Laurie's Rail Trip to Churchill
ITS BEAUTY, ITS HISTORY, ITS PEOPLE
Tuesday, December 31, 2002We all awoke early. My shower felt heavenly, as well as my breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and coffee. The world outside our windows moved by in darkness. Sunrise was not to arrive until 8:30 a.m., which was the time we pulled into Churchill. The air outside was bitingly fresh. I wanted to pinch myself. I was finally here at the spot on the map I looked at for weeks before the journey began. A gentleman outside the station asked if we needed a taxi and pointed to his mini bus idling away amid billowing clouds of exhaust in the cold. He helped load the luggage into the back. We climbed in, indicating our destination. He decided to give us a tour of the town, pointing out various establishments along the way. When we reached our hotel, The Northern Nights, he took the twenty dollar bill I offered. Our hotel was two blocks away from the train station. Lorraine and I shared a room with two queen sized beds, (I was thankful for a reprieve from Darlene's snoring) and Darlene had a room with a king size bed. Nice rooms. It didn't take us long to unpack our heavy winter wear (an absolute must) and head out down Main street to explore. We visited several stores (knowing they would be closed the following day for New Year's). The Arctic Trading Post, The Northern Limit and The Wapusk General Store all boasted beautiful artwork, jewellery, and native soapstone carvings for sale. I admired everything. Even the tee shirts and sweat shirts were tastefully embellished with polar bears, wolves and owls bearing Churchill, Manitoba. We arrived at Gypsie's, a bakery/diner, we had heard so much about. We pulled off our outer wear to enjoy coffee and pastries, noting how suffocating the heavy wear was indoors. Here we met Val, owner of Wampusk General Store. Her husband Dave had the dog sled for hire, so we made an appointment for 1:00 p.m.that afternoon. Wampusk Store, at the far end of town was built of log and very inviting with its wood stove fired up creating a homey atmosphere. Dave arrived and bustled us onto his mini bus to drive out to the dog camp he shared with a fellow dog musher. We bumped down a dirt road as Dave explained that the town had made a deal to plough the road to the camp after a tourist was nipped by a dog during the summer when the dogs were tethered in town. We arrived to a chorus of yips and howls as about thirty dogs tethered to small wooden dog houses greeted us. I was amazed at the variety of size and colours of dogs. Dave quickly harnessed the dogs to the sled, and they were anxious to go, the lead dog was part wolf. Two animal pelts and a blanket were thrown onto the sled and Darlene and Lorraine headed out first. The second Dave stepped onto the runners the dogs were off, anxious to run. While they were gone I walked around the camp with Dave's young son Wyatt, and his friend George. The boys played happily and noisily looking very old fashioned in their rabbit lined hats. I drank in the scene, breathing in air that hurt my nose and burnt my cheeks as I crunched atop the snow and studied the dogs by turn. I can't believe I am about to have my first dog sled ride. There was a puppy in the camp. I coaxed the mom to let me touch it, wanting desperately to take it home. The sled and travellers re-appeared. Darlene and Lorraine looked cold, but very happy. Awkwardly I climbed onto the sled. An American lady took the front and off we flew down the trail at Dave's command. Dave explained how the lead was trained by a dog, Riley, now twelve years old and semi-retired back at the camp. Onward we went, past small sparse knee high trees, that line the run the dogs knew so well. We finally slowed, then took an embankment precariously (definitely on purpose and part of the run). My stomach flipped, a left-over from younger toboggan days. The effect was perfect. We took turns riding back, standing on the runners with Dave. One foot straight, the other turned sideways on the same runner. There was no time to think, only balance as the trees slide by at a good clip. I was laughing, smiling, simultaneously though the cold hurt my teeth. I wished it would go on forever but finally the camp approached all too soon. My face felt entirely red, and my heart was pounding as we came to a stop. Dave asked me to throw the pronged anchor and stand on the brake. We unhitched the dogs, not an easy job as one holds the dog and slips the harness then runs the dog to its appropriate house. Dave fed them from a tub he pulled along by rope, chicken parts unsuitable for human consumption purchased from a meat packing plant in Winnipeg. $300.00 per ton, but $700.00 to fly it in. On the return drive, Dave told us about his close encounter with a polar bear at the end of last summer. His dog, due to have puppies was tethered to her dog house just outside his Wampusk Store. The dog began barking furiously in the night. Nudged awake by his wife he exited in boxers, rubber boots and his wife's coat. Surprised, he found the dog atop her doghouse totally inconsolable. As he bent down to look inside the doghouse (expecting to see newborn puppies) he heard a low growl at his back. He raised his head to see a bear and two cubs behind him. He counted 1-2-3 then ran with all his might up the steps and along the porch to the door. There he was met by the bear who had taken the second set of steps. It was a narrow escape and one he would always remember. Dave dropped us off at the Eskimo Museum. On route, his young son took great pains to explain to us that Dave was younger than his wife, Val. This was hilarious as Dave drove on gritting his teeth, ah, out of the mouths of babes. We only had about fifteen minutes to see the whole place before closing. I could easily have spent half a day here. The museum was a mixture of artifacts, artwork and carvings of the Inuit Natives. The artifacts had been collected many years past by some thoughtful Catholic Priest, now deceased, who had left them to be preserved forever as a museum. We looked at Inuit implements encased in glass and marvelled at their resourcefulness The artwork and stone carvings were absolutely beautiful. Included in the museum were stuffed indigenous animals from birds to polar bear. The Artic tundra wolf astounded me not only with its size but it's beauty. There were also two kayaks made in the traditional way by Inuit hands. I regretted miserable that the museum would not be open again before our departure. We left at closing having gleaned some knowledge of a race of Canadians I have long respected and longed to know more about. Walking back to Gypsies, we secured provisions for supper and the coming morning as the town shut down around us for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. We bought muffins and pastries (I bought perogies too), then headed for the grocery store for peanut butter and bread. Who bought the chips? Prices were very high compared to prices in the south, but as Nancy said you just buy what you want regardless of the price. There is no option. Back at the hotel, we ate the lunches Brad had packed for us. At 5:30 p.m. I longed to sleep. I laid on my bed as Lorraine blew up balloons and prattled on about New Year deadbeats. We all went for a walk about 8:00 p.m. I dressed half-heartedly. Lorraine voiced some scheme of ending up arrested at the R.C.M.P. station so we could get a hot breakfast. No! We also hoped to whistle down the Northern Lights. No, they didn't appear. The people of Churchill were all partying. Even Dave, the hotel owner had met us, crushed ice in hand, and said "help yourselves to the kitchen ladies". We past by the hospital and now closed liquor mart that had seen ample business during the day. Alas, (thank God) there was no one at the police station so we trudged back to the hotel, where we snacked on those chips and licorice allsorts while watching t.v. Lorraine quite suddenly went limp and climbed into bed for the night. At 9:30 p.m. we were both asleep, past thoughts of celebrating New Year's. However at 11:52 p.m. we were rudely awakened by banging at the door. Darlene entered our room in a gust of festive spirit. (second wind?) She threw balloons at us and we heard voices of merriment followed by gun shots (a Churchill tradition we were told). Ten minutes later our lights were out and Lorraine and I drifted back to sleep, window ajar to dream in the fresh northern air. Wednesday, January 1, 2003, New Year's Day
We slept till 8:30 a.m. showered then dressed and ate a breakfast of peanut butter on rye bread. Out we went for a nice long walk, in a town not yet awake. We hiked down the tracks past the train station towards the grain elevator. On route we discovered an unusual monument with plaques on all four sides. It was the poem "The Sons of Martha" commemorating the men who died building the railway to Churchill. We passed a yard of tundra buggies, left to rest until next September when polar bear season begins.As we neared the grain elevator, a posted sign read "no trespassing", normally this would not have stopped me but truly I did not want to end up in jail in Churchill. We veered off and headed towards the shore of Hudson Bay. The ground as we approached became quite drifted in hard snow and ice. The shoreline, a barricade of ice blocks tossed up in storms created a hap-hazard wall five feet high. Curiously, it has a hue of light green in the mid morning light. We climbed onto some rocks, polished smooth from centuries of wind and waves; dark brown, spotted with dried orange lichen. From this vantage point the bay was beautiful. The bay was quiet and flat, expansive navy blue to the horizon. Still I sensed its power and chilly depths as I stood on the rocks looking far out and envisioned the whales that would return in June. I visualized a native that may have stood on these rocks a century before, and of the ships that had sailed into the port laden with desperately needed supplies. I wished the rocks under feet could tell stories but I was content just feeling them. I know I will leave and never return, but Churchill will remain itched in my memory forever. We returned to town and stopped at St. Paul's Anglican Church. The Christmas lights were still on and the door was open so we entered, thankful to be out of the cold. We felt welcomed, honoured by the fact it was left open and must be respected by all that enter. The pictures on the wall and an open photo album tell it's history. There, in the album, was a picture of green northern lights illuminating the sky behind the Church's Steeple. It was so beautiful, so holy really. Off we went to the R.C.M.P. Station. We chatted only briefly with Constable Fournier, who told us that for the most part Churchill was a peaceful town. One can't go far really, only train or plane to leave by. No wonder trucks were left running at stores and ski-doos were left with keys in the ignition. Is it any wonder everyone knows we are in town? We passed through a park where people were out walking dogs and kids slid down the hill. There were mega trucks parked on the road. We heard snow machines constantly around us. Back at the hotel we made coffee for ourselves in the dining room. Apparently we had just missed a fox that had come looking for food near the owner's dogs outside. I had befriended these two dogs earlier, something that had surprised their owner who had stated I must be an animal person as the dogs rarely let anyone close to them. Bridgett, Dave's girlfriend kindly presented us with cold meat sandwiches and cheese for supper while apologizing for the lack of hotel service. Employees were on vacation. I spent hours writing in the dining lounge helping myself to coffee. The girls went to bed. I had decided to keep watch for those Northern Lights and read my book. Every half hour I checked the skies and read on till 3:00 a.m., when I gave in to sleep.
Thursday, January 2, 2003In the morning the girls headed to the train station to photograph the arrival of the train. Sleep having evaded me I headed for the dining room for coffee. Dave, the hotel owner joined me and told of his bear, wolf and northern experiences. I listened intently as he recounted his story of a bear crashing through a window at his hunt cabin. Thank goodness he had a gun, even though two shots did not down the intruder who was obviously hungry. It took ministry officials several shots to finally down the bear. I heard about the time he was transporting goods to a mining crew north of Churchill when his vehicle quit, forcing him to walk eighty miles. It was February and not bear season so he left his gun with the vehicle and didn't he sight a bear with cubs on his journey. Lucky for him he had his global phone and called for help. He told of an encounter with a snowy owl who was fiercely attacking his dog and also about a family of tundra wolves he watched for months on his trips north transporting goods. It was within these stories one got the sense of the great north. When Lorraine and Darlene returned we met three newcomers to the hotel. They were from France but studying for a year at McGill University in Montreal. It was our turn to advise them (now seasoned pros) of what to wear for warmth and the wonderful things to see and do. We headed out again. This time our destination was Cape Merry. It was a beautiful day, only minus 12 degrees unusually warm for this time of year. We took a road past the grain elevator and up a hill past the local dump and what looked like an abandoned government building. There, the road turned into a ski-doo trail. We were high on a hill west of town and could see from this vantage, a spectacular panoramic view of Hudson Bay. We stared out at water as far as the eye could see, dotted by several small white ice burgs. Several small weathered huts remain on the rocks to our left; their use long ago forgotten. The girls continued on to a Centennial marker further west. I wound my way back to town as hungry as a bear. I went into the Sea Port, a combination inn, restaurant bar on the main drag. The place quickly filled to capacity, a sign that it was a local hot spot. I devoured a hot hamburger sandwich which was excellent and very meaty. >From there I headed to the complex, Churchill's recreation building that boasts a skating rink, gym, daycare, library, restaurant, and super play area for young children. It also housed the municipal department where Dany (whom we'd met on one of our walks) was only too happy to give us pamphlets and useful information about Churchill. The complex was an immaculate building, amazingly twenty seven years old. On a wall outside the cafeteria was an interesting collection of photographs of some local native town folk. We returned to the hotel and prepared for our departure. (so much stuff once again to assemble and question why?) Lorraine had booked a taxi for 7:30 p.m. He arrived on time and we loaded our luggage. The train station in Churchill had been newly renovated. It was lovely, but at 7:30 the museum section was closed and as I looked through the closed gates I knew I had missed some superb displays. Peeking through the steel bars I could glimpse a display of a polar bear den. Boarding the train, our beds were all made up. We returned to the diner for some tea and chatted with Dave who worked for the Hudson Bay Railroad, and on whose rails our train was travelling. Lorraine and Darlene shared a double room and I had a bottom berth. At 8:00 p.m. we were so tired we headed off to bed. I had my blinds open just in case those evasive northern lights came out. About twenty minutes later, my glasses off, I squinted out the window at something milky in the sky. Sure enough there they were, bold as life, scorching the sky with glory. I raced to the girls' bedroom knocking anxiously exclaiming "they're here". For the next hour we went from side to side of the train cupping our faces close to the cold window, watching the pale green streaks shift and change, dancing across the sky. It was spectacular; magical to behold, this natural artwork produced in the sky. They stretched right over the train. There were no words to describe how ecstatic we felt. Satisfied we fell asleep under the fading northern lights.
Friday, January 3, 2003I awoke at 6:00 a.m. I went to the diner to read my book. Nothing better than a good book devoured on a trip, it's contents read within stolen hours early or late at night. At 6:30 a.m. I ate scrambled eggs, sausages and brown toast washed down with a glass of milk, then plenty of coffee. The book, or the train, stimulated me to an early rising; I am undecided in the end. At 10:00 a.m., feeling rested (I must have returned to my berth) I had coffee with the girls. The atmosphere on the train was so relaxing. We stopped again at Thompson for one and a half hours. We did not get off but sat chatting of our journey thus far. Lunch was excellent. Chicken noodle soup and piping hot rolls followed by a grilled cheese and ham sandwich. The train was nearly ours alone on this return trip. I drank in every moment of it's quiet and calmness knowing I would return to something vastly different. Next stop was Thicket Portage, the place where they used to throw the food scraps to the dogs. This act of kindness had started off with good intentions, but developed into a situation of some twenty five dogs collecting to fight aggressively over the food. The local band council had requested this to stop, with reason. Onward we went stopping at Bowden, a beautiful spot with houses lining the lake. Supper was served. It was great. Garden salad followed by beef, mashed potatoes and veggies. The next stop was The Pas, it was so good to get out and stretch our legs. Back on the train we partook of tea and decaf coffee in the diner before reclining for the night. It's amazing how tired one gets travelling. At 9:30 p.m. we were all ready for bed. Like good children needing no prompting from mom, we headed off.
Saturday, January 4, 2003
At 6:00 a.m. Lorraine woke me up. She, of course was fully showered, dressed, and prepared for the day. I stumbled to the shower, stubbing my toe on the way which really woke me up. The nice hot water got my blood flowing and my brain heated up for the day at hand.In the diner we had coffee and chatted with Stephen, the cook on board, and he enlightened us about Winnipeg, his home town. He told us about a great "treasures" shop which we should check out if we had time, and drew a map for us. At 8:30 a.m. the train pulled into the Winnipeg Union Station. We detrained and were met by Daryl and Ken who had kindly offered to show us some of the sights of Winnipeg. They took us to the Forks Market for breakfast. The five of us sat around a table in the open market discussing our trip to Churchill. We had much praise for the Via staff and the town of Churchill. Bidding goodbye to Ken, Daryl took us on a tour of his town. First stop was the Sheraton Hotel where we checked in and deposited our baggage to our room, then off for a visit to the Manitoba Museum. To sum this place up in one sentence: No one should leave Winnipeg without seeing this museum. I was so impressed by its displays depicting Manitoba at its heart. I was engrossed in the native culture of this province (something I love and respect). I lingered too long for my company who was forever ahead of me but always checking back to prompt me onward. I saw the life of natives, entered a tee pee, looked at displays of indigenous animals, and then entered a replica of the Nonsuch. I couldn't believe the men had travelled such a long way on this ketch. My favourite area in the museum was the section depicting Winnipeg as it would have looked in the thirties. Walking on board sidewalks one could enter various stores and businesses of that era. I thoroughly appreciated how innovative this museum was. Next stop was St. Boniface Cathedral where we stood at the site of Louis Riel's grave. I was most touched. Lunchtime I suggested we eat something Ukrainian after seeing the downtown core of Winnipeg by car. Portage and Main, doomed the coldest corner of Canada actually looked benign from inside a car but I know otherwise. We headed off to the north side of the city to find Alyscia's for a feast of perogies and borcht of course. This unpretentious restaurant famed by the patronage of the late John Candy and George Chuvalo obviously hadn't changed in years. It took me back twenty five years. Nothing fancy, people friendly, we ate the very best perogies (I will never eat those frozen ones from the supermarket again), understanding why John Candy would fly this restaurant's food into L.A. No time to digest food, Daryl had us off and running. We made him stop at the thrift shop before heading to the Elmwood Hobby Shop, an impressive store which caters to model trains. Next, we were off to the Fort Whyte Centre to see displays of native animals and plant life of the area. From a glassed viewing point we watched various waterfowl dive and swim. Outside kids slid down a gigantic man-made slide (which Lorraine dared me to try....too many perogies) and people skated with their children on a cleared section of pond. From there we headed to the Assinaboine Park, a beautiful spot and pavilion, a place where many wedded couples come to have photos taken. Even in winter it was gorgeous. Circling the park, people skated on the duck pond in the dying light. In summer they perform Shakespeare plays in an open air theatre on the grounds behind the pavilion. I was not only taken with this park but more so with a bridge connecting it to the city. Access to such a haven impressed me. Winnipeg hosts a zoo as well, but we were almost out of time. Our last stop was the Provincial Legislative Building. This building in itself was a landmark of architectural beauty. Two stuffed male bison standing guard on either side of the majestic stairway escorted us on our ascent of these stairs. This is where Manitoba's Government laws are made. I said a silent prayer inside this building, for respect of our history in Canada and for peace in the world now. It was 6:00 p.m. before Daryl, Winnipeg's ambassador dropped us off at our hotel. The three of us, exhausted, relaxed for the remainder of the evening before turning in for the night.
Sunday, January 5, 2003I awoke refreshed this morning. I phoned and enjoyed a wonderful chat with my brother-in-law's mother, who lives in Winnipeg. I cannot say enough about Winnipeg, she was happy I liked her native city so well and was surprised at how much we saw in such short time. We headed to Union Station and checked our bags so we could visit the Forks Market unencumbered. We enjoyed a quick toast and coffee breakfast before a quick look around and then back to the station. I purchased some very potent Hungarian sausage that accompanied me home. We boarded at Union Station at 12:00 p.m. Everything went smoothly and we enjoyed the dome car for the first sprint of our journey east of Winnipeg. In the park car we talked up a storm about our visit to Churchill. At lunch we sat with Chris, a hospital administer returning to Toronto. We chatted over rotini, soup and a caesar salad. Very delicious as well as the company. Back in the dome car we returned through tunnels cut through the rock face of our train's path. What a sensation! The scenery was snow capped evergreens broken by picturesque lakes for mile after mile. After a stop at Sioux Lookout we had supper. Asparagus soup followed by feta stuffed chicken, Parisian potatoes and steamed pea pods mixed with pearl onions. We returned to the dome car and chatted with our fellow travellers. From below we can hear a beautiful male voice leading a sing song. I descended to witness many young people enjoying this impromptu entertainment. The beautiful male voice that led this group belonged to an on-board Via attendant. Everyone was having fun and the audience joined in on the parts they knew from a song from West Side Story to Amazing Grace. It was pure fun. My compartment smelt strongly of garlic from the sausage I brought. I called for an attendant to change the bedding, an oversight of the previous crew. He apologized profoundly. I slept soundly that night.
Monday, January 6, 2003I awoke at 8:30, and went to the diner where I sat with Brad, a young accountant from Vancouver. He was unusually polite and well mannered for someone his age, and we chatted long after consuming breakfast. Suddenly, and too quickly Toronto loomed in our sights. We were weary travellers about to set foot on home territory. The trip was coming to an end. I anticipated home but I regretted the end as well, a sign of a good trip. We detrained and went to relax in the lounge of Toronto's Union Station, partaking of tea and coffee. We boarded a bit early, labouring with our luggage, and vowing to never again pack so much.
Tuesday, January 7, 2003
The Renaissance, revisited for the end of our journey, proved worthy of a nice breakfast after being woken up so early to disembark and end our journey.There is a famous line, "it's not so much about arrival. The journey is the destination." This sums up how I feel about my train adventure. Everything about this journey to Churchill Manitoba was simply incredible all the way.
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