The Polar Bears of Hudson Bay.
The following is the first third of a story I wrote for the Columbus Dispatch and which I have included in my book, Travel Tales. Parts 2 and 3 to follow. Suffice to say that this was probably the most unforgettable trip I’ve ever taken.
* * *
VIA Rail’s train #693 trundles out of the Winnipeg station at five minutes past noon, beginning its twice-weekly run to the little town of Churchill, Manitoba, almost 1,100 miles to the north. There will be 25 stops along the way.
Most of us aboard on this late October day are tourists hoping to see the polar bears that come into the Churchill area about this time of year, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over. The bears spend each winter out on the ice, many miles from shore, hunting seals, their primary source of food.
Throughout the afternoon, the train rocks along, passing great, broad fields lying fallow after the fall grain harvest. The coaches toward the front of the train are where the locals have settled, many boarding or leaving the train at one of the tiny hamlets along the route. Tourists occupy most of the accommodations in the one sleeping car. So far, I’ve met an elderly man from New Jersey, two couples from Custer, South Dakota (the men are law partners); a bookish single woman from Australia; and an aristocratic elderly woman from Cologne in Germany. It’s a diverse group, but with a common purpose: to see the bears.
VIA Rail dining cars feature communal seating and my companions at dinner are a Swiss man in the shipping business, a young Asian woman who says she’s “from Montreal and sometimes Tallahassee”, and a gruff, bearded farmer from neighboring Saskatchewan province, who raises what I gather are vast quantities of wheat, canola, and peas. When I return to my compartment, the train attendant has lowered my berth and I’m soon under the down comforter, lights out, watching the shadowy outline of evergreens sliding by outside my window.
Morning reveals a mostly flat terrain with scrubby trees that become shorter and scrubbier the farther north we go – —long stretches of tangled wilderness frequently broken up by streams and small lakes, just crusting over with ice and most featuring rounded beaver lodges.
The train frequently slows to a crawl as it passes over stretches of track laid on permafrost which has softened and become spongy. No matter, these and other factors have clearly been taken into account, for our train eases to a stop in Churchill at 7:05 the next morning, just five minutes behind schedule.
There’s a heavy overcast and it’s quite raw—hardly a surprise, since we’re now just 600 miles south of the Arctic Circle—and, right over there behind that row of darkened buildings, is Hudson Bay, its frigid gray water churning against the rocky shore.
(To be continued)
The Hudson Bay is a train that could do considerably better if VIA bothered marketing it. Selling packaged tours to see the bears, while getting around to refurbishing the Chateau sleepers, and making much-needed track improvement north of The Pas would do the trick. Perhaps even attaching one of the Prestige cars for high=paying tourists.