Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Moose River 1980 (1st Missinaibi RiverTrip)

Missinaibi River - First Excursion
Moose River 1980
(Chapter Four - Conclusion)

"Canoeists and other primitive-trippers are not delighted to encounter others intent on the same private experience. How many visitors constitute the end of wilderness?"
John A. Livingston

Squinting, the vista before me could have been from some exotic tropical travel brochure. Shimmering white sands, clear blue waters and lush green forests were enticing us to stay yet another day. Dousing our campfire with the remaining coffee, we broke camp and packed our canoe. The morning sun began to play tag with the clouds as we pushed off and leisurely began to paddle northward on the mighty Moose River.

Perhaps it started long ago, in the mind of a child, with some mental image that slowly developed over time. Images of a deep and dark mysterious river meandering through some boreal forest or equally desolate landscape, tree boughs draped over the river bank sheltering it from intruders. A foreboding steel blue sky threatening from above, keeping secrets from all but the most adventurous. A mysterious place, A private place. This became my mental image Canada’s mighty Moose River.

Fascinating tales of the Coureur de Bois, hardy fur traders carrying their own weight in supplies to remote outposts, provided further material for day dreams during Canadian history class in elementary school. As if by magic, the past suddenly became linked to my present with Ontario Northland Railway's Polar Bear Express. Here were photographs of a train packed with school children, not unlike myself, on an excursion back in time, faces pressed to the windows with wide eyed stares reflected in the waters of the mighty Moose River. I vowed that someday I too would relive these childhood dreams and board the Polar Bear Express northward for a trip to Moosonee

To my surprise, the Moose River was not deep and meandering, but quite shallow, carving a relatively straight path to the brackish water of James Bay. Trees on the banks had their boughs trimmed yearly by the flow of ice during the spring break-up and did not embrace the river as I had imagined. The width of the river allowed the warmth of the sun to penetrate giving a perfect view of the majestic northern sky which welcomed all visitors. The 'Moose' turned out to be nothing like the images conjured up in my childhood fantasies, except in the fact that it was no less grand and majestic

We continued to paddle northward where the first sight of civilization in about ten days was the Ontario Northland's railway bridge spanning the river at Moose River Crossing. As we negotiated the rapid water around the base of the bridge, the sound of an approaching train thundered into our consciousness. There, to my amazement, appeared the Polar Bear Express. crossing the bridge at precisely the right time for we could see school children with their faces pressed against the windows greeting us with enthusiastic waves and discharging flash bulbs. We raised our paddles into the air in a salute!

The circle was complete. I was on my way to Moosonee via the Moose River under my own power! So much better than by the train trip I had once envisioned. I wondered what stories and images those school children may now have and how it may influence them in future years

Daydreams turned to reality as threatening skies suggested we find shelter quickly. Approaching the confluence of the Moose and the Abitibi Rivers, we made for the eastern shore and hastily heaved our packs up the steep bank. Were we in luck? A beautifully cleared point of land led to a cabin hiding within the forest. Shaking the latch we were disappointed to find that the roughly hewn wooden door was locked, separating our shelter from the approaching elements. Retreating to our packs, we set up our tent only minutes before the rain began to pour. The deluge soon invited the wind to join in as daylight turned dark as night. Never before have I seen lightning splitting the sky sideways as it traversed the horizon! While trying to secure the tent from the buffeting wind fighting to tear it from its earthen moorings, the dancing trees separated long enough for us to spy an additional structure hidden by the forest. Defeated, we threw rocks on the collapsed tent in hopes preventing it from reaching Moosonee before us, then made a mad dash for the cabin with what packs we could carry. Salvation! The cabin was open! Stumbling into our sanctuary, the torrential rain poured down in biblical proportions as the thunder bellowed angrily. The darkness within soon gave way to the warm glow of a lantern revealing bunk beds, a crude table and wood stove. Heaven! Rehydrating supper and sipping steaming mugs of fortified coffee, we settled into our bunks and watched the curtains of rain drape our window.

The morning sky remained gun-metal blue as the clouds defeated the sun’s meagre attempt to poke through.. Venturing out to assess the damage we gathered up our scattered gear and prepared to brave the final leg of our journey. Raising my collar to the wind, we pushed off into the bleakness. Rhythmic paddle strokes beat out the seconds, minutes and hours of river travel.

Brackish tasting water and increasingly evident tidal action betrayed the fact that our destination of Moosonee was obtainable within the day. Emboldened by that knowledge and the anticipation of cold beer, we doubled our stroke and regrettably threw caution to the wind. Light danced off of the distant river revealing the presence of a final set of rapids, the Kwatogohegans(2). Reconnoitering the water before us, we could see no rocks or other obstructions - only large standing “haystack" waves. The last hurrah would be an exhilarating roller coaster ride down this chute of water. We approached along the west bank and passed the point of no return. Smash! - the first wave broke over the bow of the Starcraft canoe drenching me head to toe.. Smash!! - came the second wave repeating the first. My knees were now bathed in water. Smash!!! - came another as water settled around my thighs. Smash, smash, smash - my stomach sank as did our canoe. We probably were quite the sight, riding out the tail end of the rapids with our canoe below the river surface with only the wildlife witness to our predicament. Throwing a line to shore we swam to retrieve it and haul our canoe to the river bank. Unpacking, we drained our gear and found that river sand had infiltrated every crevice of our packs and clothing. Draining the canoe, we sheepishly repacked and silently disembarked with a lesson learned.

Kwatobohegan Rapids - Courtesy Irwinsg
(ie. not from my personal trip)
(My memory has this section as even more violent than pictured in this video)

Late afternoon heightened the biter-sweet realization that Moosonee was in sight. Our final strokes did not seem to propel us at all. Finally reaching the public waterfront landing we shook hands in congratulation, tied our canoe to a post and sprinted up the river bank. Reaching Revillon Street which ran parallel to the river, we chose to turn up First Street where convenience stores and restaurants beckoned us to taste civilization once again.

“May we take your picture?” We didn’t understand. “May we take your picture?” Still wet and sandy from the Kwatobohegan Rapid’s failed attempt to scrub ten days of river travel from our tired frames, we were a sad looking pair. While dazed by the sights and noise of Moosonee, we were approached by two elderly ladies with cameras strung around their necks. “Excuse me, may we take your picture?” They explained to us that they had just arrived from Toronto on the Polar Bear Express to see the northern town of Moosonee. Begging for our photo as proof to friends that they had indeed met Moosonee natives, we didn’t have the heart to refuse. Nor did we reveal to them that as residents of the greater Toronto area, we too were visitors and perhaps in a weeks time, neighbours. Our good deed of the day completed, we entered a restaurant for the best tasting hamburger and cola imaginable. No rehydration or river water required.

Our waitress had noticed our predicament as we waddled in, shaking one leg, followed by the other, chafing from our wet clothing and depositing sand in our footsteps. She kindly informed us that the town laundromat was a few streets south. Thanking her, we headed back to the waterfront to retrieve our canoe and packs before evening set in. Our canoe had been moved! We quickly realized that the tide had come in and with our canoe firmly tied to a post, it was in the process of disappearing underwater for the second time that day as the river water rose. The kindness of an unknown resident saved our gear as well as pride by retying the canoe further up the bank. Such were our first impressions of this rugged frontier town.

Finding a willing resident to house our canoe for the duration of our stay, we picked up a six pack of beer from the town’s liquor store and headed off to find the laundromat. Walking with distress, a van roared past us in a cloud of dust and illuminated brake lights.
We rubbed our eyes in disbelief as the rusty Ford reversed and two long haired angelic native Cree girls poked their heads out the windows, “Want a ride?” Moosonee must be close to heaven, I thought! Regrettably the ride, as our conversation, was far too short as we stepped out at the laundromat and said our woeful goodbyes.

An interesting enterprise, this blue concrete block structure. It housed a small variety store on one side and the town laundromat on the other, separated by a partial cinder block wall. We alternated feeding the washing machine coins while feeding ourselves junk food from the adjoining store. We then stepped outside to quaff down beer and re-entered the laundromat only to repeat the cycle.

Suddenly a commotion from within the laundromat drew our attention.. To our horror the washing machines were shuddering with a sickening grinding noise as they attempted to dance around the room. Investigating the noise, the proprietor peeked around the corner only to see us smiling, backs propped up against the machines, steadying them. As all appeared in order he returned to his store counter. Brian and I opened the machines to discover a layer of Kwatobohegan sand on the bottoms of the drums. Horrified, we scooped up all the silt we could, discarding it in the garbage. Reloading our clothes in other machines we proceeded to finish our laundry. Brian and I cleaned out the damaged machines as best we could while nervously keeping an eye on the store keeper’s entrance. Before we could breath a sigh of relief, the new machines began to convulse in sympathy to their damaged neighbours. Again the store keeper cast us a questioning glance around the wall as we held our rocking washers and nodded with feigned innocence..

With knots in our stomachs we once again cleaned out the machines and made a hasty getaway, backpacks dripping with semi dried clothes. Flagging a river taxi we completed our escape by retreating to our Charles Island campsite, putting half the width of the mighty Moose River between us and the towns folk who no doubt would be making plans to lynch us..

It was with regret that we could not afford to owe up to the damages to the laundromat. We were even sorrier for the numerous Moosonee natives that must have had to live with the stench of filthy clothing, waiting for the washing machines to be repaired.
A final night was spent at the Moosonee Lodge where hot showers and soft beds awaited. Loading our canoe into a box car the following morning, we boarded the Northlander (1) and I experienced the train trip envisioned in my youth.

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* * *

(1) The Northlander is the Ontario Northland Railway’s (ONR) mixed freight and passenger train whereas the Polar Bear Express is strictly a passenger excursion train. Both run between the towns of Moosonee and Cochrane Ontario on alternate days.

(2) Kwatobohegan Rapids - have also seen the placename spelled Kwatogohegan. Although I have used the spellings interchangeably here, I first encountered the name spelled with a b as Kwatobohegan and find that pronunciation most pleasing to my ear. Other variations no doubt exist.

Note: To view a slide show of the Missinaibi River Canoe Trip, Return to Chapter Two and scroll to the bottom. Click on frame to initiate show.

Google Earth Co-ordinates:
(cut and paste everything after the dash- (in red) into Google Earth search bar.

Portage Island (Missinaibi & Mattagami Junction forming Moose River)
Lat/Long 50° 44’06.53” N, 81° 28’41.14” W

Moose River & Abitibi River Junction
Lat/Long- 51° 03’09.28” N, 80° 55’53.89” W

Moose River Crossing
Lat/Long- 50° 49’03.92” N, 81° 17’32.57” W

Moosonee ON
Lat/Long- 51° 51’16.28” N, 80° 38’43.81” W


Kelly said...

I enjoyed this story of your trip very much, thanks for sharing!

Shannon said...

Thank you for inviting us along on your journey. I too, have the call of the wild. It is my hope to one day travel the Missinaibi as well.

Anonymous said...

I love the story. My grandparents owned the laundrymat you mentioned! I am starting an ecotourism business offering trips down the Moose River and was researching other's experiences and came across your gem of a tale. Thank you for sharing!