We are aboard the Polar Bear Express, George and I. There are no polar bears to speak of on this line that runs daily between Moosonee and Cochrane every summer. They named this train run so because polar bears were considered more glamorous and exotic than the black bears that live in these parts. Imagine the disappointment that befalls tourists from Maine when they learn they would have to travel 250 more miles north to actually see a live polar bear.
The “Polar Bear Express” is 10 or so cars long and the only smoking sections are at both ends of the train. At the front is the smoke-filled and ancient car that’s probably been in use since the ’60’s. It looked vaguely familiar to George, having taken this route on his way to the Brantford residential school in 1965. I remember the same seat covers from my trip in 1968. Whatever. It’s been here, this line, since forever.
The other smoker-friendly car on the express is the bar where the traditional orange caboose used to be. Remember those? The caboose has been deemed obsolete and replaced with a bar car. The entertainment car, as they call it, is standing-room-only an hour after the train leaves Moosonee. A blonde in a short black dress is caressing the keys on a piano and warbling some old hit song from long ago while we sway to the rhythm of the train. The cast of characters is more diverse than it used to be when segregation between the races was tolerated. It used to be that an Indian couldn’t sit in the same car as the tourists and other white passengers. But I don’t think the Indians ever complained the way one tourist bitched about not being able to get a seat in our Indian-filled car. “You pay this much money and you can’t even get a seat in here!” he whined. George looked at me, smiled knowingly and said, “Now they know how we used to feel.”
I didn’t complain when my family and me were placed in the Indian car coming back from “Northern Ontario” to Moosonee. It was filled with shoppers and partyers. It started to look and feel like a Wild West movie when a party near our section started beating each other up. They were hitting each other, you know, like if they had been armed with Winchesters they would have had a showdown or an all-out shootout.
I had bad memories of this place so I don’t know why I went into the bar in the first place. Perhaps some twisted side of my being wanted to relive that time and see if it really was bad as I remembered it. Or maybe I was just thirsty. Anyway, my only good memory of that trip was the time after finally reaching the station I went through almost the entire train picking up change under filthy seats. I made about seven dollars. A lot of money in those days for a twelve year old.
So we walk in, right, and sidle up to the end of the line 10 drinkers long and music’s playing, right, the lakes, river and dams are zooming by. The scenery’s just zooming by. (I said that, right?) We’re going like around 50 but it looks like you’re going double that because the trees are so close. We finally get our orders and look around the full car for a seat. The only available seats are near the exit perhaps 20 or even 30 feet away and there is nowhere to hold on to and the train is rocking back and forth on the old tracks. And we have full plastic glasses. How to negotiate that straight line without spilling half of your drink on someone and looking like a loser. So we put our best feet forward and walked by the staring crowd trying our damnedest not to walk like John Wayne after a few too many whiskeys. We made it with only a few drops spilt and sat down.
A group of French speaking elementary school teachers from Chapleau were shouting out request to the piano player, “Do you know any Celine Dion?!?” and singing along to John Denver’s Country Roads. An hour before we reach our destination the barmaid call out last call for alcohol. And that’s the last thing I remember.
I woke up hours later and we were on the highway speeding towards Vald’Or trying to catch last call at the Chateau Louis. We made it with five minutes to spare and a full house. “You guys look so innocent.” a woman tells us.
And that’s the last thing I remember.