Laurie's Rail Trip to Churchill
STANDING ON THE SHORE OF HUDSON BAY:
ITS BEAUTY, ITS HISTORY, ITS PEOPLE
It was 1:40 a.m. on Saturday December 28th and we had just driven to the
Brockville Via Station. As if on cue Christine Fowler, a local cab
driver, pulled in to open up the station. She was very pleasant and we
chatted about the trip we were about to embark on. My good friends
Lorraine and Darlene and myself were bound for Churchill, Manitoba by
train, a trip that would involve three nights and four days riding the
rails. Despite the late boarding hour, we were excited and anxious to
begin our journey.
The train arrived on time and with Christine’s help carrying our luggage,
we boarded the Renaissance, a train that runs from Montreal to Toronto
with overnight sleeping compartments.
This was my first time on the
Renaissance and I found the corridors were narrow. Navigation with
luggage was difficult. The sleepers were very compact. Darlene and
myself shared a double but it was necessary for one of us to vacate to
make adequate space to even climb to the top bunk. This Darlene
accomplished without the use of a ladder, leading me to believe she still
possessed her youthful tree-house skills.
We crawled in to catch a few
hours of shut-eye, knowing Toronto would feel like a blink away. I awoke
to Laurie’s beckoning call at 6:30 a.m. Reluctantly, I moved my luggage
and coat so Darlene could use the bathroom, vacated, then returned so she
could do the same for me.
Breakfast was presented on a tray. We sat in
the lounge enjoying our breakfast which was very tasty: juice, a dish of
sliced fruit, choice of croissant or Danish, Gouda cheese container of
yogurt and granola bar. Coffee and tea was self serve from heated
At 8:00 a.m. we were able to board directly onto the “Canadian”, our
train that would take us to Winnipeg. A bonus was avoiding Union
Station lugging baggage in and out. The Via personnel who greeted us
Quickly aboard and shown to our perspective
compartments, we were off to the dome car. There, conversations were
friendly and interesting as we met people from California, a brother and
sister team, and a couple from Connecticut traveling to Jasper to meet
their family for a skiing vacation. This is what makes trains unique:
everyone is relaxed and socializing because a journey lies ahead, and
there is time to speak as fellow partners headed somewhat in the same
Lunch is served: the menu sports truly Canadian choices: a
bison burger, or perhaps smoked salmon and cheese on forcaccia bread. I
enjoyed the daily special, a venison pasta combination, after sampling
the fish chowder. It was all very tasty.
The terrain outside my window
had changed and I loved watching the trees of birch, beech and cedar
gliding by. Rock and snow increased as well, which took us to Parry
Sound. Though the day was overcast, it didn’t take away from the beauty
of the lakes and streams running inland and breaking the Ontario
woodlands as we headed west. For several miles I followed the tracks of
some animal skirting the shoreline of a lake. Deer or wolf? I couldn’t
tell from such distance. I watched all this from my private compartment
wanting to snooze yet determined to miss nothing.
At 3:00 p.m. I headed to the Park car and became deeply engrossed in
conversation with a woman from Connecticut who shared the same lifestyle
of homesteading. Yes! we both had horse and goat stories to share,
complete with wicked neighbour reactions. We laughed shamelessly, happy
the train had put some distance behind our escape animals.
We stopped at
Capreol and many passengers got off to stretch their legs. It was a re-
fueling stop but I had talked too long so didn’t get off. The town is
barren and I immediately come up with ideas of a business particular to
train travellers. A nice store complete with souvenirs and food instead
of a hardware store that people walked to a block away.
dining car had been transformed into an elegant diner. The theme: Silver
and Blue. The tables were draped in navy blue over white linen. The
silverware gleamed from the glow of a centre candle on each table. The
whole effect was Martha Stewart perfect. We were seated, having chosen
the first call for supper. We were offered some champagne, then
something from the bar. We ordered and sipped as we awaited our dinners.
Outside the light was slowly fading. For me, this is a magical time of
day. Added to it was sitting in such a wonderful atmosphere watching the
terrain slide gracefully by.
We were joined by a lady on her way home
from Vancouver whose name was “Win” short form for Myfwyn which is Welsh
Gaelic. She was a lovely lady, a grandmother who had just visited her
four grandchildren in Ontario.
Hot rolls or bread sticks were offered to
start. I had the halibut soup which was to faint and die for. Then came
the main entree: beef medium rare and it came exactly so. I did not
find the potatoes palatable so requested another bun. For dessert I
chose chocolate cake drizzled with a strawberry sauce, so decadent, and
of course coffee completed my meal.
Waddling back to my roomette, I realized how exhausted I really was. Two
nights of four hours sleep each had caught up with me. I put my bed down
(a simple matter of unlocking some latches) with intentions of snuggling
in and starting the good book my sister had sent me. But, just for a
moment, I turned the lights out to look out the window to see what I
could decipher now that the land was shrouded in darkness. I barely made
out the northern tree line we followed. There was only a hint of it,
imagined or real. Occasionally a rock face emerged from the hidden
darkness, seemingly an arm’s throw from my window.
We moved onward
through a mist of snow and wind; inside just a hint of storm with a far
off gentle sound of “shish”. My eyes closed, my book un-opened at my
side. I awoke several times in the night to shift from side to side and
use the washroom. At one point we stopped and sitting up I starred out
the window only to become aware of the top of someone’s head just below
my window. A face looked up as I looked down. Both our faces registered
embarrassment and I quickly turned out the light. These are the risks one
takes if you don’t want to miss the terrain from your berth.
Sunday, December 29, 2002
The time had turned back an hour overnight. When I arose I did so having
gained twelve hours sleep and now had to hurry with my shower to catch
the last breakfast call. This was my first experience of showering on a
train. Everything was straight forward. I used the toiletries from my
complimentary Via kit bag. The only thing I could fault was the
conditioner which didn’t seem to work at all.
Back in my roomette
Lorraine arrived to inquire about me. While I complained about the
conditioner I noted a familiar glint in her eyes and her mouth turning
ever so slightly upwards. With a laugh, she announced I had used body
lotion on my hair. She was the first to tell me, but not the last to
know, I assure you. (Only day two and I had just handed her something to
tease me with).
I had breakfast of porridge and toast with grapefruit
juice and coffee (nice and strong, the way I like it). Tomorrow I will
ask for milk instead of cream for the porridge. Just don’t need the
I returned to my roomette, enjoying the solitude and catching
up on my note taking. The scenery outside my window had changed. We
were now just past Sioux Lookout. The terrain was rockier and the
hemlock trees appeared tall and skinny, pointing straight as arrows
towards the still overcast sky. Much more snow capped the rock inclines.
Ski-doo trails paralleled our tracks then veered off suddenly into the
surrounding woods. Where were they going I wondered.
Somehow all three of us congregated at Lorraine’s seat (she had a single
berth, not a roomette). We became quite chatty with travellers across
the aisle, two real-estate agents from Las Vegas. We joked and laughed
like old friends. Berris, the attendant stopped for a short visit. We
asked him for train stories. As he sat perched on an arm rest he told
us his tales, and they were thoroughly enjoyed by all present, suffice
it to say they were very funny.
Lunch was delicious, a glass of V8
juice, followed by a plate of smoked salmon and cream cheese on focassia
bread accompanied by a very tasty Caesar salad. I swear, I did not mean
to eat dessert but I had heard so much about this orange cream cake and
truly it was the best I’d ever tasted. Coffee ended the meal.
Up to the
dome car to enjoy the view. We saw many lakes on both sides as the
train snaked its was around their shorelines and through rock cuts. I
loved going through the tunnels and being enveloped in sudden darkness
then blazing out the other end into the light again. Crossing the
Manitoba border, we pushed onward through a light, almost filmy snow;
transparent at a standstill, but powdery white at train speed. It gave
a dreamy look to the woods we passed through.
We stopped briefly at a
town called Elma. As the train started to leave I caught sight of a
white hare running through the nearby snow in the same direction as the
train. It appeared he was racing the train and mistook us for some odd
version of a tortoise. His efforts were brave but alas (as the fable
goes), we out-ran him. The terrain broke away quickly into flat land.
Most of the evergreens were replaced by short, willowy shrubs, looking
thorny and wild, thriving close to the tracks.
About 3:30 p.m. we
arrived in Winnipeg at Union Station. We collected our luggage in
baggage and re-organized. It was then I posed this question: “Why, oh
why did we bring so much stuff?” A seasoned traveller would certainly
do with half of what I brought. Underwear and socks alone could have
seen me through till February. I blamed my mother for the underwear
thing, but the rest I must bear full responsibility for.
We checked our
luggage with the, so accommodating, girls at the Via ticket counter, to
be picked up in a few hours before boarding our next train. Once out of
Union Station the cold hit us as we walked towards the “Forks Market”.
Darlene and Lorraine were having a fun time with phantom train legs, a
symptom of feeling you were still on the train in motion and
compensating your mobility accordingly. The Market (food downstairs and
boutiques upstairs) was very interesting but we didn’t stay long. We all
felt like fish out of water, perhaps from travelling and off our normal
sleep patterns. Outside the market, all the trees were adorned with
thousands of little white lights which cast a warm glow against the
dying light of the sky, so beautiful.
Young skaters enjoyed their sport
under a canopied circle of ice. The atmosphere was so inviting and I
longed for a pair of skates (perhaps the only thing I didn’t bring).
dined at the Barbeque Pit where the music was too loud and the food
mediocre. I wished I had ordered perogies back at the Market. Back at
the train station, we virtually had the place to ourselves as we still
had one and a half hours to wait before boarding for Churchill. Over
fed and over tired, the three of us got the giggles (not hard to get in
the company I was in) One comment followed the next until the station
was filled with raucous laughter, just the three of us. I loved it,
after all it was a holiday and I adore these two friends of mine.
We met Mary (still at the station), who would be travelling with us as
far as Kamsacks, Sask. Her son departed knowing she was in good hands
with us. Mary was a lovely and full of fun lady.
At 8:30 p.m. we
boarded the train. We were greeted by Brad our car attendant, and cook.
He was very affable and we liked him immediately. He showed us to our
quarters. Lorraine and Darlene shared a room while I took the berth. He
returned to chat with us, going over the safety procedure, and talking a
bit about the Norwalk virus.
Everyone retired early on the train.
Feeling very sequestered in my berth, I fell asleep after reading only
one chapter of my book. It wasn’t just the motion of the train that
lulled me to sleep, it was the safety I felt in the company of these good
on-board staff, as we travelled the tracks leading northward to a place I
longed to see.
Sometime between one and two a.m. I awoke as the train had
stopped. I lifted my window blind and rose up on my elbows to watch a
scene unfold as if from some movie. We had stopped at the edge of a small
town, a lone streetlight cast an eerie glow in the storm that was raging.
In the distance a car was parked, engine running. A woman walked
forward towards the train, her whole body braced against the wind driven
cold and swirling snow. I watched as a bundled figure descended from the
train, suitcase in hand, and together they turned arms looped and sharing
the weight of the suitcase, slowly making their way toward the car. I
smiled. Goodbye Mary, you were right:, your sister would come for you no
matter what time or what weather.
Monday, December 30, 2002
I was the first to wake. No one was in sight. I headed for the
shower and discovered it was only willing to give forth cold water. I
abandoned that and sponge bathed instead. At 8:30 a.m. I ate my
breakfast alone. Porridge, toast with a side order of bacon, and plenty
of delicious coffee. I chatted with Carmelle and Brad throughout. It
wasn’t hard to tell the good working chemistry between them. On my third
coffee, I moved to their seats. Donalda joined us, a lady so full of
life and vigour that would put many young people to shame. She still
lives on her farm in Hartney Manitoba and can email like the most modern
of us. She had been visiting family on the holidays and was now on route
to Thompson for a New Year’s visit with her daughter and her family. I
listened to her talk about her life on the farm and decided I wanted to
be like Donalda when I am her age.
We stopped at The Pas to re-fuel. Out
we went into the newly fallen snow. (8”) Only a single path was cleared
to the station. I was happy to be in snow because my Christmas had been
green. The wind had a bite but the air was invigorating. I squashed the
urge to make a snow angel. Baggage from the train was transported by
snow scoop to the station, the roof of which was sculptured in swirls and
drifts from the night’s snow. Parked at the station were five 4x4 pick
ups, two with snowmobiles in the back, a sight that was becoming more and
more familiar as we travelled northward.
I met a couple from Churchill.
Nancy was a nurse and Dave a purchasing agent at the same hospital. For
the rest of the morning we discussed Churchill. They were perfect
ambassadors of their town having lived there for the past fourteen years
and loving it. Melanie, another Churchill resident joined us. We sifted
through facts from history to artists and places to go and people we
Lunch consisted of chicken noodle soup and a cheeseburger
garnished with tomato, lettuce and fried onions. It came with potato
chips, pickle and melon garnish. Par excellent!
The three of us were excited and happy to be on this trip. We spent the
afternoon catching up on our writing. We de-trained at Thompson for one
hour’s stay as train cars were shuffled on the tracks. Here we bade
goodbye to Donalda, walking her arm in arm to meet her granddaughter and
son-in-law. We really could have adopted her. We received a standing
invite to visit her anytime in Hartney.
The cold being so bitter we went
inside the station. There we met Echo with her four year old daughter
Hailey who entertained us entirely. They were returning to Churchill
having spent Christmas in Calgary. Mom was very laden with luggage and
presents and our offer of assistance seemed much appreciated. We boarded
fifteen minutes later and immediately went to the diner for supper. I
had the beef, mashed potatoes and veggies. It was very good.
Brad had made Lorraine’s and Darlene’s room into a double room during
the day, since the compartment beside them was now vacant. It felt
like a club-house and the three of us sat (stuffed) and teased each
other. We were tired and this northern air brought out the funnies in
us. I’m sure people heard us laughing two cars away. I announced an
early retirement to enjoy my book while nestled in my berth. When I
opened the curtain to get into bed I discovered what looked like a
person sitting on the side of my bed. The girls had stuffed my
pyjamas. I started to laugh (probably woke up Nancy over-head) and
then I heard giggles down the corridor. Snap, they took my picture.
Sorry Nancy, it was all their fault!
Tuesday, December 31, 2002
We 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
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
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
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
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, 2003
In 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
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.
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, 2003
I 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
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
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, 2003
I 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
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, 2003
I 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
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.
Click here to view the photo highlights!
Click to view each set of detailed photos below:
Friday, Dec 27, 2002
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Saturday, Jan 4, 2003
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Sunday, Jan 5, 2003
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Monday, Jan 6, 2003
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Click here for Lorraine's Rail Trip to Churchill, Canada!
Click here for Darlene's Rail Trip to Churchill, Canada!
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