MOOSE TRAILS AND POLAR RAILS

28 Feb

The trip was a whole year in planning. Well, maybe it was a whole year of talking during which two weeks of actual planning was completed.

The year was 1978. I was forty at the time. My three sons were ten, twelve and fourteen respectively. We had made several combination camping and fishing trips together but this was the granddaddy of all trips.

We had heard about something called the Polar Bear Express. At that time it ran from Cochrane, Ontario to Mosinee on the edge of James Bay.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdgILEmG2DY&feature=player_detailpage

With the help of a few phone calls to the Cochrane train station and obtaining a few topographical maps of the area our plans started to take shape. Likewise the images of a great fishing trip started to grow in our minds.

We limited our backpacks to three changes of clothes, dried instant meals and every known bug repellent, including oil of citronella. The backpacks were loaded keeping in mind the age of the wearer.

We left Binghamton, New York early in the morning. The first leg of our trip was planned so that we could spend most of the next day in Cochrane, Ontario. That was a 550 mile trip. That evening was spent in a beautiful provincial park by the name of Kap-Kig-Iwan. That is the Ojibway word for “over-the-edge.”

 A more contextual meaning for this park meant “waterfalls.”

The park is an Ontario treasure no matter where which angle you observe it from. It is my understanding that in 2009 some of the park has been set as off-limits so that it may recover from all the visitors that wished to see it.

After spending the night in our tent we departed Kap-Kig-Iwan for Cochrane. We needed to verify the train schedule and obtain our fishing licenses. We also had time to pick up a few gifts for the lady of the house. That was something we always did if we went on a “boys” trip.

At the train station our hopes were momentarily dashed. The Polar Bear Express did not drop off people anywhere they wanted. This was not our understanding from the phone calls we had made. Possibly it was a misunderstanding on my part. The reason for the confusion was that another train would also leave the station for Moosenee on James Bay.

The schedule for the Polar Bear Express was a round trip up and back in one day. The other train’s schedule was up on one day and return on the next. That train was more than willing to take passengers and drop them off wherever they wished. That was what we were looking for.

That night we tented overnight at a park nearer to Cochrane. We had to rise early to ensure that we would be at the station on time. We woke up late and had to pack in a hurry. I pushed the old Chevy station wagon faster than I should have. We hit a rise in the small road and became momentarily airborne. When the car came back to earth the springs took a beating but not as bad as the muffler. It was crushed. We roared the remainder of the way into Cochrane.

The train station was just coming to life. We had made it in time.

Cochrane Train Station

We sat anxiously waiting for anyone who looked official. The conductor appeared and saw us sitting on our backpacks.

“You boys going to take the train north today?” he asked.

I answered “Yes” and continued on with a few questions. “Is there room for our backpacks?”  And pulling out a topographical map and pointing to a specific spot “Can you drop us off here?”

“Sure” he answered. “Stay here. When the train pulls in I will show you what to do.”

He was very friendly and helpful. Just like he said, the train pulled in and he took us to the baggage car.

“Throw your backpacks in there and I will show you were your coach and dining car is.”

We followed his directions and got settled down. The boys were hungry. We left the campground in such a hurry that we forgot to eat. Maybe it was more of the excitement of the trip that made us forget about food. We walked through a few train cars to get to the dining car. It wasn’t much but the lone lady who worked there got us some hot oatmeal and orange juice; coffee for me.

We rode along for another hundred miles. There wasn’t much to see other than trees dwarfed by the cold winters and a raging river now and then.

It was a little intimidating. The tracks appeared to lead to nowhere. But that was where we wanted to go. However, reality began to set in.

The map of our trip may better depict where “nowhere” is.

“Nowhere is one-hundred miles north of Cochrane. It is the northern-most red dot on the map. You can see our train route by following the smaller red dots. We wished to get off the train about two-thirds of the way to Moosenee. Our final leg was a mile trek to the Mattagami River. The topographical map depicted a trail from the rail-side to the river.

The train made very few stops. We passed a settlement of roughly six small homes. According to our topographical maps that was “Coral.” A few people sat on their front porches. The train did not make a stop.

Finally the conductor came to us and asked us to follow him. “You boys will be departing in a short while” he said. He took us to the baggage car. It contained much more baggage than when we had put our backpacks in. There were two canoes, a few mail sacks, and other assorted goods lying here and there. We rode along holding on to whatever we could as the train swayed back and forth.

The conductor took a two-way radio from its holster and talked to the train engineer. The train started to slow down for our departure.

The conductor asked “When will you boys be getting back on for your return trip?”

I responded “In four days. But if the fishing is good maybe we will stay for another two.”

He smiled at me and said “Well, maybe I will see you tomorrow.”

Now that was a strange thing for him to say. I had just told him that we would at least be the better part of a week.

The train finally came to a halt. We picked up our backpacks as the conductor opened the sliding door on the baggage car.

My eyes must have become as large as a cows! I could not believe what I was looking at. There were deer flies, horse flies, black flies and mosquitos flying all through the air. This is not an exaggeration. It looked like that insect swarm scene from the movie “African Queen.”

I attempted to act nonchalant; for the boy’s sake. Well, also for mine. I didn’t look back at the conductor to see if he was grinning from ear to ear. I jumped from the car to the rail-side and asked the boys to hand me the backpacks. They did and then I helped the two younger ones down. The older boy was already standing next to me. The baggage door closed and the train leapt forward. All of us stood there watching our last connection to civilization disappear over the horizon.

I plastered the boys and myself with insect repellent. Then I basted our neckerchiefs with several drops of “oil of citronella.” After giving them safety instructions I asked them to stay where they were while I attempted to locate the trail that led to the Mattagami River. Between the bend in the tracks and the topographical maps I was sure to spot it right away.

I wasn’t planning on the alder bushes being so thick. Finally I spotted something. I walked down from the track-bed and the trail was right where the topo map said it would be. However the map did not state its condition.

It was a moose trail. And it closed in about 200 feet down the trail.

I went up the tracks and picked up the boys. We agreed that I would take the lead then the twelve year old would follow me. Behind him was the ten year old who would be watched over by the fourteen year old.

The trail was impossible to walk in. The alders were too thick to walk through. The only solution was for us to face the alders and hang on to them so that our feet would find solid ground on their roots. This allowed our backpacks to hang over the moose trail which had about four inches of water covering about one foot of black muck. We crab-walked our way forward (or maybe I should say sideward).

We proceeded for some time and made fairly good headway. Then the oldest son shouted that the young one was stuck in the mud. I removed my pack and somehow worked my way past the other son and reached the young one. There was no question about it. He was stuck in the mud. The oldest boy and I each took one arm of the young one. We gently pulled upward. He started to come free. Then “Swuuuup,” he came lose; but with only one shoe. I stuck my hand down in the black ooze and fished around until I found the other one. I rinsed his shoes and socks off in the black tannic water that sat on top of the ooze. There was no room to dig through a backpack for fresh ones. The alder bushes kept trying to shove us into the goop.

Finally we exited the alders and found ourselves in open tundra. It was all grass about a foot and a half tall. However, it was growing in two to four inches of water. Every step we took drove hundreds of black flies out of the grass. We braved on but the deer and horse flies were ignoring the repellent. We stopped to dab a few more drops of oil of citronella on our neckerchiefs. It helped; minimally.

Before long I could feel some sort of structure beneath my feet. It felt like something parallel. I reached down in the shallow water and felt a cord road.

“What the hell is a cord road doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” I asked out loud.

I took a few more steps and checked again. Sure enough, someone, sometime, had built a road of small saplings laid side by side. It must have been done years ago because there were no other signs of civilization.

I followed my compass and somehow managed to stay on the cord roadway even though we could not see it. Finally the wetness gave way and we were walking in dry grass. The black flies abated for a while. We could see the sudden drop in elevation which told us where the river was. We immediately set up the tent and got inside to avoid the insects.

As we sat there the big flies must have sensed us. They continually bounced off the tent for the next two hours. Some decided to sit on the tent and wait for a meal. They imitated our coins; some small like dimes, some nickel sized and a few as large as quarters. We sat tight and had an inside meal of instant pistachio pudding with walnuts.

The sun went low and the insects disappeared. We put on hooded sweat shirts and gloves. Next we assembled our fishing poles and went to the river. One lad had something on but lost it. Then the mosquitos came out in full force.

We had to retreat to the tent once more.

On our way back we stumbled across the few foundation logs of an old logging camp. There were also partial frames of two steel beds. That explained the cord road and why the hidden trail was on a topo map. The remnants must have been at least eighty years old.

That night we had a discussion about who wanted to do what. It became obvious, due to the silence, that we all had enough of this type of wilderness camping. We agreed to meet the train the next morning.

The trek out was simpler because we knew what to expect. We wore heavy wool socks with sneakers as it made it easier to walk and keep the black flies off our legs. Our pants were tucked inside the long socks. There was no way the black flies were going to bite our legs.

About half way back it started to drizzle. I was refreshing in a way because it kept a lot of the flies down. We got to the tracks and two of us held a poncho over a third one so he could change into dry cloths. Once we were all dry we sat waiting for the train.

It showed up! That was a relief.

Backpacks went into the baggage car and the conductor said “I thought we might see you boys today.” He had a big grin.

We quickly made our way to the dining car and had another breakfast from the same lady.

As we ate we pulled our trousers out of our wool socks. Soon all of us began scratching and itching. I looked down and saw several black flies coming out of my socks. While we were waiting for the train they had crawled inside to get warm. Off came the socks, right in the dining car.

When the train reached Cochrane we immediately high-tailed it for our car, threw the backpacks in the rear and headed for Englehart. It was a little over a two hour trip. We found a hotel, got cleaned up, soothed our bug bites and went out to eat.

There was a Chinese restaurant nearby. We all thought that Chinese was a treat and decided to try it. We did not know it at the time but it looked just like the Chinese restaurant in the movie “A Christmas Story.” Every time the boys and I watch that old movie we look at each other and giggle; like the kids we still are.

That night, believe it or not, my oldest boy and I could both hear the bugs buzzing. Our minds had recorded it and played it back for us. If it had not happened to me I would have a hard time believing it.

Another confab between the four of us and we decided to try our very own Adirondack Mountains. The boys wanted to go back to a wilderness area that we were familiar with.

We took our time getting ready the next morning. We had a nice leisurely breakfast at a local restaurant. Before long the day was almost gone. We did not make it back to New York so we stayed at a campground on the southern edge of Ontario. It rained all night, our tent leaked and our sleeping bags got wet. The saving grace was that the sun came out and it got hot. We stretched all the wet stuff out on the car and picnic table. It was all dry by time we finished breakfast.

Across the border we went. The station wagon had somehow quieted down but there was still a hissing noise coming from the exhaust. Both headlights were broken from rocks being thrown by large trucks on Route 11 in Ontario. We now had to cut diagonally across the Adirondacks to get to our destination.

We went past a place called Stockholm which had tall white cliffs. We also passed an unbelievable set of locks on what we learned was the Black River Canal. The locks were like steep steps. There were 109 locks in the thirty-nine miles of this canal.

We saw a large flock of wild turkeys and that also made us happy.

Then the car started overheating. I babied it and put in additional water every so often. After checking for leaks I decided that the radiator thermostat must be malfunctioning. I was not happy to pay for a repair job in the middle of the Adirondacks. I stopped at a local garage and asked if he had could sell me a thermostat. He didn’t have one that fit my car. I asked him if he could remove my thermostat. He said no, he was too busy, but offered me the use of his tools. That was really nice.

I removed the thermostat and we continued on our way. The car boiled over again. It was not the thermostat it was a half-clogged radiator. I added water and continued on to the wilderness area. There were springs here and there that I knew about. The fifteen mile trip on dirt roads took some time due to refilling the radiator.

We found a rustic campsite (only a bench and a fireplace) and settled in for some late afternoon fishing. It was a gorgeous location.

Courtesy of Andy Arthur

Courtesy of Andy Arthur

That night another rain storm came and soaked us again. We stretched our wet gear on some bushes and went fishing. After some general investigations of our area we went back to camp and decided we needed a good night’s sleep.

Home is where the heart is. But that was a memorable trip. Maybe not for the correct reasons but it was a memory that my sons still kid me about; well-deserved I might add.

EPILOG:

Once home I attempted to put too many black muddy clothes in the washer and promptly clogged it. The boys told my wife about it.  –  –  –   Tattle-tales!

Oh yes, I almost forgot. We ate the dried food packages over the next three days. My one son told me that his tasted like kerosene. I pooh-poohed it and told him to eat his meal. He tried but finally refused. I tasted it. Nice kerosene flavor on those reconstituted franks and beans!

Now I am just waiting for family services to come and take my three 40 plus year old sons from me.  Child abuse you know!

© Copyright – Waldo Tomosky

 

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