The summer of 2016 continues and here is another vacation report, the second of three. Last month we went camping at Darien Lake in New York. This time we went north, then north again, then way north, and then took a train to go even further north.
The destination was the tiny towns of Moosonee and Moose Factory, on the Moose River about 19km southwest of James Bay. In Ontario, this is way the hell up north but in terms of latitude, it’s about the same as Edmonton or London, England. We don’t know anyone who lives in either of these towns so it was not a trip to visit family, and it’s not a big tourist spot but it’s a place we’d never been and a long train trip through the north sounded fun. Also the thought of seeing polar bears and the Northern Lights was a big draw but that ended up being quite different from what we were hoping.
I did not set the trip odometer on the van before we left (and we didn’t drive the whole way anyway) so I don’t know how far we actually travelled, but Moosonee is 885 km from Waterdown as the crow flies, essentially dead north. Google Maps says the drive from home to my parents’ place in Baysville to the motel in Cochrane is 784 km, and the train trip from Cochrane to Moosonee is about 300 km, so we travelled almost 1100km one way – about the same distance from our house as Nashville, TN. And we didn’t even leave Ontario – I don’t imagine there are a lot of states in the US (or entire countries in Europe) where you could travel 1100 km in a straight line and not leave the state/country.
The vacation started on Saturday, July 30, 2016 – my 47th birthday. We drove up to Baysville to stay with my parents for a few days. My sister and her four-year-old daughter Liv were there as well so it was a nice long family weekend. I won’t go into great detail about that part of the trip, but there was some beach time, lots of reading and card games, computer upgrades (I do that a lot at my parents / in-laws’ places…), afternoon naps, and we even went to see Jason Bourne at a theatre in Bracebridge. It was a relaxing four days at the cottage, and then our northern adventure began.
Wednesday, Aug 3
We left the cottage first thing Wednesday morning. By “first thing” I mean 8:30 or so but considering Gail was sleeping until 10:30-11:00 each of the previous few days, this was pretty early. We arrived in Sundridge (chez Matthews) around 9:45 to pick up Gail’s stepmother Jackie and our niece Alison, who accompanied us on the trip. After a brief stop we continued north, stopping for tea in North Bay and lunch at a truck stop called Gilli’s in New Liskeard. We arrived at the ThriftLodge in Cochrane around 4:30. Gail and the boys and I were in one room while Jackie and Alison were next door.
We knew this wasn’t going to be the Ritz-Carlton and it wasn’t but it was a decent place for the price. The beds were fine, there was a TV and fridge in the room, and free wi-fi. We needed a few extra towels and that was no problem. The biggest problem was the heat – it was 31° when we arrived and didn’t get much cooler overnight, which was a problem because the A/C unit was kind of junky. It chugged away all night but didn’t really reduce the temperature very much.
One thing that we thought was amusing was the decor – one of the walls was painted with the lower half purple and the upper half beige, but there was an easily-visible pencil line where the two colours met and the painting at the pencil line was not clean at all. It looked like it wasn’t quite finished. There was also a chain-lock on the door which was broken.
After checking in, we drove into town and went to the park next to the lake (Commando Lake). Jackie grew up in northern Ontario, mostly Timmins, but she spent her grade ten year in Cochrane so she pointed out where things used to be, most of which were no longer there. We walked around and over the lake (there’s a bridge across the middle) and then once people started to get hungry, we decided on Subway for dinner. We picked up our sandwiches and went back to the hotel to eat and play Yahtzee. I don’t actually remember who won the game (I think it was me) but it’s important that you all know that I was the only one who actually achieved a Yahtzee.
Thursday, Aug 4
We set an alarm and got up at 7:00. After showers and something quick to eat (Jackie brought muffins and we had some granola bars stashed away), we packed our backpacks. Since we were taking the train to Moosonee, we wouldn’t have the van handy so we had to carry everything we’d need. We drove to the train station around 8:00 and found our seats. The train left at 9:00 and our tickets were collected shortly after that. Once they had our tickets, we were free to move around the train. The train seats were comfortable, though most of the armrests between them were broken. You could raise or lower the armrest but if it was raised, the slightest pressure from leaning on it (i.e. attempting to actually use it for its intended purpose) would lower it anyway. Our car was maybe 1/2 to 3/4 full.
Our car was in between the dining car (to the back) and the observation car. We first headed to the dining car where we bought breakfast. There quite a wide variety of options available: coffee, tea, bagels, fruit, cereal, and various toasted egg sandwiches. It wasn’t the cheapest breakfast ever but the prices were surprisingly reasonable. When you’re selling to people trapped on a train for five hours with no other food options, you could easily charge $4 for a coffee and $10 for an egg sandwich but the prices weren’t bad. After breakfast, we spent most of the trip in the observation car playing cards. I think Jackie, Alison, and Gail each had naps.
The scenery from the train was basically the same the whole trip – thousands and thousands of black spruce trees. But this was not a vast field of Christmas trees; the majority were tall and narrow and scrubby-looking. Some looked like 50-foot poles with branches only on the top 10 feet. For part of the trip, there were power lines parallel to the tracks. To build the towers, there was a strip about 50 feet wide next to the tracks where all the trees had been removed. Oddly, every few hundred feet there was a rectangular section beyond that strip where the trees had also been removed. This meant that the tree line following the tracks, if viewed from above, would have looked vaguely like a square waveform.
We weren’t actively looking for wildlife but we may have seen two birds the entire trip. That’s it. Despite the fact that the train is known as “the Polar Bear Express”, we knew we wouldn’t see polar bears from the train. Bears and moose were also unlikely but we figured we might see something, even if it was just a squirrel in the distance. This lack of wildlife held up the rest of the trip, as we saw a few more birds in Moosonee and Moose Factory, but nothing else.
We arrived in Moosonee right on time, around 2:45, and it was surprisingly hot considering how far north we’d travelled. Just like Cochrane the day before, it was 31° and humid when we arrived. We had booked rooms at a B&B called the Moose River Guest House, which was a five minute walk from the train station. The place was beautiful, quite possibly the nicest B&B we’ve ever stayed at. It had six guest rooms, a common area, dining room, an enclosed outdoor sun room, and a huge kitchen, all of which were at our disposal. It had hardwood floors throughout and was beautifully furnished and decorated. Each room had only one bed, so we had to book three rooms. Ryan and I stayed in one, Gail and Nicky in another, and Jackie and Alison in a third. Jackie & Alison’s room was massive – a queen bed, ensuite bathroom, and a large L-shaped sitting area with a desk, couch, a few chairs including a big recliner, and a bookshelf with lots of books. Our rooms were smaller but still very comfortable.
I can’t say enough good things about our stay at this B&B. The manager, Trudy, was very friendly and accommodating, and the fact that there were no other guests at the time meant that we had the whole house to ourselves. Even after we checked out on the Friday, she said we could keep our bags there until we had to leave for the train, and even come back and make use of the house if we had time to kill.
After checking in and dropping our bags, we headed out into Moosonee. We had been told there wasn’t an awful lot to see so we figured we’d walk down to the river. We were also told that pretty much everything was on the main street so while walking toward the river, we looked for the main street. It wasn’t until we were almost at the river that I realized we were already on the main street. “Everything is on the main street” was referring to the elementary school (in the same building as the Northern College Moosonee campus), the grocery store, hardware store, LCBO, post office, municipal building, and restaurant.
By the time we got to the river, the black flies had gotten so bad that we just turned around. We rarely get black flies at home but the further north you go, the worse they get. In Muskoka, they’re bad in May and June and then that’s it; it’s mostly just mosquitos after that. In Moosonee, the black flies are bad all summer.
There’s only one restaurant in town, called the Sky Ranch. We had planned on having dinner there but when we found the place, it looked like a nasty little hole-in-the-wall and we changed our minds. Perhaps the view from the outside was deceiving and the food was outstanding – I’ve certainly been to places like that before. But we weren’t willing to take that chance. Since we had the use of the kitchen at the B&B, we decided to stop at the grocery store and pick up some stuff for dinner. It was a fully-stocked grocery store but our options were still limited because prices were insane. A bag of chips was $5.99. A case of Coke was $17.99. One box of KD – $1.29 at home, $0.99 on sale – was something like $4.29. Pretty much everything was at least double what we’d pay at home. Welcome to the north.
We were going to grab a box of wings or chicken fingers or something easy but couldn’t justify the cost. We ended up buying a box of fettucine, a couple of jars of alfredo sauce, and a surprisingly inexpensive premade salad. On our way back, we stopped in at Northern College and looked around at the displays of Native culture. There were paintings and sculptures, but also examples of beading and moccasins, various hunting and trapping implements, and other historical information. It was like a mini-museum with classrooms in between the exhibits. We stayed a little while (not gonna lie, we also enjoyed the air conditioning) and then returned to the B&B for dinner.
After dinner we thought about going back out for a walk around town but the torrential rain and gale-force (probably not, but strong) winds make us reconsider. Instead we stayed cozy and dry inside the B&B, playing cards and watching the Jays game until bedtime.
While this far north, we were hoping to strike something off of both Gail’s bucket list and mine: seeing the northern lights. It’s exceptionally rare to see them in the Toronto area, partially because we’re too far south but mostly because of all the light pollution. Apparently Moosonee is a great place to see them, though they’re more prevalent in the winter. We set an alarm and at the stroke of midnight, …
Friday, August 5
…Nicky and I got up and went outside. It had stopped raining so we looked up and immediately were greeted by a very bright street light. Ah, light pollution, we meet again. But it didn’t really matter, since it was far too overcast to see anything. We thought we’d at least get a non-light-polluted look at the Milky Way, but we couldn’t see any stars at all. We were only out for a few minutes before giving up and returning to bed. The rain soon returned and there was lots of thunder overnight.
In the morning, we woke to find that Trudy had set out things for breakfast. There were a few types of cereal, some hard-boiled eggs, bagels, bread, oatmeal, milk, juice, and of course coffee and tea. After eating, we packed up our bags and put them in the sun room, then walked down to the docks. Luckily the black flies weren’t nearly as bad on this day as the previous day. We took a water taxi over to Moose Factory Island. The normal price is $15 per person but our taxi driver (since it’s a boat would it be taxi pilot? taxi captain?) gave us a deal: $10 per person and if we book a ride back later, he’ll give us the same price for the return trip.
He dropped us off at the Eco Lodge, which is a hotel in suburban Moose Factory. From the web site, somehow I had the impression that the Eco Lodge was more than just a hotel, though I wasn’t sure what. I thought maybe there were exhibits or a small museum or something but no, it was just a hotel. A beautiful-looking hotel, but nothing more. Even the restaurant was closed until dinner time. We walked into town, about 20 minutes, until we arrived at the Thomas Cheechoo Jr. Memorial Complex, located on Jonathan Cheechoo Drive. I believe the street is named for the Jonathan Cheechoo who used to play for the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, and I imagine he’s also related to the building’s namesake.
The complex was the site of the final day of a “Gathering Of Our People” (and we did see signs advertising it as GOOP). Both Moosonee and Moose Factory have large native communities; in fact I heard that something like 80% of the population is Cree. As part of the Gathering there was a powwow, but it was the previous day so we missed it. There was a live band playing; I expected it to be traditional Cree music and was interested to hear that, but to my surprise they launched into a bunch of CCR songs. We grabbed some lunch and Gail, Nicky, and Alison tried their hand at archery.
We planned on heading down to the Cree Cultural Centre but as we started walking in that direction, the rain returned. We decided to head back to the Eco Lodge and wait for the water taxi, since we were getting wet and we wouldn’t have much time at the Cultural Centre anyway. It only really rained for 10-15 minutes and then it got hot so we were mostly dry by the time we got back to the Lodge. After a short wait, our water taxi arrived and returned us back to the mainland. By this time it was raining again so we took a taxi back to the B&B for guess what? More cards!
Around 4:00 we grabbed all of our things and headed to the train station. Being a Friday night, the train was much more full than it had been on the way up. We had dinner on the train, and Jackie, Alison, and the boys spend most of the trip in the dome car again, while Gail and I read / napped.
We arrived back in Cochrane around 9:50pm. We drove back to the Thriftlodge and checked in again. The four of us got exactly the same room we had before while Jackie and Alison were a couple of doors down. Remember I said that our room looked not-quite-finished? That’s because it wasn’t. While watching the Jays game before bed, I happened to look at the wall next to the TV and saw that the pencil line had been covered with wooden trim, and the broken chain lock had been replaced with a gleaming gold bar lock. The room looked much better – clearly they were busy while we were gone.
Saturday, August 6
In the morning, we packed up, checked out, and headed to Tim Horton’s for breakfast. After we ate, we drove over to Cochrane’s main tourist attraction, the Polar Bear Habitat. I was a little worried that it was going to be a crappy little zoo with an old and mistreated polar bear, or maybe two, but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was a lovely place and while it’s true that there were only two polar bears, they were anything but mistreated. The Habitat is not just a place where the public can see polar bears, it’s a place where scientists study and care for polar bears – in fact it’s the only place dedicated to polar bears in the world. We arrived just in time for the “meet the keeper” talk, where a scientist told us all about the facility and the bears. She was clearly Australian, and I thought it was odd that an Australian would want to study polar bears since Australia is about as far from where polar bears live as you can get. She told us that she was studying brown and grizzly bears in BC when this job came up and she couldn’t turn it down.
Anyway, she was full of great information and very accommodating. She must have spent an hour talking to all of the visitors. The two massive bears were both wandering around their enclosures and one even went for a swim. I was amazed at the overall size of the bears but in particular, their paws were enormous. Outside, there was a “heritage” village, recreations of a number of old buildings from the area. One was a railroad station with lots of train memorabilia, including a video of the history of Cochrane and its fires – the town has burned entirely to the ground twice. But they learned: the second time they rebuilt the town, the first thing they built was the fire station.
Here’s a video of Henry the polar bear trying to get into his room. The doors were closed because they were cleaning it, so he couldn’t get in. But he kept checking and every time he found the doors closed, he swung his head around in this hilarious frustrated-looking manner, as if he were saying “my GOD, it’s STILL closed!” We must have watched him do this 20 times.
The Polar Bear Habitat was a great place and a fun way to spend a few hours. After perusing the gift shop, we got in the van and headed south to Sundridge, stopping for lunch at Rolly’s Restaurant near New Liskeard. We also stopped a few times to take pictures of the big statues of things we saw on the way up – a buffalo, a lumberjack, a pickerel, a cow, and in Cochrane, a polar bear.
We spent the night in Sundridge and drove home the next day, thus ending the second of our three mini-vacations this summer.
All in all, I have to say this wasn’t our most exciting vacation ever. Moosonee and Moose Factory are not really tourist towns and there wasn’t really a lot to see. There were no moose and no polar bears (except where we expected them to be but no wild polar bears) – we didn’t even see any squirrels. No northern lights and no view of the Milky Way. And there were bugs and a lot of rain. But we had fun anyway. We spent a lot of time playing cards and reading, and I suppose we could do that at home. But we also got to visit an area of the country that we’d never been to before, stayed in a lovely little B&B, experienced a bit of Native culture, and met a lot of friendly people. We also took a trip on a train (that wasn’t a GO train) which is something we haven’t done since France in 2008. I’m not sure I’ll go back, but I’m glad we went.