Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Polar Bear Express

Northern Ontario - North Bay, Temagami, Cochrane, Moosonee, James Bay

Travel Month:

August 2006




Polar Bear Express, Southern Tip of Arctic, Wilderness of Ontario North

Total Distance Covered:

2100 Kilometers on tarmac, 600 Kilometers on Polar Bear Express, a few kilometers off-road

There were only a few days left of children summer holidays and I was sitting in my office reading the newspaper. There was a full page advert about the polar bear express, mentioned that the last train would be on the last day of holidays. That was enough to stimulate my senses of travel and I called home to finalize leaving tomorrow early morning, that was agreed and accepted right away. In the meantime I called the number given in the ad and tried to book in our tickets for the train. Unfortunately the lady told me that the system was down and she cannot book us but she assured that we would get the seats. I called up a couple of friends to ask if they wanted to join but as it was already evening and no one was ready to go in such a short notice and especially for such a long journey, just to ride on a train. But as always we were determined to do this.

So the minivan was loaded up at night time, and we all slept / not slept with excitement of the journey.

Cochrane is the last town in Ontario North, from where the polar bear express originates. It goes to the last village in Ontario North called as Moosonee touching the James Bay and further to Hudson Bay. This place is considered as the southern tip of Arctic. Very exciting to hear. We had to travel from Mississauga to Barrie to Orilia to Gravenhurst to Bracebridge to Huntsville and then passing by the famous Algonquin Provincial Park to North Bay and finally to Cochrane which is the home town for famous hockey player Tim Horton. Who doesn't now about Tim Hortons - now the largest coffee giants in Canada. This was appr. 800Kms journey by road and then about 4 hours ride on the train to reach our destination.

Our commitment for travel and willingness to take challenges has never made us think much before travels and we leave the thinking for the way. We would get plenty of time to think and to plan on the way.


We left and 4:30am and crossed Barrie before breakfast time. Once we crossed another few small towns we got the feeling of the North. We were away from the city the road went through quite ups and downs and green fields and forests. We drove along the Lake Simcoe for some time and also not far from the Georgian Bay. When we crossed the road going to Algonquin Park and then to Arrowhead Park we got an urge to divert our plan to these locations but we still continued as Polar Bear name was very attractive and we associated high hopes with that.

North Bay is a sizeable town on the shores of Lake Nipissing. Lunch break was taken here with some fast food and the journey started again towards Cochrane. This was a single road and very less traffic on it. Now we were really far from home or atleast due to very sparsely traveled road we got this feeling. For the next long stretch of road we hardly saw any vehicles and crossed through some nice densely forested lands. The road was going through low hills and then we came across a few nice lakes on the turns. The lakes continued along the road for some time. About 1.5 hours drive we stopped at a very nice lake and a small village named Temagami. The lake was absolutely picturesque with lots of boats in it and the water planes belonged to a tourism company. Deep blue water provided an amazing sight. We had a small round here and visited a very interesting outdoor shop and the visitor center. The lady in charge at the visitor center moved here 35 years back from Hamilton. She was a painter and move away from the city to paint in peace. She had a nice exhibition of her work in the center. A very nice, soft spoken and loving lady who told us that she hardly see any Asians visiting this area and we were exceptions. Anyhow this stopover was worthwhile and we loved this place and would love to visit again.

The last couple of hours journey was tiring as we were fatigued by the days journey. It was 4ish when we made it to Cochrane and went straight to the visitor center. There was nice information displayed about the area and activities. This area is only visited during the summer and in the winters there is hardly any visitor except from when the snowmobiles race takes place, which is a famous event here.

After visiting a couple of hotels we finalized a different kind of a hotel having man-made Igloos to live in. It was very interesting concept that we never saw before, kids were ecstatic and loved the moment they entered this place. Evening was falling in and it became a bit chilly.

After checking into the hotel we drove straight to the station to book tickets for the next morning train as tomorrow was the last day of Polar Bear Express going to Moosonee. But to our surprise they didnt have booking where we get all seats together. After a lot of argument and discussion and reference to my previous days call they offered us to come in the morning and they would get us seats together. This was really disappointing despite calling in from 800 kms before travel. Anyhow there was no choice and we had to give up trying. On the way back to the Igloo we stopped at a Pizza place for dinner and enjoyed the meal. We also visited the small museum about Tim Hortons and the area build inside abundant train bogies.

We came back to our Igloo suite and adjusted ourselves in. It was a comforting place after the long journey. There was a glass wall between the room and the bathroom, it was clean and elegant. We put children to their beds and had a coffee. It had become quite chilly outside - no wonder we were traveling towards the Arctic.


We had to reach the station at 6:30 to sort out the seating issue. And as usual we were there even before that. We had on backpack, one baby carrier for Hassan, some water, some eatables and Iman and Sajeel. The seating issue got sorted out right away as they added an additional bogie to the train on demand and as it was the last train they were more courteous. But I must admit people there were very helpful and nice. There were a lot of old people and harly anyone with small kids like us. All whites and we didn't see any Asians/browns. The train was old but comfortable. There was a children play area in the next compartment, they were excited anyhow as this was their first journey in the train anyhow. We had some open spaces in our compartment so it was not crowded at all. The train started with famous whistle. We were out in the open soon. Most of the travel was through the plains and forests. The train continued through the trees and there were hardly any picturesque areas visible. Apart from and few spots when we crossed the Moose river and couple of other waterways when the scenery opened up. So far the excitement was only to be on the train and we were hoping to get to a nice place at the end. The journey was long but not tiring so far. Kids were having good time and they enjoyed every bit of it. Train and open area was all what they wanted.

We took a few rounds here and there in the train and went to the glass top double story bogie and had nice views from there atleast. We also enjoyed breakfast in the dining car with eggs and toasts etc.

It was getting far far away from the civilization and there is no road that leads to the last stop but only this train is the means of travel. Other than the summers there is a regular passenger train that takes several hours one way and stops everywhere. Finally it was announced that we were reaching Moosonee.

This was supposedly be a cold place as the word Arctic suggests but when we got down from the train it was quite hot and humid. There was just one platform and nothing else visible. We were told to get into a bus to be taken to the town. That took two minutes and we passed through a very small far away town/village and were brought to the Moose River banks. Here the river gets high tide and low tide every six hours and many of the small visible islands are washed up during the high tide. Interestingly as it is touching the James bay the water becomes salty at high tide and becomes sweat at low tide. This is an interesting phenomenon.

Moosonee is a historic place and there are old buildings and the Old Moose Factory (the only attraction of the area other than traveling to the James Bay by boat) still intact on an island in the middle of Moose River. Once we reached at the banks everyone started boarding onto a small cruise ship to be taken to the Moose Factory and we being more adventurous hired a small jet boat for the same purpose. After seeing us boarding a small boat instead, two old couples also opted to join us rather. The cruise had left before us but soon we caught up and crossed them. For children that was a big win and they made a lot of noise. They were looking very cute with bigger sized life jackets. The boat was really fast and interesting. Our driver gave a good round before dropping us on the island. And later we got to know he dropped us on the other side of where the cruise drops everyone else, giving us an oportunity to walk on the dusty track for about 1.5 km to join the historic street. It was a real hot day for this area and walk under the sun with the baby carier at my back was tough. Me and my wife shared this on the way to the other side and then found out there was quite a walk to see the place and then back to the boat. Our water reserve was finished and the kids were tired. So we headed back to the boat station to catch a boat back to the other side. Kids insisted in taking the smaller boat again and we came back to where we started. So far it was not a good experience and the town was really haunted with hardly any people visible. We finally reached the only store in Moosonee "Northern" that had a pizza hut and some place to sit. It was a well deserved lunch and break as we could even find a shade to sit otherwise in this town/village. We ate and drunk to the maximum, had a round in the grocery store to pick some water and snacks before coming back to the small station. There was a one compartment museum the only shade in the area so we had several rounds inside and then once the sun moved to west we got a shade to sit.

There was still some time before the train goes back. We met an Indian family who were surprised to see us as we were to see them. We had a nice chat with them and the time passed little better. When the sun was down and we were approaching the evening the train started. We found a nice compartment with 3x3 and 2x2 seats so that the kids can sleep on the way back. It was dark soon and there was not scenery whatsoever. It was just a train travel and thats it. We took a few walks to the snack bar and dining room before the kids were asleep.

It was after 10pm when we reached Cochrane and now definitly tired. We picked up a pizza for the dinner and headed back to the Igloo. The hotel management had upgraded our Igloo as they got a big one vacated and had moved our stuff to that one. This was more spacious and nicer. The night was again chilly and the day heat was forgotten. Kids were again fresh, as they had slept during the journey, they were jumping every where. We had nice view of the fields from the little igloo window.

We got up with little leisure today, had a shower and got ready for the breakfast. In the dining room there was only another couple having b'fast. They told us their story as they were traveling from Vancouver to Montreal with the wife driving a U-haul truck and the husband later caught up to her on his car. But the trailer broke down some 200 kms from Cochrane and there was no replacement U-haul could provide to them immediately so they decided to take few days off in Cochran and the area. We had a nice chitchat with them. The continental b'fast was not bad and we really enjoyed it.

Once we packed up our van we went to visit a couple of places in Cochrane including their museum kind of setup with the old village with the original old stuff in it. They had old houses with old furniture, farmhouse, barbershop etc. etc. it was nicely done. And then to the Polar Bear pools. They had polar bears in one pool and then another pool separated from this one by a think glass for the visitors. This was very interesting. We changed into our shorts and jumped in the cold water to be closest ever to a polar bear. The water was freezing but we still managed to get in to see the polar bears swimming across us. It was an amazing experience standing next to polar bears. We had to come out and change, as we were turned blue in only a little time. Then we came into the covered gallery to watch the bears fed. They were quite athletic in the water and performed a number of tricks and games. It was time to move out.

We started our drive back by afternoon and planned to stop on the way whereever we feel like. When we reached Temagami we visited the old artist again, when we told her that we planned to stop somewhere on the way, she suggested to stay at Temagami and she would arrange a nice cottage for us. It was tempting to we thought to explore it. When she called around and arranged a cottage for us, we drove another few miles to a small private cottage area to have a look at the cottage. It was a very nice and beautiful lake and the two-bedroom cottage was right on the lake. We accepted it right away. The area was nicely tucked in big trees and there were private lands and cottages around the lake. A Polish couple that moved here twenty years back from the city owned the property we rented. They had a few cottages, a small boat marina, and nice trail through their land. The family was really nice and hospitable. They told us to take some rest and then see the area. They also included two fishing rods & bait, one small engine boat and a canoe in our rent - a very good deal in $100.00. We were also warned about the bears as this was bear country. They told us a bear sighting two days back on their property and suggested to stay in at night time.

The feeling was great, the place was spectacular and the atmosphere filled with jungle smell. We off loaded only the necessary things and after putting them in the cottage we came out for some walk. We never drove a boat before so thought to give it a shot. Everyone was fitted with life jackets and when I pulled the string to start the motor, it started right away giving us a good start. But only the start was good as we did not know a thing about the motor or the boat. We had been doing canoeing in the lakes but never had a change to drive the motor boat. Being our first experience, it was not simple and straight-forward for us. When I reversed it, it went everywhere and then the motor died. The boat was dragging in the lake with the waves. I kept trying but in vein. The sun was setting already and the evening breeze was quite chilly. There were some clouds on the other side of the lake hanging from another cottage chimney. All our tries were failed and there was not help available around and suddenly we happened to see the ores in the base of the boat. Rest was no problem as we used them to bring the boat back to the parking point. We gave up on this for tonight as it was getting dark. We still had to go out to have dinner or to get something to cook for dinner.

We drove back to the town and found a fish n chips corner hut. We ordered and sat in the open sitting area. After like 30 minutes on our third inquiry we got to know that there was on one plate fish available, well no choice given to us but to eat that fish and the chips. Once we were half full we walked to the only grocery store opened and got some snacks for tonight and eggs & bread for the breakfast. The drive back to the lake was very nice as it was through the dense jungle and part of it was not tarmac. We came back to the cottage and the kids had some fun at the play ground right in front of the cottage. When it got too dark we came into the cottage and sat on the lounge to enjoy the night. There was a lot of moon light out there and the lake and surroundings were quite dramatic and fairytale. Kids went to sleep on their bunkbed and we enjoyed bit more before retiring.


Early morning it was sunday and we were all ready for the hike. When we came little far from the cottage in the small hills we found some fresh bear pooh and a shiver came through our body as we were two adults, two children and one small baby in the carrier. After cutting short our hike we came back to the cottage - not to take any chances towards the end of our trip. After coming back we thought of giving another try to the motor boat. This time it never got started so I went back to the owner's hut and asked for assistance. The man came with us and taught us how to ride it and gave us a big round in the lake. After I saw him doing things I was confident that I could do it now. We enjoyed so much that day on the boat, it was not a big lake as per Canadian standards but still sizable and quite deep. There were a few very nice cottage around it - all private quite elevated, the only rental property and on the ground level was where we stayed. Suddenly the clouds roared up and it started to rain very fast. We stayed in the boat for some time under our umbrella as we were on the other side of the lake but the rain was not in a mood to stop. Therefore we drove back to the marina and switched off the motor with a feeling of success and achievement - we learned something new.

It was time to pack up as we had long drive back to Mississauga some 700kms away. We packed up and were ready to go. We said goodbye to the area and drove towards North Bay, further to Barrie and eventually reached home after sunset.

Another memorable trip ended and left more hunger to see the nature with the whole family.