Dispatch From Ontario: Going Where No Roads Go

A dirt bike is parked in front of the simple modern building of the Moose Cree Complex.When you look at a map of northern Ontario, one important thing is missing—roads. And this week, I’ve gone where no roads go. I’m staying in the middle of the Moose River, near the mouth of James Bay, on three-mile-long, two-mile-wide Moose Factory Island, part of the Moose Cree First Nation. No roads come this far north, so I’ve ridden Ontario Northland’s Polar Bear Express train 185 miles from the small town of Cochrane (itself about 400 miles north of Toronto). The train chugs five hours through dense, evergreen forests to Moosonee, Moose Factory’s sister hamlet on the mainland side of the river.

Despite the train’s name, there aren’t any polar bears in Moose Factory. Although it’s as far north as most people go in Ontario, it’s not actually cold enough to support Arctic wildlife. Moose Factory was a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading post back in the 1670s. And for centuries before that time, the region was Moose Cree territory.

Yet scouting wildlife or even seeing “the sights” isn’t really the point of a visit to Moose Factory. Visitors can wander down the island’s dirt and gravel roads to the Cree Cultural Interpretive Centre, where you learn, among other things, that the Cree traditionally brewed willow bark tea to reduce fever and pains (it contains salicylic acid, similar to the chemical found in aspirin) and that they used to fashion babies’ diapers out of the region’s highly absorbent moss.

The 20-room Cree Village Ecolodge, where I’m staying, provides local jobs, while offering visitors rustically comfortable accommodations (with organic cotton bedding, birch wood blinds, and wi-fi). Meals are prepared with venison, bison, cranberries, and other traditional ingredients.

To me, though, it’s equally interesting to hang out at the Moose Cree Complex, which is part shopping center, part city hall, and part local gathering place. I wander through the Northern Store, pricing groceries, clothing, and housewares (all expensive), before sitting down to a bacon-and-eggs breakfast at Gunner’s Grill, where local teens in hoodies are chilling over coffee. For dessert, I buy some homemade raisin tarts from an elderly Cree lady who’s set up a pastry sales table in the middle of the complex.

When I stop to chat with several local folks who are lounging on a bench after work, they tell me that in winter, snowmobiles and cars cross to the mainland on an ice road built across the frozen river. They also tell me that in the “freeze up” between fall and winter and again in the “break up” between spring and summer (when the river isn’t frozen solid but it’s still too icy for the water taxis to shuttle passengers to Moosonee), the only way to get on or off the island is by helicopter. Even the high school kids take the chopper to class on the mainland.

Roads? Who needs ’em?

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