Take VIA Rail North to an Experience of a Lifetime.
VIA Rail Canada runs a train some 1100 miles due north from Winnipeg to the town of Churchill, on the shores of Hudson Bay. As the weather turns cold—along about the middle October—polar bears assemble in the general area of Churchill waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over. The bears spend the winter out on the ice hunting seals, almost their sole source of food.
Visitors to Churchill are taken out into the tundra on giant, slow-moving vehicles—called tundra buggies— and, if your timing (and the weather) is right, you almost always get to see bears. Here’s proof on my good luck:
The day I went out in one of those big lumbering machines, we stopped for a full fifteen minutes to watch these two young polar bears tussling. I have dozen more photos, although this is probably there best off the bunch.
A few minutes later, another bear came right up to our machine and I stepped out through a rear door in the main cabin onto an open platform to get this photo:
A woman in the group asked our driver/guide why the bears weren’t frighted off by the big, lumbering tundra buggies. “Lady,” he said patiently, “a full grown male polar bear can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds and is afraid of absolutely nothing.”
The train, appropriately named the Hudson Bay, operates two days a week and is Churchill’s only surface link with Winnipeg and the rest of Canada for the town’s 800 or so permanent residents. There are commercial flights in and out of Churchill, but no roads connecting the town with any other communities or cities to the south. I must add that the train ride up and back was for me a big bonus. It’s a two night trip and sometimes, for occasional stretches of more than a few miles, the train crept along at 10 mph because in a number of areas the tracks are laid on permafrost that can soften, depending on the weather. I met some very interesting people on the ride and it was fascinating to see the terrain and the vegetation change as we went farther and farther north.
In all my train travels over the years, two trips stand out well above all the rest: crossing Siberia and Mongolia is at the top of the list; my ride up to Churchill to see the polar bears is a close second. If either or both of these rail journeys are not on your personal bucket list, write ’em down.
I went up to Churchill last summer. (Beluga whales are the seasonal animal in summer, though we did also see a couple of polar bears.) They did have a dining car on the train, with meals cooked to order (with the exception of an unplanned “emergency” meal we were served because of a delay). They also sold the standard VIA lounge/cafe items from the back of the diner. My understanding was that the diner was available at high demand times, which for the Winnipeg/Churchill train (they no longer use “Hudson Bay” as the official name) is summer and October/November. At other times they have a lounge car and provide microwaved meals to sleeping car passengers.
At high demand times they also have a park car at the end of the train. There’s not nearly the view there is crossing the Rockies, but it’s still a fun place to congregate and enjoy the ride.
We actually drove up to Thompson (essentially the end of the road) and caught the train there. That was significantly cheaper than taking the train all the way from Winnipeg, which is an unusually long journey because the route detours into Saskatchewan before heading back north.
Jim, Tell me again that this trip is still a “must ride” even with the elimination of the diner…as I need to add it to my list.
I’ll check with my source, but it seems to me that there is still a dining car, but the meals are microwaved. Would I still go? Absolutely!