Cochrane to Moosoonee (Polar Bear Express)

It wasn’t a goodnight; I woke at 3.30am to hear the TV in the next room quite loudly. I could also hear snoring indicating that the occupant had fallen asleep with the TV on. Sue was also awake so it was decided to try the trusted method of knocking on the wall. It was to no avail, even when I hit the wall with as much venom as possible for that time in the morning. Plan B was to be avoided as we are in North America (knocking on the door), they have guns up here and a tendency to use them, then think afterwards. So Plan C was put into operation, I rang the room on the internal phone. After a few moments of ringing it was picked up and immediately put down. Good, I now had their attention. I rang again and was greeted with a, “What is it?” I pointed out that we were in the room next door and asked him to turn his TV off. The TV went silent and 5 minutes later the snoring replaced the brief silence. You can’t win them all I thought, but a gun would come in handy.

The alarm woke us at 7.30am and after a much needed, strong coffee we readied ourselves for the day’s activity.

We arrived at the train station, parked the car and waited in the platform waiting room along with a dozen or so of other passengers. Most seemed of local Indian descent, but a few appeared to be tourists like ourselves. The Polar Bear Express is a really a local workhorse that satisfies the needs of the tiny settlements in the north of Ontario and is not the glamorous fantasy speedster as the name intimates. However, the seating is the most comfortable I have ever sat in, though they need to be as the track is far from flat or seemingly parallel. Lurches and violent swings are the norm. The train left on time.

The seats have charging points, both mains and USB, so I plugged in my mobile, brought up a Map App and checked our progress on its little screen, for any points along our route that might be worthy of a photo.

The weather was very kind to us; much of the day was just clear, warm blue skies with occasional puffy clouds, which we soon left far behind us. The route is 186km long, always heading north, but winding through forest, along lake shores and over rivers from mighty to tiny. The ground became obviously more sodden the further we went and the height of the trees, mostly lodge-pole pine, seemed to shrink in size but never in density of population.

There was the occasional cabin, and outbuildings, but even these thinned out as we progressed north. I guess there are people brave enough to want to scratch a living in remote locations but there are obviously even less who are mad enough to attempt it where even the flora and fauna struggle to survive.

The train can be waved to a stop at various halts along the track and this was the case. Most often when people disembarked or joined our lurching metal steed, I could see no habitation or even a path that led out of the forest! The legend of the Greenman came to mind, but that is fanciful, they must have come from, or are going to a location that affords shelter, it just wasn’t here. More usual to my mind was when two guys on ATV’s (quad bikes) waved us to a stop. They mounted the train with rucksacks on backs, but left their expensive machines parked at the side of the track. We were in the middle of nowhere, so I guess that they were not going to be stolen unless the local bears have acquired a new skill, yet it just felt odd.

The scenery was endless pine and occasional stands of deciduous, mostly birch. There were many signs of logging, with great tracts along the line having been felled and in various stages of regrowth. We saw very little wildlife, just birds and not many of them, but they were big! The ponds and little streams were everywhere and like their larger counterparts were tea coloured, Yorkshire tea I fancy! I have seen the same colour in the water courses in the highlands of Scotland, so either it is a mixture of minerals and bog-moss that is responsible or the locals are distilling an awful lot of whisky.

Before we got to Moosoonee one of our stops was at a hydroelectric plant, awe inspiring to see how the water had been bent to mans’ use in such a remote location. To see the water thundering over the dam was quite spectacular.

We had breakfast on board the train and despite it being a golden opportunity to fleece the passengers, the prices were very reasonable. However, most of the native Indian passengers brought their own food and drink to consume on board.

Arriving in Moosoonee we disembarked to a gorgeously warm afternoon. We had been promised a stopover of 3 hrs 10 min, but due to the many halts we had lost half an hour. Couldn’t be helped, this train was for the locals not us. Most other passengers disappeared in cars, some in taxis. A few like us moved off on foot in various directions. We chose to head down what appeared the main street towards the body of water in the distance.

The town’s people of Moosoonee (pop. 4500) were going about their business as we first passed the school, then a supermarket, a church, a restaurant and then a bar (closed). Arriving at the Moose River, we sat awhile and drank in the clear crisp air and watched the numerous powered canoes charge about picking up and then disappearing in one direction or another in delivering their cargo of passengers. Most seemed to take the same route and we guessed that this must be to The Eco Village at the Moose factory on an island in the river. We had tried to book accommodation there but they had failed to respond to any of my emails. A shame.

The water and air seemed to sparkle, which is fortunate as this is a town without tarmac, compact dirt and grit are the roads surfaces and dust is kicked up by passing vehicles. I bet Sue was wondering how they kept the washing clean. We roamed around the town for a couple of hours, taking photos and discussing what it would be like to live there. We passed a large machine several times that had the task of scraping the road surface flat, but frankly it made a lot of noise, a lot of dust and a not very flat surface.

The town is laid out in a grid, so isn’t difficult to navigate around but as all the local attractions (a couple of museums) don’t open until the ‘The Season’, July 1st we returned to the river and watched an array of large seals bask in the sun on a large sandbank in the middle of the river, seemingly oblivious to the scurrying powered boats zipping across the surface often quite close.

On our return to the station we went native and visited the supermarket, buying some snacks for the return journey. We thought the prices were again reasonable for such a remote location, I guess you don’t mess with these Indians!

The train left at 5pm, on time. As on the outward journey, the train was around half full, mostly locals. We made our way south under a cloudless sky, passing through the same scenery, but this time we sat on the other side of the carriage to take in anything that we hadn’t seen on the way north. We had our evening meal in the dining car, both choosing shepherd’s pie, Canadian style with sweet corn and cheese. I think that Canadian Rail have made an improvement to this very traditional English dish, very, very tasty!

If you have a phobia on trees this wouldn’t be the trip for you, but if you wish to experience the awesome determination of nature at its rawest then it is a must. The vastness of the Canadian northland viewed from above as you fly over to Calgary or Vancouver gives an insight into its beauty, but down here where you see the detail of tree, marsh, water and animal never ceases to amaze. Perhaps there is a grand plan?

We were an hour late arriving in Cochrane, it was 22.50 hrs and dark. Some (I heard) were travelling on to Toronto, good luck to them I say, and we are off to bed!

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