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Rail Travelogue To Churchill - Canada
VIA Rail's Most Northern Station by Robert Burns

Ottawa to Toronto

Monday, January 15, 2001

My day started around 6:00 a.m. just be make sure we had sufficient time to get ready even though we had packed everything the night before. I kept checking and rechecking to make sure I had my tickets and even my wife said I was nervous that morning. My father-in-law was kind enough to pick up Ray and I and drive us to the station. We arrived at 8:00 a.m., half an hour before departure and my experience from this trip is that VIA is very punctual when it comes time to leave the station. We went to the first class lounge where we are treated to free beverages and newspapers and comfortable leather seats.

About twenty minutes before departure, first class passengers are called to board the train. To get to the train, one travels down an escalator down a short corridor and then up another escalator to arrive at your rail car. VIA employees are at all locations to ensure passengers reach their correct destination point. On short trips, such as to Toronto, luggage is not checked but carried on the rail car and stored in an area just as you enter. Additional space is provided above the seats. In the first class car, passengers are assigned seats so there is no confusion. VIA employees will allow you to change your seats if there is sufficient space available. After taking our tickets, our attendant went through the emergency procedures with us by telling us how and where to use the small hammer inside the car.

After this we settled down to a relaxing trip to Toronto, however, I was too excited to relax that much as I was trying to think of how I would write my travelogue and what type of photos to take that would be interesting to both travelers and train enthusiasts. The weather outside was mild with an overcast and light flurries so there was little to hold my attention.

My first timid attempt at photography was of a fellow passenger, a Mr. Hanson who was returning to Toronto after visiting his son. His pleasant style and conversation added to the enjoyment of my trip. I observed that many of the other passengers were using this as a business trip and worked part of the time.

Shortly after we departed Ottawa, the attendant brought everyone a small treat of fresh fruit along with your choice of coffee or tea. This was later followed by a lovely breakfast, first class treatment all the way. There was a short pause in Smith Falls and later when we arrived in Brockville, my brother called our sister to say Hello and chat awhile until his cell phone lost the signal. I took some photos along the way but they were as interesting as the weather.

Finally we reached Toronto, the big city were we disembarked with our luggage and went to the VIA administration office. Ray was to take some virtual reality photos of the Toronto station as well as some of the rail cars. These type of photos allow a person to view a room, through the use of the mouse on a computer, and look in a 360 degree circle around the room as well as looking up to the ceiling and down to the floor. A very interesting technique if someone is curious to know what the inside of a dining car or a sleeper car looks like. We discussed photographing VIA's "Silver and Blue" train with Beverly LaBlanc and it was decided that it would be best to do this in the morning, one hour before the train's departure at 9:00 a.m.

Next we took a taxi to our hotel, dropped off our luggage and departed by streetcar to China town which was not too far. Ray was intrigued by these streetcars as he hasn't seen them in nearly forty years. They are fine for short distances as their speed allows you time to see and choose the restaurants and stores that may interest you. We walked for a while and then settled on a pleasant Vietnamese restaurant for supper. While Ray is familiar with this type of cuisine, I only have limited experience so it was an adventure for me, fortunately I like their hot sauces. We returned to the hotel by streetcar again, they run about every ten or fifteen minutes, and retired early as we had to be at the train station by 7:00 a.m. I made a call home to tell them where we were staying and that I missed them already as it would be another two weeks before I would see them again.

Toronto to Winnipeg

Tuesday, January 16, 2001

After an early rising of around 5:30 a.m., we managed to eat breakfast, have a cab called by the front desk, check out and reach the station by 7:00 a.m. For this trip, we had to check our luggage that will go in the luggage car. This checked luggage is what you won't require on this leg of the trip, so what you carry on and leave in your room is what you have available to use. Due to space restrictions there is not much point to bringing a lot of luggage into you roomette. We were met by Brian Casey, how apropos for someone to have such a name and work on the railroad. Brian lead us to the train and introduced us to the train staff who would allow Ray to take his photos an hour before the passengers arrived. I was impressed by how friendly and pleasant the staff are that early in the morning. They brought us to our room where we left our bags. Since this was my first time on a train that had a sleeper as well as a dome car, I was disoriented for a while and followed everyone without getting in the way. However, it didn't take long to understand the routine and location of things. I took this opportunity to take some outside photos of our train, from the dome car at the end to the engines at the front. For the rail enthusiasts, Ray logged the numbers of each of the cars of our train, a task I was to inherit later, especially when it was cold. These numbers are:

I was surprised to see an Amtrak train beside us that was marked "Amtrak Northeast Direct Service", perhaps a special excursion to Canada. (Robert was not aware that Amtrak provides direct service to Toronto from the United States - SG). During this time the Go Trains were arriving every five minutes it seems, disgorging hundreds of people at a time on their way to work while at the same time I was thinking that I was starting my own great adventure. Our car attendant was Brenda and her pleasant disposition and ready attention helped me to adjust to the routine of the trip. At exactly 9:00 a.m. the train pulled out of the station and Ray and I went to the Dome car at the end of the train with the other passengers to see Toronto pass by. Since it was passed 9:00 a.m. no breakfast was served, however, the Dome car had muffins, croissants, fruit juices and coffee for the passengers.

As the train was pulling out of the Toronto station, I saw the CN Tower just as we left. I didn't realize how close it was as well as how high.

It was raining lightly as we left and it didn't change much except for the drop in temperature about an hour or two outside of Toronto. The dull gray scenery of Toronto changed to a white country landscape after a while. Being my first train trip in a long time, I spent most of my time above in the observation level while at the same time, attempting to take interesting photos, not an easy task. Gradually I got to meet some of the passengers such as Lee and Jinny Sinclair from Pennsylvania. This charming couple were taking a train trip to Vancouver where they would rendezvous with their son, Jonathan, and then the three would return by train together.

Another fellow traveler carried a radio scanner and spent his time listening to the radio traffic of the train crews radio. In the beginning I found it confusing as to why our train would stop, however, it was informative to find out from this person the different reasons for our stops. In addition this passenger carried VIA's National Timetable so he was also able to inform us if we were on time or not at each destination.

One passenger that works on another railway explained how the signal light system worked and where to look. He was the one that told me that the area north of Thompson towards Churchill was a "black" area, meaning that there are no signal lights and that all rail movement was done by radio transmission.

The meal system on the train is a bit different, due to the seating capacity of the dinning car, meal service is done through a reservation system, first call and second call. When you are being served you let the attendant know which sitting you want for the next meal and he will give you a small slip indicating which sitting. The dinning car is very attractive and the meals are excellent with about four choices. At supper, we shared the table with a young man from Saskatchewan who was returning from a family visit in the Maritimes. He told us that he works in the oil rigs and that he read in the local newspaper that the industry needs another 4,000 people.

The room that Ray and I shared initially seemed small but very functional with two chairs, a sink and an enclosed toilet. Our attendant, Brenda, was marvelous and very professional. She went out of her way to prepare fold down bunks so that Ray could take some photos of it. Our evening ended early when Brenda prepared our room which consists of dropping the beds down and preparing them, considering how complicated it looks, this is best left to the experts.

Wednesday, January 17, 2001.

One reason why I retired early, 8:00 p.m. was so that I could get up early enough to try and get a photo of the sunrise. While I was successful in getting up at 5:00 a.m. It was still overcast at 6:00 a.m.

Passing through Northern Ontario in the early morning, you could tell it was very cold outside by the long smoke trails coming from the chimneys of the homes. Not many people are out and about.

For our breakfast companion, we met Joe Cyer from Winnipeg. Joe used to play semipro hockey and then later worked as a boiler maker with the CNR for 30 years. Joe told us about the Lady Dufferin, the first locomotive to operate in Manitoba, which was on display at the Winnipeg train station. He also informed us about the "Prairie Dog", another steam locomotive that carries passengers on Sunday excursions.

I spent a large part of the morning on the observation level of the Dome car taking photos. I managed to take several of our train as well some points of interest. I tried to keep the train enthusiasts in mind when taking pictures, i.e. Steam locomotive, caboose, snow removal cars etc.

At lunch, we sat with a lovely couple who have sold their property and were moving to Washington state. After a long and distinguishing career in the Chemical industry, they are taking a well deserved retirement.

While approaching the Winnipeg train station, it was brought to our attention that the train to Churchill was waiting in the station and they knew this by the fact that this train is pulled by an engine that is 45 years old. A type that is not often seen these days.

When the train stopped, we quickly got our bags and said a grateful good-bye to Brenda, our attendant. Ray took several photos of this impressive station before we headed for our hotel in Boniface. The weather was surprisingly mild for January, much like Ottawa.

Winnipeg to Churchill

Thursday, January 18, 2001

Got up early and went to the shopping mall across the street to purchase some post cards to send home. I noticed they have a drive through beer store which I guess is practical in a city that is know for its cold winters.

After lunch we packed again and returned to the station where we checked our luggage and then continued to the Forks Market next door. This is a great place to spend the day. They have a large selection of restaurants, stores and shops with wide open spaces that accommodates both the shopper and the diners. I wish Ottawa would have something as nice. Ray and I started immediately to look for souvenirs and the first shop we came to we bought our gifts. They had a great selection of amber jewelry and I purchased a ring for each of my daughters and an amber necklace for my wife.

Across the way is another building complex which houses an exhibit for the province of Manitoba, restaurants and many more shops. After several hours of this, we rested in a bar and talked about what we had seen so far. As evening approached, we returned to the station and found out that we were a party of three boarding the train that evening.

While waiting for our train, we met Daryl Adair of the Winnipeg Rail Museum who was kind enough to give us an impromptu tour of this museum. We were so fascinated by this tour that we lost track of the time. Fortunately the VIA staff remembered us and made sure we arrived on time. Talk about service to the customer.

When we boarded, Reg, our Service Manager introduced himself and showed us to our room. Afterward, we went to the lounge car and struck up a conversation with an ex CNR train engineer who was on his way home to Endeavour, Saskatchewan. His time of arrival at Endeavour would be around 5:30 a.m.

Friday, January 19, 2001

I must of stayed up late because it was the Service Manager that woke us with his first call for breakfast. I let Ray sleep in while I went for a pleasant breakfast. It was here that I found out about the difference in dining arrangements. On the main routes, meals are included in the sleeper class, however, on the route from Winnipeg to Churchill, meals are not included.

At The Pas, the train stopped for fuel and additional items were added to the baggage car so I went out to look around, unfortunately, the station is not close to the centre of town so I was restricted to the station. I took some photos of that older train engine that was pulling this train.

Later Ray and I went to the coach and conversed with some of the passengers. There was a nurse from The Pas who had accepted a position in Churchill and was moving her family to their new home. I struck up a conversation with a gentleman from Baltimore by the name of Ed Haughney. We spoke of what we were doing and he talked about his trips abroad he had taken. .

At lunch the menu indicated Tundra Burger, which is made from Bison (buffalo) meat for $7.50 or a Chicken Burger at $7.50. Being adventurous, I decided on the Tundra Burger. Needless to say it was tasty but you couldn't tell it from beef.

The scenery is generally flat with some lakes and rivers. You start to notice the shorter trees in this area, a prelude of what to expect in Churchill.

I thought that the poles along the track carrying electrical lines were broken because they were all slanted at a 45 degree angle, however, this was later explained to me that due to the cold winters, the frost would push the poles out of the ground so they are supported above ground. In addition, there are some peculiar looking structures, basically poles stuck in the ground close to the rail bed that have an outside covering of metal fins. I was told that some parts of the rail bed thaw before others so in order to keep it at the same temperature as the surrounding areas these heat sinks draw the heat from below and dissipate it into the atmosphere to prevent the ground from heaving and moving the tracks.

It was dark by the time we arrived at Thompson and there was not much to see as the town is located about a mile away station. I decided to stay on board the train as passengers were told that if they left the train they would not be able to return for twenty minutes and it was too cool to wait outside for that length of time. The remainder of the track is owned by the Hudson Bay Rail Company so their engine crew take over for the remainder trip to Churchill.

Since the rails on this section of route are not welded, the car wheels make the traditional clickety noise associated with it. However, due to the condition of the rail bed in this part of the frozen north, the rails are not flat and the train can only travel not more 30 miles per hour in a good stretch. Along with this, when in bed the pitching of the cars leaves you to believe that you are on a boat in rough water.

Saturday, January 20, 2001

We woke up late, approximately 15 minutes before our arrival in Churchill so we dispensed with breakfast and arrived around 8:30 a.m. Since this was our first time here we decided to take the only taxi at the station to our motel, which consisted of less than a two minute drive.

After checking in at the Churchill Motel, we went out to explore the town. Visiting Churchill in January has some advantages such as no line ups and we had the beach to ourselves. The weather was surprisingly mild when we arrived and the local residents commented on that every time the subject arose. Which was a good thing as Ray was not equipped for any serious cold weather.

The first store we went to was the Arctic Trading Post located on the main street with two large friendly huskies to greet us outside. The store has a facade of a log cabin and when you enter there is a chair and a wood burning stove nearby. They have an incredible array of northern and native clothing, crafts and art. I purchased picture of a northern scene where the images of the polar bear in the picture are made from caribou hide and then the fur is trimmed to a short length to give the impression of real fur. One can easily spend the whole morning admiring the large and diverse selections.

Having missed breakfast this morning we decided to head to Gypsy's Bakery where we noticed arctic char on the menu. We took advantage of this opportunity and we weren't disappointed either when we took our first bite of this meal. Along with the mashed potatoes and gravy, I also enjoyed a bottle of Portuguese beer. This establishment is part restaurant and part bakery and they offer an excellent variety of doughnuts and baked goods.

From Gypsy's we went to the Northern. This is the largest store in Churchill and is a combination food and dry goods store. It is to be expected that the price of food is slightly higher here compared to the south, though not as high as in the northern arctic communities. Everything you need can be purchased here from arctic boots to a head of lettuce, which, by the way was on sale that weekend for $0.99 each.

Next we went to the famous Eskimo Museum which contains one of the best collections of Inuit carvings, many of which are rare and dating back to the last century. The museum also had exhibits of animals on display such as the polar bear, walrus, arctic foxes etc. I was surprised to realize the immense size a walrus can attain. Observing these native carvings gives one an insight into the culture and beliefs these people have. This is a recommended stop for anyone visiting Churchill. As a souvenir from Churchill I bought two toy polar bears for my daughters.

From the museum we went to the Town Centre Complex nearby. This structure is impressive in size which contains two schools, a hockey and a curling rink, swimming pool, hospital, library (with Internet access), a play area for young children as well as a restaurant and bakery. While we were there the local school had a bake sale and we supported them by buying some chocolate bars. This seems to be the centre of activity for the town as all the facilities were being used at the same time.

With evening approaching and fatigue setting in we decided to return to the motel and settle in for the evening. I was planning to take photos of the aura borealis that night however the weather was not cooperating with the cloud cover we had. I used this opportunity to call home to let them know we had arrived. My daughter Catherine asked what Churchill look like, she wondered if it looked like the community we lived in. Being located in a sub-arctic region, Churchill doesn't bear a resemblance so I made a note to take photos of the town the next day to show her what it looks like.

Sunday January 21, 2001

I awoke around 8:00 a.m. and while Ray was getting ready I went out to take some photos of Churchill so that my daughter an see what the town of Churchill looks like. When I returned to the motel, we decided to see what it is like to have breakfast at the restaurant in the Town Centre Complex. Ray had a toasted tomato & bacon and I had an omelette with ham and cheese along with hash browns. Both meals were very good and a bargain for both for $12.00 along with coffee and a V8 drink. I had also observed that every adult in the restaurant smoked cigarettes.
To wear off the breakfast we walked along the different roads in town to get an idea of what it is like. It is interesting to note the mix of townhouses and smaller single homes and nearly half the residences had a snowmobile parked outside. Not very many people walk here, they mostly drive so it was obvious we were visiting. A few homes had large husky dogs that bark loudly for attention. Once you start petting them they don't want you to stop and bark for more.

We eventually came to the Wapusk General Store where Ray was attracted to the log cabin construction. We weren't sure if it was open for business, but the door was unlocked so Ray went in. It was then that we found out that the store is not open Sundays but Valerie and David Daley were kind enough to let us come in and stay awhile. The log construction along with the fire in the wood burning stove gave a welcoming cozy feeling. I found a toy husky dog that I knew my daughters would like, and included in the sale price was packaging and shipping which they did for me, since I did not have any space left in my luggage.

Afterwards we returned to the motel for a rest and I read my copy of the VIA magazine in which it stated that this would be the final issue. This is a pity considering the quality of the magazine and I know of others who will be equally disappointed. Within the VIA magazine I read an article about how a part of an old CPR roundhouse in Toronto that had a part rebuilt into a brewery called the Steam Whistle Brewery and is located near the train station.

Around 2:00 p.m., Leona, the manager of the Churchill Hotel invited Ray and myself to try some of her home made soup and bread. We eagerly took this opportunity as both of us enjoy home cooked food and we weren't disappointed either. The soup contained sauerkraut, carrot slivers, garlic and bacon. The home made bread reminded me of the type my grandmother made when I was younger.

After this delicious meal Leona said she and her friend Edna Prince wanted to go for a Sunday drive and asked us if we wanted to go along. We jumped at this opportunity and she drove us out past the deserted military base, past the town dump where the polar bears like to snack and out to the rocket launch area. Ray and I left the truck to walk around to take some photos. This facility ceased operation about fifteen years ago and everything has remained unchanged since the time it closed down. All the vehicles are here and on the back of one truck, there is still the remains of the bottom of one rocket motor. It was as if we went back in time, nothing has changed. Unfortunately, we weren't able to remain too long as Leona wanted to return to Churchill.

On the way back, Leona let Ray drive the van back to town. Ray is used to driving on the highways in Los Angeles, however, unfortunately he has not had much recent experience on ice and snow covered roads. Ray taught one of the local drivers a lesson about not driving too closely to another vehicle when he suddenly turned and braked in response to one of Leona's directions. Another observation I is that I did not see anyone speeding with their vehicles, considering the size of the town I guess there would be no need either. Snowmobiles are another thing, it is surprising how fast those vehicles can travel, however, they were never driven in a dangerous manner.

To make a perfect end to this day, Leona graciously offered Ray and I to supper which we eagerly accepted. One nice thing about accepting Leona's dinner invitation is that her friends drop by as well for a meal and it gave us an opportunity to chat and meet the townspeople.
The weather is still overcast so there will be no photo opportunity of an aura borealis tonight.

Monday, January 22, 2001

I went to the Town Centre Complex again for breakfast and had my usual three egg omlette. This was followed by a trip to the bank to exchange some American currency. With the train arriving every three days and with no roads leading into Churchill, I assume that there would never be a bank holdup. If there ever was, the most likely suspect would be the person waiting at the train station for the last three days. And even if a suspect did get on a south bound train, it only travels between 20 to 30 miles per hour, so much for a quick getaway.

The temperature has dropped today and the wind is blowing between 20 to 30 km/h. It definitely feels cooler today so I returned to the motel to put on a sweater. When I reached the motel the wind had drifted snow around the front door so I used the nearby shovel to clear it way. Leona said that it is still not the usual cold temperature so I guess I should feel lucky. With this wind chill, Ray will definitely not go outside.

Later Leona offered us some bannock and a bean soup made by her friend Edna. I was so impressed with the soup that when I asked her for the recipe and she was gracious enough to give it to me. So now I offer the recipe to anyone else who wants it:

Edna Prince's Bacon and Bean Soup

Half a bag of dried beans (approx. 907 grams)
2 stalks of celery - diced
2 carrots - diced
Half a medium onion - diced
Dried chicken soup mix
One small can of tomato paste
Two small Bay leaves
One and one half teaspoons of dry mustard
Several slices of cooked bacon - diced

Add all ingredients together in a soup pot except for the tomato paste which is added at the end. When adding the tomato past, also include a bit of vegetable oil and flour to thicken the soup to the consistency you like.

After my body was strengthened with this delicious meal I decided to head out to the Ports Canada Grain Elevators at the harbour. The wind chill caused by the strong winds weakened the battery power of my camera so I had to keep it inside my parka. This massive facility is a major operation during the summer months with foreign ships coming in to take on loads of prairie Red #1 wheat. However, during the winter it is completely deserted and I could walk from one end of the facility to the other without seeing another person. Tied to the pier were some support vessel as well as dredging barges which won't be moving until the summer since they are surrounded by ice nearly three feet thick.

While walking along the harbour where the ships would moor in the summer time I came across a small pile of material I thought was a pile of gravel, but when I kicked it with my foot, I noticed that it was cereal grains. I remembered my daughter asking me to bring home some wheat as a souvenir from Manitoba but I didn't think that was possible as this is not the usual tourist item, especially in January. So I loaded a pocket of my parka with wheat and later Leona gave me a bag to carry it back home in.

Leaving the port I followed the rail tracks to the station to take some photos of it and then on to the other side of the tracks to a small native community. The homes there are very small and it seemed like every household had a least one dog. I didn't remain long as the camera battery was finished by then.

We received another invitation to dinner for this evening from Leona. I could smell the garlic from our room.

The winds are still strong and the sky is overcast so there is no chance again for photos tonight.

Tuesday, January 23, 2001

I started the day by purchasing some postcards and then went on to the Town Centre Complex for breakfast. When I entered the foyer, I had stepped into a grade school class soccer game that was in full progress. Since it was not a regulation size area, they used a smaller soccer ball, but the enthusiasm among those players was identical to the team members in my daughter's soccer team, the Cumberland Cobras.

I completed the correspondence for the post cards and went to the Post Office to mail them. The courteous staff made sure that the cards I mailed had their unique polar bear cancellation stamp on it. They told me that in the summer time there is a long line of tourists who want to ensure their mail receives this cancellation stamp. However since this was January I didn't have to wait long as I was the only one there.

One place I tried to visit was the Parks Canada exhibit which looked very interesting through the glass doors, unfortunately they were closed every time I went there. Leona told me that the staff were probably busy with the renovations at the train station and since they weren't expecting visitors in January they probably thought it was safe to close the office. This is one of the few downsides to visiting in the off season.

One unique situation about Churchill I found is that this town does not have any place to do your laundry. You have to rely at the motel you are staying at and I read that you have to stay at a motel for at least a week before you are able to use their facilities. This was a bit awkward for us as our stay would be for three days only. Fortunately Leona came to our rescue and she let us use the laundry facilities. She had made our trip so special for us that there is no way we can repay her.

When I had finished another lunch of Leona's delicious soup and bannock I decided to brave the elements and return to the port facilities to take additional photos. The Environment Canada weather forecast for January 23 was "Weather warning upgraded to a blizzard warning. Today wind northwest gusting 60 to 80 km/h giving blizzard conditions. Very high wind chill near 2200. Frostbite likely in minutes. Wind diminishing to 40 gusting to 60 km/h this afternoon. Temperatures falling to minus 22 centigrade." With this heartening information I decided to add a sweater to my outfit and keep the camera inside my parka.

When I arrived at the port the wind came from across the river at a high rate. While the temperature didn't seem to be that cold I felt chilled with the wind going through my parka, heavy fisherman knit sweater and a heavy winter shirt. I had the whole place to myself, not another person was around so I was careful not to walk to close to the edge of the dock or else I could have been blown over and down to the ice ten feet below. The ice is about three feet thick, broken and jagged, so it would not have been a comfortable landing. The wind was so strong that it caused the hood of my parka to flap strongly against my face as well as lift the camera lens cover in front of the lens and spoiling some photos.

Returning to town I noticed a freight train bringing a tanker car to a fuel storage tank near the harbour. I returned to the station so that I could take a picture of this train, unfortunately the only photo that came out was a head on of the engine during a white out. I did mange to get a couple of photos of the freight cars including a rail car that looks like a caboose. Its appearance is that of a freight car with a cupola in the middle with a small chimney coming out of the car. Beneath that car there two blades at opposite angles to remove snow from the tracks. I then returned to the motel to finish packing as our train was departing at 8:30 p.m.

Leona prepared a delicious last supper for us of a meat loaf with a secret ingredient which is based on two cloves of garlic per pound of hamburger. She said that when she makes this in the summer time in the restaurant, there is no meat loaf leftovers at lunch time. For this meal she also prepared a special bread with spices which left a bit of a "bite" after eating a slice of it. In addition, she offered some homemade wine her sister made from wild berries, strawberries, raspberries etc. Needless to say a very fruity wine with a clean taste which also packed a punch.

I had by this time given up on trying to get any photographs of the northern light because of the overcast weather we had. Even our last evening the sky was clear but no lights appeared so I packed my camera equipment in my luggage. Leona and Edna drove us to the train station and we checked our luggage for the baggage car. While we were making our long good-byes, Edna went outside for a moment and then returned to inform us that the northern lights were lighting the sky. We quickly went out and there were those mysterious lights I remembered from years ago. The pale light flowing across the sky was so fascinating that everyone stayed out in the cold wind until departure time just so that we could take in as much as possible. Since this was the first time Ray had seen the northern lights, he was so enthralled that his face was very red from the cold after he boarded the train.

Once on board I did not think we would see the northern lights again but Ray noticed them about fifteen minutes later while we were in the dining car. To get a better view we went to the smaller rooms where we could close the door to block out the interior lights so that it wouldn't interfere with our view. Fortunately these northern lights were even more brilliant than the other one and these had more movement across the sky, some of the finest I've seen. Even though it was at the last moment, I was glad that I at least got to see the aura borealis.

It is usually cold and uncomfortable to watch the northern lights since you are outside to do this, however, perhaps there could be a simple solution to this made possible by VIA. If Ray and I had a good view from the window of the rail car then one could have an even better view from a Dome car. All VIA would have to do is park a Dome car at the station or yard and passengers would be able to watch the northern lights all night in comfort. A reason to visit Churchill in the winter.

While Churchill is an interesting place to visit, it was the hospitality shown by Leona Tkachyk, manager of the Churchill Motel, that made it especial. We were made to feel as if we were at home and not staying in a room. The kindness she had shown to us is something that will stay with me for a very long time. A real example of western hospitality. Thank you Leona.

Churchill to Winnipeg

Wednesday, January 24, 2001

After I arose from the pitching bed around 8:30 a.m. I had a breakfast of pancakes and coffee. Afterwards I spent the rest of the morning looking at the passing country side and taking pictures of anything that could be of interest.

We arrived in Thompson around 11:00 a.m. with a stop over of about an hour and a half. I had now taken on the job of noting the names and number of the cars of our train for Ray, so I put on my dark blue parka and went out to execute this duty. While I was performing this duty, a gentleman by the name of Wes Jones, who was very curious as to what I was doing, approached me and asked what I was doing. After all, how many passengers are seen doing this? I explained to him that I was recording these numbers for those train enthusiasts who go on the internet to read When I finally convinced him of this we chatted further about the train we were on. Our train had two engines pulling it, an older Diesel engine from the early fifties up front followed by a modern engine that was only ten years old. He said he could not understand why they would have the older engine up front rather than the newer and more comfortable engine. Then he offered to show me the cab of the new engine which I gladly accepted as I had never been inside a cab of a train engine before. Wes later passed me on to the other engineer by the name of Maurice Watts, who bore a strong resemblance to Bruno in the Popeye movie.

Maurice brought me inside the cab of the older diesel engine and I was able to go from one end of the engine to the other taking photos of the main engine as I moved around inside. Maurice explained the reason why the older engine was in front of the new engine is because the older engine has a satellite phone installed, whereas the new engine had a mobile satellite phone. He told me that to use the mobile unit, the train would have to stopped and the phone unit hooked up.

When we left Thompson it was lunch time and I ordered a Toasted Denver. In the interest of those who are curious, I have copied the lunch menu for you.

Lunch Menu

Toasted Denver $6.50
Tuna Salad Sandwich $6.50
Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato $6.50
Caesar Salad with Chicken $6.50

Beverages - $1.50 each


Fruit salad cup or apple pie $1.95 - with ice cream $2.95

Later the train stopped at Thicket Portage and the village dogs are known to run to the train to get some of the foods scraps that the cook throws to them. Also included in this group were large ravens who were sometimes successful in finding a morsel of food before the dogs found it. After this short intermission we were on our way again and I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the frozen scenery.

For those who are interested, I had written the supper menu as well.

Supper Menu

Prairie Platter $11.00 - farmers sausage, perhogies, vegetables.
Salmon Fillet $11.00 - salmon with vegetables, rice pilaf or whipped potatoes
Pot Roast Dinner $11.00 - roast beef with focaccia bread, vegetables

Dessert menu remains unchanged.

It was evening when we arrived at The Pas for an half hour stop over. I left the train to take photos of the station and area. At a siding were two VIA cars of a much earlier vintage. Unfortunately the digital camera couldn't focus in the darkness so these shots didn't turn out very well. When we departed I read for a while and then retired for the evening.

Thursday, January 25, 2001

I got up at 6:00 a.m. as I wanted to see Gladstone, Manitoba which we were to arrive at 6:17 a.m. My wife has a friend from here and I wanted to be able to tell her that I saw her home town. Unfortunately, it was still dark and I couldn't say for certain what town I saw. Oh well, at least I got to see the prairies which does stretch out flat to the horizon as well as a pretty sunrise. After we had finished our breakfast, we arrived in Winnipeg at 8:30 a.m.

Since our connecting train to Toronto would not depart until noon, we checked our bags at the ticket counter. Ray went to Perolator to send his diskettes and story to trainweb while I went to The Forks Market Place next door. Since I was a little early for the shops, I sat and enjoyed a coffee until Ray caught up with me. We had plenty of time to go through these interesting shops again before catching our train. Outside of this complex are two vintage rail cars and a caboose.

While we were waiting in the station for our boarding time, we noticed two women conversing in French and Ray went over to practice him with them. It turns out that these ladies are cousins, one is Evelyne Egger from Switzerland who was visiting her cousin Alice Dugas from St. Boniface and Alice was seeing her cousin to the train to return home.

Winnipeg to Toronto

When we got on our train and settled in we had a pleasant surprise to meet our friends, Jinny and Lee Sinclair again and this time we were introduced to their son Jonathan. Besides working in the high tech industry, Jonathan also spends time at a theatre group called the Red Herring. I told him I would look at their web site at Also his father, Lee showed me a rail magazine about a large gauge train that he has an interest in. These trains and track are large enough that they are set up outside and I was surprised at the variety to choose from, some types I've never seen before. Both Lee and Jinny are fond of rail travel and based on their experience, they preferred the cuisine and accommodations with VIA than with Amtrak which is why they went to Vancouver.

Going through this part of Ontario I know we will pass through a couple of tunnels so I went forward in the dome car to make sure I was in position to photograph them.

Later that evening I sat at the end of the dome car with two other couples. They were Terry and Eileen Parr from Sault Saint Marie, Ontario and Bill and Sandra Wilson from Vancouver. The Wilsons are originally from Scotland and I had a difficult time convincing them that my name is Robert Burns on this day which was January 25, Robby Burns Day. Our conversation was lively and the laughter ran long into the evening.

Friday, January 26, 2001

I got up early in an attempt to get a photo of a sunrise but the overcast weather defeated me on this so later I went to breakfast with Ray. Our table companions were Bill Rummel from Vancouver and Carl Rabstejnek from Queens in New York city. Both were very knowledgeable about rail travel and Carl had additional experience with Amtrak. When Ray explained the purpose of his trip, Carl became more open about his views of what can be improved with Amtrak. He also voiced his opinion that VIA had much better meals and service than their competitor south of the border.

Since this part of Ontario was dark on the way to Winnipeg, I decided to stay in the observation part of the dome car and see what I missed the first time. One impression you get is that very few people live out here, you can travel miles before seeing some homes, or were they cottages.

Our lunch guests were our friends Jinny and Lee Sinclair, since we had inadvertently taken their son's seat, he was then obligated to sit at the next table besides a couple of young ladies. Later I kept company with the Sinclairs in the dome car and I discovered that Jonathan had a well developed sense of humour.

When the train stopped at Capreol for a crew change I went out to record the car numbers as well as take some photos. While taking pictures of the engine, specifically the serial numbers, the Engineer came along and we started chatting about trains. After a while he invited me into the cab of the engine where he explained the controls and layout of the different electrical panels. He also pointed out an important safety device, the wheel bearing monitor, and how it operated. With the departure time approaching we had to cut it short and I thanked the Engineer for the tour. As the train was leaving the station I took a photo of Terry and Eileen Parr in the parking lot. They had gotten off the train to drive to their hometown of Sault St. Marie as there is no longer any rail service there.

A short time later the twin super stacks of Sudbury came into view. The station there is not as impressive as these stacks are and the infamous moon like landscape was absent for the blanket of snow that covered it.

The remainder of the trip seemed to have one town blend into the next until we reached Toronto. It looked very pretty passing through the snow belt in the Parry Sound area, the trees still had a thick covering of snow on them.

For supper and I thought I would be adventurous and order the Jerk Chicken with spaetzle dumplings. The spice of this chicken was delicious, however, I was not familiar with the green dumplings. Oh well, something new to try. Our dinner guests were a couple returning to London, Ontario after visiting Vancouver. The gentlemen is a retired railway man and had worked at a small rail company that operated in the Windsor area moving products from the ships. Meeting such charming people certainly adds to the enjoyment of rail travel.

Having finished our supper at the first sitting allowed us sufficient time to prepare our bags at a leisurely pace. That is one thing I noticed about rail travel, you are not rushing from one thing to another, you have time to do things. Upon our arrival at the station, we collected our bags as we were leaving the car and followed the crowd inside. After picking up our luggage in the luggage area, we went straight to the hotel were we contacted our families again.

Saturday, January 27, 2001

Slept in this morning and then took a relaxing shower. Took our time getting ready and then we went down to check out. I was anticipating a large crowd but was surprised to find none and the checkout went very quickly. Arriving at the station by taxi we went straight to the lounge and relaxed with a newspaper. I did have difficulty understanding the train announcements over the loud speaker due to the heavy accent, I ended up asking the service rep which train was leaving.

On boarding the train, we stowed our luggage and went to our pre assigned seats. The first class car is very comfortable and quite. After the refreshment cart had passed, the menu were circulated to the passengers and our orders was taken. We had decided to have Chateaubriand with vegetable Bouquetiere served with Béarnaise and Burgundy wine sauce. Dessert was Chocolate Orange cake. Red wine was also served with the meal. The meal was as good as the service and coupled this with the smooth ride, it made for a very pleasant way to travel to Ottawa.

The last passengers we met was a charming couple returning to Ottawa from Vancouver. Mr. And Mrs. Eddie and Frankie St. John who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and were now returning to their home in Kanata. Due to the distance they would have to travel from the train station to home, they mentioned that there was talk of having a small train stop in the west end of Ottawa for those people that live there. This seems like a reasonably proposition.

We finally reach the station and we collect our luggage and stepped down onto the platform. I took the numbers of the rail cars for Ray for the last time as well as a couple of photos before entering the station. It was a happy reunion with the family again after two weeks and it felt good to be back home again.

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