Welcome to Moosonee, Ontario: The “Gateway to the Arctic”

Until recently, this hidden gem of the north was only accessible by plane or train.

Polar Bear Express - Moosonee, OntarioPhoto: ymimages / Shutterstock.com
The legendary Polar Bear Express pulling into Moosonee, Ontario.

As a child I grew up in Moosonee, Ontario, which is currently a community of approximately 2,000 people, about 85 per cent of whom are Cree. Located in northern Ontario on the Moose River, roughly 19 kilometres south of James Bay, it is considered to be “the Gateway to the Arctic.” The town site is in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, the largest wetland area on Earth. Originally settled as a fur trading post by Revillon Frères of Paris in 1903, the town quickly grew in importance, particularly with the arrival of the rail in 1932, which turned Moosonee into a transportation hub for the James Bay coastal communities. Moosonee serves as a gateway to the north and a launching point for further destinations, whether across the Moose River to Moose Factory, or further north up the western coast of James Bay to our neighbouring First Nation communities.

Moosonee, until recently, was only accessible by plane, or by train on scheduled services provided by the Ontario Northland Railway (ONR), from Cochrane, Ontario. Recently a winter land route called Wetum Road was opened up—a 170-kilometres-long stretch connecting Moose Factory to Otter Rapids. This road provides communities located along the James Bay coast with access to the Ontario highway system.

Visiting Moosonee

When visiting, tourists are offered many different things to see and do while exploring mainland Moosonee and the Island community of Moose Factory. We have several museums dedicated to local history and many community members have set up Arts & Crafts stands to sell authentic Cree moose-hide slippers and mitts, as well as Tamarack art, drawings and paintings created by the communities’ many artists. Town locals have also maintained their ability to hunt and gather in order to provide for themselves and their elders. Wild meat is quite common as a food source and local schools provide two weeks off during the spring and fall for family hunting seasons.

Moosonee Ontario Northland Train Station circa 1978Photo: Robert Taylor / Wikimedia Commons
Moosonee’s Ontario Northland Train Station in 1978.

Family Connections

My grandfather, Mr. Joseph Chakasim, was one of the many men who worked on building the railroad between Cochrane and Moosonee. He was given a lifetime pass to travel on the ONR upon his retirement, which was a blessing for us kids as my grandparents would take us for trips on the train quite often. My grandmother, Mrs. Hannah Chakasim nee Chookomolin, was a homemaker who helped supplement family income by making and selling her handcrafted moose-hide mitts, slippers and moccasins. She would often sell and take orders from the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Ontario Provincial Police and Catholic church priests. During the summer months, she would sell her creations to the tourists who arrived via the Polar Bear Express.

I’m honoured to have a photo of myself hanging in the Moosonee ONR Train Museum. It ended up there when a local photographer by the name of Bill Hutchinson asked me and a friend to accompany him around to take photos. He later invited me to a showing, and as we walked through the museum, I was amazed by all of the historic and current images of our community on display for tourists to see. He then pointed out the photo of myself, and that’s when I told him, “I can now say I am old enough to be in a museum!” When my children asked me how old I was a few years back, that’s the reply I gave them!

Moosonee offers a view into the life of the very wonderful people of the North who will always call this place home, as I do. I can honestly say, especially with how quickly the community grew and how far it has come, that the small town of Moosonee is a very strong and vibrant community. Together, they work to keep their members close to their hearts by remembering, honouring, educating, caring and healing.

Next, check out 10 iconic Canadian train trips worth taking.

Originally Published in Our Canada