"Behind that dam," the French-speaking, hard-hatted construction worker said with Gallic flavor, "is Quebec gold." Enough "gold" to make Quebec the "OPEC of electricity," adds Real Asselin, as he gestures to a gray, two-mile embankment stretched across the bleak horizon of Canada's northern wilderness.

Mr. Asselin, like 17,000 other workers on this frontier project, shows no lack of pride in Quebec's electric future. This, after all, is the largest energy-producing project in North America, with enough power to export to the rest of Canada and to the United States.

Within the next few years, enough power will come from this behemoth hydroelectric project on La Grande River to equal the output of 13 nuclear plants the size of the Three Mile Island facility.

"We've got lots of electricity to sell. It's better than Arab oil. It won't run out," he says.

Although this is 1980, Mr. Asselin and his fellow dam workers would fit nicely into a scene from the California Gold Rush of 1849. With salaries of up to $50,000 a year, French-speaking Quebeckers have flocked to a string of isolated, bustling river outposts near James Bay, leaving families and many comforts behind and striking out for the promised riches of lucrative jobs.

Northern Quebec's unfailing snow and the sun's rays create a land that is 15 percent water; it is easily tapped with turbines as the rivers rush to the sea. Cree Indians once called this part of Quebec's subarctic wilderness "eschi," the abundant land. Today, it is known as "La Grande Complex," after La Grande River.

Quebeckers also refer to this complex, which includes a series of some 180 dikes and dams begun a decade ago, as the "project of the century." Last year, the first clean electricity surged southward to Montreal and New York.

But this $16.2 billion technological undertaking has taken its toll on the surrounding landscape and population.

Empty Indian tepees stand near tall transmission towers carrying electricity to cities. Beaver dams are inundated by rising waters from man-made dams. And Indians who once hunted and trapped animals on this tundralike terrain now can play at "Les Dunes," the workers' golf course etched out of the wilderness. Its fairways are one big sand trap, and the "greens" are made of gravel.

For Quebec as a whole, adjustments may be more dramatic.

La Grande Complex symbolizes the new self-esteem in Canada's sometimes errant and once-subservient province. The "power and glory" of the project reflect two decades of educational and cultural uplift for French- speaking Quebeckers in a movement known as the "silent revolution."

Quebec, for instance, has formed an elite corps of hydroelectric specialists who now export their expertise to other nations, such as Costa Rica and China. Roads built especially for the James Bay development will help tap deposits of iron, zinc, and uranium as well as open up tourism. Already, some 15,000 visitors a year trek to the site.

Just as dramatic in decades ahead will be the transformation of Quebec into one of the world's most electrified societies -- and all without nuclear power.

Quebec's energy experts predict that nearly half the province's energy will come from electricity by the turn of the century -- more than double the 22 percent that electricity now contributes to the Quebec energy mix.

Jincrease in electricity use until 1985 -- dipping slightly after that.

The rate would far surpass that in most other areas in North America and mean that the use of electricity would almost double every decade. Electricity is sold with abandon in Quebec. Many new buildings in Montreal, for example, are heated by electricity and use as much energy as a small town.

"It will be the cheapest form of electricity in North America that we will be selling our customers in 1985," says Robert A. Boyd, president of Hydro-Quebec. Providing cheap electricity and attracting new businesses will give Quebec some bargaining leverage in the provincial power struggle under way in loosely federated Canada.

Hydro-Quebec already has the lowest customer rates and highest company profits of any major power utility in North America. Last summer the average residential electric bill in Montreal was $24 per 1,000 kilowatt-hours, compared with $98 in New York and $56 in Los Angeles.

The Hydro-Quebec complex -- in an area the size of England -- is colossal in its dimension, herculean in its effort, and Brobdingnagian in its statistics:

Close to 17,000 workers at peak construction will have built nine dams and 170 dikes to create a Connecticut-size reservoir that could provide $85 years of water supplies to New York City.

Enough sand, gravel, and rock are being quarried here by gargantuan earthmovers to lay a two-lane, foot-thick highway across the United States. When Phase 1 of the project is complete after 13 years of construction, enough electricity will be generated to light 171 million 60-watt light bulbs. Half the electricity will come from the world's largest underground power station, which is five football fields long and 400 feet below solid granite.

At present this endless sweep of land is a string of six work sites. With the use of an armada of aircraft and a lonely 600-mile stretch of company highway from Montreal, supplies are carried to workers who spend 10- hour days, 6-day weeks on the job. The average skilled worker earns $800 to $1,000 a week. All expenses except luxuries are paid by the company. Construction workers earn twice as much as their Montreal counterparts. But in winter the only work is in underground tunnels.

Living in makeshift villages of mobile homes, complete with post offices, banks, swimming pools, and hockey rinks, the thousands of workers spend their time working, watching beamed-in television, and sitting down to hardy, all-you-can-eat meals. The worker's biggest complaint arises over a rule that they cannot bring their families to live with them at the sites. Instead, workers get 12 days off every two months and a free trip home.

About 10 percent of the workers are women. Sylvie Delisle, a former bank clerk from Montreal, arrived a year ago for the "adventure" as well as the money. She greets visitors at the airport and, in her spare time. skis on the project's new slope or climbs transmission towers for fun. "I wanted a real expedition. It was either James Bay or Katmandu. Here the money was better," she says.

Many workers joke that they will quit soon. but few do, despite the hardships. One worker, Claude Chenier, wearing a blue T-shirt with a picture of a transmission line, acknowledges: "The cold and loneliness are not that bad." His girlfriend back in Montreal, however, broke up with him after he took off for James Bay.

For some 20,000 native people -- mainly Crees and Inuits (Eskimos) spread in small bands over northern Quebec -- the project has meant getting off welfare and taking part in investments made with money from a government settlement. A court judge temporarily stopped construction in 1974 when the Indians, who were never consulted before an army of heavy machines invaded the area, claimed that the project trampled on their hunting and fishing rights. The settlement gives them $225 million and control over 5,345 square miles.

George Panchos, a Cree leader at Fort George on James Bay, says the change may be too fast for his people. "We have more money, but the social costs are too high," he explains, citing increases in alcoholism and tensions in the tribes.

Quebec politicians circle around this behemoth prize in the wilds of the north. It all began in 1971 when Robert Bourassa, then premier of Quebec and a leader casting about for something spectacular to divert attention from his own political problems, came up with what then seemed like a land-a-man-on-the-moon goal.

He dusted off an old plan to develop the James Bay watershed, an idea that had been rejected by Hydro-Quebec because nuclear power seemed the wave of the future. In fact, 25 nuclear reactors had been projected to be built along the St. Lawrence River.

Skipping over the normal 10 years of engineering studies, Premier Bourassa quickly launched the "project of the century," which was to be built by a newly formed, semi-independent company, the Societe d'Energie de la Baie James, whose initials -- SEBJ -- are today seen on almost everything at the sites, from earthmovers to T- shirts.

Quebec set a de facto moratorium on nuclear power in 1976. Calculations showed that the project at James Bay was 16 percent cheaper than the same electricity produced by nuclear fission. By 1976, the difference was 31 percent. It has been rising ever since. Still, provincial leaders are interested in running a few experimental reactors so that Quebec can keep its finger in the nuclear pie in case the technology is needed in the next century.

But more Quebec water-to-watts projects are planned beyond James Bay's 11,400 megawatts, which alone will almost double Quebec's installed electrical capacity , now generated by about 50 power stations. A "Phase 2," which is still pending , would bring on 4,600 megawatts by the 1990s from the same area as James Bay. To the north and south lie a potential 8,700 megawatts on three rivers -- Rupert , Nottaway, and Broadway -- and a possible 2,800 megawatts on La Grande Baleine River.

What makes this area so appealing for hydroelectric development is the volume of water, not the height it falls -- only 1,245 feet over 400 miles. Hardly one of the planet's great waterways, La Grande River is Quebec's third-largest. It has been harnessed by constructing dozens of retaining structures and spillways, rerouting three major rivers, creating six artificial lakes filling large land depressions, and sending the waters through four powerhouses with 37 generating units.

The water falls into donut-shaped tubes, whirling past orange turbine blades that turn large magnets and start the flow of electricity. The result is a hydroelectric complex with the largest water capacity in the world. In installed electrical capacity, it is second only to the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, which has limited water because it is in America's dry West.

The rivers carve a path on the Canadian Shield, a vast granite and gneiss plateau dating back more than 2 billion years, and wind their way through pure taiga, the coniferous terrain between tundra and forest.

The latest features on this flat landscape, of course, are giant dams that rise higher than Montreal skyscrapers. They sometimes resemble long Egyptian temples on the Nile and are made impervious to water by pilling up an indigenous substance known as moraine, a powdery remnant of the glaciers' visit 10 millenniums ago. The dams are topped by a riprap of boulders.

By 1983, the water flow of La Grande River, which flows into James Bay, will be doubled by diversion of the Caniapiscau River, which now flows north to the Atlantic Ocean. Two dams and 60 dikes will create an artificial lake the size of Delaware that will force the waters west. It is expected that salmon will be introduced into James Bay as a result.

More than 1,000 miles of permanent roads and five major airports were cut into the wilderness to help build the project. In eight years of construction, the blasting and building have been punctuated by mishaps and triumphs: strikes, vandalism, forest fires, Indian land claims, worker boredom, black flies, extreme cold temperatures that snapped equipment, and spring thaws, causing frosted ground to become a mudhole. The biggest problem has been distance -- just getting steaks and potatoes to the workers. Also, the walls of underground tunnels, still under pressure from the last glacier, tended to shed large rocks on workers.

Quebec's new frontier drive has sparked only a few complaints from environmentalists about the project's impact on the land, which contains few caribous, moose, wolves, or bears. Officials just assumed this was empty land, ripe for ripping up.

There are plenty of beavers. In fact, the most noted failure has been the attempt to helicopter the paddle- tailed creatures -- at about $800 apiece -- to new homes before they were flooded out by rising reservoirs. But the beavers did not adjust well to new surroundings and the Indians were asked to intensify trapping in areas to be inundated.

Nature was given charge of clearing trees from the rising waters. Winter ice on the reservoirs can grasp and uproot trees. The debris will be picked and burned in coming years by two floating incinerators. In all, restoration of the land and waters will cost an estimated $250 million, including the planting of about 4 million tree seedlings, such as willow and pine.

Hydro-Quebec has an enviable reputation in ultra-high- voltage transport, having pioneered the use of 735-kilovolt lines, which lose only 5 to 7 percent of the power over longdistance wire. the average US transmission line carries only 500 kilovolts.

In fact, Canadian and US lines differ to such an extent that further electricity exports from James Bay -- which is 70 percent funded by US banks -- could be troublesome. Now, only 500 megawatts can be transmitted from Quebec. That is far short of the potential 10,000 megawatts that might be for sale in the next few years. Synchronizing and building the electrical grids between the two nations could take years of studies and court battles.

This "Canadian connection," however, already includes a contract with New York State to sell power for seven months of the year. In 1979, 6 percent of New York electricity came from Quebec, an amount that will double by 1984. Vermont, which already receives 80 megawatts, will be getting an extra 52 megawatts. Quebec's electrical needs are matched almost perfectly with the northeast United States. New York needs a surge of power in summer for air conditioners, while Quebec needs a boost in the winter for heating.

Just jow much excess power will exist in the future is unclear. If Quebec's economy grows as fast as its leaders expect, surpluses for export will shrink to almost nothing in two decades. That possibility gives pause to US officials who are tempted to become reliant on foreign electricity to help curtail further domestic dependence on oil and nuclear-generated power.

But they hope to buy all they can. Says one official: "Because it is forever."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.