There are no wild polar bears near the Polar Bear Express, and no wild moose in Moose Factory (it was named because it lies on the Moose river). And the climate is in no way Arctic, although the water around Moose Factory fluctuates with the tides. If you go 10 miles downstream you get to James Bay, which empties into Hudson Bay, which does indeed connect to the Arctic. But it's still a long way further north to go. It's just very, very difficult to get an appreciation for the enormous expanse of Canadian real estate that lies north of the roads and railroads and is accessible only by plane or boat. But today's trip got us as far north as you can get by train in Ontario. Working bears
We rode the Ontario Northern Railway's Polar Bear Express from Cochrane to Moosonee and back -- four hours in each direction. As is so often the case with our travels, we enjoyed ourselves, but not for the reasons we expected!
Having experienced the 47 degree weather in Cochrane two days earlier we took along a totebag with sweaters, hats, gloves; all we really needed were shoes suitable for walking on muddy streets and light rain jackets. The rain started and stopped throughout the day, never amounting to much. We were probably lucky -- on a sunny day the mosquitoes would have been much worse.
The crew of the Polar Bear Express had many jobs -- taking tickets, manning the snack bar, making announcements on the PA system, and, just before departure, dressing up in Polar Bear suits to be photographed with the happy excursioners on their way North.
The train itself was composed of many passenger cars, two dome/dining cars, and two engines; the tracks were fairly rough, so we only made good about 50 MPH. We carefully crossed the longest trestle bridge in Ontario. The sights out the window were like the sights along the highway in North Ontario: forests, trees, and woodpiles interspersed with groves, copses, and lumber plantations. Closer to Cochrane were dirt roads built by the lumber companies, with seasonal cabins and the occasional tepee. Further north we encountered muskeg -- a boggy terrain covered with stunted trees, with permafrost below. We passed a couple of good sized hydroelectric dams -- indeed the residents of North Ontario use the word "hydro" synonymously with "electric power" -- as in "we have no hydro at our cabin."
We don't feel comfortable leaving our truck with all our possessions unattended, so we decided on a one-day trip, with about six hours to explore Moosonee and Moose Factory. This area has been home to the Crees for millenia, and to the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and its rivals for Water taxis to Moose Factory centuries.
We did not take a guided tour; instead we started off slogging down the muddy streets away from the train station and toward the river, stopping for lunch at the first restaurant. About two-thirds of the vehicles were van-sized taxicabs, generally bringing Cree families to and from home, the RR station, the supermarket, and the river. When we reached the river we gazed out over its impressive muddy breadth. Down the bank was a boat dock at which were parked six or seven water taxis. These boats are built on a fiberglass hull, with a wooden transom for an outboard. A crude frame of two-by-fours is covered with clear plastic to protect the passengers from rain and wind. An upside-down plastic egg crate serves as a boarding step. A half-dozen life vests are strewn across the thwarts. There was no apparent order in which the boatmen took fares; no one seemed to be in charge. Not knowing what to do, we chose the first boat we came to, skippered by a nice young man -- who was waiting at the Moose Factory dock when we returned a couple of hours later. He had a 60-horse Yamaha outboard, and expertly piloted the taxi across the water, avoiding the many shoals. Each crossing cost us $10 Canadian for the two of us -- hardly covers the price of gas!
Not finding any sidewalks, we walked along the dirt roads, liberally pitted by potholes, which in turn were kept brimful of muddy water by the on-and-off showers. We were struck by the extreme courtesy of the drivers, who slowed way down and moved to the far side of the road to avoid spraying pedestrians with the puddled water. We didn't count a single splash all afternoon. Every now and then we'd pass another couple or family of visitors.
At the cemetery we looked at the gravestones, inscribed in English and Cree. From several large monuments we learned that life has been very difficult here -- for example, six teenage boys drowned in the River in 1916 in the same accident. We learned that crossing from the island of Moose Factory to Moosonee can be hazardous; nowadays the schoolchildren walk across the river in winter, but take a helicopter in spring when the ice breaks up.
Beyond the cemetery is the Centennial Museum, created for Canada's centennial by gathering up several nineteenth century trading-post Centennial Museum buildings and bringing them together. The museum building itself highlights the trading operations and the interactions between the Cree and the fur traders. The old stories are familiar to anyone who has studied the history of the native North Americans. Laden with furs, the Cree trappers would be greeted with free drinks of firewater, after which they seldom seemed to realize much profit from their winter's work. According to Cree oral tradition, when a pile of furs was as high as a gun the gun would be traded for the furs. The Cree also worked as Company servants, again beholden to a system of credit that rarely yielded them much gain. The Company's factors, in turn were burdened by the demands of the principals in London. And all were constrained by the harsh climate.
In the museum a trio of friendly Cree women were stitching mocassins and strining necklaces and chatting about local politics. The prevalence of alcoholism and suicide remains a major social problem, and young Cree girls are encouraged to swear to a life of abstinence from alcohol. The Cree First Nation reservation on Moose Factory is heavily subsidized by the Canadian government, at both the Federal and Provincial levels. The Crees we spoke to were warm and friendly.
We enjoyed our water taxi ride back to Moosonee just as much as the ride over. The fact that the taxis evidently had no queue to insure each boatman got his share of the work has a lot to tell us about Cree psychology!
In Moosonee we thought we were going to visit the historic office of Revillon Freres - a French trading company in competition with the HBC which evolved into the modern cosmetic giant Revlon. But the building was closed, so our serendipity found us instead the Moosonee Interpretive Center of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). An elderly German tourist stood outside to light up his cigar; he was visiting his son and daughter-in-law in Canada. "There's a good movie!" he told us, and he was quite right.
Our summer visit only told us part of the story of this northern settlement, but the movie added a lot more to our store of knowledge. The MNR works hand in hand with the Cree to protect and preserve the land, and the ancient Cree culture in a rapidly changing Canada. We saw the construction of a winter tepee from scratch, with evergreen boughs as flooring, saplings driven deep in the snow to frame the tepee, and tarpaulins for the exterior, with a smokehole at the top. Then we learned about Polar Bear Provincial Park, which borders on Hudson Bay in the far north of Ontario, and which is home to perhaps 400 to 600 polar bears. In 1987 a massive study project was undertaken by Park biologists, who tranquilized, examined, and tagged over 150 bears within the Park boundaries. The MNR is developing a protective plan for them, as well as a project to preserve the distinctive land patterns of long ridges left behind by glaciation.
On our way back to the station we stopped at the supermarket to buy a bottle of water, and have two collateral observations to report. First, just as we had noted in Barrow, Alaska, a wide variety of fresh meats, fish, and groceries was for sale in the supermarket, all of which had to be transported at huge expense to this remote location. (As a friend we met on the train exclaimed, "I'm not paying $4 for a lettuce!") But the choice is enormous, so the residents have virtually the same shopping opportunities as those who live in metropolitan areas. Second, we got in the wrong line at first -- the people ahead of us were buying quite a load of provisions. We changed lines, and as we were walking out with our bottle of water noted that the people who had been ahead of us had a huge cart piled high with boxes of food, mostly staples. Perhaps they were going to Moosonee from the Moose River transport them to an even more remote location. Perhaps they only could get to the supermarket once or twice a season. Perhaps they operated a hunting and fishing camp.
Across from the supermarket we walked through another museum-in-a-railroad-car, and then viewed a somewhat mysterious memorial to the Sons of Martha. The memorial plaques contained a few stanzas of poetry which really didn't explain things too clearly. Perhaps one of our readers can enlighten us further?
The train waiting room began filling up an hour before departure, as visitors decided to get out of the rain and mud while catching the Olympics on TV. When we boarded the train some seat confusion led to us meeting three Canadian women who had just completed the two-day visit to Moosonee. They had seen bears, and fossils, but we were happy enough with the museums. We chatted amiably all the way south, which made the return trip much shorter than the morning ride!
The Polar Bear Express is forty years old, and a favorite with tour operators, which is a little inconvenient for the independent travelers (like us) because accommodations in Cochrane and Moosonee tend to become sold out months in advance. And no amount of advance planning can yield good weather. The lady at the gas station in Cochrane told us they had just 11 days of sunshine in July and August of 2003, so the risk of rain is actually quite high. Still the passengers -- both the tourists and the residents of Moosonee and Moose Factory -- kept up good spirits and were congenial companions coming and going.