Lorraine's Rail Trip to Churchill
AURORA BOREALIS, FUR WHEEL DRIVE AND ICE CREAM HEADACHES
A NORTHERN EXPERIENCE
Churchill Manitoba is located on the northwest shore of Hudson Bay, at the mouth of the Churchill River, almost one thousand kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. There are no roads leading into the town; it is accessible by air and rail only. The name congers up images of isolation, white silence, windswept snowscapes, stinging cold, and the Hudson Bay Company. In grade school geography classes, Churchill was always the place "up there" with a port from which grain was shipped.
For the past few weeks I had packed, then unpacked then added what I thought would be appropriate and useful apparel. My large suitcase would hold clothing not required until we were in Churchill, so it would travel in the baggage car. After our trip out west this past summer, I vowed to pack much lighter in future, but this was winter, and our winter weather required heavier clothing plus ski pants, snow boots, scarves, mitts, and long johns, justifying the extra suitcase. Another dilemma faced was whether or not to pack "gravol". Ray from the "Trainweb" office had warned us that the section from The Pas to Churchill was very rough and rocky. Sleeping at night was compared to being tossed on the high seas. As a youngster I always became violently ill when traveling by car, bus, or boat. Even with a teeter-totter I had nasty results. The only mode of transportation comfortably tolerated was the streetcar, hence the reason we first tried out the train, then continued to use for holidays. Vivid memories of sitting in the back seat of our car, holding onto a brown paper bag, feeling miserable and wishing I were anywhere else in the world came to mind. Also etched in my memory was the whining of my siblings, complaining of having to sit next to me. In most families the complaining starts when a child says " I sat in the middle last time", in our family of four children, it started with "I sat beside her last time". Always the leper.
My two traveling companions on this adventure were Laurie Irving and Darlene Banning, and we would all be leaving early Saturday morning on the Renaissance overnight train. Unfortunately, this train stops in Brockville at the atypical hour of 2:07 a.m. and continues on to Kingston where it stops on a siding until 6:00 a.m. then continues on to arrive in Toronto at 8:00 a.m. The overnight train caters to the business sector, making it possible to arrive in either Montreal or Toronto at the start of the working day refreshed after a night's rest, and morning shower. A continental breakfast is served to those who have booked sleeping accommodations, and of course the coffeepot is always on.
Friday, Dec. 27, 2002
Laurie arrived at my home around 9:00 p.m. the night before departure. We both felt it would be wiser to stay awake until our departure for the train station. Darlene, meanwhile, decided to sleep a few hours, then she and her husband Ken would pick us up at 1:15 a.m. for the drive to the station. My husband, Doug, kept us company making sure we didn't fall asleep at the last hour. Working a jigsaw puzzle sharpened our minds and kept us alert, but the excitement was building and thoughts ran to the adventure that lay ahead.
Saturday, Dec. 28th, 2002
At the sound of our "taxi" we said our good-byes to Doug and were out the door and into the vehicle in record time. A short fifteen-minute ride to the station, and we met Christina who opened up the station for anyone taking the train at uncommon hours. She was kind enough to take a picture of the three of us, and when the Montreal-Toronto train #51 arrived, Christina helped us manhandle our luggage to our car which was near the end of the train set. In short order we were settled in our rooms. A few pictures were taken, but it was after 2:00 a.m. and people were sleeping, so could not get the different car numbers. An hour later when we parked in Kingston I was still awake, as was I at 4:00 a.m. but sometime between 4:00 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. I managed to nod off.
When awakened at 5:30 a.m. I decided to just start my day. I washed up
and brushed my teeth then picked up a continental breakfast tray on my
way to the service car. Darlene followed shortly so we ate together.
Laurie joined us at 6:45 a.m. and the service car was starting to get
busy. We gave our seat to a young family from London, Ontario who were
returning home from the Christmas holiday in Montreal. Gracie and
Keegan were the children, and the relaxed looking parents said both
children had slept well.
The train pulled into the station around 8:20 a.m. and a most pleasant
sight awaited us. The "Canadian" was on the next track so there would
be no jostling in the station. We could board directly from the
Renaissance. Our car attendant, Berris, took our luggage and showed
Darlene and Laurie to their single compartments, while I went forward to
the berth section. Berris took my large suitcase to the vestibule and
said that he would ticket it through to Winnipeg on the baggage car for
me. The "Silver and Blue" service had begun. The "Canadian train #1"
We had to walk two cars back to the diner, then four back to the Park Car. I would rather have my berth on the car between the diner and Park car so that I wouldn't have to pass through the diner when I had to retrieve something from my berth. Sometimes the camera battery would die and need re-charging, or requiring more film would have me walking through the diner during a meal seating. The servers had a hard enough time working in a confined space without someone else traipsing through, but they never made you feel like you were intruding.
The dining and Park car looked very festive decked out in cedar boughs and holly berries. Compliments to the decorating committee. The bullet lounge was full, but I managed a seat in the dome section. Mona and Tony were the Park car attendants. Mona welcomed all and explained some of the features on board. She reminded everyone to go to the diner and reserve meal seating times, and also explained that all staff on board were there to help in any way, and not to hesitate if you had a question.
The train departed Toronto at 9:04 a.m. The adventure had begun; we were on our way "up there". It was fun watching other people's faces knowing this was an adventure for them also. A young mother with three sons, sitting across the aisle, was moving to Vancouver. What a wonderful experience for these young lads to see their country first hand. They were Chris, Taylor, and Levis with mother Giselle. I left the dome to free up a seat and enjoyed a coffee while sitting in the lower bullet section. Darlene and Laurie were enjoying the scenery in the dome section after putting away luggage in their rooms. I'll have to stay on their good side if I wish to use the outlets in their rooms for my hairdryer, and most important, the battery charger.
There was a good-sized bathroom/powder room on each car strategically placed closest to the berth section. There were six berths on each sleeper car and all those passengers shared the bathroom. The single roomettes, double, and triple bedrooms each had a private toilet. I met my upper berth mate. She was originally from China and is now a student at the University of Alberta. Her name is Margaret Gege and she was on her way back to Edmonton after a holiday in Quebec City. Margaret loved the city and indicated she would like to visit again. I suggested that Quebec City would be beautiful in the fall.
Across the aisle sat Val and Russ Nielsen. They were from Las Vegas and this was there first train adventure, a round trip from Vancouver, so they were on the return leg of their journey. "Very enjoyable and relaxing" said Val "the first night we found it hard to sleep, but sleeping gets better and better". Russ said that he "always looked forward to the next meal". There were no complaints there, and both mentioned the people-friendly personnel on the train. Darlene and Laurie appeared to announce first call for dinner. For lunch today I chose the soup of the day, which was a most delicious cream of cauliflower, followed by the chef special; a tomato pasta dish with spicy sausage focaccia bread, potato salad and melon wedge. Apple crumble with ice cream and a cup of coffee completed a very satisfying meal.
Back at my seat Margaret was napping. The bench seats were comfortable and I was looking forward to my first experience of sleeping in a berth. During the day my overnight bag fit nicely under the seat, and a pillow was provided for our comfort. Val and Russ had a table set up to use for card and board games they brought along.
I sat quietly taking a few pictures of the passing countryside. Berris came byand we asked him about different cities along the way. He disappeared and returned with a map and a booklet for each of us, then proceeded to give us a geography lesson. He knows this route well. We were approaching Sudbury and I noticed many trees growing in this once barren area. They are sparse and smaller, but they are coming back. Years ago the nickle smelters were ordered to reduce the polluting emissions, and when they complied, wonder of wonders, the vegetation began to re-appear.
We arrived at the Capreol Station about 4:20 p.m. and detrained for fifteen minutes to take pictures and enjoy the fresh air. Back on board we walked through the diner, which was set up for the evening meal. The tables and chairs which were now draped in dark blue linen made a formal yet inviting backdrop for the gleaming white china and lit candles surrounded by holly-berry clusters.
We had enough time to wash up and be back at the diner for first seating. Our dinner mate this evening was a woman with a Welsh Gaelic name, Myfnwyfn Humeniuk (yes folks, this spelling is correct) or Mya for short. She was on her way home to Vancouver, and made a delightful dinner mate. Her sense of fun and adventure was most entertaining, and I have no record of my dinner, but rest assured whatever I had was good. It was Mya's fault for distracting us.
We retired early that evening. It had been a long day for all of us. The girls went off to their rooms, and I asked Berris if he would make up the bed when he had a chance. These berths have to be the most comfortable beds on the train. (excluding the Romance by Rail king size bed) It felt so roomy and just plain comfortable. A fair sized ledge at the foot of the bed was roomy enough to store articles and there was a reading light and a vent to control airflow. Being on the lower berth, I had the luxury of a big picture window in my room and when the heavy curtains were snapped closed I felt like I was in my own little cabana. This bed was obviously wider than any of the ones in the rooms. I fumbled for my tape measure and measured the width at 35 inches, impressive compared to the Renaissance with a 27-inch wide mattress. Now it was time for slumber. I closed the curtain, lay back on the bed and felt the motion of the train. Sleep came swiftly. I briefly awoke thinking it was early morning. A check of my watch revealed 11:15 p.m. sleep washed over me again.
Sunday Dec. 29th, 2002
I awoke at 5:10 a.m., 4:10 a.m. Manitoba time. First in the shower and as I was getting dressed realized that I could not dry my hair. There were no outlets in the berth. Oh well, I'd just have to wait for the girls to get up. It was pitch black outside so I decided to go to the Park Car and maybe get a drink and watch the sunrise. The vestibules between cars had quite a dusting of snow in them leading me to believe it must have stormed during the night. Elaine arrived shortly after and we sat and talked in the quiet of early morning. Elaine lives in San Diego, but has a house in Vancouver, and we talked of family and travel. We thought we could get a better picture of the light the engine cast when cutting through the darkness, from the forward dome car. We skulked forward but when we reached the car, the dome light was on making picture taking impossible. What we did acquire though was a voracious appetite from the aroma of bacon frying on the griddle in the kitchen of this dome car. We hustled back to our diner and on the way met Mya who told us that her crepes were so light she had to anchor them. What a tease she was. Old fashion oatmeal porridge with a smattering of flaxseed, toast and coffee, and lively conversation was the perfect start to the day. The young family moving to Vancouver sat at the table beside us. I'm sure Giselle had her hands full with three boys under her wing, but they were all well-behaved typical boys and everyone on board was enjoying their youth and exuberance.
In the dome car I took a few pictures but it was still too dark for clear picture taking. We were in Sioux Lookout just past nine. Back at my seat, Val and Russ asked if Margaret and myself would like to join them in a card game, but neither of us were very good at card games. We talked of life in Las Vegas, and how they decided a few years ago to take some time away from the busy real estate business they own and maybe smell the roses a bit. They have taken numerous small get away trips, but both agreed they couldn't do it if it weren't for the super staff left in charge of the office.
For lunch today I had chicken soup entree with crackers and a roll, then a Caesar salad with the Bison burger. The bison burger tastes much like hamburger only leaner. For dessert it was that famous orange cake I raved about on my last trip. Darlene and Laurie both tried it and they admitted that it was the best orange cake they had ever eaten. In the dome car after lunch we enjoyed the most beautiful winter wonderland. Fir tree branches laden with dollops of heavy white snow, all standing untouched and unsoiled. You could actually see deeper into the woods now that the leaves had fallen from the deciduous trees, and houses hidden in the summertime by the thick foliage were now exposed. We slowed down for a freight train that would pass us very slowly. Someone decided to wave to the engineer so I could get a picture of him waving back. Everyone in the dome car was now waving, and of course they gave us a big grin and waved back. (C.N. engine number 2590)
I decided to return to my seat to pack my bag and double check my tickets as we would be arriving in Winnipeg after three and time can creep up on you. Margaret was napping but awoke when Val, Russ and I started to chat. Margaret told us about train travel in the Orient, quite different from here. A couple of attendants passed through and stopped to chat and share some amusing stories. It is not unusual for the Via personnel to share a moment and inquire how it's going. Laurie came by to join us. It was quite stormy now with lots of blowing snow and dark, grey skies. The train had just started up again after a few people detrained in Elma when Laurie noticed an arctic hare running on a pathway beside the track (Leave it to Laurie to notice a white bunny running in the snow). As the train sped up so did the hare. I had never seen a hare run all out, but this one kept glancing at the train and adjusting his speed accordingly. He was actually pulling ahead when he noticed a snowmobile coming toward him on the same path. We all held our breath but at the last possible second he darted to the left. Ahh success......another train run out of town.
I said my good-byes to Brenda, Val and Russ, and wanted to say thanks to Berris for the great service. He was already busy taking suitcases to the vestibule, but stopped for a moment and said he had enjoyed the trip too. The train pulled into the station around 3:30 p.m. We detrained and checked our bags with the girls at the Via counter to be picked up before we boarded our next train at 8:30 p.m. We went to the "Forks Mall" just outside the Via Station and for the next few hours checked out all the little boutiques. We went for dinner at a restaurant across from the mall and enjoyed watching the skaters on the outdoor skating rink while eating our dinner. We were all tired and Darlene suggested we go back to the station, retrieve our luggage and relax in the lounge area.
We decided to take all our luggage on board because our snow-pants, boots, heavy mitts and clothing were in our larger cases. We took some pictures of the station, then relaxed on a bench and that's when we met Mary Fisher from Kamsack, Saskatchewan. She was on her way home from a Christmas visit to her son's place in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and now he must begin the drive back, so we asked Mary to join us. She told us that years ago, Kamsack was a booming town with their own fair sized stone train station. Unfortunately the station was closed and moved out of town. They do have an agent though, but no station to wait in. They stay in their cars until the train comes; hoping it will be on time. Unfortunately the train stopped at 1:15 a.m. The closest the train comes to Thunder Bay is Winnipeg, which means an eight-hour drive by her son to pick her up, then the return eight-hour journey back to Thunder Bay. Such is progress.
Announcements were made at 8:00 p.m. for boarding to Churchill. Up the escalator we went and a short walk down the platform to be greeted by Carmelle at the train. She directed us to the correct car and Brad grabbed our large suitcases and jostled them to our double room. He chuckled and said that there was no room at the inn but not to worry, he would think of something. He returned and went through the safety procedures of this train, and also talked (this was a first) about the Norwalk virus and the importance of clean hands to prevent its spread. This virus has made an appearance in Brockville closing visitation to a few of our Nursing homes, and almost emptied some of the schools. So a reminder was in order, even though on holidays, not to let your guard down.
Brad found a spot for our cumbersome large suitcases. He went out of his way to find a solution and it was much appreciated. It would have been a cramped, uncomfortable situation for the two nights, and Darlene and I made a vow that we would never again bring a large suitcase with us, we would make do with a carry on, or do without. We went to the diner to relax and have a soda to unwind. All three of us were exhausted so went straight to bed.
Consist train # 693 to Churchill
Monday, Dec. 30th, 2002
I awoke with a start at 8:10 a.m. and raced to the shower. Darlene followed and halfway through her shower Carmelle was announcing last call for breakfast. I met Laurie, who looked fresh as a daisy, on the way to the diner. She had already eaten so I proceeded to the diner and ordered oatmeal porridge for both Darlene and myself, toast and coffee. Luckily for us there is no dress code in the diner, our hair was still wet as we ate breakfast. We both commented, though, that we just had our best sleep ever on a train, neither of us had awakened during the night. We wondered if anyone had seen Mary detrain in the wee morning hours? Laurie mentioned that she awoke just as the train pulled into Kamsack. She described it much like a scene from an old movie. Through the blizzard you could make out the lights of a waiting car. The staff was helping her detrain, when someone walked, braced against the wind and ploughing through the drifts from the car to greet her. We were relieved that someone was waiting for her.
We were joined at the table by Donalda Whetter from Hartney, Manitoba who was on her way to Thompson, Manitoba to visit her daughter. Sitting with Donalda was like sitting with every grandmother in the world rolled into one. Stories of her farm and the historical significance of her land were truly spellbinding. She told us she was eighty four, travels by herself, and tries to reassure her family that she is O.K. Donalda feels very secure travelling by train because she knows she is "well looked after by this staff".
Carmelle announced that we would arrive in The Pas (pronounced paw) in fifteen minutes at 9:50 a.m.. "Dress warm".
We scrambled to find our boots and warm clothing and barely made it when the train stopped. We detrained into The Pas winter wonderland. It was great to walk in snow up to our knees and breathe such clean, exhilarating air. We all agreed that we have not seen snow like this in twenty years, and it was all we could do to stop ourselves from making snow angels. This was my first chance to take pictures of our train, and a few others in the yard. I was keeping an eye out for a train engineer we had met on the train this past summer. The Trainweb office asked me to look up two people when I was up here and say "hi" for them. Moe Watts runs the train from The Pas to Churchill, and the other person is Leona, who worked at the Churchill Motel. Both people left a lasting impression on Ray and Robert on their trip to Churchill a few years earlier.
We boarded and the train pulled out of The Pas station about 10:15 a.m. I inquired and was told that Moe was not on this train. Perhaps he will be part of the crew on the return trip. Darlene and I met Moe and Diane Watts this past summer when we were on the "Canadian" to Vancouver. They were returning from holidays in the Maritimes and somewhere between Toronto and Winnipeg we met them in the Park car. Robert and Ray remembered Moe from a trip they had taken to Churchill a few years ago and were impressed by his straightforward manner. We were most curious to ask him about train whistles and how effective they were in safety issues. There is a group of people in our community who hate the sound of whistles and have formed a committee to have all train whistles ceased in that area. They built their houses near the tracks and now say the whistles are affecting their quality of life. Of course, Darlene and I think the whistle is a safety feature and should remain. Moe talked both sides of the coin but his concern for safety came through loud and clear. When others in the Park car realized he was an engineer on a train they swamped him with questions about anything train related and I was impressed by his patience as he fielded the variety of topics.
Nancy and Dave, who live and work in Churchill, were a fount of information about the town. They were able to tell me where Leona now works, mentioned various eating establishments and gave us the name of someone who had dogsleds. One of our goals was to go on a dogsled ride.
Carmelle told us the train stopped in the middle of the intersection while people embarked and if I hurried there was a stop coming up shortly where pictures could be taken of them boarding. The train stopped and there they were standing at the flashing red light. I was impressed by Carmelle's genuine interest in the people of this area. She called most by name and the respect was mutual. Brad came by to say that he changed our room around and we could use it to write during the day. When we looked, he had taken the divider between the rooms out and had set up a table for our use. This was absolutely perfect!! He must have noticed our struggle with note taking and thought this would help. Brad would return it back to normal after dinner. Did I mention that Brad was also the cook? Also on board was Gary who worked the night shift. Someone is always on duty on these trains.
The train stopped periodically to pick up or let off a passenger or two. There was a lot of running back and forth by the staff. At Wekusco the train stopped to take on a snowmobile that was pushed up a ramp into baggage because the gas tank must be empty while on board.
We went for lunch at 12:30, there were two meal settings on this train. The menu was limited but the choices were good. Carmelle was about to write our lunch order when she plopped the pad down and said "I'll be back in a minute". She raced forward three cars then whipped open the baggage car door to receive a parcel, slammed the door shut (I took a picture of her) then ran back three cars, picked up the pad to continue on with our order. We couldn't help but laugh and when she thought about it, joined in with us. All of the staff wore many hats. I had the cheeseburger with fried onion, tomato and lettuce, with orange and melon slice dill pickle and potato chips on the side. It was a first-rate good-sized cheeseburger and piping hot, just the way I like it, but I was too full for dessert.
As we were enjoying our coffee, Brad came out of the kitchen to see if we were satisfied with lunch. Talk turned to this train run. The slight tension (for lack of a better word) we felt when we boarded had dissipated and we talked and laughed as if we were family. They both loved this run and one can see why. There is something to be said about knowing the riders on your train, and sharing the happy and sad which is part of all of our lives. We stopped in Wabowden and watched as people left the train and raced to the bank machine at a local store. They were withdrawing money to pay for their train ticket, as there is no ticket agent where they board.
We retired to our "deluxe bedroom" to catch up on note taking and to enjoy the beautiful scenery. It was like viewing a live Christmas card. Every once in a while we encountered squalls but that was part of the excitement as we were toasty warm and safely sequestered on this train. We again talked with Donalda and were told about her beautiful granddaughter, Catherine. She gave us her address and phone number and we were instructed to visit anytime. We would always be welcome she said. The train to Thompson was running a bit late but Donalda was certain her family would be waiting when we pulled in. We arrived in Thompson at 5:00 p.m. We detrained and walked with Donalda to the parking lot as her son in-law and granddaughter were walking out to greet her. Introductions were made and she gave each of us a good-by hug with a reminder about visiting.
The weather in Thompson was nippy on the cheek, but the fresh air was invigorating. We went into the station to look around and I noticed our train had backed up to hook up a few freight cars. We met Hailey in the station with her mom, Echo, who would be taking the train home to Churchill after spending Christmas in Calgary. Echo told us that not much would be open in Churchill and offered us her phone number if we ran into any problem.
At six we boarded the train, stored our coats, washed up and headed for the diner. This train was called the "Hudson Bay", while in summertime they use a different train set and it is called the "Northern Spirit". I guess the summer train is no match for the winter weather.
For dinner tonight I enjoyed a crisp chef salad with roll, succulent haddock, whipped potatoes, a mixture of green and yellow beans with baby carrots, a wedge of lemon, slice of tomato and cucumber. The meal was "fabulous". The dishes were cleared and Carmelle returned with a surprise dessert for us. It was one she had made and brought on board as a special treat for the staff. The fact they included us made it extra special. It was one of those creamy, chocolaty, decadent, "full of calories" dessert. Very thoughtful and much appreciated. As we left the diner we stuck our head into the kitchen to compliment Brad on the delicious meal, and he said that he would be down in a little while to fix up the beds.
We all retired to our "drawing room" to finish up our notes when Laurie was hit by a snickle, which then gave us the snickers. Before long we had the giggles, on to the guffaws and right through to howling. I don't know what it was with that northern air, but after laughing for so long it felt like a good workout.
Laurie returned to her berth about 9:30 p.m., to read a bit before turning in. Soon after Brad arrived to fix up the room and Darlene and I weren't long hitting the sack. This train would arrive in Churchill at 8:30 a.m. and none of us wanted to sleep in like we had this morning. Before going to sleep I lifted the blind a bit and squinted into the night. Pleasant thoughts of the day made me realize that these employees really were the heart and soul of a train.
Tuesday, Dec. 31st, 2002
Awoke at 5:00 a.m. and could have fallen back to sleep but decided to get to the showers first. A quick peek outside revealed nothing. Because of the early hour I decided to take my time and make sure my hair was good and dry. There were only three other diners this morning. I'm sure many of the locals will wait until they get home to enjoy their breakfast. My usual hot porridge and toast and of course fresh coffee was a great start to the day.
Leaving Darlene and Laurie, I returned to the room to tidy up the last few things. I wanted to take a few pictures when I detrained, so wore my snow-pants. It was only 7:30 a.m. In the distant sky a sliver of moon shone bright in the darkness and a light hue of pink outlined the horizon. It reminded me of being in Perce, Quebec, standing on the beach, waiting for sunrise.
We were dressed, waiting for the train to pull into the station. It was 8:30 a.m. Brad had already taken our bags to the rear of the car and produced three bagged lunches for us. We were warned that nothing would be open when we arrived. Carmelle was sweeping the foyer of snow. We thanked them for "above and beyond" service. It had been a wonderful ride, and now we were actually "up there".
It was still too dark for picture taking but I tried to take a few. We retrieved our baggage and met Fred, a local tour guide, who said he would drive us to our hotel, "The Northern Nights Lodge". He gave us a bit of a tour, pointing out local landmarks along the way, but we were eager to check in and unpack. Check in was fast. "Oh you're the three, here's your keys, most stores close at 4:00 p.m."
Laurie and I shared a large room with two queen beds and Darlene had a king sized bed in her room. Everything was in order so we went down to the lobby to see the owner, Dave, who was looking outside and remarking that his dogs weren't usually too friendly with people. He seemed amazed that Laurie was petting them. But then Laurie has a tender spot for animals which is evident when you see her handling them on her farm.
We sauntered on down the street and came to the Arctic Trading Company. What attracted us was a little husky puppy dog chained outside yipping and yapping for attention. We could not resist the jumping ball of fur so we lavished a good helping of ear and back scratching his way. We managed to slither into the store leaving the pup outside, but we could still hear his little howls of protest at being left behind.
This store was truly amazing. The first thing we noticed was a wood burning stove with a few chairs around. It was crammed full of top quality merchandise, much of it one of a kind. One section held beautiful carvings of animals in all sizes. The clothing area displayed stunning hand made coats with fur trim and matching fur hats. The elaborate beadwork on the boots and mitts was dazzling. One particularly colourful Inuit coat adorned with trim and beadwork was truly a work of art. There were the usual stuffed animals and Churchill T-shirts for sale but they were all good quality items.
A little further down the road we entered another gift shop. This one had a first-class selection of books about the north, for all ages, a good supply of native artwork, prints, carvings and native handiwork. Because this would be the only day for shopping we had to do a less than thorough search of each establishment we entered. The Great White Bear store where Leona now worked was closed as were others getting ready for the New Years celebration.
We came upon Gypsey's Bakers and ventured in. We had heard much about this establishment and decided a coffee and donut break was in order. They had a nice selection of pastries and cookies, and we were not disappointed with our selections.
While enjoying our coffee we saw Echo with a couple of friends catching up on the latest, and she introduced us to Val, whose husband Dave was a musher. She told us her husband would be running the dogs that afternoon so we made arrangements to meet at 1:00 p.m. It was perfect weather she said sunny and only -25 degrees.
We continued on our tour all the while returning the waves from different town folk. One of the people who waved was Nancy, from the train, obviously on her way to work. We passed the Eskimo Museum and knew we would have to come back. In a little jewellery shop I purchased a silver serving spoon and talked to the proprietor about life in Churchill. Our next stop was the local Home Hardware Store where the staff gave us a free calendar. Good, I have Doug's souvenir out of the way.
One o'clock was approaching so we walked to Val's store, a beautiful log constructed site, which was so cozy and inviting. While we waited, we met their youngest son, Wyatt, a real charmer of six years. Presently Dave arrived and we boarded the bus he uses to transport customers to his dogs out in the country. Along the way he told of his bear encounters. It seems everyone has a bear story or two. I also learned of the "five-second rule" from Wyatt and his friend George. "If you drop your treat on the floor and you can pick it up before you count to five, and blow on it, it's o.k. to eat it." That in a nutshell was the "five-second rule."
It seemed like bedlam when we arrived at his dog camp. Each dog was tethered to his own dog house, and the barking and yipping and vying for attention began when the bus came into view. The dogs were chosen then hitched to the harness and Darlene and I were told to watch for the sled, then get into it while he was attaching the last dog. I believe there were seven dogs in total. I was curious and asked him what to do if we were out on the run and he fell off, would the dogs go forever? He said they would stop and return. While he was hitching up a dog, the ones already hitched were straining at the bit, yelping and pulling. He actually used an anchor until he finished. It reminded me of horses at the post, and you could feel the horsepower er dog power. When Dave gave the signal to mush, all yelping ceased, they pulled together as one and ran their hearts out. I was surprised how readily they obeyed his commands of "gee" and "haw". Dave called this his "Fur wheel drive".
The ride was slick, fast-paced exhilaration. I was Sergeant Preston of the Mounties racing across the frozen tundra with my faithful dogs. Over and over my thoughts replayed "I can't believe I'm on a dog sled up here". The digital camera must be kept under my parka in this cold climate making it awkward unzipping then zipping it up again to take a picture, but I did manage to take a few pictures of doggie bums. We were on the return leg of our run with no let up from the dogs, if anything they seemed to be running faster. We weren't cold at all on the ride as Dave had supplied extra thick covers and we were both wearing balaclavas, but I was starting to get an "ice-cream" headache and would recommend a scarf around the forehead for anyone taking a ride. When the dogs reached camp we got out as quickly as possible so the next two who were waiting could jump in, get settled, and be on their way. Laurie told me later that when we got off the sled we were both grinning from ear to ear.
We waited in the bus while Laurie was on her run. We knew she would be using all of her senses, savouring every moment of the ride. When the dogs returned, there was Laurie riding the sled runners with Dave, so she will have bragging rights over us, as she was a musher for part of her ride. When the dogs stopped she just stood motionless for a full two minutes, reliving her adventure, then a smile broke from ear to ear. She helped Dave un-harness the dogs, while Wyatt and George crawled into one of the doghouses and brought out a beautiful little puppy for us to hold. It was about this time Darlene and Laurie started calling me racoon, because of the fur trim on my parka, I surmised. They continued the rest of the afternoon and only when we were back at the lodge did I find out why. Another must to wear on a dog sled ride is waterproof mascara.
On the bus back to town we all agreed that this would end up being the highlight of our trip to Churchill.
Dave dropped us off at the Eskimo Museum where we only had fifteen minutes until they closed. All three of us are history buffs and we tried to act like sponges but knew we could never even scratch the surface of this treasure. One could sense the displays were a labour of love and a wonderful testament to the people who had the foresight to collect the artefacts and use them to tell an important story. While not large in size, it was full of Inuit carvings and "one of a kind never to be seen anywhere else" items.
While we all agreed the highlight in Churchill would be the dog sled ride, we also recognized that not having more time at the Eskimo Museum would be our biggest disappointment.
Just before leaving two of us purchased a book published by the Churchill Ladies Club. It was titled ..."Through the years Churchill, North of 58." Later that night, while browsing through them, we decided we would donate one to the little library in our small community. This book would be a wonderful addition, because after all, history is meant to be shared.
On the way back to the lodge we stopped at Gypseys and bought a few pastry treats then on to the grocery mart to pick up supplies to get us over the holiday. An email received before our departure stated the lodge's dining room and all stores in Churchill would be closed for New Years eve and day. We had no refrigeration in our rooms so we were limited in what we could purchase. Rye bread, peanut butter, bananas, apples, milk, orange juice, chips, chips, chips, candies and cookies. Never shop when hungry.
The grocery store was bursting with last minute shoppers and it seemed that everyone was talking about what party they would be attending that evening. We didn't care, we planned to celebrate by standing outside at midnight under the northern lights. Top that. After unloading the groceries, I went downstairs and inquired of Dave, if there was any refrigeration we could use for our milk and juice. "In the dining room use the coolers or refrigerator in the kitchen, all of you just help yourself to anything you want", he replied as he walked out of the lodge holding two large bags of ice, and a "let's party" kinda grin.
Back at the room we opened the bagged lunch handed to us when we left the train. Other than the coffee and donut we had at 10:30 this morning this was the first food since breakfast. Brad, we just wanted you to know it was the best ham, salami, lettuce, cheese and tomato on brown that we'd ever eaten. The bottled water and chocolate was a nice treat too.
We got dressed at 6:00 p.m. and went out for an hours' tour of the town. Everything was closed and the streets were deserted, but we had a better understanding of the town's layout and a few places we would like to take pictures of tomorrow. Our faces felt a bit nippy, but the rest of us was warm.
We blew up some balloons in preparation for our midnight merriment and watched t.v. while snacking on munchies. By nine o'clock it was obvious the two Laurie's had reached their limit and would not see midnight. Darlene promised, if she were awake, to phone my Doug and wish him a Happy New Years Eve greeting from me, something we had pre-arranged. He would understand.
I remember opening the window a bit before snuggling down into the bed. Then absolutely nothing, just blackness and void until we were awakened from a deep sleep by pounding at the door. In the confusion of being roused from a comatose state and blinded by lack of contact lenses, I plummeted over an unseen suitcase to the door.
Pounding like that could only mean one thing.... Fire......or Darlene. "Get up, one minute till midnight" she exclaimed as she threw balloons in our faces. Did I mention deep sleep? Through the opened window we heard the revellers shouting holiday greetings, and the sound of fireworks exploding into the night. A police cruiser slowly made its rounds.
Wednesday, January 1st, 2003
Awoke at 8:00 a.m. this first day of 2003 and took a shower. I went across the hall to the laundry room and did a few loads of washing. I wandered downstairs and looked around. They have a beautiful hot tub and a sauna room. But we didn't come this far north to have a sauna. The kitchen and dining room were empty so I returned to my room to hear Laurie in the shower and Darlene coming down the hallway for breakfast. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of peanut butter on rye with orange juice. In no time at all we were dressed and ready to start the day with a stroll. Laurie and I like a cup of coffee to start the day and even though it was late morning we still had a thirst for a fresh cup of java.
Our first stop was the train station. Surely they would have fresh coffee but, alas, they were closed up tight. We followed the road towards the harbour but a sign warned "private property" so we ventured no further.
We came across a monument dedicated to the men who died during the construction of the railway to Churchill. The four plaques, one on each side of the monument, contained verses from Rudyard Kiplings' famous poem "The Sons of Martha". This poem, written in the early part of the twentieth century by Kipling, dramatically describes the great responsibilities of engineers.
We cut across the field to look at Hudson Bay; huge crushed piles of ice lined the shore and had frozen into a solid wall as far as the eye could see. From there we traversed along Main Street and were wished a Happy New Year by every passer-by.
Coming upon a little church, which we thought might be open and have a pot on, we opened the door and ventured in, encouraged by a sign on the inner door that said "welcome". It was a beautiful little church (St. Paul's Anglican Church) with the most precious stain glass windows. We took the liberty of looking at the photo album and pictures on the wall, all the while feeling grateful for the warmth the church provided. We signed the guest book before leaving, feeling humbled at how a little church could welcome strangers not with words but rather an open door, something not seen for many years in larger communities.
It was time to return to the lodge for lunch. On the way we met Dany who wished us Happy New Year so we stopped to talk for a while. "So you're the visitors to Churchill". She asked what we had seen and, like everyone else, remarked that our timing was off, and almost everything had shut down. She did not understand that for us simply being "up here" was a thrill.
We dined on peanut butter and banana sandwiches with apples and cookies for dessert, and watched some children sledding down a hill behind our lodge. It was almost 3:00 p.m. and the sun was starting to set. Again we dressed thinking maybe we should go to the local R.C.M.P. office, introduce ourselves and inquire if it had been a quiet New Years Eve, and if by chance they had any coffee. We shuffled on down the street to the police headquarters and found Corporal Peggy Fournier on duty. She explained that it had been busy with two people away on holidays. The two remaining officers had been working many extra shifts. New Years Eve had been quiet, and the main concern was seeing people home safely. Falling asleep outside in Churchill's frigid air could be deadly.
When we said that we were headed to the hospital to see if they had a coffee vending machine, Constable Fournier said that she wasn't sure if they had a machine, but mentioned that the hospital did not encourage healthy people visiting, because of all the viruses and flu floating around. Of course we agreed and scratched it off the list. We thanked Peggy and wished her a Happy New Year.
A few people mentioned that the aurora borealis had put on a fine display New Years night about three in the morning. We would go home, catch up on our notes, make a sandwich, and keep a watch for those lights tonight. It would be a shame to come all this way and not see them.
Back at the lodge Laurie came up to the room with a toaster ( we would toast those sandwiches tonight) and said she found a coffee machine in the dining room. In no time at all the aroma of fresh perked coffee permeated the air and we enjoyed a mug while working on our notes.
The trustful nature of the people in Churchill is evident everywhere. Access to a dining/bar area with instructions to "help ourselves", vehicles left running and unattended by shoppers and diners, church and business establishments left unlocked all amazed us. In our small community, everyone is welcomed into our homes but large city influence permeating our neighbourhoods renders it unwise to leave our doors unlocked. Maybe being isolated insulates you from that society.
Bridget came by and introduced herself as Dave's girlfriend. She helped out at the lodge sometimes and said they didn't realize the cleaning lady wasn't on duty today. "Not concerned in the least" we told her, actually it's all been part of the adventure having the lodge to ourselves. She explained that after the polar bear rush and l6 hour days the staff were all enjoying a much deserved two week holiday. She entertained us with stories of her "other" job, as a fly in nurse to isolated communities in Nunavut, where she was stranded for a few days because of weather conditions. All in all it is considered part of the job. A different pace of life is evident here.
When she heard of our diet today she left, then returned with some smoked meat sandwiches, cheese and grapefruit. We were satisfied and not in the least worried about hunger but the smoked meat did taste mighty fine.
My notes completed, I left Laurie to go to the bedroom and relax in front of the TV. Every so often I would scan the skies for anything that looked out of place, but all was normal until 8:30 when I was sure a light mass was lurking above us. Running down to Darlene's room I warned her, then raced downstairs to alert Laurie, and we all readied in record time. Out we went into the frosty air, where a slight skiff of new fallen snow sparkled like millions of tiny diamonds. All agreed that there was "something" up there, a large lighter area above us, that resembled a huge, faded motionless cloud. We waited and watched then remembered local lore about whistling making the lights dance. We felt silly but thought, what if it really works? Three different whistlers whistling three different tunes begat the dogs of Churchill howling back at us. The lights weren't moving so we scurried inside before anyone looked out to see what was causing the ruckus.
I retired at 10:00 p.m.
Thursday, Jan. 2nd, 2003
At 5:00 a.m. I showered and because no one else was up, went for a walk to get some fresh air all the time hoping maybe those northern lights would be out. The air felt crisp and dry, unlike back home where it would be a bone chilling cold at these temperatures. The coldest so far has been minus 28 degrees Celsius, unusually mild for this time of year, but the air was dry. We have been very warm in the clothing we brought, while back home, if it were minus 28 Celsius, we would be shivering in these same clothes.
Main Street looked very pretty with the Christmas lights on, but no aurora borealis so I returned to the lodge and watched an old western until 8:00 a.m.
Laurie was still sleeping soundly so Darlene and I walked back to the train station to get a picture of the incoming 8:30 train.
There was no hint of sunrise as the train made an early appearance, but we took a few pictures anyway, then went into the newly renovated station to look around. This station is now owned by Parks Canada and the renovation work was first class. One section housed a historical exhibit of the Hudson Bay era and early settlement days of Churchill and environs, as well as displays and artifacts of the indigenous community. The depiction of animals native to this area in their natural habitat was most interesting. Also on hand was a display case with a nice selection of books relating to the North. Because we were just starting out and didn't want to lug books around, we opted to pick them up later in the day or when we returned for the evening train.
The Seaport Inn was recommended as a worthy place to eat, so we left the station in anticipation of a bacon and egg breakfast. The food did not let us down as we lingered over a second coffee before walking back to the lodge to see if Laurie was up.
It only took a minute for her to get into her outerwear before we proceeded outdoors and advanced towards Cape Merry. Laurie explained that she had stayed up till 3:00 a.m. reading a book and keeping an eye out for the aurora borealis.
The weather was now sunny with temperatures hovering around -l4 Celsius and no wind to speak of. It was a great day for a leisurely walk and we talked and kibitzed along the way, waving back to the few people who passed.
We followed a ploughed roadway and came upon what looked like an abandoned government building, then followed a snowmobile trail to a small cluster of old weathered abandoned houses. A little further on it looked like a frozen beach area where we jumped from rock to rock looking out over the Bay, and I collected a few little rock samples for my collection, We could see ice ledges down the shoreline which appeared to be five feet high. I was surprised to see the waves frozen in time, even the ripples looked flash frozen.
About this time Laurie's lack of breakfast took effect so she decided to head back to town for some nourishment. Darlene and I continued on a trail; we wanted to see how close to Prince of Wales Fort we could walk. The path wound its way along the coast and we arrived at a Parks Canada station obviously closed for the season but still a great vantage point. This was Cape Merry. We climbed the snowdrifts up the ramp and stood on the lookout platform, each lost in our own particular thoughts about the history of this remote location. Huge snowdrifts jagged across the ice, without end it seemed, and in the distance Prince of Wales Fort was outlined, looking much as it must have two hundred and fifty years ago. To our left was the Churchill River, on our right the Hudson Bay of my history lessons. Gazing across this Bay and actually observing what the explorers, fur traders or coureur des bois would have seen was overwhelming.
It was just after noon when we began our trek back. There were a few places we wanted to see before packing up. As we started our walk from the Cape, we decided to leave two snow angels. Darlene wanted to go to St. Paul's Church to take a few pictures, and then to stop at the Churchill Town Centre Complex. This is a wonderful venue housing under one roof, the Town of Churchill office, hockey arena, curling rink, theatre, bowling alley, high school, library, and pool to mention a few.
We heard, before we actually saw, the children playing in the large daycare activity centre which greets you when you enter the complex. It was hard to miss with the bright, child oriented colors and once again where we met Hailey. I especially liked a sitting area with wall to wall windows, which offered a front row view of the Bay. We stepped into the township office and were surprised to see Dany Allard behind the desk, she is the financial assistant for the town of Churchill. We met Dany the day before as she walked to a friend's house and she wished us a Happy New Year. We could not believe this building was over twenty five years old. The people of the community must be very proud of it as we noticed how clean and well maintained it was. As she handed us maps and pamphlets with general information about Churchill, we noted how proud a community promoter she really is. Before we left, Hailey ran over to take us to a special lemon tree so we could admire a baby lemon she and a friend had discovered growing on it. www.townofchurchill.ca
Stopping at the Seaport Inn, we both had a plate of fish and chips. It was very tasty, and the service was great. This would keep us going until breakfast tomorrow, as there would be no meal on the train tonight after a late boarding.
Many of the stores were still not open, owners opting instead for a good holiday rest, but we did go back to the Arctic Trading Post and looked around some more and purchased a few items.
I did want Ray and Robert to know that I tried all three days to see Leona, but the store was closed for holidays. Robert wanted me to make sure to tell her that he was still using her bean soup recipe. I also understood that we would not see Moe Watts on the train that evening. People of Churchill had fond memories of him and recounted how, over the past years, he had driven them all home safely by train on more than one occasion. Small communities sometime find it difficult to understand "big city" standpoint. They wanted him to know that he had been judged by their higher ethical standards and had passed with flying colours.
We talked to a taxi driver on our walk home (his name was probably Dave, every guy we met up there was named Dave) and asked him if he would be free at 7:30 p.m. to pick us up at the lodge. He said he would be there, and somehow we just knew that he would be.
It was 3:30 p.m. and the sun had almost set as we reached the lodge. I had asked Bridget earlier in the day about checkout time and she said not to worry about it. Now I saw Dave and asked him and he replied "the train comes in at 7:30 that's checkout, just leave the keys in the door."
The Northern Nights Lodge is a fine place to stay if you're venturing to Churchill. The rooms were large and clean, the location central and the laundry room a bonus. I know this was a down time and the staff were on holidays but we had a memorable time there. Whenever we were asked where we were staying people said that the Northern Nights had the best chef in town, and it was the place to eat when the dining room was in operation. And we also thought that Dave was a friendly and helpful host.
Back in my room I packed everything I would need into my carry on bag and decided to ship my larger one through to Toronto by baggage. On our way into Churchill the staff had performed magic to help us survive with our awkward larger cases and we also knew it had been a one-shot deal. By the grace of God the train had been half empty, and it was unlikely that such good fortune would be repeated. So I packed and repacked and changed my mind, then went over the list again to make sure that the most important, "couldn't live without items" were stuffed inside.
The time had come to take everything down to the lobby. We had a few minutes to gather our thoughts before the cab arrived, and, the one thing we were still hoping for, was a glimpse of the aurora borealis before the train departed.
The taxi arrived at 7:30 p.m. exactly, it was a good sized van and there was no trouble getting everything inside. The station was only two blocks away so we were early, but had wanted to see the display at the station again and buy a few of those books.
Luggage was dropped off at the door, and we piled inside. Only the attendant at the ticket counter was there, so we checked our large luggage through to baggage and that's when we noticed the display area was locked up. Parks Canada hours, oops government hours, closed at 4:00 p.m. What a waste!
We talked with Jodi Grosbrink, the Via contract agent, before things got too busy. She felt bad that she couldn't help us with the books, but that was a different division and she had no access. Things did get quite hectic for her after 8:00 p.m. but she seemed very efficient and knowledgeable, as well as personable.
We boarded the train around 8:20 p.m. and Albert, our car attendant, showed us to our rooms. It took ten seconds to store our small carry-on bags. It had been a good choice to send the big one to baggage because the sleeper car was full.
All agreed a drink was in order so we went to the diner and started chatting with, yes, yet another "Dave." We asked him what position he held on this train and he explained that from Thompson to Churchill the tracks were owned by the Hudson Bay Railway and that was why he was on board. The rules stated that when Via trains were on the H. B. R. track an employee of the Hudson Bay Railway had to be on board.
We inquired why the ride was so smooth, after all the horror stories we heard from Ray and Robert about the rocky, jerky ride? So far we were quite surprised how smooth a ride it had been. Dave told us that H. B. R. was hauling bigger and heavier grain cars now so a lot of money was spent on repair and upgrading of the tracks.
When Dave heard of our disappointment at not seeing the northern lights he said not to give up, that he would pass it on to the crew to wake us up if they spotted them. This sounded like a great idea while we were wide awake and alert, but at eleven o'clock when falling asleep in the diner, we cancelled the northern light wake-up call and trudged off to our beds and were soon fast asleep. We were awakened a short while later by Laurie pounding at our door "get up, get up, they're here, they're here", and sure enough when our senses came to and we looked out the window, there they were. I had no idea how huge they were but for the next three quarters of an hour we watched in amazement as they twirled and dipped and danced about the sky. They were right above the train and sometime we would race to the hallway window, then back to our bedroom window for the best vantage point. A vivid lime green was the only noticeable colour and just when you thought it had ended, a look out the other window would reveal a whole new dance. It was like waking up Christmas morning and getting the present you figured you'd never get.
Friday Jan. 3rd, 2003
We had done it again, slept soundly until 8:00 a.m. A mad rush to the shower to finish in time for last call to breakfast. I roused Laurie but she had risen early and already had breakfast. She was now resting.
The diner was full so we had a short wait until a table was free. The three staff on board were Ralph, Albert and Stephan, and they worked well together as a team.
Ralph kindly printed out the numbers of this train set so I didn't have to do it manually outside in the cold. Trainweb has asked that any time we travel by rail we get the numbers of all cars that make up the train set for those railfans who are interested in car numbers. If it was a long train we would usually wait until the train stopped for re-fuelling then race along the platform writing down the numbers. If the weather was inclement we would walk the train going from car to car recording them, but we could never get the engine numbers, so when the train made a stop we would detrain, race to the front, get those numbers then dash back on board. Ray told me this past summer that sometimes you could get those numbers from a staff member saving you the hassle, so unbeknownst to Darlene and Laurie I had been getting them the easy way on this trip. Meanwhile they both think I've been walking the train or recording them out in the cold myself, and haven't said a word because we usually take turns doing it.
Those numbers are:
Once more I ordered porridge with, as Darlene likes to say "a pound of brown sugar", toast and coffee. It was overcast, then blustery while we enjoyed breakfast then relaxed over a second coffee. I never tire of snow covered landscapes. To me winter is the most beautiful of all our seasons, and few things are more exciting than watching a howling snowstorm. I even like being out in them too.
The train came to a stop just past a lake and in front of a house barely visible in the woods. Albert said "Mr. Dress-ups place", then he explained that the gentleman who just boarded always wore a suit. Twenty minutes down the track the train again stopped, this time in Pikwitonei and quite a few people boarded. We seemed to sit and wait after everyone had settled when we overheard, a local comment that, "they should just leave and not wait for her". A minute passed then the "her" straggler arrived. I guess the crew knew the different rider's habits. The short delay was easily made up.
I do not regret one iota my decision to board with a small carry-on bag, but there were a few omissions. Extra film, my notebook was almost full, and my shoes were taking a rest, traveling to Toronto via the baggage car. I am left wearing socks or my heavy snow boots. Darlene lent me a pair of white lace slipperettes.
We heard the most delightful giggle behind us. It was four-year-old Bethany and she was full of giggles and smiles.
We arrived in Thompson at 11:15 a.m. for refuelling and servicing and would be departing at 12:30 p.m. We decided to stay on board this time to catch up on notes, but soon talk turned to our adventures in Churchill and the fact that we actually saw the aurora borealis last night. When we boarded the train last evening we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would not be viewing them.
The front part of the diner is used for dining and the back as a place to sit with a drink, or play cards and visit; this is where we would up-date our notes unless it was busy, then we would use our room. We sat for lunch at 12:30 p.m. I had chicken noodle soup with a roll, and because the cheeseburger was so good on the way up, opted for it again. We stopped at the kitchen to tell Stephan all was delicious.
The train stopped in Thicket Portage allowing passengers to board and disembark. Albert told us the story of the dogs in the area recognizing the sound of the train whistle and how they would all come running to greet the train. It was the custom for crew to throw out food scraps to these dogs and Albert said that he could remember seeing as many as twenty five dogs waiting. This practice ceased three years ago at the local Band Councils request as they noted some of the dogs were becoming a bit aggressive.
Until dinner we just absorbed as much of the scenery as possible. It was interesting to see the many small communities built along this rail line who depended on the train for their only connection to the larger centres. It is difficult to imagine not being able to hop in your car to drive to a store. I noticed Ralph, Albert and Stephan served all passengers on board with courtesy and respect, and something not always seen these days, was this same courtesy directed to the children and teenagers.
Between lunch and dinner it was quiet and we had a chance to talk with them about the Hudson Bay run. Like the former crew, all three had requested this run in winter. The dramatic scenery and slower pace makes it an understandably popular run. During the summer some work on the "Canadian" between Winnipeg and Vancouver.
I chose haddock for dinner that evening. If you are a fish lover and it is offered as a selection on any Via menu ...choose it... Plain and simple, it is always excellent and that evening's meal was no exception. Three pieces of haddock cooked to perfection (golden and a bit crispy on the outside), hot whipped potatoes, carrots, green and yellow beans, a slice of tomato and cucumber, a wedge of lemon, with parsley garnish were all appealingly served. The healthy sized portions were colourful and nutritionally well balanced and much to my liking.
We arrived at The Pas shortly before 8:00 p.m. and detrained. Fresh air always feels good; we were amazed at the amount of snow and ice under the train, which must add an enormous amount of extra weight to the train. I couldn't remember if it was the ride into or out of Churchill that I asked an employee if the train had ever been at a standstill because of the snow. He thought a minute and said no, not that he could remember, the engines were too powerful. That was actually one of our "hopes" when we found out about this trip, that the train would be snowbound for a few days.
Within the half-hour the train was leaving The Pas. This was a good time to check that everything was ready for our arrival in Winnipeg tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m. We sat around and talked then decided to hit the sack early with a promise to each other that first one up would rouse the others.
Saturday Jan. 4th, 2003
Awoke at what I thought was 5:45 a.m., but when in the shower I realized it was 4:45 a.m. so I took my time. I awoke Darlene and Laurie as promised, and when we were ready proceeded to the diner for fresh coffee. We were meeting someone in Winnipeg for breakfast, but just the thought of starting the day without Stephan's porridge made me decide to have just a half bowl. After breakfast I went to the kitchen to ask Stephan if I could take a photo of him, and snoop around for the Via porridge recipe (just kidding). He obliged and in short order came to talk with us about our trip. In the summer months he is a cook on the Via West-Winnipeg, but likes this run in the winter months. He has worked on the rails for twenty-five years. We found out that he enjoys browsing through "treasure" shops and told us of one in Winnipeg that he likes checking out every once in a while. He was kind enough to draw a map (with landmarks) to this place from our hotel.
Our train arrived in Winnipeg shortly after 8:00 a.m. Our bags were already at the exit door, so we said our farewells and many thanks, it had been a wonderful ride.
We were met at the station by Daryl and Ken two business associates from Winnipeg who were taking us for breakfast at the Forks Mall, after which Daryl would show us a few of the sites in Winnipeg. He's in the tour business so who better to show us around town. He drove us to the Sheraton Winnipeg Hotel where we checked in and stowed our luggage in our room. Our first stop on the tour was the burned out ruins of St. Boniface Cathedral. Standing in the shell of these ruins you could sense how majestic a church this once was. The stone walls have been restored and a much smaller church was built within the historic walls.
We then saw the grave of Louis Riel the founder of Manitoba, then a quick tour of the Manitoba Museum. We really enjoyed the tour of the Nonsuch, a seventeen metre replica of the original two-mast Ketch which sailed into Hudson's Bay in l668. Walking on the Ketch and seeing the living and sleeping conditions the men had to endure for the five month voyage was heart rendering. We touched briefly on a fine display about the Hudson Bay Company, and I noticed many of the displays seemed tailored to younger children, there was something of interest for every age level at this museum. It was a shame we had to leave but Daryl wanted to take us to Alycia's restaurant to try some traditional Ukrainian food. Laurie lived out west many years ago and had acquired a taste for this ethnic food and was looking forward to tasting it again. She considered herself an authority on perogies. The atmosphere was cozy, and you could tell many regulars frequented this place. Pictures of the late John Candy as well as George Chuvallo adorned the premises, testament to the high-quality food served. The waitress was most friendly and helpful to first time tasters. She made a selection she thought I would enjoy and she was right on the money. Cabbage rolls and fried perogies with sour cream. From beginning to end the whole meal was scrumptious
I was fortunate enough to enjoy a quick tour of the kitchen, it is an all by hand assembly line production. They also have a take out deli and sell out of everything they make every day. The numbers were mind boggling, two hundred dozen cabbage rolls, and one thousand dozen perogies are made each day and all of it sold. They must be doing something right. Laurie declared the perogies the best she had ever eaten.
Stephan's map proved very accurate and in no time we found the shop. Our time was limited but we all found a few treasures that would fit into our bags.
Our next stop was the Elmwood Hobby Works which had an attention-grabbing display in the front window. This place was a must for the hobby enthusiast, with its well stocked shelves of just about everything a model railroader would need. At the rear of the store was a wall containing a fabulous selection of train related magazines. Chatting with owner Hilt Friesen you could sense that this was his labour of love.
On the road again, Daryl was pointing out the different landmarks of Winnipeg, as we made our way to our next stop, Fort Whyte Centre, which in fact was not really a fort. With tongue in cheek, it was dubbed "Fort Whyte" by the newspapers, because of the altercations, sneaky dealings, and fist fights between the different Railway Companies of the time.(the late l880's) In a nutshell, it was a David and Goliath story, with David the eventual victor. Today it is a 400 acre site with a focus on environmental education and wildlife conservation. I know there is much more to this wonderful facility but our time was short and the sun was beginning to set. What I loved was the gigantic wooden structure, which was a toboggan slide where you ended up scooting onto a frozen lake. We could make out people ice fishing out in the middle. I couldn't help but think what a wonderful place to tire out the children. By the time they climbed this structure, slid down, then walked all the way back from the lake and up the slide again, they would be having so much fun they wouldn't realize how much fresh air and exercise they were getting.
Of all the places we visited today, The Pavilion, in Assiniboine Park was the one stop I was truly afraid Laurie would not leave. She was in the gift shop (most impressive) eyeing a small print, by one of her favourite artists; Laurie does not make snap judgements. Everything must be just right before a decision is made, which usually takes time, something we didn't have much of. I recognise these trance like moments, when Laurie is lost in thought, contemplating, so ever so softly I whispered "two minutes Laurie", but I know to Laurie it sounded like "TWO MINUTES LAURIE!!!!!!!" the trance was broken, she put the little print down and begrudgingly followed us out. I know Laurie well enough to know that she will often recall that print and regret not purchasing it.
The Pavilion was decked out in festive lights. The second and third floors house an art gallery, but it was late so we walked outside to the rear of the building to look at the garden restaurant situated in a glass-roof atrium. We could make out skaters on a pond and Daryl told us that they have live theatre on these vast grounds in summertime.
The last stop on our tour was the Manitoba Legislative Building, a most impressive building decorously outfitted for the season. We did not venture too far into this building as I think it was closed, but we did walk the grand marble staircase feeling very grand indeed.
After a whirlwind nine hour tour, Daryl dropped us at our hotel close to six o'clock. Somehow I couldn't imagine Daryl living anywhere else than Winnipeg, I don't think he would want to live anywhere else. His pride in this city is evident, and being in the touring business is a good choice for Him.
My advice to anyone taking one of his tours..........check the batteries in your pacemaker.
We went straight to our room at the Sheraton Winnipeg. Our room with two queen-size beds, was large and had a good sized bathroom, table and chairs and all the necessities and extras you expect at a Sheraton. Very comfortable for three very tired gals. It was so tempting to relax in front of the t.v. but we decided to eat before we became too lazy.
We freshened up, went down to the lobby, then crossed the street to a very convenient Pizza Hut. None of us wanted a huge dinner so we passed on any entree, settling instead for just pizza and a glass of milk.
Back at our Hotel we saw for the first time, how attractive the lobby was. We'd been in a race the two times we had been here earlier and now we appreciated the decor and festive decorations. Once in our room, I readied for bed and retired immediately leaving Darlene and Laurie watching TV.
Sunday January 5th, 2003
What a wonderful sleep I had last night. I had no idea what time it was but the other two were sleeping so I knew I'd be first in the shower.
When finished, Laurie and Darlene were both up and the smell of fresh coffee was most inviting. Around 10:30 a.m. Darlene and I went to the lobby with our bags to checkout, leaving Laurie a bit more time to talk on the phone with a good friend. Check out was fast and professional. I did not get their names but the young girl behind the desk and the concierge performed their jobs efficiently. Laurie came down and we went outside where a cab was hailed for us.
A short $5.00 taxi ride to the station and at the Via counter we checked our bags to our room on the train. We had an hour before boarding at noon so we went to The Forks for a last minute look around and a few small purchases. Laurie and I went to the Via first class waiting area and relaxed with a coffee. Darlene followed fifteen seconds later and within five minutes they were calling all aboard.
It was a feeling of relief when I boarded the "Canadian" bound for Toronto. We went directly to our room to stash a few things, and met Robert our car attendant for this leg of the trip. The adrenalin was starting to fade a bit and the tired was beginning to catch up. My empty notebooks are riding in baggage, and I had filled up my last one yesterday. I wasn't able to find one on our tour yesterday, so had been reduced to using a Pizza Hut napkin, and the writing pad I swiped from the Sheraton that comes apart when you flip the page.
As the train pulled away from the Winnipeg Station at 12:28 p.m., I went directly to the dome section. Looking out over the city I recalled an impressive scene from yesterday's tour. Elm trees, which were once plentiful in our region, grow in abundance here. As a child I thought they were the tallest trees in the world and I remembered how the branches and leaves of the trees on both sides of the street would arc together over that street giving the appearance of a huge umbrella or canopy.
There were only three or four people in the dome, and in no time at all we were chatting about anything and everything. They were Patricia and Douglas Reardon from Montreal, who were on their way home from British Columbia where they had been visiting family, and Ben Vernon on his way home to Toronto. We all kidded him and asked "gentle Ben, or big Ben"? with much laughter we settled on "Uncle Ben".
There was only seating at the second setting for lunch and dinner but that was acceptable. We sat with Fred at lunch and he was on his way home to Toronto after spending the Christmas holiday with family in Winnipeg. He worked in a hospital and was looking forward to getting back.
Berris, who was our car attendant on the "Canadian" going west, was part of the dining crew going east, along with Sue and Kyle. I enjoyed the smoked salmon on foccacia bread with Caesar salad and coffee. I was just comfortable so passed on the dessert.
I returned to the park car and took some pictures out the back window of the observation section of this car. I wonder if Via would allow me to bring a small fold up chair and plunk it down in front of this, my favourite window of them all.
The winter scenery is truly breathtaking in this part of Ontario. I loved watching the train winding around the tight corners through the rock cuts.
I will go out on a limb here and say that for my money the scenery on the winter run is more beautiful than all other three seasons combined. Riding the train during fall colour season is beautiful, but not every foot of the way is so. Certain areas are more colourful than others, then you are into evergreen areas, or birch and beech trees whose leaves aren't as attractive as the hard maples. But winter has a way of evening the score. It's mile after mile across Canada of the most breathtaking scenery viewed from your window. Even rusted old cars, or old farm equipment appear beautiful with a thick layer of snow.
There is an exception in winter and that would be the cities, where the necessary ploughing and spreading of salt and sand on roadways leaves such a dirty mess when the cars and trucks splash everything an ugly brown. So viewing the cities from a train in wintertime should only be done at night.
There were two attendants in the Park car. Tony whom I recognised from our earlier ride on the "Canadian" was the park car attendant, and Robert, the activity co-ordinator, was setting up shop here because there was no activity car in this train set. Both these guys helped out with my train numbers, and they were as follows:
Consist train #2 from Winnipeg to Toronto
Robert began posting pictures around the park car pertaining to grape groves and wine making, and explained that he would be having a wine tasting seminar shortly.
Well, no one would give up their seat after that announcement. Sitting next to me was a wonderful lady named Ethel, returning to Sudbury from B.C. She had mentioned earlier that since being widowed she traveled once a year to Vancouver on the "Canadian" and also told us that her late husband was an enthusiastic model railroader.
Robert began with a white wine and before he could pass a glass to the next person beside me, I heard Ethel whisper quietly what sounded like, "whitechardonnayjacksontriggokanoganvalley." When Robert announced that this was a white Chardonnay, Jackson Trigg produced from grapes of the Okanogan Valley, I realized that Ethel had stolen his thunder. She was faster when the red wine was passed. She explained that since belonging to a dinner group which served wine as accompaniment with the meal, she had learned to recognise different ones. As word spread about the wine tasting, there was standing room only in the car. Robert gave a nice presentation on wine tasting, explaining colour, swirling, and bouquet among other terms and helped clarify a few points about the subject.
My only recommendation would be if you have this wine tasting in the future and Ethel is on board, for heavens sake make it more challenging.
We were thankful we were part of the second seating for dinner, after sampling some marble pound cake and delicious flaky hors d'oeu`vres in the park car.
We enjoyed Fred's company for dinner that evening. My fresh halibut dinner was so tasty, and the roasted potatoes and peas in the pod with baby onions were a perfect accompaniment. Rich chocolate cake and a coffee completed the meal.
We relaxed in the park car and struck up a conversation with John Sorensen from Toronto, originally from Newfoundland. John was a musician, then music producer who had over the years, he said in a very low-key manner, worked with many famous entertainers. He was now chasing another dream (probably with his mothers blessings) and returning to university to pursue a law degree. Sitting beside John was Richard McDonald also from Newfoundland. "Born and raised" as he said. Richard was a retired railway worker who had worked for the C.N.R. of Newfoundland for over twenty five years. I asked him about the Newfie Bullet, probably the most famous train in Canada. "Yes" he said, he had known it well. He was saddened when the trains ceased operating, and commented that when they did make the decision how quickly they tore up the track. A very interesting gentleman with many a tale to tell about the railway.
While we were talking with these people there was a sing along going on in the bar room of this car and they were actually pretty good. It sounded like the room was full.
Zanutto Francesca joined in the conversation. She was an exchange student from Italy attending school in Sudbury for a year. She was charming and we noticed that her English was very good. Of course we asked her about Italy. Douglas whom I had met in the dome car earlier wandered in and we chatted about life in general and when I looked at my watch I couldn't believe it was 1:00 a.m.
Time to go to bed.
Monday, January 6th, 2003
I actually awoke at five this morning and didn't feel too tired. After showering I went for breakfast at 6:30 a.m. Needed Coffee. We sat with LeRoi Armstead from New York State who had been on the "Canadian" from Vancouver. LeRoi was a very interesting and knowledgeable gentleman who could get a word in edgewise if he timed the breathing of the gentleman seated beside him. Enough said. As I ate my porridge I learned all I ever wanted to know about mining, wishing instead that I had sampled the continental breakfast this morning.
Speaking of which, a self-serve Continental breakfast was available in the park car from 6:30 a.m. till 9:00 a.m. A nice display of muffins and croissants with a basket of different toppings was offered. There was always juice, fresh water with citrus slices, the ever-present coffee and a carafe of hot water to make one of the different selections of teas, decaffeinated coffee, or hot chocolate. A large bowl of fresh fruit sat on the table and was replenished throughout the day. I usually had a banana in the morning and throughout the day a couple of apples or an orange would suffice.
It looked cold and blustery outside that morning as the train whipped up a trail of snow. Around 9:30 a.m. Robert set up a putting green and the competition was on. Guys against the girls. It was a tough feat, putting on a moving train, the ball was lost as much as it was in play. But Anthony and Robert made it a fun time and people in the dome came down and joined in the fun too. I believe "Uncle Ben" had the only hole in one so the guys had bragging rights.
Because we had been up early that morning, Robert, our car attendant said that he would put the beds down in our room if we wanted to take a nap. Very thoughtful gesture. But these Via on-board staff are like that. So often you hear someone say "I hate to ask but..." and the reply is always the same, "that's what we are here for". They really do like to help, to do that extra little something that will make your trip memorable. And remember there is NO such thing as a stupid question, they realize it can be confusing to a first time train traveller so don't hesitate to ask.
Park car Robert introduced me to Zack, a little stuffed dog, who came on board in Vancouver with his own travelling bag, and an up-dated travelogue he carried with him. It was a most interesting story about a classroom of children in New Mexico who sent Zack on a journey, which started on November 20th 2002. Zack has been on an incredible journey to date and from reading his journal has met up with some wonderful people. His little bag contained souvenirs he has picked up along the way and when I met him I noticed the little leather boots he was wearing and the train cap with Via pins attached. Somewhere along the way he was given a little stuffed bird with a black bowtie to keep him company. He crossed the border into Canada via Seattle I think, after traveling by transport truck, car, and I think he was on Amtrak. Whoever has him in their company writes what he did that day and how and where he has travelled with them. Some one wrote that Zack would really like to see the C.N. tower in Toronto and I know the staff will see it happen before he is sent on his way. They would like to see him fly to Europe before he makes his way back home, hopefully by early May when the children are holding a "welcome home" party. I wrote in his book that I enjoyed meeting him, and hoped that he would send his travelogue to Trainweb, they would post it for a lot of people to read.
Robert passed out papers and pencils then announced we were going to play a mathematics game. It was easy to follow the mathematical formula of how many times a week do you eat chocolate; must be less than ten but more than one, add a couple of hundred, subtract this amount, times it by two, add five ...and...voila....your answer will be your age...."oh my".....sighed Ethel, and when I looked at her she was chewing her answer. While Robert helped some of the younger ones who had problems with their math all the women on our side followed Ethel's lead.
First sitting for lunch today and joining us was John. I have no notes of my meal but I distinctly remember having orange cake for dessert. The conversation must have been captivating.
We went to the lounge section of the park car to watch the movie "Goldmember" that had premiered to a very receptive audience the day before. It was a hilarious knee-jerking movie, and Laurie, who had seen it earlier, sat through it again and laughed just as hard. While we were watching the movie those who preferred a game of bingo played in the observation area.
It was time for dinner once more. I chose the fish and of course it was excellent as usual. We sent our compliments to the chef and asked if we could take a picture of him. At dinnertime all three of us talked about the on-board staff, and how well they worked as a team. From the dining car through to the park car, the crew was tops and we declared them "simply the best". And it wasn't ten minutes later that I passed Richard McDonald, the retired engineer from Newfoundland, talking to Robert, telling him that all of the staff on this trip had been great, "every one of them" he said.
The train pulled into the Toronto Station about 7:45 p.m. All staff were at the exits helping with baggage or on the platform making sure no one fell while de-training, and that was where we thanked and said good-bye to Tony.
We descended the escalator and went to baggage to claim our large cases. I shall take mine to the garden this summer, fill them with earth and plant flowers in them.
On to the Via first class lounge and what a wonderful surprise. When we came through last June this lounge was being "renovated", but has since come together and is now a wonderful oasis in an otherwise crowded and noisy train station. The area was quite large and contained numerous comfortable leather couches and plenty of plush chairs which we soon plopped into, and it was then that I noticed how very tastefully the room was decorated in the spirit of the season. We helped ourselves to some complimentary refreshments and exhaled, we were all overtired to the point of not talking, just staring at the t.v. Patricia and Douglas had beaten us. They were the first ones here and told us that their luggage had been taken to a waiting area on the platform near the Renaissance train, to be picked up on their way by, something I hadn't heard of which I must check out the next time. Here we sit with our luggage surrounding us like fortress walls. I dread the escalator ride up but have learned an important lesson; never follow Darlene up an escalator, or be ahead of her on the way down.
I recorded the car numbers before boarding, they were:
We boarded and I was in bed shortly before eleven but slept fitfully, maybe overtired, and at 4:00 a.m. got up with Darlene to have our continental breakfast and coffee in the service car. Laurie was awakened so she too could eat before we detrained.
The train arrived early, then we saw Ken, Darlene's husband, walk towards us. The door slid open and our luggage was passed down to us. It was 5:17 a.m.
In summation, it was a splash of colour in a white wilderness, and with a sense of delight and enjoyment we spent a few days "up there" among the people of Churchill, seeing first hand a bit of their lifestyle. We were welcomed with a small town acceptance, something lacking in our larger communities, and if one "voice" rang loud and clear, the people of Churchill foster a real passion for their community. Like a great meal, or fun night on the town, sharing an adventure with good friends makes it special. The season played a large part for me, a lot of the identical scenery I passed a mere six months earlier was more spectacular this time around.
And I have come to realize that it was the many little voluntary actions of the on-board personnel that made this a truly memorable trip.
Click to view each set of detailed photos below:
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