Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Churchill: farewell to the frozen ocean

Churchill: at the end of the day

The rest of the day passed slowly but leisurely. Churchill seems to shut down outside the major tourist seasons, so I was able to spend a pleasant afternoon just walking and stopping off for a coffee from time to time in one of the town’s cafés. There are a handful of attractions outside town, such as the wreckage of a freight plane that crashed near Churchill Airport in the seventies. I’m told it was brought down because of a heavy load of Pepsi, but I suspect it might have had more to do with something more mundane. Seeing these requires transport, but I decide not to spend C$20 on a taxi tour.

I explore the town some more, stopping off in the post office for stamps (and to ensure my postcards get a suitably interesting postmark) and going back to the Northern store to get some supplies for the return trip. I go back to the library when it opens again at 19.00 for a second burst of blogging, having realised how far behind in this travelogue I am. On my way out, I notice some boxes by the door. A large quantity of old books, some from Churchill Library, are being offered for free to anyone who can offer them a better home. So I rifle through, and pick out the Booker Prize winning paperback The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and an old hardback biography of the inventor of radar (something my father would doubtless approve of…). Having been turned off by the imported souvenirs I’d seen today, this would be an excellent souvenir of my trip. Inside the front cover, this decommissioned library book still carries it’s loan record and the insert library card. It was given to the For Churchill Library in 1953, and has spent the last fifty years being read by generations of Churchillers with a passing interest in radar. It adds quite a weight to my luggage, but I’m happy to leave with a special souvenir.

Just before returning to the station, I turn round the corner of the Town Complex once more and walk down to the beach. The sun is falling behind the pretty solid grey cloud cover, and the temperature is beginning to drop again. I crunch through the untouched banks of snow and down onto the sand. I stand alone, staring out across the frozen bay once more. Another cinematic reference pops into my mind – this time The Winter Guest, filmed on an unnamed Scottish island during a particularly cold winter, during which the straight between the island and the mainland freezes over. Despite being quite unbelievable for Scotland’s mild climate, it’s still an enchanting image, and throughout the film people do as I do, and come out to stare across the immensely solid yet dangerously fragile surface. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before, and the immensity of this frozen sea is almost overwhelming. Having lived in Montréal for almost eight months now, I have realised how much I miss being near to the sea. I miss the smells, the sounds, and the sense of enormity that borders seaside landscapes.

But here, there is no sound, other than the wind whistling off the ice and across my numbing cheeks. Every quality I associate with the sea has been obscured. Part of me agrees with a young female character in The Winter Guest, who runs out onto the ice, teasing her more cautious friend that he shouldn’t be afraid: he might never get the chance again to walk on the sea.

But fears of plummeting through a cracked ice flow overcome my subconscious urges. I turn my back to the sea, and walk back to the station.

Churchill: snow mobiles

Churchill: you can't keep a blogger down

I spend the rest of the day exploring what’s left of the small town. The population of Churchill once numbered 7,000. It’s now less than 800, following the closure in 1979 of the large US Military base. American service men and women were dispatched to Churchill for cold weather training, since Churchill’s climate bore more than a passing semblance to much of that of the then Soviet Union.

The Eskimo Museum opened at 13.00, and I go in for a look round. Incredibly the museum is free, although it does depend on donations to help maintain the beautiful collection housed in the modest building next to the town’s Catholic church. The museum’s single large room is lined with glass display cabinets, and these are filled with hundreds of Inuit artefacts and sculptures. In fact the collection of ivory and soapstone figurines and carvings is easily the highlight of my trip. There are also a couple of stuffed artic animals which sit in large cases, lamely caught in poses designed by a distant taxidermist.

The museums is also worth visiting for the large collection of books that are on sale. They cover the natural environment of Churchill and also the history of this town and the region. I bump into one of the other passengers who had travelled up from Winnipeg with me, and he was pleased to have finally found a copy of the book that chronicles the history of the construction of the Hudson Bay Railway. Apparently it was sold out everywhere else, and even though there’s a copy in the display cabinet of the town council offices, no-one there seemed to know anything about it.

After seeing the museum, I visit the library, which is inside the Town Centre Complex. You can use the internet here for free for up to thirty minutes. The lady at the counter raised her eyebrows and shrugged, saying that the computers were mainly for tourists who wanted to be able to check their e-mails every day while staying in Churchill. Apparently some people don’t take to the wilderness too well (although you’ll no doubt be pleased to hear that I spent my free thirty minutes updating this blog, rather than writing emails…

The (frozen) Hudson Bay, Churchill, MB

Churchill: until it I can't feel my cheeks

I walk back into town, cutting down through some of the residential streets at this end of town. The architecture here tells you everything you need to know about the climate. In some cases, the windows are deeply set in thickly insulated walls. On some buildings, there are no windows or openings at all on the side facing the bay.

I return to Kelsey Boulevard and stop into a large shop selling souvenirs. I’ve spent much of the last winter in much colder temperatures in Montréal, but to return to this climate again suddenly without any time to acclimatise is making me balance my time walking around town with my time inside. The shop is quiet, but I can imagine that in a busier time of year it’s hopping with tourists. All sorts of Canadiana is available to purchase, although it’s hard to find anything that you can honestly say is from Churchill. More or less everything is imported via the same long route that I came. Even the plastic polar bears are made in China.

I walk the length of Kelsey Boulevard, and decide that there’s no point holding out on a nice warm meal any longer. By the time I reach Gypsy’s Diner, I don’t need to be persuaded by the recommendation in my guidebook. It’s already sold itself to me. It’s a basic diner and bakery with a solid menu. I choose today’s lunchtime special, a beef and pork stir fry, which reminds me to warn any vegetarians thinking of moving to Churchill not to underestimate the difficulties you’re likely to encounter here. I sit and write postcards over my coffee, listening in to the gossip from a group of retired ladies on the next table.

Churchill: gloved up

I leave the Northern stores wrapped up snugly and prepared for a day out in Churchill. The Northern is Churchill’s biggest store, and it really is a ‘general’ store. It has a small supermarket with a surprisingly large selection of fresh fruit and vegetables, a small electrical department, a video rental store, a clothes department and just about every small thing you could need around the household.

I walk back towards the station and then turn left alongside a partly snowed over park, towards the Town Centre Complex. This large, low building hugs the crest of a low hill on the north-eastern side of town, stretching along the edge of the community for several blocks. It’s not particularly pretty, but then its large amorphous shape serves a purpose. As well as housing the town’s school, hospital, theatre, library and council rooms, the large complex forms a large barrier between the town and the shore of the Hudson Bay. As soon as I walk round the side of the building to visit the beach, I realise why that’s a good idea. As far as I can see, the bay is still frozen over. All my hopes of seeing the ocean at the end of my forty hour train ride evaporate.

And because the sea is still frozen, the wind that is coming off the bay is perishing. The moment I turn the corner and walk towards the beach, the temperature drops about another ten degrees with the wind-chill. Even with my extra layers, the icy wind cuts through me, and it feels about –15C. And remember, this is May. In January this icy wind-chill factor can push the temperature down to nearly –60C.

I trudge down the track towards the sandy beach. The last time I saw sand, I was in California, when it was a rather agreeable 15C. I can’t believe that just a few weeks ago I considered that chilly. On the edge of the beach stands a stone Inuit sculpture. These beautiful abstract structures don’t require much explanation. In this inhospitable environment, these simple stone structures tell you that other people have been here before; that you are not alone. They are a friendly greeting, made from the materials found lying to hand, but arranged in a way that could only be made by another human being. The precise meanings of different sculptures revealed messages about hazards, territories or even good fishing grounds. Although Churchill’s population is now predominantly white and Anglo-Canadian, this sculpture is a beautiful reminder of this territory’s traditions and origins.

I feel like I should sit and consider this barren seascape for a bit longer; maybe stop and sketch for a while. But as they say back home, it’s brass monkeys out here and I’m cold. I scoot back towards the town, but take a right and walk a little way out of town towards Churchill’s most notable landmark. Out on the edge of town stand the enormous grain elevators of the Port of Churchill. It’s because of the port that Churchill has a railway line. I don’t know the exact figures, but Churchill handles tens of thousands of tonnes of grain and other freight every year, even though it is closed in by ice for almost half of the year. In a magazine article published in Montréal before I left on my trip, Omni-Trax (the new owners of the Port of Churchill) were openly optimistic about the opportunities for increasing the volume of freight that passes through the port. Over the next few decades, it is expected that the effect of global warming will be to allow sea passage to and from Churchill for longer every year. The period that the port is iced in has already been seen to be slowly reducing. Some of the Churchill residents I spoke to were pessimistic, however, and pointed out that despite the effect global warming on the polar ice, it’s still impossible to work outside in the winter when it gets below –40C, and the winters don’t appear to be getting any warmer up here..

Churchill is the only sea port in the Canadian prairies, and grain shipped through here can reach Europe two and a half days more quickly than if shipped through some of the eastern ports, such as Montréal or Boston. Importing and exporting produce and products through Churchill avoids thousands of kilometres of railway and, because of the curvature of the Earth, allows for a quick sea crossing to Europe.

But at this exact moment, the port stands silent. The ice is beginning to break up and melt, but it will be some time before shipping commences for the summer season of 2006.

Churchill: 75% off all outerwear

Tara comes through to make my bed up as we arrive. We talk about what we're going to be doing between now and tonight's return departure back to Winnipeg. She says she's looking forward to getting some sleep in the hotel room that VIA Rail provide her with for her daytime layover. Apparently Churchill is the only place where she can sleep peacefully through the day. She recommends that I stop by Gypsy's Bakrery and Diner for lunch: she always enjoys the food there, and coming from a chef I take the advice.

I'm the only person getting off the train from the steps at the back of the sleeper car. Further up, the thrice weekly arrival is being met with great activity, as supplies and luggae are unloaded from the train. I hang around for a while, waiting for the station master to return from unloading the train so that I can leave my bags here for the day. It is, however, bitterly cold. I check the weather forecast that is pinned inside the station, and today's high is not predicted to be above -8C. This is, in fact, unseasonally cold for Churchill, and just last week a period of warm sunshine and spring like temeratures was apprently broken by a sudden snow and ice storm. Regardless, I am hopeless unprepared for this unpredicted drop in temperature, and just waiting outside my extremities are getting cold. I joke with one of the other passengers that this is quite a change from California the week before last. If I'd known I would have packed gloves and a hat. He replies that if he'd known he would have packed his thermal underwear. I fantacise about my soft silky long johns, far far away from here, stuffed in a drawer back in Montréal.

I manage to leave my bags with the station manager (no charge) and am told to be back before 20.00 to collect them. The train will be leaving tonight at 20.30. I have no intention of missing it. Just outside the large, beautifully restored station is a big sign, welcoming visitors to Churchill. It says that apart from being the 'Polar Bear Capital of the World', Churchill is a' Bird Watchers Paradise' (late May through September), 'Belguga Whale Capital of the World' (late June to late August) and home to the Aurora Borealis (late November through late March). So it's no wonder that the train was empty - I've conveniently arrived at the one time of the year when there isn't much going on in Churchill for the tourist.

I scamper up Kelsey Boulevard, the closest thing Churchill can claim to have to a busy shopping street. It's a broad tarmac road, with wide unpaved strips either side. Low-lying one and two storey buildings are dotted out at even spacings along the street in both directions. I head straight for the 'Northern' supermarket and general store. I am fully prepared to pay a fortune for some gloves and hats, knowing full well how expensive things can become up here because of their long journey to get here. Much to my amusement, however, because it's now the end of winter, there's a clearance sale on all outerwear. I pick up a 75% discount on a pair of gloves and a toque (hat). Total price: C$3.13.

I am now prepared.

Train 693: Churchill

Train 693: The second breakfast

I make my way inelegantly forward to the restaurant car, bouncing off the walls of the corridor and leaping through the vestibule connecting the carraiges, hoping not to get smacked by the door as we go over another bump in the track. I'm greeted with smiles and a friendly hello from the crew, who by now call me by my first name. This is one of the most pleasant train rides I've had, simply because I've had so many opportunities to get to know and talk with the on-board crew. I skip the larger plates and just have coffee and hot oats from the 'a la carte' menu to start my day (C$4.75). Carmel tells me that we'll be in Churchill some time before 11.00. It's particularly difficult for this train to ever make it's optimistically schedhuled 0830 arrival time. But I'm in no rush, and with a hot coffee, this is a lovely warming way to start the day. I'm back in my usual window gazing mode, drinking up the incredible bleak tundra landscape outside our windows.

I start talking with another passenger, who's also having breakfast. He's a father and a self employed truck driver from near to Winnipeg, up here for a few days helping to chaperone a school trip. The school children are heading to Churchill to learn first hand about some of their country's geography and history. In milder months, this is also a popular starting point for trips into the Wapusk National Park, which can be reached from Churchill by helicopter or (so I'm told) from the train line by kayak.

At about 10.25 I glance out of the window and notice something on the horizon. The huge, boxy grain elevators of the Port of Churchill are coming into view. Above and to the left, two birds flap together. We're nearing the Hudson Bay, and the end of the line. Off to the left I can just make out a thin silvery streak that must be the mouth of the Churchill River. Conversation in the mostly empty carraige seems to have receded, and everyone is looking out of the window at our approaching destination. I sink into the soundtrack of the train, hearing every creak, clank and high pitched squeek. It merges with an imagined electronic soundtrack that opens up to the horizon in every direction. I immediately remember an astonishing sequence in Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker in which three men break into a deserted post-apocalyptic 'zone'. They travel deep into the abandoned countryside on board a small self propelled rail wagon, and an intense scene of almost several minutes passes just watching the three men sitting on this car, contemplating their journey, their destination, and why they have come this far.

At 10.30, I am woken from my daydreaming. For the first time since yesterday, I hear the warning horn of the locomotives. We are passing over a level crossing, and after hundreds of kilometres of silence through uninhabited tundra, we are arriving into a human settlement.

Seen from a train: Northern Manitoba

Train 693: Rock-a-bye-James

As soon as I open my eyes, I know that we are on the famous home straight, the long straight stretch of track that runs from north of Gillam (our last stop late last night) to Churchill. The track here is at it's most unstable: while the sleepers safely keep the rails evenly spaced, the variation in the thawing of the ground means that the train is lurching from side to side. Being in the upper bunk and lying lengthways along the side of the train, I'm feeling the movement a lot. It's not inducive to motion sickness, and it doesn't feel unsafe, but it can catch you unawares. I gingerly step down from the upper bunk, trying not to be thrown off the ladder when the train lurches to one side.

My first glimpse outside confirms that we are most definitely in Manitoba's far north. This is wilderness. Nothing but rough tundra and occasional stumpy looking trees, growing as if under twice the normal pressure of gravity. The sky is a bright grey, and there are patches of snow on the ground. Some still patches of water are frozen over. While the ground supports some very green moss, the pallette of colours outside my window is much more muted than down south. It's an earthy, cold scene. Other than the bright moss, the trees and bushes are dark dark green. However, for what must be such an inhospitable place, there is a remarkable variety of plant life here.

To our left are tall steel electricity pylons. To our right are the much older wooden tripod telegraph poles. These were probably built soon after the railway opened in the late nineteen-twenties, and they no longer support any wires. They were built in a tripod form so that they could move up and down with the freezing and thawing ground. A normal wooden telegraph pole would soon fall over as the earth moved around it's base.

Train 693: The second morning

Train 693: Dinner

Since I'm going to be on this train and the return service for a total of nearly eighty hours, I've packed a fair quantity of food and snacks. However, I find it's all part of the experience to try and take at least one meal a day in the on-board restaurant car. I could quite easily get by on sandwiches, tinned sardines, fruit and other snacks, but over four nights that would get a bit boring.

There was no meal service leaving Winnipeg last night. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served today, and breakfast will be served tomorrow before we arrive in Churchill. The same pattern works on the southbound return trip. The restaurant also acts a take out snack counter, and sandwiches or other over priced odds and ends can be bought for consumption at your seat. The tariff for the take out counter is published online here. You can read all of VIA Rail's restaurant car menus here.

I'd not taken lunch here, but I had promised the ever friendly Tara (my chef and sleeping car attendant) that I would be back for dinner. As we pulled away from Thompson I sat down to eat. Only three or four other passengers (all travelling the full distance from Winnipeg to Churchill) had taken a sit down meal, although many of the coach passengers were coming through to buy snacks or beer. The menu on the 'Hudson Bay' is much like the restaurant car itself: compared to the 'Canadian', it's pared down for more modest journey. But that also means it's much more reasonably priced. Since I wanted to stick to something appropriate for my trip, I chose the Grilled Arctic Char. The menu describes it as: "From the icy waters of the Canadian North, grilled with fresh garlic and seasonings and finished with fresh lemon." It costs C$11.50, and I had a beer (C$4.75) with it.

Char is much like salmon, only somewhat lighter. It was served with potatoes and green vegetables. Overall it was good; maybe not the most impressive sea food meal I've eaten, but then the fish would have had to have been frozen to brought this far. I was happy to pay this price for it, and I have lots of respect for anyone who can prepare a meal while bouncing along this notoriously rough track.

After dinner, I stayed in the restaurant car and chatted with the crew, including one of the Hudson Bay Railway employees who was working the train. We talked about my trip and my career, and then I asked him about how he found life up here. He lives in Gillam, about mid-way between Thompson and Churchill. It can, he admitted, "be very depressing" being so far from other towns and living in such a small community. He seemed to be considering returning south in the future, but as for his job, enjoyed working on board the trains. A good team of colleagues seemed to help.

I made my excuses, and head to bed. Before leaving I'm advised that one of the coach passengers has chosen to pay a 'night fare' and upgrade to the berth below mine for the ride up to Churchill. I'm slightly disappointed about having to share an entire sleeper carraige with another paying passenger, but then one can't travel in absolute luxury all the time... :-)

The track is too bumpy for a shower or a shave tonight, so I wash quickly, haul myself up into my bunk, and pull the curtains closed. Thinking of all the nights I've spent roughing it in coach class makes it easy to curl up beneath the thick duvet. I read a bit more of Johnny Fedora's exploits in Trieste. He seems to lack the intelligence, style and subtlety of James Bond, which leaves him particularly laughable. Still, he always has time for a drink and has amazing luck with the ladies. Some men get away with everything...

Good night.

Train 693: Leaving Thompson

I take advantage of our extended stop in Thompson to step off the train. It's raining here, and even the hardened smokers are finding it hard to justify huddling outside for longer than their cigarettes last. There's also a slight chill in the air - perhaps a hint of what is to come? I walk up and down the platform to watch the activity that has started with the arrival of the train. A number of pick-up trucks are loading supplies onto the train, and a large crowd of people of virtually all ages is preparing to board the train. They are all going into the seated coaches, which soon fill up their comfortable limit, allowing every family a group of four seats and every individual a pair of seats on their own.

The train is fuelled and watered, and I hop back on board. Thompson is actually some way off the main line between The Pas and Churchill. We left it about an hour before getting to Thompson at the usefully named Thompson Junction. After the train is loaded and secured, we back out of the station and perform a slow reversing manouever over a triangle of tracks that turns us back towards the main line.

It's not just the passenger number that has grown. From this point on, the Hudson Bay Railway (over whose tracks we are running) insist on their own engineers piloting the train, and their own conductors managing the passengers and collecting tickets. I suspect that this would not be entirely necessary, but it saves VIA Rail having to base crew in Thompson, and also increases the number of local people who can benefit from this government subsidised source of employment.

We crawl over the turning tracks, and rumble on, back on the line towards Thompson Junction. We're now running about two hours behind, although this is hardly a complaint considering the circumstances in which this train runs. Exploring the two coach cars, I find people chatting, playing cards, sleeping or watching movies on portable DVD players. Up to now the train has been particularly quiet. That's because it's only the hardened rail fans or tourists who ride all the way from Winnipeg. If you live in Churchill and want to go to Winnipeg, it's faster to travel to Thompson by train, and then take the Greyhound bus to Winnipeg. It took us nearly twenty-three hours to travel from Winnipeg to Thomspon along an indirect route of almost 1,150km. By bus, the same trip by more direct roads takes just nine hours.

Train 693: Thompson

Our train "cools it's heels" at Thompson station.

Local businesses deliver large quantities of food and supplies for northern communities to the station, where they're loaded into the baggage car. Three trains a week all year round bring supplies to the villages and towns north of Thompson. Other than by plane, rail is the only way of reaching Churchill and communities north of Gillam.

About twenty or thirty passengers board at Thompson, and the coach cars start to liven up.