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Destination: British Columbia and Ontario

Canada's Little Whistle Stoppers : Two remote rail rides through small towns and grand wilderness

August 04, 1996|MARGO PFEIFF | Pfeiff is a Montreal-based freelance writer and photographer

COCHRANE, Canada — The Little Bear train is already three hours late by the time we pull out of Ontario Northland station in Cochrane, a small town roughly 300 miles north of Toronto. But nobody really minds.

My traveling companions are teachers, students and families on their way home after summer vacation in southern Ontario, and there is a homey atmosphere on board with much hugging and excited chatter over endless cups of coffee.

It's not surprising that I'm here. Over the past 30 years I have crisscrossed the Australian outback, the jungles of Malaysia and Brazil, the canyon country of Mexico and the tundra of Alaska by rail. But rarely have I used trains to explore my Canadian homeland. There is some irony to this, since Canada's history was written with every spike driven into the steel lifeline that snakes across this huge, remote country.

Finally, during the summer and fall of 1995, I answered the conductor's call by sampling two remote Canadian rail trips--the Little Bear, running from Cochrane to the subarctic town of Moosonee in the eastern province of Ontario, and on the other side of the country, Via Rail's Skeena train from Jasper to the Pacific Coast at Prince Rupert.

Though the northern railroads of Canada cannot boast the grand style of first-class European train travel, they offer friendly, informal journeys filled with the scenic grandeur of untouched wilderness and the opportunity to meet local people.

*

Actually, two Polar Bear trains ply the 185 miles of rail north to the twin towns of Moosonee and Moose Factory on James Bay: the summer-only Polar Bear express, a nonstop excursion train that caters to tourists, and the Little Bear, a year-round local whistle-stopper that is the lifeline between remote communities along the tracks.

The Little Bear is one of the last multipurpose trains left in North America, and today, as usual, it is carrying not only passengers but everything from diesel fuel to frozen French fries.

The subarctic forest of tamarack, poplar and black spruce grows more scraggly and more stunted as we head northeast alongside the Abitibi and Moose rivers toward James Bay.

A pack of rambunctious children play tag up and down the aisles of the dining car while Arnold Cheechoo, a cameraman for a local Native-American television station, teaches me the basics of the Cree language. A jovial Marjorie Lloyd Miller climbs aboard at her one-house town of Coral Rapids, favorite chipped coffee mug in hand, en route to this evening's Lion's bingo game in Moosonee. Farther on, Alfred Iahtail emerges from the bush and flags us down near Ranoke. The blue-uniformed conductor helps toss Iahtail's deer carcass and sack of freshly caught pickerel into the boxcar. The hunter, scruffy from a week in the wilderness, smiles broadly and waves at the other passengers: "How's things today on board the Polar Bear taxi?"

During the last few miles into Moosonee, noses are eagerly pressed against windows for the first glimpse of the town's tall cathedral steeple, which is greeted with a rousing cheer when it finally appears. The no-frills frontier town of Moosonee sprang to life in 1932 with the coming of the railroad. There are no sidewalks, movie theaters, video parlors or pubs. There aren't even any polar bears since the nearest big whites roam 100 miles to the north. This I learn from a taxi driver while we are clattering down the corrugated dusty road to the Polar Bear Lodge.

The driver looks barely 15, and I later learn that since Moosonee's roads are not connected to the rest of Ontario province, driver's license and insurance are optional. Life at the gateway to the arctic is different from the rest of the country in many ways: Bilingual up here means English and Cree, rather than French, and firearm safety and wilderness survival are compulsory high school courses.

I reserve a table at the town's only restaurant, but needn't have bothered. No sooner do I join the local ritual of watching the sunset from the banks of the Moose River than John Romanov invites me to one of the dinner parties that are the hub of Moosonee's social life.

My first stop early the next morning is Christ the King Cathedral, center of a 5,000-square-mile Catholic diocese, the biggest in Canada. Outspoken Bishop Jules Leguerrier--affectionately nicknamed "the Warrior" by his parishioners--conducts services in English, French and Cree wearing a bead-embroidered moose-hide miter, stole and cloak. His wooden staff is an exquisitely carved flock of geese rising from bulrushes, a gift from a local Native American. With wooden pins removed, it separates into three pieces, "To signify the Father, Son and Holy Ghost," Pastor Normand Brule tells me, adding with a grin, "and to fit better into a suitcase when the bishop is traveling."

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