The highlight of my riding season last summer was my solo tour of Northern Ontario. I had just finished the Georgian Bay Coast Route with my wife—she in the car, I on the bike. But one week was all she had, so we parted in Temiskaming at the Ontario-Quebec border and I headed north on the 101 on my BMW f650GS.
I had decided to do the Great Legends Tour, a 1,350-km (800-mile) circuit that passes through the towns of Mattawa, Temiskaming Shores, Cochrane, Kapuskasing, then back down through Timmons, Sudbury, and North Bay. It would take me as far north as I’d ever been, and about as far north as there is asphalt in Northeastern Ontario. It’s not surprising that there is a polar bear refuge up in these parts. After doing some off-roading in the Moonbeam area, I decided to take a day to ride into Cochrane to visit the Polar Bear Habitat.
The Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat is the world's largest and only human care facility dedicated to polar bears. They are located on seven hectares of natural terrain and currently have three resident polar bears. I'm not a fan of zoos, but these bears can't survive in the wild and require human care; they were all either born in captivity or orphaned. The Habitat is the closest thing to their natural environment, and the organization also advocates and educates towards protecting polar bears and their natural spaces.
I was staying at René Brunelle Provincial Park just north of Moonbeam, so it was an easy ride along Highway 11 into Cochrane. I stopped at Smoothy’s in Smooth Rock Falls for breakfast.
Okay, so they don’t win the award for the most imaginative name, but Smoothy’s was just what I was looking for—a comfortable and inexpensive diner where I could pick up a classic bacon and egg breakfast with potatoes on the side. The service was fast and friendly, and Smoothy’s gets a thumbs up from me. There’s also a gas bar out front so I could top up before heading into Cochrane.
The ride along the Trans-Canada Highway up here is something every biker should experience. Without any deciduous trees, the sky is huge and the air fresh and pure, without even a hint of smog. Traffic is sparse, so there are times when it feels like you have the road to yourself. Above all is a strong sense of just how vast this country is, with just you and your bike to cover the distances. It’s tempting to let your machine stretch its legs.
I arrived mid-morning and a tour had just started. "Run through to the first building and you can catch up to the group," the lady at the entrance advised. So I did, and only partway between buildings I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of two bears against the fence. They were huge! And exactly as you would expect with that distinctive long neck and pointed head—but also unexpected. Their fur is not so much white as golden, and their eyes and ears seem so small compared to their massive bodies, no doubt evolved to cope with blinding, blowing snow. I just stood there and watched them for a minute before heading in to catch up with the tour.
The Habitat currently has three bears on location: Ganuk, Henry, and Inukshuk. Inukshuk, whose mother was shot when he was just four months old, is the father of Henry, bred when Inukshuk was at Zoo Sauvage in St-Félicien, Quebec. Each bear has a unique personality and food favourites.
The facility is impressive, with natural and artificial areas, and a pool with a glass wall so you can see the bears swim underwater if they are in the mood. There are interactive learning stations for the kids, and lots of information available on the walls and other exhibits for the studious, but really, everyone mostly just wants to look at the bears. They are magnificent!
Our guide reminded us that although they look cute and cuddly, the bears are dangerous, and no one is ever alone with them on the inside of the fence—which, we were told, is more to keep people out than the bears in! They have had instances, unbelievably, of people climbing in during the night when the facility is closed. Some people must have the most warped sense of judgment when playing Truth or Dare after a few beers!
When the bears decided to head down to the natural pond, disappearing into the trees, I decided to step back in time 100 years and headed over to Heritage Village. (Visitors to the Polar Bear Habitat also have access to Heritage Village and the Snowmobile Museum.) The village looks authentic and has been used for film sets. It includes a general store, butcher's shop, doctor's office, blacksmith's shop, fire station, schoolhouse, and trapper's cabin.
While not the impetus of my visit, the Heritage Village was interesting. It's one thing to learn about history from a textbook or historical movie, and another to see the physical artifacts of another era and another way of life. The buildings have been authentically decorated to assist the imagination in conjuring an ordinary day in the life of early 20th-century citizens.
Across from the train station is Nanook’s Snack Shack, where you can cool off in the air conditioning and recharge with some short-order food and a drink. When I returned to the bears, one of them was being fed strawberries through the fence.
Before leaving, I wandered into the Snowmobile Museum. Cochrane has quite the snowmobile culture during the winter months, and it's a good idea to preserve some of these machines here for posterity.
Each is labelled with year, model, and owner’s name. There are some real gems there, dating back to the 1960s. If you are into moto-sports, be sure to check it out before leaving. There’s also a gift shop if you want to pick up a souvenir or gift.
The Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat has something for everyone and is not to be missed if you decide to do the Great Legends Tour or a ride up into the Northeastern Ontario region. These are animals that really should be observed in a Northern naturalistic habitat, and by visiting, your admission fee goes directly towards saving the threatened species from extinction.
I returned to my bike in time to enjoy the ride back to Moonbeam in the late afternoon sun, venturing off Highway 11 briefly when an enticing dirt road caught my eye. I would have liked to have explored more, but was running out of daylight. My curiosity for what lay further down the road, and my love for this remote and pristine wilderness, would have to wait for next season.