North to James Bay on the Polar Bear Express

THIS WAS A TRIP I HAD DREAMED OF TAKING SINCE I WAS A KID. The journey to James Bay from Cochrane, Ontario wasn’t the most glamorous or scenic of all the railway trips I took during Canada’s sesquicentennial year. There were no mountains, and painters hadn’t made it a destination. I didn’t care – there was something exotic about heading north, past the roads, to a place I’d read about in history books. I wasn’t disappointed.

I first heard about the Polar Bear Express while camping with my sister and her husband in the ’70s, traveling from one provincial park campsite to another along the Canadian Shield, enduring bugs and park toilets. There was, they told me, a train that went all the way from Toronto to the bottom of James Bay, through the forest and muskeg. Years later I would pass through Toronto’s Union Station, my eyes drawn to the departures on the Ontario Northland board, and fantasize about buying a ticket on the spot, climbing aboard and heading north, to a place as exotic to me as a rainforest or a tropical jungle.

The Northlander – the Ontario Northland train from Toronto to Cochrane – stopped running in 2012, so I had to take a Porter flight to Timmins. On the way to Cochrane we took a detour, to Cedar Meadows Resort & Spa, where in addition to a luxury hotel, owner Richard Lafleur runs a 100-acre wildlife park. He takes me on a tour of the park, visiting bison and deer and a pair of typically belligerent swans and their new family of downy cygnets.

Richard stops the truck in the middle of the road and tells me to hold tight until he gets back. After a few minutes he calls out “He’s on his way!” Not long after a juvenile moose and a fawn lope out of the trees; along with a young elk, the trio are inseparable friends, and spend most of their day together. Richard pulls a pile of freshly cut branches from the back of the truck and the pair begin snacking, distracted enough for me to get in far closer than I ever expected to get to any sort of wildlife on my trip.

We arrive in Cochrane late in the afternoon, with the sun beginning to settle in for a long northern twilight. I’m booked to stay in a tidy little hotel on the second floor of the Cochrane train station, where the Polar Bear Express arrives and departs. I get a burger in town and then go for a wander, ending up in the Ontario Northland yards adjacent to the station as the sun finally dips beneath the horizon. For a railway nut, this would be a dream come true.

THE TRACKS BENEATH MY WINDOW ARE BUSY WHEN I WAKE UP THE NEXT DAY. Yard workers have worked all night loading up flatbed cars with vehicles being shipped to the end of the line at Moosonee – there are no roads heading north, so everything going there travels on the train. The Polar Bear Express is only incidentally a tourist train – it’s a vital lifeline for the people living along the tracks and around the southern shore of James Bay. Most of my fellow travelers are locals, carrying pillows and blankets onto the train for the long nap on what is, to them, very much a commuter journey.

The train travels along 186 miles of what often seems like perfectly straight track (it isn’t) to where it follows the Abitibi River to the Moose River, past hydroelectric dams and through forest punctuated by corridors of high tension wire towers. Ontario Northland were in the middle of refurbishing passenger cars with new interiors and liveries when I took my trip. Coaches were often quiet and full of sleeping travelers, while most of the socializing happened in the lively dining car.

Thanks to fluctuating passenger numbers and budget constraints, amenities like the dining car might not be carried during some periods – check ahead before you travel and provision yourself accordingly. Tourist numbers on the train have gone down in the last few years, but Ontario Northland has plans to bring them back, and were refurbishing a scenic dome car in their Cochrane yard when I was there. Covid lockdowns meant an interruption to the train schedule in 2020, so the status of the dining and dome car on the train aren’t to be assumed on journeys taken when regular service resumes.

The views outside the train windows had an epic quality – forest and water stretching to the horizon on either side, a landscape that looked primal, even pitiless. Rivers ran dark with tannins from marshes and evergreen woods, forest so thick that you couldn’t see light through the branches and brush. Which made me wonder when the train would pull up to a flag stop and discharge passengers, a canoe unloaded from a boxcar or just a pile of backpacks. I couldn’t help but admire their bravery as the train pulled away and they disappeared down a path and into the forest.

We arrive in Moosonee not long after crossing the broad Moose River – a town of just under 1,500 on the same line of latitude as London or Berlin. There are places to stay in town, but I have a bit further to go. Wheeling my luggage down to the shores of the Moose River, I take a river taxi through the islands of Tidewater Provincial Park to the landing by the Cree Village Eco Lodge on Moose Factory Island – my home for the night.

Cree Village Ecolodge

The Eco Lodge was opened in 2000 – a project initiated by a local Cree community whose historical status had deprived them of treaty rights. As conceived by their late chief, Randy Kapeshesit, it would be built on green principles to represent and benefit the community on Moose Factory. The big A-frame dining room looks out onto the islands on the Moose River, where I enjoy a meal of salmon and baked potato (no alcohol – here or anywhere on the island) later that evening. The decor is suitably rustic, the views out onto the river spectacular.

With the long twilight still ahead of me, I take a hike along the shore of the island to the site of the Hudson’s Bay trading post that gave Moose Factory its name. There’s a museum in the old staff house, and adjacent Centennial Park is full of historical buildings moved to the spot, right by the old company cemetery with its lichen-encrusted headstones, some dating back to when the post was the Hudson’s Bay Company’s main trading post on James Bay. The park and the graveyard are overgrown when I visit in midsummer, grass growing through the planks on the boardwalk.

Hudson’s Bay Company Cemetery, Moose Factory

There’s a splendid, sometimes thrilling isolation to a place like Moose Factory – a sense of the terrible majesty of the Canadian North, even here below the treeline, with the Arctic still hundreds of miles away. The clouds are low and heavy as the sun sets that night, so no northern lights for me, though they’re a common sight on the island. Instead I get to fall asleep to a distant thunderstorm, lightning flashing up on the horizon, silhouetting the trees. It’s a strangely placid sight, and I end up having the deepest, best sleep I’ll have in months.

THE NEXT DAY BEGINS WITH YET ANOTHER JOURNEY. After breakfast and check-out, I’m met at the hotel’s landing by George Small and his son Trevor, who take me out to the mouth of the Moose River to James Bay in their water taxi. We travel down the river, past long lines of forest and beaches like the one where a pair of young moose play in the water like colts. We talk about hunting – George praises beaver meat, though I can never be sure if he’s having me on – and the tourism business. There haven’t been as many beluga whales recently – always a popular attraction – but business is still okay.

“Yesterday I took out a lady who said I was on Tripadvisor!”

We finally reach the mouth of the river and, a moment later, are out on the dark waters of James Bay, the forest and shoreline suddenly gone. Trevor cuts the engine and we float for a few long minutes under the low, heavy clouds. It’s another one of those Northern moments, profound and isolated. We all take it in silently then, as if obeying an invisible signal, the engine starts again and we head back up river.

I have time to kill when George and Trevor drop me off on the landing by Moosonee, so I store my bag at the train station and wander around the town. It was fur that created both Moose Factory and Moosonee – the Hudson’s Bay Company on the island, after several wars, fort burnings and treaties, and their French competitor Revillon Frères at Moosonee at the start of the 20th century. Both communities were isolated until the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway laid the tracks from Cochrane in 1931, and the last annual supply ship arrived in 1936.

A group of kids stop me by the train station; they’re on a treasure hunt and have to take a picture of someone who isn’t from around here. I suppose that’s pretty obviously me. That’s the thing about visiting the North – you can never really lose that “stranger in a strange land” feeling no matter what you do. It’s an incredible, epic place, but it’s hard to forget that every minute you spend there is at the sufferance – benign or otherwise – of the people and the place.

On the train back to Cochrane I learn that the Polar Bear Express is a lot less formal than other train trips I take that year. Normally the non-passenger parts of the train and the engine especially are off limits, but I cross the Moose River in a luggage car on the way up, and start the trip home sharing the cab of the Ontario Northland diesel engine with engineer Pete Smith and his crew. It’s a pretty rough ride up front, where the only shock absorbers are under your seats, but it’s exciting to be at the head of the train as it slowly curves through the trees and marshland toward the flag stop by the Moose River crossing.

The ride back gives me a chance to really appreciate the vast, rugged landscape outside the train windows. Tamarack and black spruce fill the horizon, edged by slow creeks and rivers cut through marshland. It’s a place for the hardy, the resourceful and the desperate; it’s hard to conceive of cities ever sprouting on the muskeg, but it will always be a beacon drawing people who savour a challenge and isolation, in exchange for a front row seat on a sublime landscape.

It’s another long twilight as we ride back to Cochrane, the clouds higher and lighter this time, the light changing almost constantly. We visit the dining car a few times to chat with other travelers, but I keep getting drawn to the windows by the doors between the trains, which I can open, leaning out with my cameras into the rush of clean, bracing wind. As the sun sets we’re treated to a rainbow, arcing over the trees, then another, faintly echoing the first.

But I’m sure you’re asking – Rick, where were the polar bears? The truth is that there aren’t a lot of sightings of the Arctic’s big, white apex predator out by Moosonee, and if you’re intent on polar bear sightings you’d probably better book a trip up to Churchill, Manitoba. But just a walk away from the train station at Cochrane you can get the next best thing at the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat, a wildlife attraction and research centre home to a trio of bears who spend most of their time wandering eighteen acres of enclosures on the edge of town.

Breakfast has just been served when I arrive to see Inukshuk, the oldest of the trio and a truly massive animal, carrying what’s left of a beaver carcass down to the pool. He pauses from his meal occasionally to sniff the air, his nose obviously picking up something interesting. We’re told that he’s actually smelling us, that polar bears can pick up a scent from a kilometer or more away, and that it’s a good thing we’re on the other side of either a tall fence or very thick glass. The time, however brief, I send with Inukshuk seems like a fine way to end the trip with one more box checked off. My journey north has been awesome, even life-changing, and I head home hungry for more.

Rick McGinnis was hosted by Ontario Northlandwhich did not approve or review this story.

Photos and story © 2017, 2021 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved