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.

Cree dancer in Moosonee (AE/NG)

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).

Comments

  1. Anne
    Canada
    July 17, 2011, 8:09 am

    Enjoyed this very much. Thanks Andrew – I’m going to have to move this journey higher up in my “bucket list”.

  2. Kirsty
    Canada
    July 17, 2011, 9:38 am

    Thank you for this! I have lived in Canada my whole life and these posts make me want to see more of my country. Much appreciated!

  3. mhmd hashm
    no comment
    July 17, 2011, 10:12 am

    good work

  4. Boomergirl
    http://roadstories.ca
    July 17, 2011, 12:40 pm

    Pic looks like he’s performing Chicken Dance which originated on the plains with the Blackfoot. Blackfoot Crossing in the Canadian Badlands of southern Alberta hosts the World Chicken Dance Championships every June and dancers from all over North America attend. May be the guy in the pic was at it too. Loved reading that you wrote, posted and uploaded your video all from inside a teepee outside a town only accessible by rail or small plane. Very cool.

  5. Judy Engle
    July 17, 2011, 6:15 pm

    I accidently clicked on this site and found the article as irresistible as the writer found the place names on the map. I think I would have loved that train trip myself! It’s a great story!

  6. Ontario’s Ocean – Digital Nomad
    July 18, 2011, 2:20 am

    [...] Moose Cree First Nation I’m not the kind of person who can see a town called Moose Factory on a… [...]

  7. Janet
    North Bay
    July 18, 2011, 8:29 pm

    Great review for my hometown Moose Factory and our neighbour Moosonee. It is good to read an article by one who has an open mind to our culture and history, and did not focus on negative aspects (as other tourist writers have done previously). Meegwetch!

  8. desmondxlinklater
    moosonee
    July 18, 2011, 10:53 pm

    us natives that lived here in moosonee all our lifes want land we want to be recognize

  9. Pauline Sackaney
    Moosonee
    July 19, 2011, 12:07 pm

    CreeFest is an annual gathering for the local and surrounding communities since its inception 9 years ago. We love our people, culture, song and dance. Meegwetch to Mushkegowuk Council for hosting this event and looking forward to CreeFest 2012 in Moose Factory.

  10. Laurie Rodgers
    Toronto
    July 19, 2011, 10:13 pm

    Thanks, Pauline, for the info about next year’s event in Moose Factory. It’s nice to see both towns share in the festivities.

  11. [...] into Windsor. More than a month (and several thousand miles) later, we stepped off a sight in Moosonee, afterwards jumped into a tiny motorboat and headed adult for a few additional miles north that it [...]

  12. Peggy Formsma
    Moose Factory, ON
    July 21, 2011, 10:36 am

    Some of the feedback was that the Creefest should include the PowWow. The original intent of the Creefest was a regional Gathering of our People to share their culture, traditions, language, and knowledge. I am in support of a PowWow but it would have to be a separate activity because it involves of lot of organizing and funds. Creefest has to remain in the way it started out. WE do want to keep connected to our culture and traditions through knowledge of our elders with their skills and their wisdom in what they learned from their grandparents. Oral traditions need to be maintained while we live in this fast pace world and we can have the best of both worlds.
    If someone out there can start a PowWow committee and host a summer PowWow in Moosonee or Moose Factory for next year. In February a PowWow is always held in both communities of Moosonee and Moose Factory.

    I hope someone will take the intiative to start a summer PowWow. :)

  13. greg spence
    moose factory, ontario
    July 21, 2011, 11:02 am

    hi to all people who attended creefest 2011 in moosonee. i must say it was a great fun celebrating our life and culture in the town of moosonee. i hope 85% of our people residing in moosonee were inspired to continue and keep up on the energy and vibe how precious our life and culture is for our elders, communities and demonstrating how proud we are of our heritage, celebrating with traditionals, laughter, making friends and bonding as a family of cree people of james bay, and showing our children and youth that in spite of challenges we are facing we can “reconnect our culture of past, present and future” thru music, song, stories, joy, dance, food in these modern times. thanks to all the people, and community of moosonee. if andrew evans see my comments, thanks for bumping into creefest, and i would certainly like to invite national geographic traveller to cover creefest 2012, 10 th anniversary in moose factory, i will leave contact numbers. 705 658 4222 or by email address. thanks to all. greg spence, creefest 2011 coordinator, mushkegowuk council, moose factory.

    greg

  14. Brennan Govender High Ridge Singers
    Moose Factory Ontario
    October 6, 2011, 4:09 pm

    hey just wanted to let people know you can purchase a copy of our CD HIGH RIDGE 11:11 Vol 1! Contact me on facebook and we can work something out!

  15. vassy
    australia
    October 25, 2012, 3:48 am

    I think you are fantastic , and. Great !!!!!!! . So please send me. A copy of your CD.

  16. Sam
    Canada
    December 10, 2013, 10:33 am

    I used to live about 100 km away from Moose Factory, across the bay in Waskaganish. Beautiful land, culture, and experience. They have a Timmy`s on the Cree reservation in Mistissini now :)