Moose Factory and Moosonee (people often assume it's Moosenee) are small Ontario communities on James Bay, part of the much larger Hudson's Bay in Canada's north country.
Nearly two hundred miles of swamp, lakes, rivers and bush, lock these communities away in a northern fastness that used to take 8 to 10 days to get there by canoe in summer time.
In wintertime, you didn’t go at all. And if it wasn't for modern air services it would still be almost impossible.
Though, as the Ice Road Truckers on TV show, it can be done:-)
So, although Moosonee is Ontario’s only saltwater port and Moose Factory is its oldest English settlement, they are both so isolated they don’t attract many visitors. Their isolation isn’t through distance. It’s by nature.
Today, however, the communities boast two links to the outside world, Creebec Air and a train called the Polar Bear Express, see our Getting About page.
The English arrived in 1673 and set up their trading post on Moose Factory Island, a sensible precaution for a sea-people. Despite the precaution, the post was captured by the French in 1687 and it remained in French hands till the Treaty of Utrecht returned the post to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1713. For the next 250 years, until it closed, goods from the outside world passed into the North and, in exchange, furs went out to Britain. A comfortable arrangement in uncomfortable conditions, as the many museum photos -- and the graveyard -- attest.
Moose Factory is on the island because that's where a sea-people feel safest. The English Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) set up their factory for gathering pelts (brought to them by the local native peoples) before processing the furs and shipping them back to Europe. This was 1673 and well into the Medieval mini-Ice Age. If Britons were cold, the local native people here in Canada must have been frozen. I have to assume they kept enough furs for themselves.
Moose Factory still has a number of the old HBC Trading Post buildings and these two cannons (and the one you see in the first photo above), to keep off folks who might want the furs for themselves. The most likely competition in those days would be from the French out of New France (now Quebec) and Dutch traders out of New Holland (now New York).
The railroad opened in 1932 to service the fur trading posts of Moose Factory (Hudson's Bay) and Moosonee (Revillon Freres, now Revlon) but, when the fur trade ended in the 1950’s, the rail link became the area’s principal reason-to-be. Moosonee is now a transportation hub. From here, the supplies and materials that come from the South by rail flow northward to the isolated communities of Hudson’s Bay, by barge (in summer ) and by ice road on the frozen waters in winter.
This where you see the 'real' Canada, a land of endless forests and scrubland stretching from the densely populated south to the thinly populate shores of the frozen Arctic Ocean in the north. A land populated by Inuit and other First Nations, Canada's term for the original population, such as the Cree -- the principal peoples around Moosonee and Moose Factory.
Along the way on your trip to Cochrane, if you go by car, you'll get the first sense of that change over from temperate to tundra with these marker two signs.
The Polar Bear Express leaves from Cochrane and rumbles northward through forests of deciduous and fir trees at first, followed by firs in the middle of the trip, then stunted tamarack, poplars and birches near Moosonee.
The trees start small near Cochrane and grow smaller. The guide, speaking over the train’s PA system, tells us that the trees grow slowly because their roots are frozen for nine months of the year and then waterlogged when the frost melts. To me, having grown up in Britain, the stunted, knobby firs look just like Brussels Sprouts plants.
Rivers break through the forests, some are in deep ravines down which we peer anxiously, and some are wide, almost lake-like. All have bridges high enough to let the piled ice flow safely underneath in spring. After one last bridge, a strange one with its supports on top for fear of ice, the Express reaches Moosonee.
Getting to Moose Factory from Moosonee requires a short canoe trip and landing at the site you see here with the Cree cultural centre, a look at the life of the Swampy Cree people before and after the arrival of Europeans, in the background.
The Revillon Freres museum is at Moosonee and is housed in one of the last of the small employee houses, but makes up for its size by being packed with exhibits of maps, photos, furs, and tools.
The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) museum on Moose Factory Island, is housed in, and made up of, the remnants of the trading posts’ 19th century buildings. Each building has an interesting collection of artifacts and, or, photographs of life around the fur trading station during the last 100 years. HBC employees were shutterbugs par excellence, judging by these exhibits.
We took the Fossil Island tour and the Twilight tour for our first afternoon and evening. Unfortunately, Two Bay Enterprises, who used to run the tours has gone out of business though there are still plenty of Water Taxis to get you around.
The limestone outcrops along the river’s edge, and the boulders washed up on the shore, are laden with fossils that prove, so the tour guide tells us, that this place was once a tropical seabed. (It’s the story of my traveling life, no matter where I go I’m told I should have come earlier because the weather then was marvelous):-)
The trip to Fossil Island in a freighter canoe is worth it for the boat ride alone, even if you have no interest in fossils. Out on the Moose River, away from the town, is one of the few opportunities to sample something that is hard to find in everyday life -- silence. When the guide cuts off the engine to point out an Osprey nest or a Seal, the only sounds are the sparkling waters lapping against the hull and even they fade and die before he has stopped speaking.
On the Twilight Tour we saw Black Bears (see our wildlife page for less frightening Ontario animals) so be very wary when taking walking tours on the trails outside town.
We also took the Wilderness Tour, on a bigger boat, the Polar Princess (pictured above), which took us down the river to the salt waters of James Bay. It’s easy to imagine, as you watch the seemingly virgin forest slide by, that it is the 16oo's and you’re the first Europeans to arrive here. The horizon is empty in every direction and the freighter canoes, that buzz incessantly up and down the river near Moosonee and Moose Factory, are nowhere to be seen out on James Bay. The sky too is equally blue and empty, with only some small clouds, like smoke signals, over Quebec to the East. When those first explorers met the Cree it would be hard to guess who was the most surprised.
For me, the two Anglican churches of these northern communities provided the most poignant moments of the trip. I grew up making an occasional attendance at Church of England services in small Yorkshire coastal communities and, had I not known I was in St. Thomas’s church near James Bay, I could have easily imagined myself in the church and parish hall of St. Stephen’s at Robin Hood’s Bay. My mother and aunts could have attended those two churches on the Moose River, along with the local families of Robinson, Moore and Linklater, and have felt completely at home. A little bit of this foreign field will be forever England.
If you crave more time in the wilderness than Ontario Northland’s three to five day packages allow, there is a Provincial Park campsite on Charles Island within easy boat reach of Moosonee and Moose Factory. Charles Island is part of the Tidewater Provincial Park and it has 20 camping sites, most of which front onto the river. Camping supplies can be purchased in either of the two nearby towns, and you can also rent the boat or canoe you’ll need to get there.
For a National Park at the southern extreme of Ontario, and Canada, visit our Point Pelee page.
If you've enjoyed reading about these two communities, you may want to visit. Here's the website for Moosonee.
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