Polar Bear Express
|Location:||Cochrane District, Ontario|
|Character:||Passenger Train Journey|
The Polar Bear Express
By David Richardson
You probably won't find Tom Hanks on this Polar Bear Express but long before the movie came out Ontario Northland was transporting people and supplies from Cochrane to the secluded towns of Moosonee and Moose Factory on the edge of James Bay. Moosonee has no road access but is an important point for getting to the more northerly communities along the shore of James Bay so the Polar Bear Express has been a life line for the local residents since 1964. The train is designated as a passenger train but carries everything from cars and trucks to household appliances. In the summer the train even has a car specifically for canoes and kayaks and arrangements can be made to be dropped off at one of the rivers along the way to make the journey by water. The tourism aspect of this journey is mainly focused on summer travel but because of its name (no you won't actually see any polar bears on the way) Trails and Tamaracks decided to take the trip in the winter.
Waking up in our hotel rooms in Cochrane was cozy enough until The Weather Network informed us that it was -35C outside and we could look forward to a high of -29C in the afternoon, at least it was going to be sunny. A good day to spend many hours on a train but we had planned on spending a couple of hours walking around Moosonee once we got there and that was still 186 miles farther north. It was a good thing we all had a ton of winter gear packed. Southern Ontario had just experienced a green Christmas but the north had plenty of snow and ice so we had come prepared.
After a quick trip to Timmies we walked over to the train station and joined all the people who were heading back to the north after visiting friends and family for the holidays. Around 8:30am we boarded the train and watched as everyone made several trips to and from the station to load all their gifts and purchases onto the train. Several trucks had been loaded onto flatbed cars earlier and a food truck had pulled up to supply the dining car.
We weren't seated together but some of the seats on the train will spin so you end of with four seats in a booth configuration and since the car we were in wasn't very crowded it was convenient to trade seats with another group of people so they could sit together as well. The train was full of colourful characters including members of the local Cree population which accounts for about 85 percent of Moosonee, tourists like us and at least one local gentleman who was very willing to conduct a informal commentary of the journey.
Once the train was underway and Cochrane had drifted into the distance we entered a wilderness that stretched on forever and was decorated like a winter wonderland. There were spruce trees laden with heavy snow as far as the eye could see. Along the way the tracks cross several rivers one of which is the Moose River which needs a bridge that is half a mile long to get to the other side. The train crosses this bridge at only ten kilometers per hour so there are plenty of photo opportunities. There is also a very large hydroelectric dam visible at one of the crossings. With the exception of tiny communities like Fraserdale and Moose River which looked fairly deserted at this time of year the only buildings along the way are small cabins and hunting camps that sit at the edge of the railway line all boarded up until next season.
We arrived at Moosonee around 2:30pm and bundled up to see the town. Many of the houses and buildings were much more modern than we had expected and it was quite a pleasant stroll will the exception of being able to feel your lungs freezing with every breath. We walked to the high banked shore of the Moose River to look out over the islands of Tidewater Provincial Park and to see the ice road that links Moosonee to Moose Factory, the site of the very first Hudson's Bay Company Trading Post. In the winter the ice road provides fast easy access across the huge river but in summer boats are used to get from town to town and in the fall and spring helicopters are necessary because the high school is located in Moosonee and the hospital in Moose Factory. The ice road was quite busy with a stream of vehicles coming and going including many 4x4 trucks with taxi signs on them and the bank of the river had a stream of children tobogganing down the steep slope apparently unaffected by the cold temperature.
Once we had explored the town we had a late lunch at the small KFC/Pizza Hut/General Store and headed back to the station to board the train for our return trip. We departed Moosonee at 5pm and the sun had almost completely disappeared. Since the trip back to Cochrane was in the dark it consisted of several naps but if the trip was taken during a full moon or during summer it would be just as beautiful as the morning's journey.
Taking the Polar Bear Express to Moosonee and back without staying the night up there makes for a very long day but it is a trip that is worth taking at least once in your life like a bucket list item. It is, after all, the Gateway to the Arctic and Ontario's only salt water port. Trails and Tamaracks will probably make the journey once more to see the area in the summer, maybe again to go over to Moose Factory, perhaps again to travel out to James Bay, maybe once more to canoe some of the rivers, possibly once more to ... you get the idea.