logoPolar Bear Express Train Ride to Moosonee, Hudson Bay , Ontario, Canada. (Ed Anderson)


polar bear express

Polar Bear Express

During the summer of 1974, while living on Grand Island, we packed up the travel trailer, which we had purchased from an older couple for a very small amount of money, and headed north, for 1000 miles into Canada. I had read "The young fur traders", by a Scotsman called Robert Ballanytyne, and I wanted to see this "rugged north " for myself. And I liked train rides. Our children were still very young, around 5 years and two and a half years.

Along the way we travelled the sparsely populated highways of Canada cut out of the rock formations. I had learned that Timmins, Ontario was famous for its mines, silver and gold mines. And I reminded the family of those facts as we travelled. Having read about gold being in close proximity to quartz veins, as we travelled near Timmins, Ontario we peeled our eyes on the freshly cut rock that the new highway had revealed. And there, glimmering in the sky scraping rock on the side of the road, was a nice wide quartz vein and right beside it was a thick metal vein of some sort. I pulled over off the road and scrambled up the rock with the boys in tow. I began chipping away at the metal vein all the while wondering if the police would arrest me for stealing gold from their roadside. As every car passed us, they looked up at me wondering what I was up to.

After an hour or so of painstaking rock hounding, I scrambled back down the cliff with a small parcel of some very precious looking material. It would have to wait until later when a local Grand Island jeweller would take a look at the metal chunks and declare them to be “most likely pyrite” - Fools’ Gold! Fool or no fool, the excitement of gold fever was a feeling I shall not forget. Around Timmins, we passed a sign that stated all rivers from now on flowed north. Good, downhill now, maybe we will save on the gas.

I continued along the way toward our destination - Cochrane, Ontario - the northern most city in Ontario, Canada which could be reached by automobile. The terrain became more flat and was dotted with a peculiar small scrawny looking tree. Those trees I learned were called Tamaracks and thought they appeared to be young and undeveloped, they were actually 200 years or more old. The trees did not grow to more than a few feet high because of the harsh northern winter temperatures and the permafrost in the ground. I had entered the tundra land of northern Canada. Once in Cochrane I found a campground. I was used to campsites where you pulled your trailer into a cramped campground and spend most of an hour or so wedging your trailer into a small plot that was surrounded by other campers. Each campsite there was almost an acre of woodland, and a neighbouring camper was not even in sight. Luckily we had planned ahead for cooking our meals.

After enjoying a campfire and a good meal, we were treated to the Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis, as they are better known.

Amazing Northern Lights Time Lapse

Shortly after getting the boys snug into their beds, we heard a loud clanging right outside the camper. I scrambled to the nearest small window and shone a flashlight out to the trash can area. There peering back as me, completely unphased by my light beam, was a huge black bear chomping away at what we had not finished for dinner. At that moment I remembered a rule of backcountry camping – don’t cook inside your trailer in black bear country. The odours of the cooking still lingered in the trailer and I started thinking about defending ourselves against the bear should the powerful beast decide that the morsels in the trash can were only his appetizer. Luckily, the bear had his own agenda and it meandered off and about 5 minutes later I heard the distant sound of someone else’s trash can being raided. In the north country, I think trailers are safer than tents.

Learning to count bears  in Canada. Proppe's Paddles: Rick Mercer Visits Algonquin Park

The next morning I purchased our tickets to ride The Polar Bear Express to Moosonee. While purchasing the tickets I met Nan and Carl Matthis who were from Amherst, NY, about 30 minutes from our home on Grand Island. Nan and Carl were both physicists and were travelling with their two children. They had spent the night in the same campground we were in and we talked about the bears that visited each of our sites the night before. Nan and Carl turned out to be delightful people and we exchanged phone numbers and kept in touch for years afterwards. They moved out of state and we lost touch. Carl died unexpectedly a few years later of diverticulitis and other complications. He was found dead, parked in his car on the side of a road.

There was a lot of excitement surrounding this train trip north to a land that could only be reached by aircraft or by this train ride, or by dogsled in the wintertime. The Polar Bear Express was a vintage steam train and started its 300 kilometres, four and a half hour trip, with a sharp blast from its steam horn. As the train travelled through the heavily forested woodlands, it crossed the huge Abitibi River and then the half-mile wide Moose River. The rail line had been completed in 1932 and was enjoying a heavy tourist trade during the summer months. It was stifling hot inside the train.

ONR 421 arrives at Moosonee

We arrived in Moosonee, a very small, dusty town of dirt streets and wooden sidewalks. We walked round and found a small boat dock, where the local Cree Indians provided a crude boat ride to Moose Factory Island. I remember the sound of the small motor on the wooden boat that could only hold about 15 people at a time, and the reddish brown water that it kicked up in its wake. I learned later that brownish water was what is known as brackish waters. Brackish waters are where fresh water and salt water sources mix. Brackish waters have their very own ecosystems and are another study in and of themselves. However, at that time, my ignorance made me think how on earth the waters that far north could be so polluted!

Freighter Canoe Ride from Moose Factory to Moosonee: July 02nd, 2010

Once on Moose Factory Island, there was more walking to be done to a Cree Cultural Center where we got to view Cree Indian handicrafts first hand. We wandered around some more, wondering why on earth we came to this place for vacation. Finally, we returned by the motorboat to Moosonee and then headed back to Cochrane aboard The Polar Bear Express. Heading south , we saw some people picking blueberries. We visited some more campgrounds along the way. We even heard wolves howling one night.

Wolves Howling

This was one vacation we would all remember. But no-one wanted a return visit.