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Polar Express

Do You Know the Way to Moosonee?

By Annette Greene

Do you Know the way to Moosonee?Room With a View © Matt McGillivray

It was hard to believe that 375 million years ago this area around Moosonee and Fossil Island in James Bay (the southern arm of Hudson Bay) had been teeming with pre-historic life submerged in a semi tropical ocean. This was just one of the surprising bits of information I learned during my 4-day excursion to northern Ontario, a trip out of Toronto sponsored by Via Rail Canada.               

“There's nothing up there,” said my father when he heard where I was going. I had been in St. Catharines visiting my family for a month but was in need of a break.                

“That's precisely why I want to go.”                

Of course I knew that there were going to be some interesting things to see in this isolated part of the province. I had been living in Tokyo and Singapore for the last fifteen years and, therefore, visiting a less-developed area like this appealed to me.                

The Northlander train was late leaving Toronto, but when we finally got to Cochrane, our motel was inviting and comfortable. I asked a woman who was working there what it was like to live in this small town of 5,000 inhabitants on the shores of Commando Lake.                

“I grew up here and I love it. There are so many winter sports like curling and skidooing… I can't imagine living anywhere else,” she said.                

Early the next morning at the train station, I watched the Polar Bear Express pull up with its yellow and blue Ontario Northland locomotive attached to both freight and passenger cars. This was a popular trip and the train was full of tourists, many of them Americans travelling in groups. With reclining seats and large windows, as well as a domed observation car, it was easy to settle in for the 300-km ride.

As we headed out of town, the view was of flat land, short trees, lakes and scrub brush, and wet-looking ground that was almost swampy at times. We were travelling in an area of northern Ontario that one couldn't drive through because there simply weren't any roads. I asked one of the people working on the train why we were going so slowly and how late we were going to be getting into Moosonee.                

“It always takes longer in the summer when the ground is thawing. At times like this we have to go slower. In the winter everything is frozen and the train can move at much faster speeds.”

Polar ExpressAll Aboard © Matt McGillivray

Six hours after our departure from Cochrane, we arrived in Moosonee (pop. 3,500, 85% of Cree heritage), a saltwater port located at the base of James Bay. After checking into the Polar Bear Lodge, I was anxious to get out, explore and go on the afternoon tour to Fossil Island. A 24-foot motorized freighter canoe took us over to the island's rocky shoreline full of fossil-rich limestone deposits. Although walking on the boulders along the island's edges was a little difficult, there was a great incentive to search for some treasures to bring home. In fact, there were plenty of rocks containing fossils, and we were warned to pick up only one or two as souvenirs.

A rock from this beach now sits on my desk as my favorite paperweight. It fits solidly in the palm of my hand and is unique because of its two fossil imprints. On one side is the impression of a snail-like creature about 2.5 centimetres in diameter, and on the other side is a line about 4 centimetres long with small projections that, upon first glance, appear to be teeth. When I showed it to our guide on Fossil Island, however, she told me that the projections were likely the edge of some type of shellfish.

Three hours later we were back in town in time for dinner. I decided to skip the optional evening tour to the garbage dump to look for polar bears. There was no guarantee that they would appear and, regardless, under no circumstances would we be allowed out of the bus. Instead, I wandered around the sleepy town with its numerous churches and one- and two-storey buildings dotting the landscape, and then turned in early, looking forward to a full day coming up.                

Polar ExpressPolar Bear Express © Matt McGillivray

The next morning after breakfast, I went out to the boat that would take us down the Moose River and out into James Bay. It was a small vessel with comfortable, inside seating on two levels for up to 35 people. I immediately went to the top level and noticed most seats had already been taken. As I was alone, I decided to see if two men sitting at a booth for four wouldn't mind if I, a single woman, joined them. Henrick and Paul, a father and son and from Holland, looked a little startled as I sat down and introduced myself. Henrick, a widower in his 70s, and Paul, his only child, were visiting Canada for a few weeks to see relatives. After their initial surprise at my forwardness, we settled down into easy conversation. A slight man in his 40s, Paul was quiet and shy but warmed up as the day wore on. Henrick was much more outgoing and seemed to delight in my company.

As the boat left the river and entered James Bay, I could see the water in front of us looking more like an ocean. We had come this far north but were still south of the magnificent Hudson Bay, the largest body of saltwater in northeastern Canada.               

This chance encounter with two Dutch gentlemen set the tone for the rest of the trip. Over the next day and a half, we shared meals, train rides, and visits to the Moosonee Cemetery and town crafts market. I'd taken this trip alone but, quite unexpectedly, had made two new friends to share the experience with.              

I traveled back to Toronto with Henrick and Paul – the train making better time than it did on the trip north – and, before we knew it, our journey was over. We exchanged addresses and promised to write. I was happy to see my family again after this 4-day break and had lots of stories to tell them. My father got an earful about how much there was to see and do in that northern part of the province, an area that he had never visited. I was certainly glad I had.

Annette Greene is a freelance writer and educator from Vancouver B.C. She lived in Asia for 18 years and currently lives in Washington D.C. She writes on a variety of topics including health and wellness, education, travel, and cross-cultural communication.

Matt McGillivray's images can be enjoyed at www.flickr.com/photos/qmnonic/ For more information on the Polar Bear Express go to www.ontarionorthland.ca/en/