To Moosenee and Back

It seemed like a pre-requisite for running in the 7th Battalion was you had to be a good hunter or fisherman. Most of the guys were great outdoorsmen. I decided I needed a special hunting trip so I could do some bragging at the fire hall when I went to work. One of my civilian friends suggested I go along with him when he went to Northern Canada for a guided goose hunt. I was excited. It sounded like the elixir I needed to upgrade my standing as a 7th Battalion outdoorsman. I agreed to go.

I had a feeling I was in trouble when I found out the name of the town we were going to hunt near was Moosenee. If the most aesthetic thing in the area to name the town after was a moose’s knee then it was surely a foreboding place.

There were six of us. Not one of my friends made less than $70,000 a year but we were going to save money by driving 700 miles to our destination in one car. Not only did these guys have bucks but their bodies showed it. Garcia weighed over 300 lbs. and sitting next to him in the crowded vehicle was like riding with King Kong. After 10 hours of agony we finally arrived at the end of the road. When I got out of the car I could have posed for a pike poke poster. I could hardly hear the guys talking because my shoulders were so jammed together they covered my ears.

When I said end of the road I meant it. We were in Cochrane, Ontario at the rail head of the Polar Bear Express. There were no more roads only a single track railway. We were 10 hours early and it was 11 pm at night. There were no rooms available and all the bars and restaurants were closed. We were dead tired. The car could only accommodate two sleeping bodies. We drew straws and of course I lost. We found some cardboard and crawled into a boxcar to find shelter from the cold rain that was starting to fall. There were two bums sleeping in the far end of the boxcar and their snoring kept me awake all night.

We rose to a cold arctic morning. My body was now blue from the cold and flat on one side from sleeping on the boxcar floor. My shoulders still covered my ears from sitting next to Garcia the Giant. If I survived this trip my kids would never recognize me. We were headed for the end of the line 300 miles north in Moosenee on the edge of James Bay.

As the train moved out I felt we were drifting back in time. The characters riding the Polar Bear Express all looked like frontiersmen. There was a mixture of trappers, hunters, Indians, and Dudley-Do-Right looking Mounties. It seemed like the train stopped every 500 feet to pick up a mountain man or let off people with canoes who would paddle away on the rivers we were crossing.

The big surprise was in Moosenee. We were met by a real Cree Indian squaw. She was smoking a corn cob pipe and it smelled like it was loaded with bear crap. She herded us to a dirt airfield where a wild eyed 19 year old kid wearing a coon skin cap was firing up a ratty looking helicopter to take us to the hunting camp at the edge of the Arctic Ocean.

There were six or seven Indians at the campsite. The place looked like a scene from Tobacco Road. The leader was a short, squat, squint eyed guy called Jimmy. He asked us for chewing tobacco and told us to do not give any of his braves fire water. They were a wild tough looking bunch and none of them could speak English. We were to hunt on their ancestral lands.

It was a three day hunt at $200 a day. We were housed in two man tepees made of torn canvass and drift wood. Each tepee had a tiny metal box they called a stove. I must have lost 20 pounds shivering through those miserable nights. It rained all three days. I felt more like I had been drafted into the army instead of signing up for a high class goose hunt. The routine was to rise before dawn and hustle down to the big tepee to eat a breakfast cooked by a caveman. We would then load up and march three miles through a muck and mud wetland to the shooting grounds. We would then shoot geese until our gun barrels were red. Then it was a forced march back to a meal of boiled pork chops or canned Chef Boy-R-Dee spaghetti. If it wasn’t in a can the Indians would boil it like Father Marquette taught them 200 years ago. I could stand the pork chops but the boiled goose made my stomach do flip flops.

The guide assigned to me and Garcia was OK. He smiled a lot and kind of looked like a jack-o-lantern with one inch gaps between each black tooth. He had long shaggy black hair and a rag head band like the Apaches wear. About once an hour he would screech and holler and run around in a circle. He would throw his body on the ground and roll around The first time he did that Garcia wanted to shoot him. We found out from Jimmy this was the ancient way to keep your blood warm. He turned out to be a pretty good guide. He could mimic the sound of any bird that flew and called in many flights of geese for us.

The second day the rain turned into a mix of sleet and snow. I just knew I was going to die in this prehistoric land if I did not get dry and stop shivering. Our guide started to chant and raise his arms to heaven. He than ran behind a boulder and a few minutes later he called us to a roaring bonfire. I will never know how he pulled this off in such foul weather. I still suspect he used some sort of Indian voodoo magic.

The last day of our hunt took us to the farthest reaches of their land. It was a five mile hike. Because the terrain was so rugged me and Garcia decided to walk back on the ocean floor while the tide was out. Jimmy took us aside and warned , "Watch out for bear. don’t let the tidal water trap you, beware of orca, and do not step in the Juba." We were willing to take the chance because going back through the swamp land was brutal. We were half way back when Garcia asked me what Juba was. I thought he knew. Anyway we never stepped in the Juba and never found out what Juba was. I imagine that was a good thing.

We made a few mistakes on our last night. We shared our fire water with the braves. We were drinking around a roaring camp fire when one of our guys said it would be good to get back to Mooseneee because he forgot what a woman looked like. Half the braves stood up and with a derisive snort stomped off into the darkness of the night. I asked Jimmy what made them mad. Jimmy told me they were women.

That night I was awakened by a blood curdling scream. I peeked out my tent just in time to see a huge black bear rush by with a worried look on his face. Right behind him were Jimmy’s braves hooting and hollering. I wasn’t sure if they were trying to kill him or ride him. The bear wasn’t sure either and departed the scene at a high rate of speed.

At dawn we could hear the chopper coming in. We were to ferry out in three trips with an hour delay between each junket. It was like the last days of Saigon as the six of us jostled to be the first to go back to civilization. We would throw our gear, weapons, and geese into the helicopter until the pilot yelled we had hit the weight limit and off we would go slamming the door and leaving those who didn’t make the front of the line behind.

Moosenee looked like Las Vegas as we came in. We stayed over night at the Polar Bear Inn and even went downstairs to look at the round eyed women.

When I got home my wife asked, "Did you have a nice time honey?" I didn't have the heart to tell her I was now flat on one side and had permanently hunched shoulders. My skin was now blue and my stomach was ruined from eating at the big tepee.

Was it worth it? You bet it was but only once in a lifetime. I can now brag at the fire house with the best of them. If any of you hunters make it up to James Bay please say hello to the Crees for me and remember not to step in the Juba. If you make it you too will be able to say, "I have been to Moosnee and back."

Stay safe my brothers and sisters.

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"Fire Horses" book authored by firefighter R.J. Haig.


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