Polar Bear Express - July 2015

For some time I have been contemplating this trip which takes you to the most northerly part of Ontario accessible by land (in the summer - during the winter there are iceroads extending well up into the Hudsons Bay area from Moosonee which itself then has a road link south to the rest of the province). The excursion involves two fullish days of driving to the train station in Cochrane, several hours on the train, and a couple of nights in a Bed-and-Breakfast in Moosonee. I also wanted to have a look at North Bay and the nearby Lake Nipissing. To vary the route I chose to come back through the Val d'Or area of Quebec province.

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Sunday 19th July: Kanata - North Bay

I had not driven much of this road, and after Arnprior, it was mostly new territory. However, I wanted to get to my initial destination in good time, so chose to drive steadily with brief stops on or near the highway and no side trips.

I had booked all my accommodation in advance, so had no worries about finding places to stay. My trusty GPS took me the door in all cases! The first place - 2 nights - was a University of Nipissing Hall of Residence. It was very nice and comfortable... lots of space, two bedrooms with double beds (student life is different these days I think) and a kitchen!

Monday 20th July: North Bay

North Bay is surprisingly large, and with the adjacent lake, a nice place to wander around. I found they have two rather nice carousels - the most recently installed is very unusual in that the animals are not horses, but Canadian mammals, all carved by local artists. The other larger machine was assembled using new horse carvings - again mostly by local artists. Both are based on older restored mechanisms. Although I did not take a ride on either, they seemed to be appreciated by the local kids.

A nearby miniature railway system was a bit of a disappointment in that the locomotives were not steam driven - (at least not on the days I was there). Again, the local population of kids (and parents) seemed to be happy.

Lake Nipissing looked very pleasant with a warm stiff breeze blowing off it from the south, and I was easily persuaded to take a short cruise on the Chief Commanda II out to a volcano!!! Who could resist? However, it was clear that this was a very extinct remnant, comprising a rough ring of islands (the Manitou Islands) being what's left of the original cone from many millions of years ago? The lake itself, though having a fairly large surface area (337.2 sq mi), is surprisingly shallow averaging 15 feet - only around 25 feet in the deepest parts. I ate a pleasant lunch on board while viewing the islands, and chatted to a couple who were passing through North Bay and had to wait for their car to be repaired... Hoping to get away the next day!

Although I think I spotted a loon paddling around the city marina, I was hurrying to the cruise boat and unable to get a photo: and when I got back it had gone... It was a strange place to see such a normally timid and solitary bird. I spotted some Monarch Butterflies as well, but it was too breezy for a photograph.

Tuesday 21st July: North Bay - Cochrane

An easy drive north from North Bay took me through or past some names that were vaguely familiar from news reports etc. I remembered friends talking about a silver (and gold) mining town, so I called in at Cobalt to visit their mining museum. Interesting town with a short but busy history. All through the trip it was intriguing to find large areas of agricultural land among the trees and lakes. Of course the latitude is about the same as England, so although the growing season is short, plenty of crops are possible.

My arrival in Cochrane was timed so that I could pick up my ticket for the train the next morning, That done, I ate in the diner associated with the motel and fell to sleep quite early.

Wednesday 22rd July: Cochrane - Moosonee

The train left at 9am, and I had been advised to get there by 8.30 to ensure my seat was not grabbed by someone else (despite the allocated seating arrangement)! No problems there, and I settled down. Once the train started moving a lot of people got up and headed to the restaurant car for breakfast and or coffee. After a decent interval to let the queues shrink I headed there too, passing through the observation car on the way. After collecting a coffee I took a seat in the observation car and studied the booklet every passenger had been given describing the silviculture and scenery... For the first part of the trip I had watched the scenery from the lower level, spotting occasional breaks where there were rocks, rivers or lakes. One couldn't help noticing there were many trees and - well ---trees and rocks and rocks and trees and water---says it better. From the observation car I could see the tops of trees, rocks, etc, but although not really FLAT, the geography is relatively so, with no mountain ranges or even substantial hills in sight. The weather was rather dull, but not (yet) raining. As the miles rattled on (and I use the term advisedly), the trees get smaller -stunted even, though the booklet said they were generally the same age (around 100 years which is when a lot of the area was last logged. Nonetheless there were other 'interesting' things going on. Roads were crossed. Rivers were crossed v-e-r-y slowly in some cases, using bridges that were close to their sell-by date I suspect. Paved roads were encountered quite a long way north, probably related to the existance of hydro dams etc. Farmland also appeared occasionally during the first 50 - 100 miles, but the last part was all rocks and trees and water.... until we eventually nearly 5 hours later got to Moosonee, by which time it was raining, and cool; the temperature got no higher than 15° that day. I set off from the station for my B'n'B, the Moose River Guest House which was only a short walk but through unpaved muddy streets. The locals in their trucks were very kind and slowed down to avoid drenching the pedestrians. The forecast suggested a better day tomorrow, though still cool, and after an early supper at one of the two extant eating establishments I could find - the Sky Ranch Restaurant - I settled into my clean, warm, comfortable room with a good book and a movie for company.

Thursday 23rd July: Moosonee

In the morning, I had arranged to join a small party (two guys from Ottawa as it turned out) on a trip to James Bay with Moose River Tours. Nolan showed up on time and on a cool but dry morning the four of us were soon on the river heading for the open sea about 45 - 50 minutes away. Although we did not come across any fish or mammals we did see and hear a few birds. The country is even flatter out near the bay - mud flats really just a few feet above high tide. Very few shrubs, no trees, and lots of reeds and grassy vegetation. It was a good calm day for the trip, though only 17° or so, and we saw no sun! Altogether different from anywhere else I've experienced, though a glimpse of a seal or some other living thing would have been nice. In the three hours, once we had left town, we saw only one other boat, which seemed to be a couple of locals heading north, presumably making their way to their home in the middle of nowhere! There were no bugs to speak of, and a calm, relaxing guide. Truly isolated, and lovely bobbing about in the quiet solitude for several minutes before heading back.

We got back into town in time for lunch and tried the other of the eating establishments - not so good!!! The other two on the tour were scheduled to leave on the train that afternoon at 5pm, so we wandered about the town together, and after they had left I wandered some more, before eating at the Sky Ranch Restaurant and heading back to my room.

Friday 24th July: Moose Factory

On the other side of the Moose River is the town of Moose Factory. About the same size as Moosonee and boasting a different of history! There is a water taxi service so on Friday morning - finding the weather had much improved - 27° and sunny - I set off and was halfway over the river before I realised I had forgotten my hat and sunscreen. 'Never mind!' I thought, 'Keep to the shadows and spend time indoors where possible.' Well, none of the museums were open (for me anyway- maybe I should have gone on a ?mythical? tour). But I found the historic St Thomas Anglican Church (disused, closed, and much in need of renovation), a native (Cree) craft museum and shop (open so I wandered through), and a place for lunch (likely the same KFC franchise as the not-so-good diner in Moosonee - Oh well!) and 'explored' the place. Meandering again, I ended up back at the lunch counter and ate my chicken sandwich. It turns out the main museum is presently closed but hoping to reopen next year. Another building with history - the Hudsons Bay Staff House - (claimed to be open at the time I passed, but wasnt) and then it was time to head back to the water taxi, as I had a train (THE train) to catch at 5pm! Made it back with time to spare, said goodbye to my delightful B'n'B host Candice and her acting "chamber-maid" Tony (her father!), walked to the station, claimed my seat, and settled down for the return trip.

Moosonee - Cochrane

On the way north I had noticed that most of the passengers were locals, very few tourists, and a few business and trades people. The locals seemed to have a routine: settle into your seat, arrange snacks, drinks, and kids around you, pull a blanket about your shoulders and doze for 5 hours, waking up just as the train pulls into the station. Seemed a good idea, as the alternative of watching small trees become larger trees does pall after the first few hours. Luckily I had a good book. and the restaurant car had a surprisingly good choice of sandwiches and reasonable coffee, so I settled down to a leisurely trip, unencumbered by any concerns - no wild animals, tax collectors or traffic to worry about - wonderful. I had plenty of time to check the train speed between mileposts and determined that it was never over 44 mph and often less! The train does stop when flagged down by anyone, anywhere, but we only seemed to actually stop 2 or 3 times on the return trip. We still went very slowly over bridges though!

Arriving in Cochrane on time, I went directly to my motel and once again slept the sleep of the just... tiring work this travelling.

Saturday 25th July: Cochrane - Rouyn-Noranda

A fairly short hop to Rouyn-N, which I was surprised to find was very French. Although I passed lots of mining activity, the did not seem to be anything notable - besides the "rocks, and trees, and water". A quiet stroll round the town near the motel, and another early night with a good book, so as to be fresh for an early start on Sunday.

Sunday 26th July: Rouyn-Noranda - Kanata

Strange that in 30+ years I had never ventured further into Quebec province north and west of Ottawa than Wakefield!!! So this trip allowed me to see what I had missed. Not a great difference from the drive up the Ottawa Valley to North Bay to be honest. There was a shortage of picnic spots (those I passed were overflowing with campervans etc) so I just pulled into a side road when I wanted to eat my packed lunch or take a break. Never exceeding 90 kph I arrived home just after 4pm after leaving around 9am - most of the traffic was in the Wakefield and Gatineau area. Good to be home.

I am glad I went - it was interesting to see more of this vast country - though undoubtedly I missed somewhere important... However, it will likely be the only time I visit many of the places I saw on this trip...