By Ryan Gaynor/photos by the author
Trains and stories are a lot alike. At their core, both connect people and place. As stories carry a reader on a journey of thought, trains, too, race purposefully toward their destinations. When Donald Smith drove the final spike on Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigellachie, B.C., so came a key character in the story of Canada. Railways are woven into the fabric of our national identity — even 13 decades after that fateful day in the mountains of British Columbia.
In fall 2020, I embarked on a road trip across northern Ontario in an effort to capture photographs and discover how that storied railroading heritage has endured in some of the most rugged and challenging landscapes in the country. It’s a tale that has captured my imagination since I was a child. This is a portrait of the North, as seen through the railways that built a nation.
On the Road
Sleep never comes easy the night before an adventure. Checklists need to be finalized and excitement about new destinations stirs the imagination. As I lay beneath the stars on a crisp autumn evening at Washago, Ont., I found myself in this very predicament. She isn’t your typical roadside accommodation, but my venerable Toyota RAV 4 (turned mini-camper for the purpose of this trip) had to make do.
Under brooding skies, a pair of Ontario Northland SD40-2s race along the Devonshire Subdivision near the town of Connaught, Ont., on September 29, 2020.
The familiar sound of an approaching train cut through the inky predawn darkness and interrupted my fitful sleep. This train was my ticket north and while I wouldn’t be climbing on board, I’d soon give chase. Thus would mark the beginning of an epic 14-day journey that took me from the edge of the Arctic to the shores of Lake Superior, and some 3,500 miles in-between.
Wanderlust is not an impulse easily controlled. Instead of fighting the almost carnal urge to travel, I’ve simply accepted that no matter how many railfan trips I take, I’ll always want to take another. In a landscape of uncertainties, though, it can be difficult to pinpoint where to go and what to see. Although I didn’t have a clear destination in mind when I left home, I was certain that I wanted to make this one count. With hiking boots laced tight and cameras at the ready, I pressed on into the wilderness of northern Ontario.
The sky was dull gray and the cool air unmistakably autumn. Fellow photographer Mike Robin and I stood on the platform at Cochrane, Ont., looking on, with Tim Hortons coffee in hand, as a pair of Ontario Northland EMD GP38-2s shuffled cars around the yard. The sight of four-axle locomotives kicking boxcars isn’t, perhaps, the most unusual sight in 2020, but these weren’t any ordinary boxcars. In fact, this wasn’t any ordinary train. The Polar Bear Express, or simply the Bear as locals affectionately call it, is one of the last mixed trains on the planet. Inside the boxcars on this train you will find everything from ATVs to moose antlers, cases of beer from the railway-served Beer Store in Cochrane, and supplies for the far north, only accessible by way of the Bear.
A bottle of hand sanitizer hangs off the passenger coach while the conductor completes a screening questionnaire prior to boarding a passenger on the southbound Polar Bear Express at Moosonee on September 28, 2020.
With a round-trip ticket for Moosonee, I climbed aboard the passenger coach and settled into my seat. Among the company of hunters, cottagers, and everyday people with a ticket to ride, I was on a train that goes to a land only accessible by rail, some 200 miles north of Cochrane. At 9:00am sharp, the train lurched out of the station for Moosonee.
As the train blurred through a landscape of golden aspens, winding rivers, and seemingly infinite muskeg, I reflected on the significance and uniqueness of this journey. Before I could get too deep in my thoughts, though, the train broke from its steady pace and eased to a stop. The boxcar doors slid open and in came rifles, coolers, and camp supplies. We had just made a whistle-stop in the middle of the northern wilderness. As I glanced back at the young family, and the elders alike, it dawned on me that this train is not only a way from Point A to B but also a lifeline for a community. True to its mixed train fashion, the Bear not only carries people and freight — it carries a way of life almost forgotten in today’s dizzying pace, harkening back to an era when mixed trains dominated the rails throughout Canada…