GETTING THERE REALLY CAN BE HALF THE FUN
I had just picked up a brand new SUV and did not want to take the chance of leaving it in an unsecure railway parking lot in Cochrane for three days so we rented a full-size car for this trip. It’s about 700 kilometres to Cochrane from our home in southcentral Ontario and is actually a very nice drive but registers less so after you’ve done it dozens of times. Our journey will follow Highway 11 which yields a generic pastoral view with a stupid speed limit of 90kph, which only encourages people to speed. Fortunately the overall traffic volume was light and the drive through Muskoka was very pretty.
We stopped briefly at a hotel in New Liskeard because it always makes me feel good when humour is put to good use and these people certainly put a tremendous amount of effort into their witticism. We didn’t stay but stopped as they have a great sign inviting their patrons to use their valet parking.
Cochrane is a town in northeastern Ontario known for being the southern terminus for the Polar Bear Express to Moosonee near the southern shore of James Bay. It’s a Canadian passenger train operated by the Ontario Northland Railway in northern Ontario. The train station in Cochrane is where we’d be leaving the car for three days while we journeyed north to Moosonee.
We arrived at the station just before 8:30am knowing we wouldn’t have to wait long to start our adventure. I could not believe the number of people waiting to board the train. We and one other lady with a dog seemed to be the only tourists, all others were proud Cree people probably going to Moosonee for work or to see their families.
I was looking forward to the journey. Even though it’s been more than 60 years, I still remembered the train trip to Otter Rapids, a town lying mid-way between Cochrane and Moosonee. Those were wonderful childhood times for me so this would be a journey into my past of sorts, even though you could no longer step out onto the platform between coaches to see and feel the northern Canadian wilderness.
The coaches were a welcome relief, beautiful; wide leather seats that reclined activating a footrest. There was also a drop-down footrest on the seat ahead of us. The legroom was extraordinary, room enough to stretch your legs out fully with nothing to stop you from doing so. Many of you reading this will never have experienced anything close but this is the way seating used to be on all airlines – and I’m talking coach not first class.
There was no wifi, or any cell service at all on the train but if you can’t go five hours off the grid there’s something wrong in your life. Sadly, we found out from our conductor that the train did not stop at Otter Rapids. There was one person getting off but he was quick and the train would not stop for any discernable amount of time. I was then at the mercy of my own resources if I was to get any photos.
Although the train was moving as we passed through Otter Rapids it did stop ever so briefly to let one passenger off. I would love to have seen where he went; other than the power plant, there did not appear to be much else there anymore. The Hydro generating station, which opened in 1961, was the only thing I managed to get a decent photo of. This was the last station completed on the Abitibi River in the James Bay watershed.
Our seats in the coach were only a few metres from the washrooms and a local woman came walking back to her seat across the aisle from us and casually mentioned there was someone passed out in the washroom. I immediately offered that the conductor was in the dining car and she should get him. The local woman was very nonchalant about it and commented, “We hate it when this happens” leading me to believe it happens with alarming frequency and her to wish she hadn’t said it that way. Another woman checked the washroom again and reported the comatose woman was still there and we shouldn’t worry about it, “She’ll wake up”. I would have expected a little more concern and an attempt to help the woman. It really is a different world here…and these ladies were not helping the perceived stereotype some others have of our indigenous people.
Our arrival in Moosonee was bittersweet – sweet because we made it but bitter because the weather pretty much sucked; cold, windy and wet which made for mud like you couldn’t believe as there are no paved roads in the entire town. The station platform was the clearest, cleanest place in town.
The next morning Karen was downstairs looking into the “what to do” situation and, as is often the case, got engaged in a lengthy conversation with a local from even further north. This, also often the case, turned out to be a good thing. He couldn’t do anything himself due to a prior commitment but recommended (giving Karen a phone number) a gentleman who could show us around for an hour tour for a very reasonable price.
Karen spoke with him on the phone and arranged for him to guide us in his vehicle and show us some town history. This was great because we couldn’t even go for a walk on our own because of all the mud. The bonus was it was starting to get sunny!
Moosonee is a town in northern Ontario about 19 kilometres (12 miles) south of James Bay. Moose Factory is located nearby on Moose Factory Island in the Moose River. The two communities are connected by water taxi in the summer and ice road in the winter. Unfortunately, we arrived between those two options.
Moosonee is a very small place inhabited mostly by Cree First Nations people, the largest group of First Nations in Canada. Moose Factory was the first English-speaking settlement in the lands that now make up Ontario and the second Hudson’s Bay Company post to set up in North America so it was a shame we couldn’t get there.
Todd showed up at 1pm as arranged. We were in the hotel lobby seated under a beautiful sunset photo, obviously waiting and just as obviously not Cree so he identified us quickly. As I climbed into his truck he commented, “You don’t have to put your seatbelt on if you don’t want to.”
“Oh really,” I exclaimed. “No laws about that?!”
“No, people don’t drive very fast in town.”
He then proceeded to explain they couldn’t, the roads were such a mess. Between the mud and the potholes you couldn’t build up any speed if you wanted to.
Todd gave us a great tour for about an hour and a quarter, taking us down the town’s one road and along the river where he reported the remains of the ice road just closed today. How convenient – that’s why there was no chance of getting to Moose Factory. From there he took us up to the military base and airport, one of the two critical transportation hubs (the other being the railway station) in town. The base was closed in 1975 (cost savings) but some buildings were maintained and used by the town, the base swimming pool and recreation centre among them.
Leaving the airport we embarked on a rather in depth drive through the residential area which consists of primarily what they refer to as non-profit housing. That’s housing the residences pay a monthly fee but do not own it or the land – hmmm, sounds like rental to me.
Karen had asked if there were any run down areas where people didn’t look after the houses, didn’t care because they didn’t own them. Todd said sure he could show us some of those if we wanted to see them. The houses themselves did not look terribly bad from the outside. The problem was people just threw all their crap on the front lawn. As winter set in everything got covered by snow and people didn’t realize what was missing from their house. In Todd’s mind that only went so far; maybe a broken chair or a box but it’s pretty hard to lose a fridge.
The whole tour was fascinating as there is no way we would have seen or learned any of those things without it. As we left, Todd suggested we visit Northern College just a short distance from our hotel. The Moosonee Campus offers students to complete their studies through remote learning from various northern communities. It was the interior of the building that drew us there. The halls are resplendent with local crafts and artwork; a virtual museum. It was time well-spent.
The arena is adjacent to the train station so, before leaving Moosonee on the following day, we went in to find someone who would open the train museum across the road so we could have a look, also something Todd had suggested yesterday. We thought we might have to search but there were about a half dozen people in a small office near the door and one readily volunteered to escort us.
Typically I am not a museum person but I do enjoy small private ones. They are so much more personal and tend to highlight local history which is exactly what we wanted. We spent about a half hour there then headed back to the hotel to wait before leaving for our 5PM return train to Cochrane.
Dragging our luggage through the mud to the train station was a bit of an ordeal so we left the hotel around 4:15pm. During our stay in Moosonee we realized there was a sidewalk of sorts on both sides of the road and, although not the best, it sure beat using the road. We did have to persevere as we crossed the muddy intersecting roads and laneways. We arrived at the station covered in mud as expected by 4:30. The train was on time so we boarded immediately.
The coach we were in was absolutely full, I don’t think there was a free seat and what made it even better was three quarters of them were kids. There was a hockey team or four on the train headed to Cochrane for a weekend tournament. An additional coach had been added; there were four versus the three when we came to Moosonee. As soon as the train started to move we asked the conductor if we could change coaches and he said go for it – there were several others wanting to bail on the future hockey stars as well.
Arriving in Cochrane in total darkness was the way I decided a train trip should end. It loaned an air of mystery and intrigue to the voyage. In a lot of ways train travel is so much better than flying. Of course there is that time thing.
On Day 6 of the trip our plan was to hang at our motel in Cochrane until checkout at 11 then leave with the intention of making it to North Bay by evening. The drive south from Cochrane to North Bay was horrible. The scenery was very pleasant and it was another perfect sunny day but there were far too many trucks on the road. Welcome to Ontario folks, it’s nothing short of obscene. Thanks to the trucks we now had an insurance claim on the windshield – starburst of savings. This is why I didn’t bring my new SUV on this trip. Chalk up a win there.
The rest of the drive was uneventful and we pulled into North Bay about 4pm for our last evening on this trip. Another trip, brief and not without a few issues but a wonderful one nonetheless. It was never so much Moosonee as a destination as it was the train trip to get there – that was a portal to my past. Mom and dad would have been so pleased we did this, so would my sister Ruth.