This Train Ride Belongs on Your List.
Six years ago, I took VIA Rail’s wonderful trans-continental train, The Canadian, and got off in Winnipeg. Two days later—it was about the third week of October—I boarded Train 693, the Hudson Bay, for the two-night, 1100-mile ride north to the little town of Churchill.
The train ride—here we are in the town of Thompson, Manitoba—is worth doing all by itself. The equipment on this train is not quite as nice as that used on The Canadian, but it’s very similar: coaches, sleepers with sections, roomettes and cabins for two, a dining car and the bullet-ended Park car that traditionally brings up the rear on all of VIA’s long-distance trains. The diner features table service and has a good selection of wine and spirits. The food is certainly acceptable, but the meals are pre-packaged and heated in microwave ovens.
It’s a fascinating ride, passing through vast grain fields for hours after leaving Winnipeg. On the second day, in some remote areas of northern Manitoba, we saw many lakes and ponds, almost all with beaver lodges. Much of the time on Day Two, we traveled at very slow speed because the track sits on permafrost that can get a little squishy. There are still no roads extending all the way to Churchill, so there are only two ways to get there: plane or train.
The town of Churchill is home to just over 800 people and sits on the shores of Hudson Bay. It’s a deep water port and in the early Fall, millions of tons of grain, grown all across Canada’s grain belt south of here, are brought in by rail, then loaded and shipped to customers mostly in Eastern Europe.
The train ride is special, but this is the reason for coming to Churchill. Polar bears come into the area in the late Fall, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over because they spend the winter out on the ice hunting seals, their only real source of food.
We watched these two young polar bears tussling for close to 15 minutes. I photographed them from one of the big-wheeled vehicles that take visitors out into the tundra where the bears hang out. One of the people in our group expressed surprise that the bears weren’t afraid of our big tundra buggy. “Ma’m,” said our guide, “a thousand pound polar bear is afraid of only one thing on earth: a fifteen hundred pound polar bear.”
This is the train ready to take us on the two-night journey back to Winnipeg. It wasn’t cold that night, it was damn cold—under 30 degrees fahrenheit—and windy, too. But to see polar bears close up in the wild and also experience that train ride . . .well, it was worth every minute. And every dime.