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The Lure of the North: Riding the Polar Bear Express

Their classic 1950s Ontario Northland paint scheme augmented by removable polar bear panels for their assignment to Cochrane–Moosonee service, FP7A units 1521 and 1510 stand with the Polar Bear Express at Moosonee in July 1976. Stainless-steel-sheathed meal car Meechim — rebuilt from a former U.S. Army hospital car — is bracketed by three ONR coaches in traditional green (with prominent Polar Bear Express lettering and graphics), and three coaches wearing the railway’s post-1974 white-bodied “Chevron” image. The Polar Bear Express marks its 60th anniversary in 2024.

The Lure of the North: Riding the Polar Bear Express

PTJ 2024-01By Ken Goslett/photo nu the author

My first experience with the Polar Bear Express came in July 1976, during a camping trip throughout northern Ontario when, in the company of my new girlfriend, Barbara, we decided to take a train ride. At the time, there were two trains from Cochrane to Moosonee, the summer-season Polar Bear Express round-trip for tourists, and the all-stops mixed train colloquially known as the “Little Bear.” We chose the former, and in preparation camped close to the Cochrane station the night before to be ready for its early morning departure.

Our train consisted of a pair of green and yellow Ontario Northland FP7A locomotives and seven cars, one of which was a food service/dining car. Both diesels carried detachable panels with a large polar bear graphic painted on them. Everyone boarding the train was in a festive mood, and soon after we took our seats the train set off.

I don’t recall much about our coach or its accommodations, but one experience remains etched in memory. As we rattled north, suddenly we lost the air and the train went into emergency. Being a former railway employee, I knew immediately what that meant. Turning to Barb, I advised her to brace herself. But there was no impact or derailment. Instead, looking back out of our coach, I saw the rear portion of our train disappearing into the distance. The train had broken in two when the couplers between our car and the one following had slipped-by due to a dip in the track. The front portion of the train, with the weight of the locomotives, traveled farther while the rear section stopped more quickly. That explained the appearance of the rear portion disappearing into the distance. No harm was done, and after a short delay while the angle cock on the rear of our car was closed we backed up to retrieve the rear portion of our train. The spongy nature of the ground we were traveling over was clearly illustrated.

Polar Bear Express

ABOVE: Wearing Ontario Northland’s current paint scheme, this pair of GP38-2s will depart Cochrane with the Moosonee-bound Polar Bear Express on August 24, 2023. Unit 1809 was the last GP38-2 acquired new by ONR, in September 1984.

Arriving in Moosonee, we detrained and were encouraged to walk down to the Moose River where, at a small dock, a collection of motorized canoes and motorboats awaited us for a voyage across to the Indigenous community of Moose Factory. Moose Factory was a former Hudson Bay Company trading post, and is the site of the only hospital for many miles. The hospital and its residences drew my attention immediately. Due to the potential for permanently frozen ground in the area, all of the buildings’ exterior service piping (water, sewage, and steam heating) were above ground and wrapped in thick insulation.

We wandered about Moose Factory and ate lunch at a picnic table in an out-door restaurant. Then it was back into a boat for the return trip to Moosonee. There were vehicles in the town, but no roads out. All goods and supplies came in and out by rail, on the Little Bear or by freight train.

The return trip to Cochrane was uneventful. The train stayed in one piece and, being July with its long hours of northern daylight, we could enjoy the views out the window while eating supper.

Polar Bear Express

ABOVE: Arriving back in Cochrane, passengers staying at the station’s second-floor hotel, the Cochrane Station Inn, are just a few steps from their accommodation.

Polar Bear present

It would be 47 years until I returned to the Polar Bear Express, and much had changed. My girlfriend Barbara had become my wife, and my companion for the August 2023 adventure was our adult daughter. The Polar Bear Express listed in the ONR timetable still made a one-day round-trip to Moosonee on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. But it was no longer a dedicated tourist train, and carried automobiles, trucks, and heavy baggage such as ATVs, canoes, and boats. On other days, a freight train plied the route.

The station in Cochrane had under-gone a makeover as well, with its second story converted to attractive hotel rooms. We elected to stay there, and the convenience of walking downstairs for the train’s 9:00AM departure could not be beat. When the train returned at 10:00PM, a few steps across the station platform and an elevator ride to the second floor returned us to our room…

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This article was posted on: January 15, 2024