Riding on a train riding on a train... this ...

Trip Start Jun 29, 1999
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Trip End Dec 04, 1999


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Flag of Canada  , Manitoba,
Saturday, August 21, 1999

Riding on a train, riding on a train...

This is your captain speaking. Our destination is the future, and it's going to get funky.

In my case the definition of funk to be used is that of a foul odour. It's been almost 5 days since my last real shower (i.e. using the sink in the train washroom doesn't count).

Tuesday, August 17th
After leaving you with my last travelogue entry I hooked up with Winnipeg resident, and friend of Joanne Kasunic, Chris McCann. Chris allowed me to park my car in his garage for the past 5 days and I once again must praise someone for their gracious hospitality. Thanks a lot Chris! (and Joanne as well!) I also got an authentic Ukrainian meal out of it as well. It was delicious. The train left quite promptly at 10pm. We were immediately informed that there was a freight train derailment between Churchill and Gillam and, thus, we might up getting flown from Gillam. This sounded quite cool until I found out that it meant waiting for a plane to make a connection with us and we probably wouldn't be arriving in Churchill until mid to late afternoon on Thursday. That would have only given me a couple of hours in Churchill as the plane flying out leave at 10pm. I was a little perturbed but there was nothing I could do about it. There were only 8 people on my car so everybody had lots of room to stretch out for the evening. Trying to sleep on the aging and lumpy seats provided on a VIA Rail coach isn't the easiest task but just after midnight I slipped off to sleep. Unfortunately we made a number of stops that evening (Dauphin, Gladstone, and a couple I barely remember) which made sleeping difficult. I estimate I got about 5 hours of decent sleep.

Wednesday, August 18th
I awoke just before sunrise somewhere in Saskatchewan. That's right, Saskatchewan. The CN line the train follows makes a milk-run through eastern Saskatchewan grain country. This is one of the two major factors that make this train ride so long. The sun was rising over a large lake with a layer of mist on it. it was quite pretty. We stopped at Hudson Bay, Sask (no, it's a land-locked city) at about 8am and a tour bus filled with retired farmers got on. Things were significantly more crowded but I still held on to my carefully acquired 4 seat territory. Realizing that we were all in for a long, long ride everybody got down to the business of getting to know one another and over the course of the next day I learned a lot about the state of the agriculture economy in Saskatchewan. There was also a retired Australian couple who were quite friendly as well. At 10am we stopped in La Pas, Manitoba. As we were taking on gas and water I had a chance to stretch my legs. After 12 hours on the train I was feeling quite good.

The next six hours of travel took us in a north-eastern direction and the land quickly changed from wheat farms to dense forest. For most of the route we access towns that have no road access to the rest of the province. These towns are typically made up of Métis and appear desperately poor. Most of the people work in the lumber or fishing industries. CN used to provide a number of jobs for crews to do rail line maintenance. These jobs were eliminated in the past few years and the rail line has deteriorated to the point where the train cannot travel more than 40 kph for fear of derailment (reason #2 why it takes so long). Even at these slow speeds you're being shaken to and fro. Writing is next to impossible and reading is made difficult. This is okay because I found myself mesmerized as we moved further northward into the boreal forest. It's a landscape that looked totally foreign to me. It was mainly flat and covered with rocks and marshes. The weather and soil allow trees to grow but you'll find the great stands of Tamarack trees very eerie. Added to the eerieness was the occasional old abandoned trapper's shack in the middle of nowhere which created a very "Blair Witch Project" feel to the whole trip. There are a number of stops along this line that are used very little but you can still buy tickets to get there anyway. For example, a family got off at a stop called Wakusko. They were headed to a friend's cabin. This stop consists of a CN Communications repeater tower and a single track laneway leading off into the forest.

At 4pm we hit the town of Thicket Portage. This is one of the typical Métis towns I described earlier and is located about 45 miles by rail southwest of Thompson. It's a town of about 300 people. In Thicket Portage, like all the other towns you pass, it seems as if the whole town comes to watch the train come in. This may seems somewhat hokey but besides TV this rail line is the only contact they have with the outside world. I'm sure all kids dream of hopping on this train someday to head to the big city and maybe meet their hero Stone Cold Steve Austin. I'm not kidding about that. After spending a lot of time in rural Canada I've become to believe that Stone Cold is a genuine folk hero. At Thicket Portage we took on enough residents to fill the rest of the train (all of them were headed to Thompson to pick up groceries). I shared my empty seats with Norman, his wife, and his grandson. We had a pleasant 2 hour ride into Thompson. It was during this time I learned about life in these remote towns. Thicket Portage doesn't have any banks so everyone uses Canada Post money orders for currency. They do have a road that joins up with the major highway to Thompson but it is only passable when the ground freezes. In Thompson (6pm) almost all the Métis got off and their spots were filled with tourists heading to Churchill. It was hear that we finally heard word that the train would be able to make it all the way to Churchill with only a minor delay. I shared my seats with a young couple from Switzerland (I didn't catch their names unfortunately). Their first language was Swiss German but we managed to communicate via English or sometimes in French. Unused to such empty geography these two did nothing but stare out the window in wonderment. I finally drifted off to sleep sometime around 1am.

Thursday, August 19th
I woke up at 5:30am. The dense boreal forest had thinned out considerably as we moved northward through the night. Their were whole stands of dead Tamarack trees. I assume that since there wasn't much evidence of fire that they had grown to large for the soil to support. It looked like a forest of burnt match sticks. We arrived in Churchill at 10:30am, 3 hours late and 36.5 hours after we had left Winnipeg.

Churchill is town of about 600 people. The population used to be 5000 during the height of the Cold War when it was a very strategic site because the army could monitor any transmission or flight over the North Pole. It's now back to it's frontier town roots. Only a couple of roads are paved and the rest are very dusty gravel. Due to the fact that every kid in town has an ATV to themselves there is a constant cloud of dust over the city. All buildings are built on top of rock and most have aluminum shed exteriors. It's not pretty in the traditional sense. Now the major industries are the port, tourism, and scientific research.

After a quick tour around town on foot and a quick lunch at Gypsy's Bakery (awesome baked goods here) I booked a wildfire adventure trip with Tundra Buggy tours. A group of 25 of us were bussed out to an area of tundra on the coast 30 minutes east of Churchill. We then boarded a Tundra Buggy. These vehicles can only be found in Churchill. They resemble Monster Truck School Buses. Their top speed is 7 miles per hour. We spotted many northern birds including Tundra Swans, Arctic Loons, and Northern Harrier hawks. The latter were the most exciting as we happened upon them while they were attacked a flock of ptarmigan. Then we spotted a polar bear! At that point we were still about a kilometre away. It was right on the coast and easily blended with the white-yellow rocks on the beach. After closing to within 500 metres it double-backed on us and we lost it. The polar bear was much more mobile than us. I later found out from somebody who went on a helicopter tour that it had 2 cubs with it and thus explained its bashfulness. We stopped and got off the buggy for a snack but we were all warned that anything can happen. Apparently a National Geographic photographer almost met a nasty end here a few years ago. Churchill was built directly upon the polar bear's migration route and that's why these giants live in such close proximity to humans. The town has a Polar Bear penitentiary for bears that wander into town before the bay can freeze. On our way back to the bus we were also able to watch a caribou mother and child drink from one of the ponds. Again we couldn't get within 500 metres of them but we had enough binoculars to adequately share amongst our group. It was then that I realized that exactly one week before I had been observing cacti and watching for rattlesnakes in the grasslands of southern Saskatchewan.

Once back in town I went to the Eskimo Museum which was closed! I had dinner at the Lazy Bear Café. It's one of the few wood buildings in the city. I had the Caribou pepper steak with wild rice soup. The meat was excellent - very tender. Afterwards I wandered up to the town cemetery which rests on a hill overlooking the town. This cemetery has been become quite derelict. Wild bushes grow on graves and most graves are simply marked with broken wood crosses with no identification. I watched the sun go down and read some Robert Service poetry (yes, he was talking about the Yukon but it's still the far north). I then headed back to the train station for the 10pm train back to Winnipeg. As I waited on the platform the Northern Lights appeared directly overhead. Simply stunning views of moving ribbons of red and yellow. It was the absolutely perfect ending to my day in Churchill.

Friday, August 20th
I managed a whopping 5.5 hours of sleep before the sun rose again. The return trip was just as mesmerizing. I spent my time alternately watching the scenery, reading, and conversing with a family from Minnesota and a geography teacher from France. Once we to Thompson everyone from Thicket Portage got back on with their groceries. Think about that - a grocery run takes 3 days. After dropping everybody off in Thicket Portage we made it to a town called Wabadonow. Here we got a real "treat." A Métis woman got on with her 5 kids all between the ages of 10 and 1. She looked like she had led a hard life. She had a tattoo of the name "John" on her bicep that was covered in long scars in an apparent attempt to remove it. She then left the infant in the care of her eldest daughter and headed to the bar car for "a smoke." This smoke took 3 hours and a few whiskey shots. Meanwhile her children acted like feral animals. Everybody on the car soon migrated to another. A small cheer rose from the crowd when the family got off in La Pas. I should point out that this woman was the exception and not the rule when it came to mingling with the poorer natives. Everyone else I met was extremely friendly. When we got to La Pas I realized then that the train was once again 4 hours behind schedule. After giving my Minnesotan friends few lessons in Canadian history I finally fell asleep for about 4 hours.

Saturday, August 21st
The remaining few hours of the trip was quite nice and I managed to polish of the most amazing book I've read in some time. "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond attempts to explain why human history turned out as it did. That is, why technology appeared earlier in Europe and Asia than anywhere else and thus meant the conquering of other less technologically advanced societies. From example, how could the Spaniard explorer Pizzaro decimate the Incan Empire with only 186 men. The answer was guns, germs and steel. This is not a racist look at the world history. Whites did not conquer the Indians because they were inherently smarter. The whole course of human history is dependent on WHERE people were located. I obviously can't explain everything here but this book justifiably won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.

Now after 36.5 hours on the train followed by 12 hours in Churchill followed by 37 hours on the train I'm going to hop in my car and head westward. Hopefully I'll find a campsite tonight with a good shower.
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