Last Updated: 24-SEP-2016

Isle Royale Michigan / Pukaskwa National Park, Canada / Trip to Moosonee on the Polar Bear Express

We spent 5 days out on Isle Royale. We left from Copper Harbor, Michigan on the Isle Royale Queen IV. We stayed in the Rock Harbor Lodge on the American Plan which included three meals a day. The food was good but, after a full day of hiking I could eat almost anything. We had our lunches boxed each day so we could be out on the trail at lunchtime. This was not a cheap place to visit. For the two of us with hotels on each end, the ferry trip, ranger program trips for five days it came to over $1400.00. I would definitely go back but even later in the season as the bugs were bad in some places even though It was JUL 26-30.

We ended up seeing a total of five moose in the 25+ miles of hiking that we did. The weather was dry but a bit warm. We were getting a kick from the comments on the heat as it was cool by Maryland standards. The day we returned to Copper Harbor it was 97 degrees and air conditioning is not that common in Northern Michigan.

Ranger Programs that we went on:

Hidden Lake / Look out Louise Cost $9.25 each

Description: A park ranger guides this 2 mile round trip walk past Hidden Lake up 320 feet to Lookout Louise Following a 4 mile boat tour on the MV Sandy to the trailhead. View Ontario and the North shore of Isle Royale. Return with the group or bring a lunch and hike the 10.2 miles back to Rock Harbor. We ended up taking the hike Back with a 2 mile side trip to Mt. Franklin.

Views from Lookout Louise Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is easily seen across the lake in Canada.

A old Moose Antler laying along the Greenstone Ridge Trail

Looking West and North West from Mt. Franklin Elevation 1074 (Lake elevation 601) It was so clear that you could see Thunder Bay

One of the many bridges over the wet areas on the island. The trails that we went on were in excellent shape.

North Side Cruise / Minong Mine Cost $15.00 each

Description: Cruise two hours each way along the many harbors and bays of Isle Royale's north shore Pass Blake Point and Amygdaloid Island, with a stop at Bell Isle on the return trip. A National Park Service guide may be available to lead a 2-mile walk from McCargoe Cove to the historic mine. Hikers Can trek back to Rock Harbor via a 15 mile trail.

We considered the walk back as the weather was great. But after the 15 miles of hiking the day before We ended up taking the boat back. One person did walk back and we saw her at 9:30PM limping back into Rock Harbor.At that point we were happy we did not try it.

Looking into the Minong Mine

We hiked up to Pine Mountain (elevation 927) Looking West and North West towards Canada

Looking North East towards the fire tower on Mt. Ojibway (Elevation 1130) and to Mt. Franklin

Looking South East towards Todd Harbor and Lake Harvey

Approaching Belle Isle for a quick stop on the way back to Rock Harbor

Edisen Fishery / Rock Harbor Lighthouse Cost $9.25 each

Description: Visit a historic commercial fishery with resident fishery demonstrator and take a quarter Mile walk to the oldest lighthouse (1855) on Isle Royale

Passing through Middle Island Passage and approaching the Rock Harbor Lighthouse

Approaching the Edison Fishery

Views from the top of the lighthouse looking South

The Resident of the fishery that spends the summer here catching fish for the restaurant at Rock Harbor Lodge

One of the wooden grave markers between the fishery and the lighthouse

Looking at Rock Harbor from a hill about the fishery. It's 3 miles back to the lodge

Around the Lodge

Scoville Point was the easiest hike from the lodge. About 4 miles round trip to a rocky (very buggy) point. The first time that we walked down here the black flies were so bad that you could not stop even with 100% Deet

Looking across from the point you could see the cabins on Minong Island

Other views from Scoville Point


In the Rock Harbor Lodge area every night a number of fox would be roaming around looking for handouts. We also had a moose come through one night.

We were determined to get closer to a moose so every night we would head out Stool Trail Towards Scoville point looking for our subject. We also saw an number of foxes along the way.

The last night of our stay we found what we were looking for. A good size bull moose.

Some views around the harbor. From the docks looking across the harbor.

The Ranger III the largest ship owned by the Park Service. Brings all of the food and fuel to the Island.

The view that we had from the room. And the views from the balcony

A short walk over to the sea plane landing area along Tobin Harbor gives you a good view To the west to watch the sunset

A last look at the Lodge heading the 56 miles back to Copper Harbor.

Observations about the trip.

This was the first and last time that I will stay in the developed areas of the Island. If we ever comehere again, we will explore the Windigo area from Minnesota. No complaints and I had A great time. I just feel that if you want to have a true Isle Royale experience and have A chance too see some wolves, the southern end is where you need to go.

I forgot about the sunset times this far north in the late summer. Brought Gen-3 NV equipment but it did not get dark enough till 11:30 to use it.

If you are a news nut like I am make sure that you bring a radio No TV, radio, Newspapers on the Island. I overheard a number of people saying that their cell-phones did not work. I know that many people love this isolation and I do to a point but, I do like to hear something.

Visit the Official Isle Royale homepage.

Pukaskwa National Park

A very interesting park. Looking at the Wild Shore of Lake Superior was very impressive. It was easy To imagine being along Oregon or Washington with the rocks and the wave heights.

We camped here and I encountered a large black bear while walking to the restrooms. The bear ran one way As I bugged out the other way.... The campground had nice warm showers and was very well kept. If I was ever in this area again I would definitely stay here again.

The trip to Moosonee on the Polar Bear Express

I get a good bit of response about this page so I have decided to keep it online. Most of it is good and it helps people plan trips into the region.

UPDATE: Clicking on the Two Bay Tours page

State: Unfortunately, after almost 40 years of operation, as of Labour Day, 2007 Two Bay Tours has closed its doors for the last time... Thanks to all of our past customers; it was genuine pleasure serving you all!

Interesting. I guess we are not surprised. Too bad they could not improve the experience !

We signed up for the Frontier Package offered by Two Bay. This included the train ride up and back. Two nights in Cochrane and two nights in the "needing a good clean-up" town of Moosonee. At the start/ end of our trip we stayed at the North Adventure Inn in Cochrane. This Inn was very clean and it looked new and I would have no issues staying at it again.

The trip up on the train was uneventful. We were in the second car of 12 or 13 and there was plenty of room to stretch out. The way that the seating in the cars was laid out is that all of the Frontier package people were in one car.

The third car was empty.

As I walked through the train the quality of the cars decreased. After the dining cars you encounter the cars where the locals were packed in. I should have figured from what I saw in these cars that where we were going would be similar. I would learn this in time.... The last car was the smoking car. I could not believe the amount of smoke in this car. I am not and never have been a smoker but, I can usually put up with it for a short time. The windows would not open and the locals with their children were sitting in this heavy smoke exposure puffing away.

As long as I stayed towards the front of the train I was having a great time. As you head north you cross a number of rivers and pass a few dams. Also, the vegetation changes as you travel north.

We arrived in Moosonee on time and a old school bus picked us up and took us to our hotel. While we were waiting we were entertained by a large number of stray dogs, some with puppies running around in the traffic.

I love all of the arctic this... and arctic that... which will be pushed on you. Moosonee is at the same latitude as London, England and I bet your average Londoner does not think about living in the gateway to the arctic.

Moosonee and Moose Factory

We were taken to our hotel, the Moosonee Lodge. (The polar Bear Lodge down the street looked and was much cleaner) We then got our tour pass from Two Bay Tours and got prepared to go on the Fossil Island Tour. The trip was nice and we found some nice fossils. We also saw a seal swimming near us on Fossil Island.

Along the river going on the Fossil Island tour.

The view of the river from the Lodge. Two tides a day which make the sandbars come and go.

We went on the Twilight Bus Tour on the first night that we were there. It really should be called the "Moosonee Ghetto Tour", Don't get me wrong, it was fun but there is not much to see in this town. We went by run down houses with even more stray dogs running around. We saw the abandoned Pine Tree Line radar site. We were told by the Two Bay tour guide that the native population destroyed the base when it was given to them.

We went by the Ontario Package store where we were told by the Two Bay tour guide (who said that he worked there part time) that the store has one of the highest sales of them all and also the highest armed robbery rate. This place was starting to remind me of Baltimore and one of the many reasons why I never go there anymore.

The highlight of the trip is when we stopped at the town dump to watch the 14 large well-fed black bears walking around. While we were watching a number of other cars showed up, so this must have been the hot spot in town.

Don't get me wrong... I am a very small town person / country person and I don't need to be entertained. And watching the bears was great. But, it would have been nice to see them out in a meadow or some other natural area vs. a dump that was managed to attract them for tourists.

The big shocker came when we all were informed that the doors are chained shut at 11PM and that NO-ONE is allowed to leave. No exceptions. I was looking forward to checking out the Northern Lights and the stars. I asked the woman at the desk in the lodge and was told that after dark she would not even walk the 200 feet to the other Lodge alone.

After it got dark I watched with amazement that the town was very busy driving around and displaying a good bit of public drinking. I guess you got to spend those public assistance checks on gas and alcohol so they will send you more. At this point I was very happy to be locked in my fort, the Moosonee Lodge.

(I have received a number of e-mails on the above paragraph but this is what I was told by the woman at the desk. I did not make this up. Everyone in our tour that asked to go outside was told this. I am sorry if this statement offends you but it is the truth.)

Well, we survived the night and headed off on the Wilderness Excursion. This was a 13 mile ride up the river into the James Bay. After all, this was the reason that I came all these miles. It was fun and the area is beautiful when you are not around the developed areas. The day was cool and the water was calm. They were saying that it had only been about six weeks since the ice had melted (mid June).

We then headed to Moose Factory. I was very surprised to see a place that was even in more disrepair than Moosonee. Two Bay tours trucked us around and we stopped at a church which was interesting. Those that did not want to shell out $6.00 to look at the Cree Village tourist exploitation center (a.k.a. Cree Village Complex) were taken to the Northern store where they could watch the under-employed shuffle past. I did get to mail out some post cards here so something good came of this.

The main road in Moose Factory

The Polar Princess and a few more stray dogs at the dock

The last night we had our "Wild Game Dinner" at the Sagabon Restaurant which was very good. I had the Caribou stew. We all had plenty to eat and it was fun considering the strange (Local) Items on the menu.

The day that we returned to Cochrane we had the Muskeg Walk. To me it was a walk in a buggy swamp which looked like any other muddy area. But, to my wife, the biologist she enjoyed the walk. Two Bay supplied boots, head nets at no charge.

We also stopped at a gravel quarry to look for more fossils. Many were found. But, they said the Indians said we could not take them. Sorry... Consider it pay back for the welfare checks !!

One last look down the main street of Moosonee. More Dogs...

Some views of the train right before the 187 mile trip back to Cochrane.

Observations about the trip to Moosonee and Moose Factory

Our goals of taking a train trip to a remote place and seeing the James Bay were satisfied. The town was in disrepair... The Lodge was nothing special and there were not many options to eat. One of the nights we ate at a Pizza Hut at the Northern Store. So much for an exotic, romantic dinner.

This was billed as the farthest North that you can go and 150 miles north of any road. But, looking at a map I guess that Two Bay Tours never heard of Churchill, Manitoba, which is much farther North. Also, Quebec has a number of small towns on the East side of the Hudson Bay that you can drive to. On the train we went over a number of paved RR crossings that had heavy truck traffic. Looking at various Internet Mapping resources I see the closest road is at Coral Rapids / Otter Rapids which is appx. 75 miles below Moosonee so I am not sure where the 150 miles claim came from ? Perhaps a government maintained road ?

Would I ever go here again ?? NO ! Would I recommend this trip to someone ?? NO ! I would look into the other options along the East side Hudson Bay or just save up and go to Churchill.

Polar Bear Express The name of the train is somewhat misleading -- polar bears are rarely seen anywhere near Moosonee. The Polar Bear Express today mostly services the residents of Moosonee and Moose Factory when they travel south from their communities that lack road connections to the rest of Ontario. During the winter, many passengers are from communities further north who travel to Moosonee by winter road before taking the train.

In summer 2008, track conditions resulted the train running very late much of the time (2.5 hours by railway announcement). By late 2008, running times had improved somewhat and timings of five and a half to six hours for the 186 mile (300 kilometre - all distances are shown in miles along the tracks) trip were becoming typical. Service deteriorated significantly in 2009 mainly due to bad track conditions and mechanical failures -- on one occasion the train, scheduled to arrive in Cochrane at 9:42 in the evening did not arrive until 4:00 in the morning.

NOV-2009 Update

In the fall of 2005 we went up to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. I was shocked with the quality and the people of the town. I was sorry to say I expected the worse. It was clean, friendly (perhaps very friendly as free condoms were everywhere) and seemed to be doing very well.

That trip report is on the web at:

  • NOV 2005 Polar Bears in Churchill, Manitoba

    NOV-2009 - I cleaned up some of the editing on this page to make it similar to my other travel pages.

    APR-2015 Random UPDATE from Trip Advisor - I see nothing has changed. If you go here do your research !

    Moosenee is a HOLE, and go with the mindset that there is NOTHING there, and nothing available. Having said that, this TRIP is an essential travel experience and a must see. Nothing but muskeg swamp, mosquitoes and blackflies from Cochrane up. actually, south of that also, but there is NO getting out of it once train is the ONLY path in or out. The only time to travel here is later than mid July because of the bugs. And the snow can start first week of September. The "natives" (A/K/A Indians) are there exclusively to take advantage of the tourists. And I do not blame them a speck for it. Just try to imagine living in this as you see it. Use the audio tour. it all looks the same. The Hudson Bay store in Moosenee is quite naturally expensive. Stay at Cree Vilage Ecolodge, because the other two (ONLY) hotel options in Moosenee on the mainland are pathetic, dated , worn and most every other term you can think of. The train itself is quite spartan, at least the economy seats. All metal, no cushions, no air conditioning, etc. The "native" passengers (majority) may provide ambience by musical instrument and/or singing. Moosenee is almost exclusively native. Moose Factory and the island are the safest place for "tourists" and FAR, FAR superior to / prettier than Moosenee. There is NO road in or out, and I theorize that is the only reason the natives do not simply just "take" all that you have. Locate the RCMP post / contact upon disembarking the train. I have travelled extensively in northern Ontario and Canada all the way back to the early 1960's, stayed in hotel /drank in barroom the old Temagami (Ontario) Hotel (back before it burned) with ropes for fire escapes from upper third/fourth story rooms. This is a ROUGH trip, and the natives can be somewhat problematic ( IF they elect to be ). Do NOT place yourself to be dependent upon natives by travelling UNprepared. carry food. carry water and beverages. on your back. not a damn satchel / suitcase, like a white man. carry insect repellant and maybe even a headnet. take polarfleece coat and gore tex raincoat.They give respect and treat you well when they see you deserve it. My hotel reccomendation is because I stayed in Moosenee on the mainland. Take advantage of what I learned the hard way. Be cautious of the water because of Giardia. I learned THAT here also.

    JUL-2016 - Random UPDATE from Trip Advisor - "Not for everyone"

    This is not the Polar Bear Express of a few years ago. That tourist train no longer exists. This is a commuter train between Cochrane and Mooseenee, a small village on the shores of the Moose River. It is a five hour ride through bush and forest with the odd glimpse of water as the train crosses over the Moose and Abitibi Rivers. There is nothing to do on the train so bring something to pass the time. There is no WiFi or phone access along the route once you leave Cochrane so don't count on having any access to the Internet during the ride. There is a cafeteria on board where you get in line, order food, and take it to a table in the car or back to your seat. One problem is that people sit in the food car and play cards so you have no place to sit and eat. The cafeteria food is only fair and it is overpriced. The train will probably stop at Fraserdale and then maybe make one or two other stops along the line to off-load a resident and their goods. We stopped while someone off-loaded a refrigerator and two ATV's for his camp. If you sit on the east side of the train (right side out of Cochrane, left side out of Mooseenee), there is a nice view of the dam at Otter Rapids on the northern outskirts of that town. That's it - forest, swamp, glimpses of water and a few isolated cabins. When you do get to Mooseenee there is a three hour lay-over. You might want to try to get to Moose Factory but you have to hire a boat to get there and back. The three hours is not really enough time to do this, and if bad weather came you could get stranded across the river on the island. There is nothing to do in Mooseenee except walk around the unpaved streets and look at the town. Go into the Northern Center and check out the store. The price of goods is staggering in some cases. But they do have a COSTCO aisle where they sell select items from that store. The clerks are friendly and will chat with you about living there. We tried to find some souvenirs but even that is problematic. The only place that sells Mooseenee T shirts and pins is the municipal building and it closes at 4:00. They also don't have much in the way of sizes (no adult large or medium).

    We did the trip in late June so it was all done in daylight which was fine. I can't imagine doing the trip back in the dark - it would be very tedious. We did the trip because we enjoy rail travel and take trains whenever possible just to say we have taken them. So now I can say I have taken the Polar Bear Express - and that is pretty much the highlight of the trip for me.

    Hint: when making reservations ask for Car #1 - it has better seats. They are supposed to be getting a new set of cars soon which will be an improvement.

    JAN-2017 - Made page useable on mobile devices

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