Among the Cree Indians of Canada

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Among the Cree Indians of Canada


Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review


A Youth standing by my side at the Cochrane Railway Station was, like most people in northern Ontario, friendly. He was full of advice when I told him that I would be taking the Polar Bear Express to Moosonee, known as the 'Gateway to the Arctic'.

The young man was ecstatic, 'You'll love this trip. It's a world of wilderness which grips your imagination.' He continued: 'The train travels through a spectacular natural landscape to one of North America's last real frontiers. I've taken it many times. Its a great excursion!'

With sharp blasts of the horn, the train pulled out of Cochrane, the summer home of the Polar Bear Express which operates only from the end of June to Labour Day. Soon this town of some 5000, located on the edge of the James Bay frontier, was behind us as we began our journey on one of the few rail excursions which continues to operate in North America.

Said to be one of Ontario's most interesting and unique tourist adventures, the train, which makes the trip daily, except Friday, is like no other. Travelling 186 miles from Cochrane to Moosonee, the Polar Bear Express traverses the dramatic Hudson Bay Lowlands, the ancestral home of the Cree Indians. Their descendants today still constitute the majority of the inhabitants in this part of Ontario.

The rail line, completed in 1932, emulates the path followed by the earliest explorers in this area of Canada's north. The hub of more than 300 years of the famous fur trade river routes, it is a rugged wasteland of muskeg, wetland and shrubs. (Muskeg is the Cree word for a level swamp or bog.) The Polar Bear Express has carried hundreds of thousands of riders from all over the world to the shores of James Bay.

Strangely, for a short time after we began our journey, the forests, lakes and rocks which I had expected were nowhere in sight. Instead, we travelled northward through a narrow fertile strip of the Great Clay Belt - a farming countryside of potato fields and grazing cattle. However, we were soon riding the rail through the Boreal Forest - a landscape dominated by the slow growth black spruce and dotted with poplar and tamarack trees until the edge of Moosonee where the dwarf willow took over.

As we made our way through the tree-filled terrain, I sat down and relaxed, enjoying the view through the coach window and marvelling at the wonders of the wilderness. Crossing the huge Abitibi River, once one of the main trade routes of the pioneer voyageurs, we continued through endless forests until we reached Fraserdale where the train stopped to take on passengers.

This tiny hamlet is the only stop the Polar Bear Express makes on its four-hour trip. Here, the Ontario road system ends and only the steel rails continue up north,

To continue beyond Fraserdale by rail, besides the Polar Bear Express, there is another train, 'Little Bear', which takes freight and carries tourists and local residents from Cochrane to Moosonee, but with stops in-between. The last of the 'flag stop' trains, it supplies all the remote settlements along the way, halting virtually anywhere along the route to let off trappers and canoe-tripping parties. The two trains, owned by the Ontario Northland Railway, complement each other and are responsible for sustaining life to that area in the north.

However, with the exception of a very few, most tourists take the Polar Bear Express. About 50 per cent of the 17 to 25 thousand of these annual visitors are Americans - the remainder being, in the main, a mixture of Europeans, Australians, South Africans and Canadians. They contribute a good chunk of the $250 million, tourism adds to the region's economy.

The scenic forest, which in places encompassed newly burned-out spots, kept us company as we moved onward. The view was enhanced by the description of the countryside, over the microphone, by knowledgeable guides. Some of the tourists listened, but the majority rambled to the snack and dining coaches while the young ones were kept happy by special events organised for their pleasure.

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