Riding the Polar Bear Express

30-year-old Nanook is a long-time resident and star attraction of the Polar Bear Habitat in...

30-year-old Nanook is a long-time resident and star attraction of the Polar Bear Habitat in Cochrane. (Polar Bear Habitat and Heritage Village photo)

DOUG ENGLISH, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:42 PM ET

The Polar Bear Express is anything but speedy, and the only polar bear around lives in captivity at Cochrane, where the journey begins.

What the Express does deliver, at least to those of us from the urban south, is a glimpse of life in what is likely the most northerly point in Ontario we'll ever reach.

Consider that Cochrane, the starting point, is an hour's drive north of Timmins, and Timmins is four hours north of North Bay. It's 299 km from Cochrane to Moosonee, the end point.

The Express was scheduled to leave at 9 a.m. and arrive at 1:50 p.m. We pulled out at 9:15 and arrived at 2:45. The return trip left on time, at 6 p.m., but didn't creep into Cochrane until midnight, an hour and 15 minutes late.

It could have been worse. Dawn Elliott, Ontario Northland's manager of passenger services, said summer repairs to the frost-heaved track could make for a 14-hour round trip.

Elliott said Ontario Northland is now recommending visitors buy one of its overnight packages, rather than do the round trip in one day. I agree.

The coaches are old but comfortable, with facing seats that recline and windows so large I stayed put rather than make my way to the domed observation car.

Unless you're buggy about trees, the scenery tends to pall pretty quickly. And even the trees -- mainly black spruce, tall and narrow with an odd clump of branches on top -- become more stunted the farther north you travel.

I whiled away the time reading, listening to an excellent Discovery Channel-produced audio tour, and checking out the rest of the train.

In the Family Car, the kids were watching videos or colouring with crayons when the attendants were there, playing tag and wrestling when they weren't.

In the Entertainment Car, Sabrina Charlebois, a 17-year-old singer/guitarist from near Iroquois Falls, was performing.

There is sit-down service in the Dining Car, snacks in the Takeout Car. Lunch and dinner were quite good -- the bread and pastries are from a bakery in Cochrane, the beef from a local farm -- and the young staff friendly and helpful.

On arrival in Moosonee, most of the passengers took an escorted walking tour. This is a largely First Nations community. The streets aren't paved and there's nary a Tim's in sight.

We hopped one of the freight canoes that ferry people and supplies across the tidal Moose River ($10, cash, each way) to Moose Factory, the oldest English-speaking settlement in Ontario (1673).

Attractions include a Hudson's Bay staff house, a heritage village, the Cree Cultural Interpretive Centre, and the 20-room Cree Village Ecolodge, which I was told is by far the best place to stay overnight. Lodge guests should bring their own alcohol; the nearest LCBO is in Moosonee.

The Polar Bear Express will run daily, except Saturdays, June 27-Aug. 26. The Discovery Train package covers three nights, with one in either Moosonee or Moose Factory. New this year is the Canoe and Train Package. Participants take the Express from Cochrane to Fraserdale, 1.5 hours north, where an outfitter takes them canoeing on the Abitibi River. The only requirement is being able to get into and out of a canoe. The first part of the trip is with the current; motors are used on the way back. Visit Ontario Northland.ca or call 1-800-268-9281.

-- The Polar Bear Habitat in Cochrane (polarbearhabitat.ca/) is home to Nanook, orphaned as a cub and, at 30, possibly the oldest polar bear in captivity. Time your visit to coincide with Nanook's two scheduled daily appearances, at either 10 or 11:30 a.m. or at 1:30 or 2:45 p.m., depending on the day. A great photo op.

denglishtravel@gmail.com


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