by Dave Hanks
I came north on the Polar Bear Express. I came upon the rails. Clicking rails that sing in rhythm to the swaying of the train – a heavy, powerful force propelling itself methodically through the scrubby, spruce-covered landscape. Trains have always fascinated me and this one is no exception. It’s sounds and motion leave me mesmerized.
The quantity of people required to run this train is surprising. There is a long-nosed conductor who jokes and makes wry comments as he checks each ticket. Brakemen, hostesses, and even girls to entertain the children pass up and down the aisles. All the kids are systematically rounded up to sit in on a story hour. They return with coloring and puzzle books, and with happy smiles. The adults are not forgotten either as a very pert, young lady plays the piano in the entertainment car and the passengers join in a sing-fest.
These Canadians strike me as an unusual lot. They are very forthright, down home, and definitely family oriented. Irish, English, French, and Cree inhabit the train. Three different languages can be seen written upon both the inside and outside of the cars. Also, the hostess periodically narrates the progress in both English and French. Cree hieroglyphics, large, bold, and Arabic-looking; plaster the sides of the coaches.
It seems that the depot ticket girl quietly segregated us all when issuing tickets. The French are on a separate car, teenagers on another, Indians on another, and I’m in a family car of very English-type people. A father across the aisle has two small boys. Both boys are very active and their Dad dotes on them – his countenance beaming with fatherly pride as he points out things along the way and supervises the consumption of treats.
A big Irishman is the station master at the jumping-off point. He reminds me of my oldest brother – big and “extrovertish”. He keeps busy chatting with the passengers, in-between dealing with drunken Indians. I am not a Canadian and he seems concerned with the impressions that I might be forming. There is a drunken Cree who is giving him problems. The Indian is ensconced on my bench and is trying to make conversation. He appears to be a permanent fixture in the depot. The Irishman asks him to leave but nothing happens. Suddenly the police arrive to take the drunk to jail to sleep it off. I get the impression that the station master and the Indian are well acquainted and that I’m seeing history repeating itself. The Cree profanes and curses at the big man as he is led away.
Curiously, there is another drunken Indian at the arrival point. I must attract drunks because this one approaches me also. He asks: “Are you from South Dakota?” “No”, I say, “I’m from Idaho.” “Idaho huh! I’ve been to Idaho. I worked in Portland, Oregon.” Off he wanders to the baggage room. I can hear his voice apprehending the workers.”Hey, anyone wanna fight? There’s a guy over there from Idaho that’ll fight you.”
Fascinating country has rushed past between the embarking and debarking points. Mile after mile of stunted trees intertwined with endless marsh. The express rattles across bridge after bridge, each spanning a big river with a quaint name: Jawbone, Moose, Succor Creek, and Abitibi River. Gigantic Beaver lodges dot the water and ripples on the water surface reveal the presence of that large rodent. Indian children wave at the train – racing to their positions as if they have the assignment to be firmly in place for each passing.
It is July and the daylight clings on and on, making the most of the brief Northern Canadian summer. In spite of the persistence of the daylight, the weather is more fickle. It can’t decide what to do: hot, bright, sun to overcast – humid mists, to intermittent rain squalls.
The Indian settlement of Moosenee finally comes into view. It’s a low-lying town nestled on the shore of Hudson Bay. Wooden buildings line extremely wide, dirt-packed boulevards. The Cree race their trucks and cars up and down each street as if they were in a great hurry to get someplace – except there are no roads that lead from the settlement. The same faces keep appearing as they come and go. The town is an old Hudson Bay Fur Company establishment. The antiquated fur warehouses are still in place, doing business as in the past. A huge Catholic Church dominates it all. Planes buzz overhead and motor boats leave the pier at periodic intervals, taking people to the other half of the city across the water. Crees man these boats. They are intent on getting a share of the tourist dollar by sending young children who keep badgering me to ride in their father’s boat.
Indian culture is the epitome of social bonding. I’m struck by the fact that they act more like tourists than the tourists do. Groups of them are clumped all over main street, happily gabbing and eating ice cream – getting the most out of their short northern summer. They enjoy the brief glimpses of sunlight during what is otherwise a somewhat rainy day.
I came north on the Polar Bear Express. This Northland train is the pride of Ontario. I came all the way from Cochrane to Moosenee – one hundred and eighty six miles to the James Bay Wilderness. Curiosity made me come. The only way to get here is either by train or by plane. There are no roads, only miles of Black Spruce, Birch, and Tamarack. It’s Taiga: “Land of the little sticks”. Tiger Lilies, White Field Daisies, Yarrow, Buttercup, and Heather dot the way, adding color to the landscape. Ravens, Gulls, Swallows, and Robins flit through shrubbery and sky. Cree Indians flow freely back and forth upon the train. I wonder what is their purpose.
This country adds a different flavor to life. It’s a different world in a different time – a time that has become somewhat stationary. The whole experience enriches my life. Yes – I came north to taste it, and I’m glad of it!
The Polar Bear Express