I’m not the kind of person who can see a town called Moose Factory on a map and then not go, especially if the town across the river is called Moosonee and the river is also called Moose and it flows into Ontario’s only saltwater coastline, which is practically Arctic. How can anyone resist such geography? Eh?
To chase that map itch, I rode the Polar Bear Express, a train on the Ontario Northern Railroad that departs from the town of Cochrane and rumbles and creaks through spruce forests for about five hours until the end of the line at Moosonee.
As a major link to one of Ontario’s remotest communities, the Polar Bear Express was filled with an odd mix of travelers. About half the passengers were local Cree coming home, from shopping trips, vacations or medical appointments. Then there were tourists (like myself, I admit it) and a huge group of Quebecois who overtook the cafe car and sang Peter, Paul & Mary’s song “500 Miles” in French–for about 500 miles. There were also a few policemen traveling up from Cochrane to help out at the police station in Moosonee. I noticed that instead of luggage, they carried boxes and boxes of Tim Horton’s doughnuts for the colleagues up north, a kindly gesture.
Yes, Moosonee is a land without Tim Horton’s, which in Canada means it is très remote. You feel that remoteness as the trees get smaller, as you cross river after river and see no roads, no people, no cities, and no sign of civilization other than the train you are riding.
As with every corner of Ontario I’ve landed in, arriving in Moosonee felt like a whole new country. As the train slowed along the station platform and the horn blew a welcome blast, I took in the view from my window: a water tower with the town’s name painted in Cree syllables–illegible to me. Rows of Cree gathered around each train door, excited to be greeting returning family members. Outside I heard drums–loud drums and singing, too. I stepped off the train and followed the music, past the station and across the hot dirt roads towards a field where tents were set up and a group of young men were wailing in a circle, beating on a drum and chanting in unison.
I had happened upon the annual summer gathering of Creefest, when Cree gather from surrounding communities to celebrate the long days and enjoy one another’s company. I was fortunate enough to have arrived on that day and in the year that Moosonee was hosting.
The Cree are the largest native bands in Canada, with a population of over 200,000. Many of them live in very remote communities, like Moosonee, and with long and isolating winters, summer becomes a time to reconnect with one another.
I enjoyed the food, the dancing, the art and the people at Creefest–but most of all, I enjoyed the music. Cree singing stands apart as a tradition and art form–it’s incomparable. To hear it in person was so powerful and such a memorable travel experience for me.
I was intrigued to find out that these young boys, some of them just 16 and 17 years old, had learned and perfected their knowledge of Cree songs by watching YouTube videos of other Cree singers, performed all across North America. That Native American traditions can be shared online is a wonderful thing and maybe (just maybe) I happened to find myself spending hours listening to Cree singers on YouTube, as well. The music is heart-thumping and as catchy as any latest pop song.
In fact, I still wake up with some of those Cree songs in my head.
(P.S. For the record, I wrote and published this post–and uploaded this video–from inside a teepee. In fact–I’m in a teepee with Wi-Fi internet–which just might be the quintessence of a digital nomadic).