In early December of 2017 I received a text from a college buddy that I hadn’t spoken to in a while. He said he was starting to make plans for a trip to Moosonee, Ontario in February or March 2018 and wanted to know if I was interested in going. He’d been trying for over a year to make the trip but getting a group together never seemed to work out. Within seconds of receiving his text, I responded with, “YES! I’m absolutely interested!” After riding the trails to the Abitibi Canyon area of Northern Ontario a couple seasons prior, I really wanted to make the trek to Moosonee. This wasn’t going to be the typical Northern Ontario tour on wide and fast trails, racking up big mileage each day. This trek would see us leaving some of the best groomed trails in the Province behind us at the Abitibi Canyon and following an unmarked and un-groomed route for about 200 km (124 miles) to the town of Moosonee, a true off-trail adventure. I hadn’t been as excited or anxious for a sled trip in years.
We settled on the first week of March 2018 to complete our trip because we felt it gave us the best window for weather and conditions. Temperatures would be warming up, we’d have more daylight, most of a season’s worth of snow accumulation, and the ice conditions on the rivers would still be favourable.
In the weeks leading up to the trip we finalized our group and started the final stages of planning and preparation. None of us knew what to expect for the off-trail route of the trip. Having ridden the groomed trails in the area a few times we knew there would be lots of snow off trail and we’d be in for some cold mornings. We knew that once we left the groomed trail we’d be following a hydro line and eventually be meeting up with an adjacent rail line but we didn’t know what the terrain would be like. We also didn’t know if the route was well travelled with a beaten path or if we’d have to break trail for hours on end. With these unknowns, a couple riding buddies decided not join in on the trip because we weren’t sure if their 120 and 129 inch trail sleds would make it or not. We really had no idea what we were getting into, which was part of the fun.
There were 6 of us that headed out on the trip, two running 137 in. Renegades (1200 4-TEC & 600 ACE), two running 146 in. Pantera 6000’s (w/1.35 in. Cobra tracks), one 146 in. Pantera 3000, and one Expediton 1200 4-TEC with a 154x20x1.5 in. track. We felt confident we could tackle almost any terrain and make it through most conditions with our fleet, especially with the Expedition.
The Adventure Begins
We left from the small Northern town of Moonbeam, Ontario, on the morning of March 2nd and stopped in Smooth Rock Falls for breakfast and to discuss our concerns about one of the sleds blowing a belt just 30 minutes into our epic adventure. After some coffee, a warm meal, and taking an inventory of spare belts, we hopped back on our sleds and headed North on trail A103 for the 80 km (50 miles) run to the Abitibi Canyon, near the town of Fraserdale. Once we arrived at the canyon, the three of us not carrying spare fuel slipped over to the Base Camp, operated by Extreme Tours, to top up our tanks. I strongly recommend topping up here before heading off trail. Note that they only take cash and the remote location makes for a high price (which we’re always happy to pay).
We met back up with the other guys on the Abitibi Canyon hydro dam and dropped down off the trail into the busy hills and our adventure began.
We had two GPS units (and a satellite phone) with us and we had the coordinates for Moosonee but what we didn’t have were the coordinates for Camp Onakawana, which is halfway to Moosonee and where we’d be staying for two nights. It’s worth noting that because one of our riders was relatively local to the area we didn’t have a guide to get us from the canyon to camp, like most groups would have (which I recommend). However, we had pretty good directions on how to find the camp. Head north, follow the hydro line and the rail line, and at a certain mile marker, make a right. That was it. Oh, and avoid the icy hill in the canyon as one of the guides rolled his sled the week prior. Concerning but mostly exciting.
Not long after dropping down into the canyon off the marked trail we found the hill we were warned about and opted to go around it rather than risking damaging a sled this early in the trip. There were however, many more hills to climb and areas to play in. As we made our way through the hills, climbing some, going around others through the single track-trails in the woods, and playing in some powder in the valleys in between, the tracks gradually started to disappear, except for the main beaten trail we were following that wove its way through the hills. Soon the hills ended completely and were surprisingly replaced by the sight of a long, straight, and flat hydro line as far as the eye could see. Onward we went, following the tracks ahead of us, fairly certain we were following the right hydro line.
This went on for much longer than we anticipated. We couldn’t help but think, “Is this really what it’s going to be like the whole way?” Yes, as it turns out it basically was. For those on short tracked sleds, that could make the riding a little boring but for our group, who all had longer tracks, it meant it we could play in the untouched powder as we made our way north. There’s really no feeling like breaking trail through fresh powder for miles at a time and all of us were able to test our sleds ability and get our fix. We did have to keep our fuel usage in mind though so while we had fun we didn’t go crazy. The thought of running out of fuel would quickly come to mind every time I hopped off the trail and squeezed the throttle to bar. As much as you have to take the opportunity to ride in the powder you have to keep track of your fuel usage and range.
At the end of Day 1 we rode into Camp Onakawana with 270 km (168 miles) on the odometer, just as the sun was beginning to set. With a temperature of -35 C (-31 F) the next morning we weren’t in any hurry to hit the trail and make the trip into Moosonee.
We made a quick stop at Otter Rapids after travelling approx. 50 km (30 miles) from the canyon. At this location there’s a hydro dam and a house where railroad workers stay between shifts, located at the end of a road that runs from the Abitibi Canyon. Seeing as we had a local connection in our group, we had extra fuel and oil stashed at this location prior to our trip. This proved to be very handy and was great piece of mind on the way back. We topped up, had a quick snack, and headed back out to the hydro line which by this time was following parallel with the train tracks.
At this point we started paying attention to the mile markers along the tracks not knowing how much longer we’d have to ride before making it to the camp. As we were riding along, watching the mile markers, I kept thinking to myself, “How exactly will we know where to turn right, off of this trial?” That sorted itself out in a rather obvious manner. There’s only one trail and we were on it. Any set of tracks heading in different direction was impossible to miss. Sure enough when we saw the mile marker, there was a well-used path heading over the tracks, so we followed it. The path, or trail, took us into thick brush which was a welcomed change. The trail was actually pretty fun as it couldn’t have gone a sled length without a tight turn and was full of never ending moguls which where sized and spaced perfectly to let the sled get into a rhythm while winding through the trees at a steady, but slower, pace. As we wound our way through the bush the trail all of a sudden opened up and we descended down onto the Moose River, following the tracks out and around an ice heave, across the river, then back up the bank into the thick trees once again. Just as we got back into a rhythm over the bumps a clearing appeared and we rode into Camp Onakawana with 270 km (168 miles) on the odometer, just as the sun was beginning to set.
After unloading most of our gear we jumped back onto the sleds to play in the deep drifts on the banks of the river, taking advantage of the remaining daylight. A couple good stucks later and using up as much of the untouched deep snow we could find, we returned to the camp.
That’s when the beverages started to flow and we really got to know the owner of the camp William Tozer and his good friend Tony Tourville who, as luck would have it, decided to come and visit his long-time friend William during our stay. William is a great host and provided us with great meals that couldn’t be any better suited for our adventure. He’s also an excellent story teller that knows the history of the Moosonee area very well and is happy to share it. As the first evening went on we heard some amazing stories from both him and Tony. Some crazy, some terrible, and some were complete BS. They were all great.
With a temperature of -35 C (-31 F) the next morning we weren’t in any hurry to hit the trail and make the trip into Moosonee. After a great breakfast we finally loaded up the sleds and hit the trail, this time with a guide, William’s son, for the trek into Moosonee. Because of fluctuating water levels in the river from the many hydro dams we had to take the hydro line most of the way to town which was more of the same terrain we saw on the way to the camp although there was a nice scenic river crossing at about the halfway point. The last 10 km (6 miles) or so we were able to drop down onto a small secondary river and ride that out onto the Moose River to take us into town, approximately 100 km (66 miles) from Camp Onakawana. As we got off the river we could see the busy ice road that connects the town of Moosonee to the town of Moose Factory which is on an island at the mouth of the Moose River where it meets James Bay. The town of Moose Factory is full of history as it was the second post in North America for the Hudson’s Bay Company back in the late 1600’s.
After fuelling up the sleds our guide took us to our lunch destination, a nice little restaurant with a table reserved for us. After a hot meal we dropped back down onto the river for what was likely the most anticipated part of the trip, a ride out onto James Bay. Conditions were excellent and we were able to ride a couple km’s out onto the ice where we could really put the size of the bay into perspective. As far as the eye could see it was just white and James Bay is nothing compared to the size of Hudson Bay. What was really cool was that we riding on salt water ice. Where James Bay meets the Moose River is where salt and fresh water mix.
The most anticipated part of the trip was a ride out onto James Bay. As far as the eye could see it was just white, and James Bay is nothing compared to the size of Hudson Bay. What was really cool was that we riding on salt water ice.
After taking what seemed like a hundred pictures and trying to just take in the experience of where we were, just how far north we travelled, and what we were standing on, we started the sleds and made a slow ride back to the river, this time taking a short detour to ride through Moose Factory. We didn’t take the time to check out some of the historic sites but there are a few cool spots to stop. After the detour we took the Moose River as far as the ice conditions allowed us before jumping back onto the hydro line, but not before stopping to change belt #2 on one of the sleds (yes, the same sled from day 1). As we were still approx. 400 km (250 miles) from our starting point, and down 2 spare belts, we elected to reduce our speed a little on the way back to camp. This became really boring really quick for some of the group so we had no other choice but to play in the powder along the hydro lines. Knowing how much fuel we used on the way up we had a pretty good idea of how much we could burn while playing. Luckily we had lots to burn thanks to the remaining fuel in Otter Rapids. The otherwise straight and boring ride back to the camp turned out to be pretty fun, for most of us anyway, as we carved around the hydro towers and small evergreens mile after mile until we eventually arrived back at the camp.
Once back, two of the guys decided they wanted to head back out for a little ride to explore the river. The rest of us opted to save our fuel and energy and enjoy some beverages with William and Tony instead. That turned out to be a wise decision as a near roll-over, dismount, and resulting dislocated shoulder later, the two guys from our group arrived back at the camp. Luckily the shoulder was able to be popped back into place however it was going to make for a very uncomfortable ride home the next day.
The Trek Home
After an even more entertaining night with William and Tony than the first, we woke up to cold temperatures and a great breakfast once again. After packing our gear and loading our sleds we thanked William for his hospitality and both him and Tony for their entertainment and truly educational stories. We took off back onto the hydro line to make the slow and steady trek back, this time making sure we didn’t blow another belt or a shoulder. Once again this became a little too boring for some of us so off into the powder we went. As we got close to Otter Rapids two of us found an open area, somewhat sheltered by trees, that had been untouched. We took the opportunity to put the Pantera 6000s to the test, carving through the powder, floating down a summer roadway, and getting really stuck when we ran out of room to turn around. As we got one sled un-stuck, the other sled would get stuck. We eventually made it out and met the other guys to top up with fuel and oil from the stash we had. Exhausted and sweaty we took some time to cool off and have a quick snack before hitting the trail again. 50 km (30 miles) later we arrived back at the hills of the Abitibi Canyon, this time able to play a little more, well some of us anyway.
We took our time watching each other climb hills as we wove our way through hills and valleys, finally stopping for a break at the top of the last hill, the one with the icy slope. After taking in the moment and having some laughs about the trip to that point we slowly put our helmets back on, knowing we were about to enter back into the reality of organized trail systems and eventually the end of our epic adventure. But that didn’t mean the end of our fun. Once back on the smooth main trail we weren’t so concerned about a belt blowing and the wear and tear on the shoulder wasn’t nearly as bad. Once we passed Smooth Rock Falls we took a small secondary trail which lead to a local unmarked trail, which lead to no trail, which lead to more fun and adventure. We eventually made our way back to Moonbeam and the last day would have been totally uneventful had one of the guys not tipped over and fallen off his sled while riding up and over a snow bank as he pulled into the driveway of our destination. Adventure and entertainment right to the end.
It was a bucket list trip for some of us and a true adventure for all of us. The riding was great, the conditions were excellent, and the experience was amazing. It’s the kind of trip that you get out of it what you put into it. In my mind it was snowmobiling in its purest form, I can’t wait to do more.
By Brad Harris
Photos by John Sharrard and Brad Harris