Going Where No Roads Go in Ontario
Story and Photos by Carolyn B. Heller

On Ontario's remote Moose Factory Island, where the Cree First Nation is cautiously courting tourism, a traveler learns that there's more to see than the "sights."

Ontario travel

It's a late August day in northeastern Ontario, and I've come to the end of the road.

Beyond the end of the road, really.

I'm on Moose Factory Island, a speck of land in the middle of the Moose River, near the mouth of James Bay.

You can't get to this region, where most of the residents are members of the Cree First Nation, by car or bus. No highways—no roads at all—come this far north.

Like the trickle of other tourists who make this northward journey, I've ridden the Polar Bear Express to the dusty frontier outpost of Moosonee, across the river from Moose Factory Island. This once-a-day train chugs 186 miles north through the dense, evergreen forests and swampy plains from the sleepy town of Cochrane, which is itself about 400 miles north of metropolitan Toronto.

Surprisingly, most tourists are day-trippers, who ride the train five hours north in the morning, take a quick tour of Moosonee and Moose Factory Island, and return south on the evening train.

It's a "bucket list" journey, I guess, just riding this train up north. But I'm more curious about the aboriginal community in this far-flung region, here where the roads don't go.

eco lodge

Eco-Tourism, Cree-style

In the past several years, the Moose Cree First Nation has been working to develop tourism in the area. I'm staying at the 20-room riverfront "eco lodge" that the Cree built and operate. It's a simple, laid-back place, where the furniture is made of local trees, and the young staff come from the community.

The lodge's showpiece is its dining room, with a high peaked ceiling and a wall of windows facing the water. Though the food isn't traditional Cree fare, the menu features aboriginal ingredients like venison, pickerel, and cranberries. My supper is a hearty bison chili.

In the morning, I decide to do the most "touristy" thing that the island offers: a boat tour with an aboriginal guide up the river to James Bay — just the thing to check off of my own bucket list. The woman at the front desk tells me she can make arrangements for a tour in the afternoon.

Opposite the hotel, a sign in front of a tall canvas teepee reads, "Homemade Bannock." I poke my head inside and see an elderly woman, her steel-grey hair pulled back into a tight bun, grilling skewers of this biscuit-like bread over an open fire.

It smells doughy and delicious, so I plan to return when I'm ready for a snack. I set off down the dirt road to explore.


On Indian Time

"Hey, are you a tourist?"

The red pick-up truck rattles to a stop in front of the Cree Cultural Interpretive Centre.

"Um, yeah," I say as I peer into the truck's cab.

A middle-aged man in a bright red collared shirt, his black hair tied in a shoulder-length ponytail, peers back at me.

"You trying to get in there?" He nods toward the Cultural Centre.

"Yeah," I say again. "They're supposed to open at 9, but the building's still locked up."

"Indian time," he snorts and shakes his head. "We're trying to bring in tourist money, but we can't even open our museum on schedule."

"Get in." He pushes open the door of the cab.

"I'll give you a lift to the Tourism Office. You can ask about the museum up there."


No Train, No Tourists

The red pickup drops me off in front of the Moose Cree Complex, which turns out to be part city hall, part shopping center, and part local gathering place.

Even at this relatively early morning hour, the building is packed with people. At Gunner's Grill, local teens in hoodies from Hollister and Aeropostale are chilling over coffee. I duck into the Northern Store, the island's main market, and check out the startlingly expensive apples, flannel shirts, and baking pans. I buy some homemade raisin tarts from an older Cree lady who's selling her pastries from a folding card table in the hall.

Eventually, I find the tourism office and meet Kim, the young manager, who says she'll give me a ride back to the cultural center and open its doors.

I don't want to trouble her, but she shrugs, "No problem." She unlocks the center for visitors whenever they come and ask. A different version of "Indian time," perhaps.

Along the way, she tells me that the cultural center keeps regular hours for most of July and August, when the Polar Bear Express brings tourists almost every day.

But it's the end of the summer now, when the trickle of tourists dries up.

From September to June, the train still runs, but the schedule changes, making it all but impossible to come for just a day trip.

You'd think that would encourage more people to stay overnight, but Kim says no, as we pull up to the weathered wooden building that houses the cultural center.

They just don't come.

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Books from the Author:

Moon Handbooks: Ontario

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Living Abroad in Canada

Buy Living Abroad in Canada at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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