Now that we've been to Moosonee -- and returned alive -- we're never taking a vacation again. I don't mean we're never leaving home again, but we're just going to stop trifling with all that tourist nonsense.
From now on, it's strictly Expeditions for us. Danger. Thrills. Suspense, tension, anxiety, the unexpected, the unknown. Strange tongues, incomprehensible alphabets, weird noises, goings-on without names. Terra Incognita or Bust.
When my wife, Cyndy, and I found ourselves drooling for some ambitious wilderness backpacking in the weird, wild and unknown -- but still a place on this continent we could reach without an expensive flight -- we stumbled on Moosonee (Moose-uh-KNEE) and its older sister Indian settlement, Moose Factory, Ontario.
Moosonee is a classic frontier town on the edge of the Arctic wilderness, a settlement almost completely sealed from civilization for most of the year by the fierce Arctic winter. But it's also one of two spots on the vast Canadian subarctic tidal sea of James Bay and Hudson's Bay you can reach by train.
During Moosonee's brief spring-summer-fall (sundown at 10 p.m., front-row seats for the Aurora Borealis and no guarantees it won't snow in June), those who make the trek find themselves part of the strange, austere, even dangerous land where Rogers' Rangers searched for the Northwest Passage, where show-shod Mounties pursued renegade trappers, and Cree Indians and Inuits (the Canadians' Eskimos) still eke out their ancient, fierce and unforgiving survival of nomadic hunting and fishing.
To get us as far north as possible by car and rail, our travel agent spent a half hour on her phone and computer exploring routes and turf where, it seemed, no travel agent had gone before. She routed our car to Cochrane, Ontario -- the farthest point north that the highways go -- where we were to catch a train called The Polar Bear Express, run by a provincial agency called the Ontario Northland Railway.
The rail line runs for 200 miles through forest wilderness, and the trip takes about six hours. During our target dates, the train only made the Cochrane-Moosonee run twice a week, with three stops at isolated Indian settlements en route. (There's also a local, but it's so slow -- up to three times as long a trip -- that we were cautioned to avoid it at all costs.)
On a last-minute hunch took along our winter jackets and gloves, and headed north. On our first night out, we camped 200 miles north of Montreal. Pushing on all the next day, we crossed the Quebec-Ontario border at about 9 p.m. in an all-night dash to Cochrane to make sure we'd have plenty of time to catch the train.
We were on the southern fringe of a scrub pine forest so vast, unbroken and isolated that fires in the 1930s consumed thousands of square miles of timber and now merit their own historical markers. Like great volcanic eruptions, they darkened the world's skies.
By 10 p.m., we were well inside Ontario, but there was still daylight as we pushed northwest up Route 11. Suddenly, I screeched the car into a tiny roadside park and pointed at a huge, faded wooden sign:
"Arctic Watershed," it read. "From This Point All Streams Flowing North Empty into the Arctic Ocean."
We danced a little jig in the deserted park as a cold, misty rain began to fall. We were delirious with Arctomania.
A few miles later, we noticed that the rain on the windshield was not doing what rain's supposed to do. It was sticking to the windshield. It was snow. It was June, and it was snow and it was getting worse. Mile by mile we hauled more shirts and sweaters out of the luggage. By the time we rolled into Cochrane, at about midnight, we were in our full afterthought blizzard gear. We dropped the notion of camping and steered toward a motel.
We were reassured to hear, however, that everyone in Cochrane was just as horrified at the late date of the snowstorm; it had instantly murdered every vegetable garden in town.
The next morning we parked in a gas station lot (in sight of the Chamber of Commerce's titanic plaster polar bear, Chimo) and dragged our backpacks to depot lockers. We still had time for breakfast, before the 9 a.m. Polar Bear departure, at what may very likely be Canada's northernmost Chinese restaurant.
Most of the booths were filled with Cree and Inuit families also waiting for the train. (Inuit is the Canadian ethnic term for Eskimos; Eskimo is a resented misnomer in those parts.) I tried to ask a few questions about Moosonee, but met a nervous barrier of suspicion and shyness.
We boarded the train and managed to find seats, acquiring a traveling partner in the scramble, a young New York State fish and wildlife ranger who was using his vacation to gaze at the birds of James Bay. His expedition ambitions made ours look wimpy. While we intended to camp in a designated island park that promised some facilities, however primitive, he intended to get off the train in Moosonee, rent a canoe and paddle up an uncharted river alone as far as he could go.
The Polar Bear Express regulars -- Indians, construction workers and microwave radio repairmen -- had the ride down to a science. At 11 the bar/luncheonette car opened and about a hundred of them piled into it and began a beer spree that didn't stop until the train did five hours later. In the passenger car, our Yankee conversation attracted the attention of a young Cree college student who leaned over to eavesdrop on what he could of our wicked ways. In his arms he cradled a Bette Midler album.
The well-kept but ancient train, at best a product of the 1940s, lurched its way through woodland desolation broken only by occasional microwave towers, and stopped three times at trackside Cree villages where the entire population under 16 years of age surrounded the train, gawked (while we gawked back) and made itself available for photographs. The arrival of the PBE was hot news indeed in Otter Rapids and Onakawana.
We were traveling through the heart of the great sub-arctic pine forest; if we'd left the train and marched due west, we'd have crossed a dozen rivers without encountering a road, railway or purposeful human artifact for 400 miles. The train paralleled the Abitibi River, a wild, white-water gash in the otherwise unbroken forest plain. This land is flat, with no dramatic mountain vistas. But once beyond the railway scar and the one great hydro dam over the Abitibi, the forest goes on and on forever, in time as well as space, and humans have no power here. The tiny Indian shanty towns seem to cling nervously to trackside for their link to the rest of the human world; beyond everything else, the forest is loneliness, an uncaring domain.
When we finally pulled into Moosonee, our first glimpse disclosed the main street (there were three or four others) in one of its two phases, sea of mud. (A few days later we encountered the other phase, cloud of dust.)
It had begun to snow again and we tried to talk our companion into spending at least the first night camping in the park with us, but he was not to be deterred. At the Moose River bank, he promptly rented his canoe, consulted his compass and was never seen again, at least by us. We phoned him two weeks later, though, and found him safe, sound and disgusted that the snow had driven all his birds back south.
The town we slogged through was no plastic re-creation of the frontier. From depot to river, it was six blocks of the barest bones of civilization: red-brick one-story police station next to red-brick one-room liquor store, down the street from red-brick one-room post office, across the street from the largest town building, the public school, a joint venture of the province and an Anglican mission. The school also boasted the town's lone high-tech symbol, a satellite TV reception dish. Behind these solid edifices were dozens of cozy but meager wooden two- and three-room houses just emerging from another winter's battering and in dire need of spring flowerbeds and paint jobs.
There was also a town mystery building -- a large white-washed warehouse we passed several times before the postmaster told us what it was. "That's the Hudson's Bay Store," he said. "Used to have a sign, but it blew down a few winters ago. Guess it doesn't need a new one -- you find it or you starve." The Hudson's Bay Co., which founded the settlement in the 17th century, is the region's only purveyor of store-bought food and dry goods and the only buyer of furs, and any resident who can't make a deal with HBC -- which locals claim really stands for "Here Before Christ" -- faces a bleak, broke and hungry future.
As primitive as the town appeared, it was still a town with the promise of warmth, home cooking and indoor sleeping, but we -- well, mostly me -- had fixated for weeks on grappling with the wilderness on its own terms. So we stubbornly ignored the town's amenities and made straight for the river and the wilderness island park. It never occurred to me for an instant that in a fair fight between camper and wilderness there's always the chance the wilderness will win big. That miscalculation almost cost me my feet.
We approached a Cree Indian motor canoe taxi operator to take us to the campgrounds we'd read about -- Tidewater Provincial Park, an island in the middle of the Moose River. This inspired a small Cree huddle to determine if such a place existed, and by what name it was locally known.
"Oh, there," was the answer as the Indians pointed toward the foggy river, and we piled in for the $3 trip to the island, about a mile away.
As he deposited us on the flimsy metal pier, the snow was beginning to sock in the river; the town of Moosonee was disappearing. I inquired about his morning return schedule. "Be back at 7," he said, pulled the motor cord -- and was gone. Inland from the pier, it came as little surprise that we had the park and island entirely to ourselves. No ranger, no phone, no secret wristwatch to summon Superman. The wind began to get fierce.
We soon discovered that keeping the needle above "adventure" but below "dangerous foolhardiness" isn't that simple during a June blizzard on the Moose River. It only took 20 minutes, but after we'd set up camp behind a permanent wooden shelter to block the bitter winds, cranked up the camp stove and climbed into the tent, I couldn't feel a thing in my feet. We gulped down the blessed hot coffee.
"You'd finally done it this time," Cyndy informed me some days later. "I was positive we were going to die." No one on earth knew where we were except one vacationing wildlife ranger who was literally up a creek and an anonymous Swampy Cree canoe cabbie who, for all we knew, might suffer from short-term memory impairment.
But after sensation returned to my tootsies, the tent and mummy bags kept us warm and dry and there was no imminent danger. We just couldn't budge an inch from the tent.
In the morning, we packed and sat freezing our tails on the flimsy, bobbing aluminum dock as we prayed to various deities for our deliverance. My thoughts drifted to the fate of Scott and the Donner party.
I glanced at my watch: 7 on the nose. Putt-putt-putta-putt.
Our Cree cabbie casually nosed his canoe into the dock and waved shyly. Two frantic human Popsicles heaved their gear between the gunwhales and dove after it. The cabbie steered the canoe toward Moosonee. "I think we ought to give this guy a Big Tip," Cyndy whispered while I nodded wildly and searched my pockets for cash. As he disgorged us on the Moosonee side, he also received two bone-crunching handshakes.
Winter jackets and gloves notwithstanding, the blizzard and near-frostbite had pretty much knocked the charm and thrill out of our plans to rough it in the subarctic wilds, and we were now entirely prepared to take the rest of our vacation indoors.
We clambered up the mud slope and slogged through town until we found a boarding house called the Lily Pad No Vacancy. The lobby was deserted and we couldn't hear anything beyond it, but our arrival woke up the innkeeper, Reuben Ploughman, a retired traveling supervisor for the Hudson's Bay Company, who sleepily invited us into the kitchen for coffee.
Unfortunately, he also confirmed that the Lily Pad -- named for his wife, Lily, and her penchant for collecting ceramic frogs -- was booked solid. The Polar Bear Inn and Moose Lodge, Reuben explained, had yet to open for the tourist season, and he didn't feel moved to give the other accommodations in town very many Michelin stars.
Reuben regaled us with his own collected Tales of the Tundra. It soon became apparent that he hadn't had any new sets of ears to practice on all winter. After 30 years of supervising HBC outposts throughout the Canadian Arctic, Reuben felt Moosonee was retirement in the tropics with all the thrills of the big city.
HBC was the tune to which everyone in the High Arctic danced sooner or later, and it made the Canadian government something of an afterthought by comparison. Canada might be the law, but HBC provided the necessities of survival and set the prices. When HBC sneezes, everyone north of Cochrane shouts back "gesundheit."
Reuben had just told us about the time he and a companion tumbled into a polar bear den and had to scramble out for their skins and was winding up for another yarn when Lily arrived with great news -- the construction worker in No. 2 had checked out to go back on the morning Express, and we were invited to have his room. (He changed his plans and returned an hour later, but it was too late. Roomwise, it's a jungle up there.) The Lily Pad offered homespun necessities and comforts at reasonable rates. We checked in, cleaned up and then set out to explore Moosonee.
The first locals we encountered as we slogged down the main drag were about a half-dozen sled dogs who sniffed us inquisitively on the off-chance we might harness and mush them north to Attawapiskat. When we showed no such inclinations, they lost interest and drifted away.
At Moosonee's premier and only restaurant, we ordered burgers and fries at the expected killer prices. Everything, fresh or preserved, has to reach Moosonee by train, and all prices are dear. The patrons, including an Ontario constable, loved Americans, but to them America still conjured up only one thing: Watergate. Nearly a decade after the show had closed in the States, Moosoneeites still couldn't get enough of it and demanded that we give an impromptu lecture about its origins, meanings and fine points. In return, the constable rose and gave his astonishingly precise impersonation of former President Nixon.
On the way back through town, we stopped in at the Hudson's Bay Store and found it to be a thriving combination of supermarket, Sears, hardware and sporting goods store. Whatever you needed was there, and if it wasn't there, you didn't need it, by definition. We were drawn to the Inuit crafts -- exquisitely adorned fur-lined gloves, boots, headgear and coats. There's no winter gear like it anywhere on earth, and we drooled as we tried it on. Travelers are strongly urged to bring a special Inuit winter clothing fund of $200 to $300, and HBC isn't the only purveyor. Bargains and custom-tailored work can be arranged at the Indian community center with a little extra time and effort.
The next morning we were invited by some Lily Pad guests to canoe with them to Moose Factory, the Cree settlement across the river, where they worked as nurses at the government hospital. The weather and river had calmed somewhat, and Cyndy and I rented a canoe and made for mid-river. The Moose was deceptive, and a strong tide challenged our rusty paddling skills, but we finally made it to the far end of Tidewater Island and then up a sheltered channel that offered calmer canoeing. (For seven or eight months each year, residents make the trip in their cars over solid ice.)
We picnicked at the hospital and then were introduced to a young Cree resident who served as a tour guide during the season and was pleased to show us around. Moose Factory is a three-century-old settlement that had grown up around a smaller HBC outpost that was still in business, sporting 17th-century cannon emplacements and cannonball piles aimed toward the bay in case of attack from French or French-allied Indian raiding parties.
Until the French capitulation to the British in the mid-18th century, Moose Factory was a frequent target for such raids from French units or their Indian allies. In one such raid, a dozen Moose Factory Indians were massacred, and the survivors set out after the raiders during the winter, caught them and returned them to Moose Factory. The raiders were sentenced to death, but capital crime was almost unknown, and there was no traditional way to inflict capital punishment. The Moose Factory Indians decided to cut a large hole in the bay ice, thrust the condemned men down the hole and stand watch to make sure they didn't come up again.
Today, Moose Factory's 200-odd homes -- wooden frame shacks, auto trailers, abandoned Air Force quonsets -- sprawl on their bank of the Moose River, in contrast to the tight huddle of Anglo homes in Moosonee. No vestiges remain of Indian-style dwellings, and the permanent Anglo shelters that have replaced them are rural housing at its most basic and improvisational. Beyond the wooden hospital complex, roads are simply dirt paths and nearly every back yard ends at the forest's edge. We wandered about, quickly drawing the attention of the Indian children, who watched us from the safety of their porches or from behind windows.
That these Cree live in a permanent settlement at all is a novel imposition of European culture -- their millennia-old hunting culture was nomadic, their dwellings seasonal and temporary, their populations traditionally small extended or immediate family groups. Moose Factory and the other permanent Indian communities farther up the James and Hudson's Bay retain the Cree and Inuit cultures perilously and in constant and painful compromise with government and economic reality.
But the hunting life is still strong in James and Hudson's Bay, and paradoxically often makes life even harder for the Indians trapped on the periphery of the overwhelming European culture. In Moosonee, missionary teachers explained that their chief challenge is to prevent truancy when their students' parents withdraw them from school for hunting seasons. In Moose Factory, the hospital workers fight an uphill battle against tuberculosis, their treatments typically failing when patients discharge themselves to go hunting and fishing.
Yet even improved health care in the region has a penalty: Indian populations now far exceed what their hunting culture and the land alone -- a land that was always miserly -- can provide. Young Indians who can't support a family through hunting drift south to Cochrane and beyond only to find themselves without the necessary education and job skills. The Indians suffer from an unending cultural squeeze play. Ever since the first Indians bought steel knives and guns from the Europeans, they've been caught in the alien world of cash, credit, politics and the HBC.
Our Cree guide asked to hitch a ride back to Moose Factory in the afternoon, and we were thrilled to oblige. Soon the Moose River sported a bizarre tableau: an able-bodied Cree born to canoe sitting a bit nervously in the center as two wheezing urbanites paddled their way through the chop and rough tidal currents. Our guest politely offered to spell one or both of us several times, but we wouldn't hear of it. The dozens of Indian boats that whizzed past us were filled with astonished faces. It was undoubtedly our guest's longest, wettest and most terrifying ride from point to point, but we deposited him safe on the Moosonee shore.
We've told people about Moosonee and tried to explain how it infected us with the Hudson's Bay region. We scheme to go farther north, with plans for Churchill's polar bears and camping on the glacier of Pangnirtung ("ice that never melts") on the Arctic Circle itself. We yearn to reach Grise Fiord, claimed by its Chamber of Commerce to be "Santa's first stop on Christmas Eve." We show our pictures and tell our tall tundra tales, but someone always needs to ask just what the fascination is.
If Monty Python ran a travel agency, he'd have the answer. As Monty plotted your route to James and Hudson's Bay and beyond, he'd tell you to bring your winter clothes in June and send you off with his ironclad promise: "And now for something completely different."