Travels to Churchill, Manitoba on the Hudson Bay
by Laura Good
That’s way up north at 58 degrees latitude! Last summer a friend and I traveled via train from Winnipeg directly north about 1000 miles to Churchill on the Hudson Bay. We arrived on September 1 which is really between seasons as things close down on September 1 and don’t start up till October 1 when the polar bears arrive en masse. So we were there after the mosquitoes and before the snow.
The train ride from Winnipeg to Churchill should have been 36 hours but turned into 44 hours as the passenger trains had to wait for freight trains and then as we got further north, it could only go 10 to 20 miles per hour because of the melting permafrost – very wobbly. The train ride was reasonably comfortable – we had roomettes (CN$865 roundtrip each) – and the food was good, though it got a little meager for the last lunch when the train was so late. You should take a good book as the area is prairie with trees in the south and becomes tundra with not too much foliage toward the north. There are two reasonably sized towns (Townsend and The Pas), a few small towns along the way plus the train stopped occasionally to pick up folks at dirt road crossings.
We flew back to Winnipeg in a small plane of Kivalliq Airlines (CN$400 each standby) – generally a medical evacuation plane. Fortunately we were able to get that flight as our return train was canceled due to a freight train derailment half way up the line. Once the ground refreezes, the train is more reliable, stays on the track and is on time.
Churchill, population 800, was an adventure – it is only accessible by boat, train or plane – no roads south. The people, a mix of Inuit, Cree and Caucasian, were very friendly. The town has grain elevators and some oil storage as it is cheaper to take the grain out and the oil in by ship rather than transport it from the center of the country – at least while the train still runs.
We stayed at the Tundra Inn (CN$320 for 3 nights). We walked all over town and took a tour from one end of the city to the other. I took a Zodiac boat ride to the Hudson Bay Company Fort across the Churchill River. There were two armed park guards while we were at the fort just in case there were some early polar bears. Once in the Zodiac we began to spot whales and it was really exciting to see so many Beluga whales. We also visited an Eskimo Museum and the Post office where we had our Passports stamped with a special Polar Bear stamp. An interesting feature in the town was that the hospital, indoor playground, town hall, elementary, junior high and high school were all in one long building – makes getting around easier in the winter.
On the train we met two couples – one from Ottawa and one from Cornwall in England. The latter was a retired Anglican Priest and his wife who was a descendant of the first missionary to Churchill. The priest spoke at the Anglican Church on Sunday morning and related the adventures of the missionary. It is hard to believe that anyone could tolerate such hardship. This place is frozen over and snowed in from October to June. Because these folks were guests of the town, they rolled out the carpet for them and set up the tours which would otherwise not have been available – we were lucky to be able to tag along.
Winnipeg was interesting too – a city of 750,000 with an impressive museum showing the history of Manitoba, the native peoples and the Hudson Bay area. We took a dinner cruise on the Red River on the Paddlewheel Queen, visited the Fortwhyte Nature Park complete with bison and the Winnipeg Art Museum but were more impressed with the offerings in some art stores. (Get your cell phone set up for Canada before you leave the U.S.!)
This is a good trip for a maximum of about 3 days as once you have seen the town, the museum, fort, bears or bear jails, gift shops, etc., there is not a lot else to see or do. Because we were there over Labor Day weekend, we were limited pretty much to one restaurant – fortunately the food was good – and by Tuesday morning the selection was fairly limited and would remain so because the train with supplies was not going to get in till Thursday!