Adventures Around The Corner

23 12 2008

moosonee-mw

 

On a lonely windswept island in James Bay, northern Ontario, there sits a small cemetery. The headstones are worn by relentless sub-Arctic wind and driving snow and bleached almost beyond legibility by the summer sun. The ground that never thaws below a few inches of mud each spring, has left the markers at precarious angles like the teeth of a gnarled fisherman.

 

The legends on the stones are a tale of toil, struggle and suffering: men and women in their 20s and 30s and infant children barely born. The view from the graveyard is desolate even now and even on a sunny summer’s day. James Bay, the southern extension of Hudson Bay, looks dark and menacing while the trees are already stunted as they continue their trek like lemmings towards the end of the treeline and the tundra beyond.

 

The permanent residents of the small square of grass arrived hundreds of years ago. They were dropped by a ship in late spring as soon as the ice had thawed enough to navigate the large waterways. They hurriedly erected sturdy shelters and gathered firewood and food for the murderous winter that would all too soon be upon them. While much of the rest of the northern hemisphere was still enjoying the colour and fading warmth of early autumn, the settlers were already experiencing their first snowfalls.

 

They would stand and watch their only contact with the outside world sail away towards the Arctic Ocean and Europe beyond and know that with it went any way of leaving. If they became ill or injured, if their homes burned down, if the snows destroyed their shelters or their supplies perished there was no one to call on for help and no way of contacting home, never mind returning there.

 

Today, Moosonee and Moose Factory sit at the very end of the railway line. They are beyond the roads and despite modern technology accessible only by an airstrip…and a train that still stops in the middle of the bush to pick-up and drop-off trappers who stand in clearings to flag down the once-daily locomotive. The train carries supplies, local residents heading to or from the south, and tourists destined for a taste of the far north. The streets are still unpaved and the infrastructure basic but there is the insatiable curiosity of the children who run and bike to the train station and the warmth and hospitality of the local people who prepare lunch in the church basement or shuttle visitors across the dark waters to Moose Factory. They share stories of life in the north, of the belugas which live in the depths, the bears and wolves in the forests and the dancing Northern Lights in the sky.

 

At the end of the day, the majority of tourists board the Polar Bear Express for the return trip to Cochrane. A handful stay in one of the several small motels and explore further afield to learn more about the settlement’s history, to buy Cree handicrafts or perhaps to venture out fishing with a local guide. Whether for a few hours or a day or more, every visitor is touched by the isolation and hardiness of the current and former residents.

 

Adventure travel doesn’t have to be expensive or on the other side of the world. It doesn’t have to occupy weeks of precious vacation time. It doesn’t have to be dangerous or adrenalin-pumping. Sometimes, the best adventures and the most eye-opening experiences can be around the corner.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

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