Guest Blog by Mike Jacobs.
Moosonee is one of the oldest settlements in Ontario, home to the iconic Hudson’s Bay Company for hundreds of years, and accessible only by canoe or ice road until the 1930s—and it holds an air of mystery for many in the South.
Journey to Muskeg and Tamarack
Ontario Northland’s historic Polar Bear Express passenger train from Cochrane is the easiest way to experience the history and culture of this intriguing area.
The train offers hot lunches and a dome car for scenic viewing of the 186-mile ride from Cochrane to Moosonee. Mile markers indicate key locations along the way, and many of the train staff will alert you to key markers where you’ll see a massive hydro dam seemingly dropped in the middle of the wilderness, and the incredible bridge over the wide and shallow Moose River.
Disembarking in Moosonee can feel a little disorienting if you don’t know where you’re headed, as smiling locals greet friends and family off the train and disappear down the packed dirt roads. There are taxis, but the Moose River Guest House is only a short walk from the train station.
In addition to cozy, quilt-covered beds in beautifully furnished private rooms, it offers full kitchen facilities which comes in handy. Other than the Northern Store and a few chip stands, there aren’t a lot of options for dinner – but that’s part of what makes this trip special.
The owner of the guest house, Candice, prepares a substantial breakfast and is happy to share some fascinating stories of her childhood in Moose Factory, with tales of the annual goose hunt and taking a helicopter to school. Her grandmother, one of the oldest Moose Cree elders, lives next door and has her own vast library of stories and history.
Moose Cree First Nation, Moose Factory Island
Just across the river, which can be crossed by ferry or water taxi, is Moose Factory Island, the site of the old British Fort and the Hudson’s Bay fur trading post.
Up a hill from the rustic dock, the main road passes a powder blue hospital, built in the 1950s and continues in a loop around the shoreline of the island to Centennial Park, where the old Hudson’s Bay storehouses sit.
On the water near Centennial Park is the fur press, which in settlement times would dictate how many beaver pelts trappers would need to exchange their furs for a rifle.
Nolan Tozer, owner/operator of Moose River Tours, heading out to James Bay
Adventure to Salt Water
While the historical buildings and tales of the past are a fascinating window into the early days of Ontario’s history, no trip is complete without a boat trip downriver to the mouth of James Bay. Not many travelers know that Ontario has a salt water coast – this is a rare opportunity to dip a toe into James Bay and the Arctic Ocean.
Nolan Tozer, owner/operator of Moose River Tours, grew up in the wilderness around Moosoness and is son of bush pilot and legendary trapper William Tozer—inspiration for Joseph Boyden’s 2008 Giller Award-winning novel, Through Black Spruce.
Relaxing on the Moose River
Nolan’s parents say he’s the only child they never worried about—in fact, they wouldn’t even start to look for him until he was two days late coming back from an adventure.
Bald Eagle watching the river
Nolan and Jenn, his wife and partner in Moose River Tours, operate custom guided tours of the Moose River and James Bay area in his sturdy red cedar strip boat, sharing their stories about the ever-changing landscape and wildlife in the area. On our adventure, we spotted two eagles—a bald and a golden—and a blue heron, all relatively new to the area, Nolan says.
Exploring the intertidal flats at the mouth of James Bay
On our trip there last summer, Nolan and Jenn treated us to a shore-lunch cooked over an open fire. Perhaps one of the most memorable moments of our trip was Nolan showing us a riverbed where every rock we picked up contained a fossil.
Start to Finish
Whether you spend only a few hours or a few days in Moosonee and Moose River, you’ll want a good night’s sleep on your return to Cochrane, as the train arrives from Moosonee at 10:30pm daily. The Swan Castle Inn Best Western in Cochrane, right across from the train station, is a comfortable and friendly place to begin and end your journey.
Mike Jacobs is an avid motorcyclist and adventurer. His last road trip lasted 60 consecutive days and clocked in at just over 15,000km. His love for his home province of Ontario is matched only by his love for sharing his discoveries on the internet. You can check out his road trip blog at www.OntarioRoadTrip.ca, or better yet, follow him on Twitter @NorthernRoads.