Ontario Northland Railway May 8-2023 Trip Report, Polar Bear Express, Cochrane-Moosonee-Cochrane

Having completed the first trip of my railway vacation for 2023, I departed Sudbury on Sunday afternoon after getting off VIA Train 186 and started the drive north to Cochrane for a trip on the Polar Bear Express the next day. On the way, I caught CN Tarin 102 pounding south at Gogama (missed the head end, came around the corner and they were already in the level crossing on Highway 144). Then, after a dinner stop in Timmins and a visit to the future Northlander Station at Porcupine, which, while technically in Timmins, isn’t all that close to what I would describe as actually being Timmins. One hopes the re-instated Northlander when it comes to pass comes with a solid bus link into actual town, but I guess time will tell.

Entering the Arctic Ocean Watershed, actually in the North, CN Train 102 at Gogama, and the future Ontario Northland Porcupine Station site for the hoped for return of The Northlander.

For this leg of my trip, I was also staying at the Ontario Northland Railway’s Station Inn that is in the Cochrane Station, a very handy bit of intermodal for the ONR, and a throwback to the way railways used to do things, the signs at the station… Train-Bus-Sleep says it all.


Waking up early as I seem to do, I took a pre-7am walk around, and nothing much seemed to be happening. So I made my way to the Station Café for breakfast. We had eaten here in September 2022 on a previous visit to Cochrane on a camping/road trip where we also stayed at the Station Inn. The food continued to impress. They only do breakfast and lunch, but I’ve now had three breakfasts there and all have been fantastic. They also sell takeaway items for those getting onto the train north or the busses south, very handy.

It is, quite clear that the ONR crews have marshalling the Polar Bear Express down to a fine art, they started to move at about 8am, and by 8:30 they had brought the coaches from the shops, collected their boxcars, collected the auto flats, and pulled up to the station for loading. A well-oiled machine, which they perfectly duplicated the following morning when I was watching before heading south.

Our northbound consist for “Mixed Train 421” as called on the radio following switching was as follows:

  • 1809 – GP38-2, 9/1984
  • 1808 – GP38-2, 9/1984 – “Every Child Matters”
  • 100511 – Ex TOFC Flatcar in Car Carrier Service
  • 100510 – Ex TOFC Flatcar in Car Carrier Service
  • 100509 – Ex TOFC Flatcar in Car Carrier Service
  • 7795 – ONR Boxcar
  • 654 – Coach – Hawker Siddley, 1967, GO 4725
  • 653 – Coach – Hawker Siddley, 1967, GO D700
  • 651 – Coach – Hawker Siddley, 1967, GO 4728
  • 750 – Dining Car – Hawker Siddley, 1967, GO 4723
  • 660 – Coach – Hawker Siddley, 1967, GO 4706
  • 416 – Baggage – Hawker Siddley, 1974, GO 9960
  • 202 – F7B, 11/1951 (MILW 114B)
  • 264 – ONR Boxcar
  • 7737 – ONR Boxcar
  • 7732 – ONR Boxcar

With the train all together and to the platform, I boarded for the trip north. I was seated in Coach 3 (653), Seat 9D. The seats are reserved at booking for the trip, no fighting for space or searching for it, though I initially managed to sit in my seat for the return trip. The ex-GO Transit coaches have been rebuilt and are set up for long-distance travel. The seats are well padded and spaced out. There are several permanent 4 blocks of facing seats, and the other rows are all designed to be spun, so they always face the direction of travel, or offer the ability to create additional four blocks if needed based on groups travelling. The seats have leg rests that in the four blocks, almost turn the facing seats into beds. The cars have lots of luggage room as well at the ends of the cars, along with behind seats and the overhead racks. This is of course supplemented by the baggage car and the boxcars hauling cargo for passengers. In another sign of the true intermodal nature of the service the ONR is providing, the bus to Cochrane arrived shortly after the train at the platform, and passengers quickly commenced moving baggage from the bus to the train, and onto the train to continue north. Seeing this in action really drives home the lifeline nature of the railway to Moosonee.

The train made an on-time departure at 0900 from Cochrane. On the trip up, it sounded like we were supposed to make a pickup at Otter Rapids, who no showed so we kept rolling to a stop at Mile 115. I took the time to tour the train, check out the dining car and the equipment. One coach was locked off for the ONR employees riding up. I noted the Service Manager, a trainee, two conductors who were working the switching in Cochrane and the on-board security guard coming and going from the locked off car on the trip up. There is a lot of work happening along the line right now, there was a lot of chatter with foremen for clearances and obvious signs of bridge work at several locations with equipment and work camps set up. Despite all this, with no opposing trains, we by my watch made a 1-minute early arrival at 1359 against a 1400 scheduled arrival into Moosonee. Before passengers even had time to get off it seemed, the train was split, and the crew was spotting the flat cars for unloading at the ramp and the boxcar that wasn’t coming home at the freight dock. As we pulled in, the dedicated freight train power was sitting on the siding next to the station. It had preceded us up the line in the dark.

Scenes from the northbound run, landscapes, stumps of old hydro poles by new, bigfoot and the Moose River.


Our 1359 one-minute early arrival by my watch afforded me about 2:45 in Moosonee before the doors would start closing for the trip south according to the Service Manager, so I had time to accomplish the few tasks I wanted to do. I wanted to check out the Northern Store, walk around town a bit, mail some postcards (they have started arriving), sadly it seems Canada Post doesn’t postmark things “Moosonee” anymore…booo to them!! I walked around town, it is a dusty place at this time of year. None of the roads are paved, the only paving I saw was sidewalks on the main street, and the two bridges across Store Creek (one paved, one timbered/dirt). I have the sense from my walk around, that I was the only person on the train who was a tourist, everyone else was clearly a local based on their being met at the train and that I didn’t see any other lost looking people wandering around with cameras during my time there!

Scenes from Moosonee, Churches, boats taking people and goods across the Moose River to Moose Factory, The Northern Store, the new Super 8 Motel, the baggage car museum and a view up the main street.


Unsurprisingly, most of the equipment going south as train 622 was the same as that coming north, with a slightly different order:

  • 1808-1809 – As NB except order reversed
  • 100507 – Ex TOFC Flatcar in Car Carrier Service
  • 100512 – Ex TOFC Flatcar in Car Carrier Service
  • 100508 – Ex TOFC Flatcar in Car Carrier Service
  • 7791 – ONR Boxcar
  • 7732-7737-264-202-416-660-750-651-653-654-7795 – As NB except order reversed

Another bang on time departure at 1700 and we were rolling south. As soon as tickets were checked, I made my way to the dining car to get something to eat and a beer. Given the short time afforded in Moosonee, I did not attempt to get food. I honestly kind of wish I had planned my trip to spend a night there, but most of the other railfanning things I wanted to do back down south (though still north of home) on Tuesday and Wednesday only worked if I did the train up and back in a day.

For the trip south, it seemed we had two booked stops, one at Toziers (SP? Not in Trackside guide). Stop at 1832 which put us between Moose River and Onakawana, and at Fraserdale. The Fraserdale stop was an adventure. Approaching they saw a guy and a truck who clearly was waiting on them, but not at the stop, slowing to a stop, a clearly annoyed crew on the radio eventually, after overshooting him and stopping, decided that they were not backing up and would proceed to the correct stop, and the guy could figure it out for themselves. As we slowly pulled up to Fraserdale, the pickup and trailer from the crossing was observed racing along the road adjacent to the tracks to the correct drop-off location for a group with a couple of boats and a lot of cargo.

Southbound scenes, Otter Rapids Hydro Dam, pickup trucks and drop-offs in Fraserdale.

Following us down the line was the three times a week freight to Moosonee. Hearing the crew of the passenger allow the freight to come down the line behind it was interesting old school railway operations. No signals, so the freight can only proceed as far down the line as the mixed ahead of them deems safe. We had an uneventful rest of the trip down, arriving at Cochrane at 2202, two minutes late. With no other trains on the line, the Polar Bear Express seems to be able to keep it schedule much better than other passenger services, as it is not subordinate to the freights. The freight arrived around 2315, or just over an hour behind the passenger train coming down the line. Just enough time for me to find some dinner from the limited late night options in Cochrane. Near as I could tell, Tim Hortons, A&W and Little Caesars in the Esso were the choices. I decided on A&W, which closed for a weeks renovations on the day I was there, and didn’t want Tims, so I settled for a pizza picnic in the back of the hatchback while waiting on the freight.

Full Gallery of the days shots: https://www.flickr.com/photos/55976115@N00/shares/1affme4P8f


The railway to Moosonee has a complicated history. At the south end of the station is a Cairn to the “Sons of Martha” and the railway builders of Harry Falconer McLean, an interesting contrast to the “Every Child Matters” paint scheme on ONR 1808 behind it in my pictures. My friend and fellow Toronto Railway Historical Association volunteer Thomas Blampied completed his PhD in History at the University of Toronto in 2022, writing on the complicated history of the construction of the Ontario Northland Railway and its impacts on Indigenous communities. I started reading it on the trip south from Moosonee. While it is an academic paper, Thomas clearly wrote with a mind that non-academics would be interested in this work, and I think it would be worth at least a perusal by any railfans out there. I look forward to completing reading it in the coming weeks as time allows. You can access it via the University of Toronto website here: https://hdl.handle.net/1807/125081

My takeaways are a new appreciation for how hard life is in the north of this country. Going into the Northern Store and seeing food prices makes me feel shame at the food that sometimes gets wasted here in our house as despite rising costs, it doesn’t really impact us. At the prices up there, you waste something, there is a risk people living in poverty in isolation don’t eat. This is before you consider many of those riding the train with me were doing so as it is the only way for them to access medical services or work, to leave home in the north and go south. That makes it a true “lifeline” despite the intentions of the original builders to bring “civilization” to the north, it provides a link that brings almost everything Moosonee, Moose Factory and the even more isolated places to the north like Attawapiskat that are only accessible by land via Ice Roads in the winter or barges in the summer.

My random railway thought is that I am in love with the ONR Hot Box Detectors. They are talkative, and announce themselves when the train first trips them, then go through their report after it has cleared. I did laugh though as it took me a couple of detectors to reconcile their train report with my consist notes. It counts the 2nd locomotive as a car, which makes sense for an automated device, so their announcing 15 cars when my mind kept saying “but its 14 cars and 2 locomotives” gave me a laugh when I figured it out. My life goal is now to have CN and CP re-program their detectors in the south to both announce when a train trips them and then the report after its passed. Extra warning for railfans when trains are close vs. just the post train report!


Since I obviously can’t shoot a train I am riding, before I started my way south on Tuesday morning, I again caught the Polar Bear Express, both the crew working in the yard, and the departure at Mile 5 on the Island Falls Subdivision, as far on the worsening dirt roads as I felt like taking my car and which wasn’t too far to try and catch up to other ONR trains working further south.

A mixed train in 2023, long may the Polar Bear Express continue to run and offer mixed train service with freight and passengers going north and south.


Another Ontario “Bucket List” rail trip done. I have decided that it is time to do the trips I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid reading train books. While the Polar Bear Express has changed a lot and has a very different character in the spring vs. the winter adventure, I’m very glad I’ve done it. If I were doing it again, I think I would definitely want to spend a night in Moosonee to have more time to look around, and support some of the local businesses by eating in town.

The End! Honestly, I think this might even have been the same mangy moose as I saw Sunday night as I was arriving in Cochrane on Tuesday morning as I left. It was in the same area along Highway 11!

VIA Rail Train 185/186 Sudbury-White River Trip Report. May 6-7, 2023

I had the opportunity to take the Sudbury-White River train last weekend (May 6-7), it’s hard to believe that it’s been a week already as I sit here writing this up, but I was continuing to travel for a few days after (I will write up my Ontario Northland Railway Polar Bear Express trip as a separate post). I made the decision early this year that for my birthday I was going to do a train trip of some sort and knock off one or more of the trips I have long wanted to do and never have. After some thinking (and a helpful Twitter Pole that ended in a draw between White River/Moosonee even ahead of a run on The Canadian!), I settled on doing both the White River RDC and the Polar Bear Express. I’ll write the second trip up separately.


In terms of preparations, the 9am outbound departure from Sudbury is a good time that you aren’t rushed in the morning. I stayed at a chain hotel on the south side of the city. It was a choice based on cost/where I get points. Really, my advice is just choose a hotel and it doesn’t really matter. If you are taking transit to get to Sudbury, I have no idea what that looks like. I drove out to Sudbury Junction to check out where The Canadian stops…I can’t imagine actually getting off the train in that industrial wasteland and having to get a taxi back to civilization. I’ve checked out some of the other remote stops on our drives where 1&2 Stop, and they are universally basic. I know these stops are for lifeline service, the fancy tourist punters are not using them, but Sudbury is enough of a place that you might expect some reasonable facilities, even if they are isolated. If I was taking the train to Sudbury, I’d honestly consider getting off at Capreol as the station is at least in a place where other people might be around, even though the taxi to Sudbury would be a lot more! But this is a digression.

I booked the Friday off work so I could drive up and chase the RDC’s as well and get some shots of them running. My first catch was at the Highway 144 level crossing east of Benny. I made it, but was fumbling and they snuck up on me, so I missed on video and only just got my drone up to catch them. I then bundled into the car and started back east/south to try and catch them again. They were slowed by a meet of Trains 105/106 at Larchwood and following 106 through a slow zone at Azilda where there was a temporary 10mph restriction. That allowed me to get to the S-Curve east of Azilda and have a chat with the work crew and catch them again. After that, the short drive into downtown Sudbury to catch the single passenger being dropped off, and the train working its way into the yard for the evening. While Downtown Sudbury is maybe not the best place to hang out, there is lots of action going on when I was there between two local CPKC Crews, the OVR Crew and the VIA working. It’s a shame that over the years the fences seem to have gotten longer and higher, it’s tough to shoot in a lot of places anymore without bringing a ladder (or now the drone) to get over the fences.


I was up early Saturday, as I wanted to be at the station in lots of time to see the crew bring the train out and get pictures before boarding. Upon arrival, I got checked in at the station as my purchased tickets online required me to check in and get actual printed tickets, it didn’t give me a QR code for the Service Manager to scan. The SM said this was likely one of many things changing. At the station, the Station Attendant gave me a card to put in the window of the car to identify me as parking for the train so my car wouldn’t be ticketed or towed. I understand from the SM during the trip, the parking lot at the station is very busy through the summer with the Sudbury Farmers Market and people parking for the train. Downtown Sudbury remains sketchy, I am not going to sugar coat it, I was nervous leaving my car there for 36 hours, but the SM said in the 8 years she’s been on the run, no one’s been broken into. Is it any worse than parts of downtown Toronto? No, probably not, but it just never has felt to me like a place I want to hang out over the years when I’ve made trips up for Wolves games at the arena across from the station.

Our equipment for the trip was as follows:

  • VIA 6217 (RDC-2, CP9115, 5/1958) – Buffer/Engineers
  • VIA 6219 (RDC-2, CP9111, 10/1956) – In Service
  • VIA 6250 (RDC-4, CN D151, CN6450) – Buffer/Baggage (Engineers on Sunday for 186)

Obviously, same equipment, just running with 6250 as lead on Sunday.

Sudbury Station and the equipment for Train 185/186 arriving at the platform (while CPKC Train 421 switches the yard).

We had 7 passengers booked out of Sudbury, so the SM as we chatted said “take the four with the table since you’ve got lots of stuff out”. This was greatly appreciated as it let me spread out cameras and radios and notes for the trip. She noted that in two weeks for the Saturday of the Long Weekend, they already had 40 booked and the train would be near capacity with the current buffer car requirements and only one car in service with passengers. Despite a notice on the VIA website, the RDC4 Baggage was available. This actually came up in discussions Sunday on the return trip with a passenger picked up at a camp, which caused great rolling of eyes from the SM as while the car was down for a few days in early April, it seems head office is slow on taking down inaccurate notes on ReserVIA. The note is gone now, so I guess they finally got the message!

We made a bang on time departure (my watch read 0859, but the crew called 0900 on the radio) for the north and started our trip out of Sudbury. The run out to Chapleau was uneventful, we met Train 118 at Stralak, Train 112 at Aubrey, and a 3rd where I didn’t catch them call the train number at Sultan. For all three meets, strangely the freights were there and waiting for us, so we cruised on through at reduced speed to let them clear but didn’t have to sit and wait on their arrival. The service slows for the view at Onaping Falls and The Flume in Spanish River Provincial Park. Upon arrival at Chapleau, we pulled up to the fueling rack for a needed drink…only to discover that the CPKC had forgotten to order a fuel truck. As we had enough to finish the run to White River and get back to Chapleau in the morning, it was decided to forgo the drink for the units. As such, we pulled up to Chapleau Station for an on time 1320 arrival. After a nice stretch of the legs and chat with the engineers, it was back on for the completion of the trip.

Onaping Falls, The Flume, Chapleau, Missanabe and semi-frozen lakes from the train on Saturday.

We had two meets between Chapleau and White River, and both were slow where we pulled into the siding and waited. We met a Train 420 at Bolkow, and what sounded like they called Train 118 at Amyot. In between, we had our one passenger stop at Missanabie for two to depart. The SM kindly allowed me to hop down and grab a couple of quick shots from the ground while they collected their baggage from the baggage car. Getting back going, we made a 1743 arrival at White River (booked 1705) for a just under 40 minutes late arrival. Ordinarily, I would have hung around and watched them go out north of town to get from the main to the siding so they could access the shop track, but it was damp and miserable, and the 10-minute walk to the hotel seemed better before the rain decided to go from annoying to heavy!

In White River, there are currently two motels, the Continental on the south side of the Trans Canada Highway, and The White River Motel on the north. It seems the VIA Crews are staying at the Continental from talking to them, based on recommendations of others who have done the trip and whatever value Google Reviews have, I had booked at the White River. My sense is that it’s a six of one/half dozen of the other situation with respect to hotel choice. More importantly, is making sure you have something booked before you get on the train, especially in the summer. Our SM said more than once they have gotten to the Chapleau stop and had to call ahead for people who did not have reservations and wouldn’t have gotten one by the time they arrived in White River! I understand both hotels would pick you up at the station if you asked, but after the trip, despite the drizzle, I needed a walk!

In terms of the town, there is the North Central Co-op Grocery and LCBO Agency on the walk from the Station to the Trans-Canada Highway 17. It is only open until 6pm, so if you are planning on needing anything, you need to count on your train being no later than mine was, and getting in. Your other option is the Convenience Store attached to the Esso on the highway, wasn’t poorly stocked, but you’re paying convenience store prices. The food service on Trains 185/186 is limited. Coffee, Hot Chocolate, Pop, Chips, Chocolate bars. I’d been warned of this and packed accordingly with a small cooler bag with water, pop and snacks. I picked up an extra bagel and cheese at Tim Horton’s in Sudbury on Saturday morning for my more substantive lunch. Upon arrival in White River after checking into my hotel, I went to the Subway and bought a sub to put in the fridge overnight and bring back Sunday on the train for lunch.

As noted, there is the Subway, and an A&W at the Esso gas station. There is a restaurant at the Continental Hotel, and a new-ish Bar called the WR Bar and Grill. On the advice of the VIA Crew, I tried the WR. Food was good, prices fair, local clientele was…colourful (I’ll take free entertainment from the conversations!).

May 6 Pictures – https://www.flickr.com/photos/55976115@N00/shares/NVgbfnEiiw


Sunday morning brings with it an early start for the return journey. A 0700-departure time. The food options are Robins Doughnuts (open 6am) and A&W (open 5am). Since I was up around 5:00 and knew getting back to sleep was a non-starter. I got sorted, loaded up, and headed for A&W and then on to the station. The rain had stopped overnight, so I was going to be able to fly my drone a bit around the yard and catch the RDC’s moving out from the yard to the station, which, despite a chill in the air still, was worth it for me.

Sunday morning scenes in White River for Train 186.

Sundays train was already off to a busier start than Saturday, 6 on at White River…plus 6 from the CPR Bunkhouse where we pulled in to allow some crew to take a more comfortable ride back to Chapleau. After a brief radio conversation with CPKC RTC about picking them up, and not forgetting to send a fuel truck today, we were on our way with another called 0700 on time departure, my watch again said 0659. This is where the trip started to get eventful. At 0750 the horns went off and the brakes went on…and the next thing heard on the radio was “SM, Head End, we just hit a moose”. After a stop to allow the engineers to inspect the train and communicate with CPKC RTC that the moose was not fouling the tracks, but wound up in the ditch, we were back on our way.

Sunday morning scenery, and a slow down at Swanson/Mile 88 so another customer could see the drop off for the three rail access only lodges here.

We met Train 113 at Franz (where you now have a great view of the former diamond as the diamond is now dumped about 50’ from where it used to be located beside the tracks), and then carried on to our first pickup of the day at Lochalsh. We picked one up here and pulled up to the end of the siding to wait for Train 101 to arrive.

Next up, a stop in Missanabie to pick up the two we had dropped off Saturday, who it turned out were on a trip home for a Saturday dinner and to bring supplies. We arrived in Chapleau for an 1107 arrival, 37 minutes down, mostly because of the moose. Despite the lateness, a quick stretch of the legs was allowed. Had a chat with the engineers, it sounded like the moose was exhausted, like it had just come out of a hard slog through the underbrush or a bog. They said it just kinda looked at them and barely moved. Our departing CPKC crews said that sadly, it happens more than they’d like that moose are hit on the lines between Sudbury and White River. We only spent a couple of minutes on the platform and were rolling for the fuel rack and waiting truck at 1110, departing fuel at 1123.

Sunday Chapleau stop, Biscotasing houseboat & floatplane, and back in Sudbury as a different Train 421 works the yard, just like when we left Saturday morning!

Back on the line, we had a meet with Train 421 at Nemegos. From there, a number of stops were booked, Sultan (1 expected, no show), Biscotasing (2 on), Forks (2 on), Sheahan (3 on), Cartier (3 off), another meet with Train 119 at Larchwood, Azilda (1 off) and into Sudbury with 14 passengers at 1608 vs the 1550 scheduled time. We actually made up almost all the lost time for the moose and slow-ish meets. I expect there is some padding in the Train 185/186 schedules to allow for the meets and flag stops.

Upon arrival at a drizzly Sudbury, I got myself sorted into the car, and ran around for a quick bonus of CP Military Unit 7023 that I hadn’t caught working solo in the yard on a Second Train 421. Got a good laugh from the engineer and conductor on the radio… “There are like 8 guys with cameras out here taking pictures”…”you’re going to be a movie star”. With that, I was back in the car and on the road north to Cochrane for another trip, but that will be another post.

May 7 Pictures – https://www.flickr.com/photos/55976115@N00/shares/vT83zjaTNy

Video of the Trip and chasing the RDC’s:


Some general notes from the trip and the SM about upcoming changes/summer travel:

  • Bring Food, you really need to think ahead about bringing lunches with you for the trip as there is no real food service.
  • Baggage Allowances, the SM said that in the coming weeks, the onboard allowance is being halved. I was travelling with a backpack, shoulder cooler bag, camera bag and Tripod. I’d have probably slipped through, but anything more than 1 bag will likely be forced into the baggage car going forward.
  • Loadings, the loadings have been light of late, but as noted above with a single passenger on Friday the 5th, but starting this Saturday for the long weekend, it sounds like things are picking up. Railfans looking to spread out like I did won’t be able to for a while!
  • The Buffer/Baggage situation, clearly a source of frustration for the crews, as the SM is not allowed in the baggage car while in motion, yet has to handle logging/charging of baggage added at enroute stops, which they can’t do if the train is moving. I know it sounds from the scuttlebutt (which the crew have heard too) is that the testing has gone well, but for the sake of the crews and their ability to carry more passengers, fingers crossed it gets dealt with. The SM also noted the buffer cars have caused them near chaos when a car goes down mechanically as they only have one spare, and its not a replacement baggage like when the RDC4 did go down in early April.
  • All told, the outbound Train 185 was 8:45 and the inbound Train 186 was 9:09 for the 300.3 route miles each way on a scheduled 8:05 outbound and 8:50 inbound, not bad at all considering the meets and the moose.


It is a long trip, but 100% worth it if you are a railfan. I have never had the chance to ride RDC’s before, and unless I do this trip again (which you never know, stranger things have happened), I may not again. It is a trip that requires some advance thought, but it is one that I heartily recommend to any railfan to do it if you can. While I think the RDC’s are going to be with us for a while yet, it seems inevitable to me that some kind of replacement is going to have to be sought. I want to thank the Service Manager Lise for being awesome. She was truly wonderful and really added to the experience. I realized I didn’t catch the two engineer’s names; I probably have them on the radio recordings, but thanks to them as well for a good ride despite some misadventure on the way!

The last thing I wanted to see 20 minutes south of Cochrane driving from Sudbury after dusk and after Train 186 hitting a moose earlier in the day was a moose on the highway. Fortunately, as I slammed on the brakes, he decided after posing for a picture, to head into the bush not onto the road.

An Edwardian Era Railway Steamship on the Move

The Canadian Pacific Steamship SS Keewatin has a long history. Built in 1907 in Govan Scotland, it plied the northern great lakes from Port MicNicoll on Georgian Bay to Thunder Bay on Lake Superior until the end of the steamship service in 1965. In 1967, she was purchased and moved to Saugatuck Michigan, where she remained until 2012, when she was purchased by a land developer building a resort community at the former port in Port MicNicoll. She was restored, and the Kalamazoo River dredged to let her escape her berth, and moved home. I was in attendance in June 2012 for the grand return to her Forever Home at her old home to become a floating museum. Sadly, the next 11 years brought many challenges. Starting with the developer going under and selling the land, the new owners not wanting her on their lands, to the Covid Pandemic, to the inability of the small community to raise sufficient funds, another move sadly became inevitable. The silver lining, is that another museum in Ontario, the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in Kingston has been able to acquire her, and raise funds for a restoration. Her destination on this trip, is a dry dock in Hamilton Ontario for repairs, prior to a move to Kingston and display targeted for May 2024.

The Keewatin in happier times, arriving home in Port McNicoll in June 2012.

I had been following the move thanks to MarineTraffic.com and the AIS for the lead tug towing her. When she was scheduled to arrive at Port Colborne for 6am Friday, I assumed that I had no chance to catch her on a work day. As the day progressed, it became apparent that she would be in the canal long enough for me to have a fighting chance with a bit of luck in Friday Traffic to get to St Catharines and catch her, so I got my gear prepped and I hit the roads to battle Friday traffic and the weather. Its 105 kilometers from the house to Lock 2 according to Google Maps, so doable, but challenging, especially in sometimes heavy rain. I however, have realized sometimes I love the chase as much as the catch. That said, as I approached Lock 2, it was clear how many people were out, so I parked at the end of the row along the Welland Canal Parkway and could see the safety bar on the lock was up, which meant the lock doors were open and they were ready to depart. I hoofed it so fast to try and get to a shot, I forgot my tripod! So I got no video and bad video to start. That said, I got the shots I wanted, chased along on foot a bit, before I was soaked and running out of gas, and turned to trudge back to the car.

The SS Keewatin being towed out of Lock 2 by the Molly M I and moving north toward Lock 1 on the Welland Canal.

After drying out for a bit, I decided I would at least drive up toward Lock 1 and see if I could get any more shots. I saw there was maybe a shot from the bridge looking over the ship from above in the lock, but I decided to go around and see if I could get better shots of her coming out of the lock and be a bit less helter skelter than at Lock 2. I succeeded, and found a great spot where many people were at a Tug Boat Dock, where there was a little concrete jetty with a handrail that a couple of people were out on, and I duly joined them. I even remembered the umbrella in the car to combat my mortal photographic enemy of rain…I hate rain so much.

The SS Keewatin coming out of Lock 1 at the north end of the Welland Canal, and some of the big crowds everywhere in St Catharines for the trip through the locks on a very rainy Friday evening.

I will hopefully get a 3rd kick at seeing the Keewatin sailing when she moves from Hamilton to Kingston in 2024. That will be a much more celebratory trip than the one from Port McNicoll to Hamilton which sadly had many online moaning about how she couldn’t stay in Port McNicoll. I am, very prosaic about these things, the best outcome is restoration and care, and if that is in Kingston, that’s where she should go. I think its more important that a ship with Canadian history stays in Canada and on the Great Lakes. That she will be open to the public again is better than the outcome so many historic ships face of being cut up, or slowly decaying to the point where they just sink into the muck. Here’s to many more years of people appreciating the Keewatin in her new home starting in 2024!

Tuesday Train Extra: I’m learning to fly…

I’m learning to fly
But I ain’t got wings
Coming down
Is the hardest thing

Yesterday I got my drone, today, I started to learn to fly it. In the interests of my sanity, and not breaking it on the first day, we went over to the public school yard a ten minute walk across the street, a nice wide open space where I could set up in the ball diamond gravel, and have it and the expanse of grass that is the soccer field to fly over and not be buzzing anyone’s house, flying into trees or wires, or any other pratfall that would ruin my first day out with it.

Getting set to go, and a collection of shots from the Drone looking back at us, and of the area around the school we were flying at. For a tiny lens, the camera gets good shots with the 12megapixel sensor it has.

This was, a basic get to know you series of flights. Use the auto takeoff and auto landing features. Do the same manually, see how the “Quick Shot” pre-set flight patterns for videos work, and start to get a hang of the controls. I even managed to fly it far enough away that we lost sight of it in the skies, so we tested the “Return Home” GPS feature to have it automatically fly back to where it took off from. I did not play around with settings much. One I will need to look at is the Return to Home and its default altitude. It was just windy enough today, that the default of 400′, which is set to clear anything around normally, once it got back close and we spotted it, it was clear it was fighting the wind, so instead of letting the auto return finish, I reclaimed control and brought it back down to almost ground level and flew it back to base. That said, my initial impressions are, wow. A number of people I know with them said that they are super easy to fly, and they were not kidding. Even as I was fumbling to get a feel for which movement on the control sticks does what, the video I was getting was so steady.

Post fly about screen caps from the DJI App, listing of all my flights, and you can go back in and view your flights on a map, review what controls you did, etc. This was the furthest away from myself that I got (we couldn’t see/hear it in the sky).

I assembled a brief video of the days flying, a combination of footage from in the Drone, and from my wife’s iPhone of me flying it. I have to say, I am really impressed that even on a first flight, the video and photographs are really good. I can’t wait to get some more flight time in to get really comfortable with how it flies and moves, and get out trackside with it to get a new angle on some trains!

As always, when my wonky musical mind starts with a song, I leave you with the late great Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers “Learning to Fly”

Tuesday Train Extra: It flies…I hope…

Oh dear…I appear to have given into temptation for a new “toy”…er em, tool, in my train chasing railfan photographer arsenal. After some months of thinking about it, and mulling, I have broken down and bought a DJI Mini 2 Drone. I have, been feeling stale in my photography and videography of late, and looking for new ways to open up opportunities, I have settled on trying out a drone. I have a number of friends who have drones, and I know a few other railfans (Steve Boyko in Winnipeg springs to mind, his work well worth a look compared to mine if you haven’t seen it). This one came highly recommended as a first drone for new users. It is, apparently easy to fly and easy to learn to fly, and takes good quality video and pictures. I am planning a trip in early May to go and do some railfanning and riding of passenger trains in places well away from home (all in good time, that’s a bunch of future posts), and I have decided that I want as many tools in my bag as possible for this, and the Drone is going to be one of them. Once I decided I was actually going to do the thing and order it, I wanted to do it plenty early so I have two months+ here to learn to use it, and see how I integrate having it with me into what I do when I am out and about.

Oh my…what have I gotten myself into…

My drone arrived yesterday, and after some quality efforts by the staff at our Condo to lose it in the parcel room, I got it home this afternoon. I have successfully fired up the software, linked and registered the device, and confirmed the camera works, by taking a really bad selfie while the drone was sitting in my photo cube (no I won’t be sharing that thanks for asking!). So far, I would say everything has been reasonably intuitive and has worked the way it should. I am hoping to go over to a school down the street tomorrow where there are some wide open spaces to set up and learn to fly. While to get good use while chasing trains, I will need to learn to fly around obstacles and miss things, at least for learning basic operations like how to take off and land, and where all the different control settings are, I figure a wide open space is probably the way to go!

DJI Mini 2. It is about the size of two HO Scale 40′ boxcars side by side with the rotors folded in. No I’m not making my first test flight in the house, that has disaster written all over it.

Future updates on my Learning to Fly will follow in due course…once the batteries finish charging…

Tuesday Train Extra: It was 20 years ago today…

It was 20 years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile
So may I introduce to you
The act you’ve known for all these years
Stephen Gardiner’s Railway Photographs…

With all due apologies to the genius of The Beatles, this is an extra Tuesday Train. It was 20 years ago today I took my first railway photos with my first Digital Camera (a Panasonic Lumix LC20, see here). The two photos below of VIA equipment at the Toronto Maintenance Centre was taken on a grey and rainy December 21st from the window of a Lakeshore GO Train from Union Station to Oakville. I had taken the train from Oakville to a job interview downtown and was on my way home, having just finished university earlier in December. I was looking for my first job out of school. I guess it was a success, as I was hired at the firm in February 2003, and worked there for 15.5 years before I decided it was time for a change and to move on to my next challenges. These two blurry shots taken from a GO Train window are the real start of me getting back into trains. It would be a few years before I really got serious, but coming out of school, I started to get back into modelling with my Georgetown Layout in my parents basement before I moved out after a couple of years and into the City. This is a long way of saying, all the time I have spent getting out chasing trains to stay sane since March 2020 in particular started here.

Two blurry photos from a GO Train, the start of railfanning photography for me. Anything before that was really ad hoc when I was shooting film.

As always, when I use music in my nonsensical ramblings, here is the original is here: