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Turk
2007-08-18, 16:46
I have been meaning to make a post like this for a long time. If I travel far from home
for an outdoor adventure, I try very hard to find a trip that can really capture and showcase a
particular regions character and uniqueness. I am forever trying to find the quintessential trip
that best personifies a region. For example if I were to travel to Montana, I want to have
"the real Montana experience", whatever that may be in an outdoor adventure context.
Likewise for any other trip outside my own local area. Feeling that there may be others
out there that share this line of thought, I decided to do a piece on "the classic northern
Ontario experience" as it is my home turf. My line of reasoning being, that if I want
to learn more about other areas, I should at least contribute something of my own.
Anyways ..Hope you enjoy.

Losing a Precious Ontario Gem - Northern Ontario's Railways - by Turk

Intro -
The canoe strapped to the truck, car or plane, is the all embodying classic symbol of
Ontario's north country. As much as one might say apple pie is to American, this
imagery of hastily lashed gear and stuffed packs unifies a people wide spread and isolated
in the vast wilderness of Canadian shield country. The bushplane experience is a whole
other article in itself. What I wanted to share with you today is a well hidden gem, that is
slowly fading and disappearing from the canadian north. The Northern Ontario Rail system.

Part 1 - Waiting for the Train -
Here we are in a typical remote northern train stop, until recently only accessible by 4WD
vehicles. The people are a mixed lot, but there is an easy comradery between the ruff
locals making a living here; the aboriginals; and the many Americans from Michigan and
Ohio that have purchased freeholds in the deep backcountry. It is only in small quirks
of the english dialect and a keen eye that can tell them apart. My dad, on the far right,
is just such one of these classic stereotypical canadian bushmen. But good people all of them.
http://ehko.info/HQ_train_01.jpg
The train schedule in the north, is much more often a generalized suggestion than a
precise time table. Some unique quirks of arrivals and departures are that you will likely
be waiting for several hours for the old decrepit diesel girl to make her way up to your stop.
Another unique feature of the rail is that you can get on or off a train by hailing it from anywhere
along the track, so long as you can find a reasonably straight stretch where the engineer can
see you waving clearly and be able to stop. Cash is king on this system. If you are getting
on or off, from the middle of nowhere, be ready to pay the train staff with cash in hand. Plastic
money is only good in the few more urbanized stops near the end points of the rail system.
Expect delays. Don't be in a rush to get anywhere. The train is Slooooow. The tracks snakes
through narrow valleys climbing and descending steep hills which can make for mid trip delays
if the weather is bad.


Part 2 - Northern Culture -
No matter wether you are paddling, hiking, biking, using ATV's or skidoos, your trip on the train
is guaranteed to be a mini adventure in of itself. The train will usually pull one or two old passenger
cars; scarsely refurbished from the 60's. But the real heart of the experience are in the
multiple boxcars that make up the baggage and freight.
http://ehko.info/HQ_train_02.jpg
The atmosphere is always relaxed and very social. Rules on the train are VERY relaxed.
http://ehko.info/HQ_train_04.jpg
Smoking and alcohol among the open doored freight cars are the norm. People will chat
and mingle between the freight cars during the long runs between stops. It is the
unspoken rules of the rail, that best be recognized. If you are the type to take offense
easily to crude language, public urination or discreet drug use, it is not wise to voice your
opinions among this group. You would do better to stay in the rear passenger car for the
duration of your trip. For the rest, relax, enjoy and have a good time. The people are
generous, good humored and love to swap tales.
Washroom facilities in the box cars require good balance as a buddy of mine demonstrates -
http://ehko.info/HQ_train_03.jpg
Those less apt at this method can make their way to the rear of the train to use the
more traditional facilities in the old passenger car.

Do not think that your entire trip will be all merry making and bottle slinging. Part of the
privledge for the relaxed rules of the train, imparts an unspoken obligation by everyone
in the freight cars to assist with loading and unloading of gear and supplies on the many
stops along the way.
http://ehko.info/HQ_train_05.jpg
Loading and unloading is a frantic and frenzied brief, but laborious experience. But it is
a good feeling to be a part of what makes this rail system work. Hucking people's stuff
off the train is always good for a few laughs. The oddities of what some people are hauling
never end. This group of hunters/ survivalists are well equipped to make it through any
possibility of apocalypse. Hardened and well used to isolated living.

http://ehko.info/HQ_train_09.jpg
It never ceases to impress me how the train engineer can actually spot some
of the most remote and camouflaged stops along the way. This picture is looking straight
on, to a remote trailhead leading off away from the track. Beyond in the hills lie more
remote cabins, accessed on foot.
http://ehko.info/HQ_train_06.jpg

Part 3 - The Slow Decline -

In recent years it has become more and more apparent that this completely unique means
of travel is in jepoardy. Each year the track falls into further disrepair. Budget cutbacks
means fewer trips along the rail on any given week. The fall of the American dollar, making
canadian money nearly at par has really hurt the passenger numbers. So much of the rail
system is tied to large American corporations that have purchased pristine remote lakes to
put camps on. They are used primarily as hunting and fishing bases for executives.
http://ehko.info/HQ_train_07.jpg
With rising maintenance and fuel fees for the train, and a declining U.S. dollar, our American
neighbours make fewer trips up to Ontario's north each year. This only speeds the cycle
of decay, as the few passengers and their freight are the lifeblood of the rail.
This is a sad state for the northerners. Few people have voiced what an enviromental
impact the loss of the rail system would have on the region. Larger outfits would begin
cutting roads and access points to the highways. Once there are roads... you will get
day users. With day users will come the retarded signs like "watch your step"
and "rocks may be slippery". Not to mention the destruction and garbage
problems. You know how it goes.
http://ehko.info/HQ_train_08.jpg
It really is a beautiful area. The transportation system is very unique. And the whole experience
has a very romantic and rustic charm. It would be a real tragedy to lose it. I try to make the effort
every year to enjoy it while it lasts. Some day this will only be a fairytale.

If you can't afford the Canadian bushplane experience (and really who can),
and you would like to mingle more with the cultural quirks of a certain area...
I highly recommend taking a trip up to experience it, before it is gone.

Geo.
2009-10-13, 18:16
Turk,
Just read the interesting post - couple of years old, don't know how I missed that one!
Be a great pity if that service gets deep six'd. How's it doing 2 yrs on?
Looks like the way to travel.
Cheers.

D'Artagnan
2009-10-13, 22:30
Turk,
Just read the interesting post - couple of years old, don't know how I missed that one!
Be a great pity if that service gets deep six'd. How's it doing 2 yrs on?
Looks like the way to travel.
Cheers.

Thanks for bumping this post. I really enjoyed the read and would like to know more about the logistics about making a trip like this. I'm in North Carolina and in the next few years am planning on taking some long distance motorcycle trips. Canada is on my list.