Mossy Diapers and Fur Traders
As I poke around the small museum, I learn that the Cree, like many aboriginal people, were hunters and fishers, living off the land. They fashioned babies' diapers out of the region's highly absorbent moss. They brewed tea from willow tree bark to reduce fever and pains; the bark contains salicylic acid, similar to the chemical found in aspirin.
I also discover that Moose Factory Island gets its unusual name from its history as a fur trading post.
Hudson's Bay Company fur traders made their way here back in 1673, which makes Moose Factory the oldest fur-trading community in Ontario. Back then, the chief agent in a fur-trading post was called a "factor," and the place where the factor worked was known as a "factory."
The Hudson Bay Company operated in the region for more than 200 years. It wasn't till 1905 that the Moose Cree officially regained their lands, when "Treaty 9" created a First Nations reserve on the island.
The Moose Factory graveyard, next to a weather-beaten clapboard church, is all that remains of the fur traders.
Hunting for the Bannock Lady
I wander back toward the lodge along the dusty island roads, where many of the vinyl-clad ranch houses have carved wooden name signs out front: "Jonas and Charlene Hunter." "The Smiths." Some people have put up what look like teepees in their yards, which I later learn are smokehouses, used primarily for smoking geese.
I had imagined that this northern landscape would be all tall pines and craggy hills, but Moose Factory Island is flat and green. Although it's as far north as most people go in Ontario, it's roughly the same latitude as London. On this August day, it's a humid 77°F.
Passing the Quick Stop convenience store, I see that they sell Pizza Hut pies and KFC chicken.
I'm thinking instead about the hot, grilled bannock I'd seen earlier, but back at the teepee by the lodge, the fire is out. There's no sign of the bannock lady.
I ask a heavy-set woman lounging at an adjacent picnic table if she knows what's up with the bannock seller.
"She shut down early today," she says. "Her daughter's going away to school, and she had to help her get ready."
I'm beginning to understand that schedules are somewhat fluid here on Moose Factory Island.
So I sit down to chat.
"Are you a tourist?" asks the woman I'll call Janie.
"Yes," I say, silently wondering what besides tourism would bring people here. "I'm from Vancouver."
"You've come pretty far," Janie replies. She tells me that she grew up on the island and now works as a nurse at the local hospital.
"Do many kids stay on the island once they've grown up?" I ask.
"Well," she says, "most go off island to school. There's a small school on the reserve, but even for high school, many kids go to the mainland. And they have to leave if they want to go to college."
Helicoptering to School
Janie tells me that while boats cross to the mainland in the summer, the river freezes in winter. Locals build an ice road across the frozen Moose, so snowmobiles and cars can cross.
In the "freeze up" time between fall and winter and again in the "break up" between spring and summer, though, when the river isn't frozen solid but it's still too icy for the water taxis to shuttle passengers back and forth, the only way to get on or off the island is by helicopter.
Another obstacle to tourism? Perhaps. But the locals have adapted. Even the high school kids take the chopper over to the mainland for classes.
"Like a school bus?" I ask.
"Yeah," says Janie. "There's no other way for them to get to school."
Then Janie asks, "How is Moose Factory different from Vancouver?"
I don't even know how to begin to answer that question.
I don't say what I'm really thinking, which is that it feels nearly as different as the earth must be from the moon.
Instead, I mumble something about Vancouver's tall buildings and rainforest parks. About subways, Chinese restaurants, and two million people.
And then I shut up, because I realize I'm equally clueless about life in a place like Moose Factory, a place that you can't reach by road and where kids go to school by helicopter.
On Indian Time, One More Time
Back at the lodge, I ask again about the boat tour to James Bay.
"Sorry," says the woman at the front desk. The guy who usually runs the tours has gone to take care of some business on the mainland.
But maybe his son will take me out, if I can come back in an hour or so.
When I return and inquire yet again about the boat tour, I find out that it's not possible today. The boatman's son has left word that the tides are running wrong now, and we can't make the trip.
I'm disappointed, of course, because who knows if I'll ever come this way again?
But somehow, it also seems fitting.
On an island that's so controlled by the whims of weather and other external forces, how can you expect things to follow a schedule?
Maybe it's not a place to worry about seeing the sights or checking things off of your bucket list.
Maybe there's a reason for the laid-back "Indian time."
Maybe it's OK just to wander around.
To chat with a few folks.
And to hope that tomorrow—or perhaps next week or next year—the tour boat will run, the museum will be open, and the bannock lady will be back by her fire.
A freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Carolyn B. Heller is the author of two books, Moon Handbooks: Ontario, and Living Abroad in Canada. She has contributed to more than 50 other travel and restaurant guides for Fodor's, Lonely Planet, Moon, and Zagat/Google. She reviews hotels across Canada and elsewhere for Hotel-Scoop.com, and her travel and food articles have appeared in a range of publications including LonelyPlanet.com, Forbes' Startle.com, the Boston Globe, FamilyFun magazine, and Travelers' Tales Paris.
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