them to drown. Impounding the reservoir also flooded Cree hunting and fishing grounds. Mercury content in the new impoundments went up and water that was once pure snowmelt became unfit to drink. The Cree were financially compensated for their loss, but in an area without shopping malls, money seems less valuable. The James Bay Project changed their way of life.
The recent history of the Caniapiscau Reservoir is a series of pushes and pulls. The caribou drowned, but new large bodies of water draw water fowl inland. The influx of non-native hunters and anglers that come for the caribou, moose, lake whitefish and landlocked salmon compete with the Cree for resources, but they also provide much needed economic development. The land and water has changed drastically and, along with it, the lives of the people that depend on it. The James Bay Project, however, generates electrical power with minimal environmental degradation beyond the original damage. It is a series of comprises in a system that is continuing to strive for balance. Caniapiscau Reservoir serves as an example and reminder of the interconnectedness of everything.
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