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Reflections 2011
Series 27
October 31
North Coast III: To Churchill by Rail!


Prolog   Before taking the long-planned, leisurely train trip to North America’s north coast in mid-October, I had occasion to go to the Dominican Republic in early October for six nights on business. I went to the DR in one of those tubular metal time capsules--you know, one of those sardine cans that succeed in squeezing many hours into few, but for which you have to pay by consenting to be compressed with other humans into living blocks of lumber stacked in rows. I voluntarily entered the time capsule just like any other freight being transported, such as furniture being loaded into a moving van, starting at the back (“row 25 or higher”). Then, just as one fastens down furniture securely to avoid damage, we all voluntarily attached ourselves to our seats. We were fed minimally during the four hours of time travel to Santo Domingo, on soda or juice and potato chips. When the time capsule arrived, there was still all the human compression inside, so it had to be decompressed, that is, emptied slowly from the front, such as when taking wrapped chinaware out of a barrel. On exiting, we, now decompressing from our stiff, wooden status, took a breath of fresh air as we reentered the normal world. I suppose to compress a trip southbound over the Atlantic to just four hours one has to yield a portion of one’s humanity, but it was nice to get it back again on arrival onto terra firma.


It was hard to comprehend the extent to which this experience would contrast with another trip shortly thereafter involving staying on terra firma throughout, including the calm habitation of one’s private domain, with compact bed, sink, and toilet, plus three pleasant meals a day with linens and silverware, on a train watching taiga forests passing by on the way to the Northland.


[An aside before proceeding. While on business in the DR, our attorney, who is politically active, invited several of us to a fundraiser at a golf club for Hipólito Mejía, who had been President of the DR from 2000 to 2004 and who is running again as a favorite candidate in next year’s election. I heard during some of the speechmaking that even extranjeros (foreigners) in the room were supporting his candidacy, and he came by to sit a few minutes at our table and chat (in English--he’d studied in the US). He even playfully stole some papaya from my dessert plate. It was a very new experience for me.]


To Churchill by Rail!   When I booked the hotel in Churchill a year ago (necessary well in advance because of the short polar bear season, and availability disappears), they suggested warm clothing. Actually, there was nothing I needed to buy, and didn’t really need to take all five special items I took. The two items I could have left home were rubbers to wear over my shoes (I’m glad I didn’t pack boots!), but after a while in Churchill I realized I didn’t even need them. I did also bring the glossy, black overpants I’d bought for Antarctica. They were really helpful there getting in and out of the zodiacs (boats) with all the splashing water, but I wore them only one day in Churchill for possible warmth, and didn’t really need them either.


All you really need are sensible winter clothes, since in Churchill it hardly got colder in October than freezing, although I’m sure it’s colder into the winter. All you need is a down jacket with gloves, a sweater, and hat. I had all three from previous trips. When I went to Spitsbergen, I bought in Norway a blue, heavy, lined Norwegian sweater, which was useful there, but which I don’t use in New York because it’s too heavy. But it was good on this trip, from Winnipeg north. I’d also bought in Norway a blue Norwegian knit hat, in pillbox form, with ear flaps. Also too warm for New York, but useful on the trip. Finally, in place of any down jacket, I brought along the bright red, lined coat that was included in the Antarctic trip. I do wear it in New York, despite the bright color, but only rarely. This large coat I rolled up and put in a small, light overnight bag, and everything else, including a light jacket for warmer days, fit very easily into my usual one roller bag.


I will repeat here for the record what I’ve said before. Nowadays, a majority of those who go to Churchill fly both ways. I think they’re missing a great part of the experience because they do not have the feeling of the distance involved in going so far north. Even with time constraints, one can at least go one way from Winnipeg by rail, and better still is the round trip. I, always one to do the maximum in this type of situation, went all the way from New York to Churchill by rail, via Toronto and Winnipeg, and back. When another passenger on a Tundra Buggy in Churchill approached me to ask if I was the “train guy” I took it as a compliment, and I also bonded with others I met who at least made one Winnipeg connection by rail.


We’ll start with the numbers. I took Amtrak’s Maple Leaf its entire route from New York to Toronto, VIA’s Canadian from Toronto over 44% of its route to Vancouver, and VIA’s Hudson Bay (VIA avoids that name now--I don’t) its entire route to Churchill, yielding the below numbers. The trip took sixteen nights--it’s the hotel nights I always count--and therefore seventeen days.

 Maple Leaf: 875 km (544 mi)
Canadian: 1943 km (1207 mi)
Hudson Bay: 1697 km (1054 mi)

Total One Way: 4515 km (2805 mi)
Total Round Trip: 9030 km (5611 mi)

This distance is similar to what I’ve done round trip by rail between New York and the West Coast. For the record, this is Amtrak’s System Map. Note the New York-Albany-Buffalo-Niagara Falls-Toronto connection made by the Maple Leaf, which is a train run jointly by Amtrak of the US and VIA Rail of Canada. For this reason I got two tickets each way, one from New York to Niagara Falls NY and another from Niagara Falls ON to Toronto. Amtrak rolling stock is used throughout, but the train is code-shared with VIA’s Corridor service, and VIA staff is used for the Canada portion. The original Maple Leaf was a Grand Trunk Western Railroad service between Chicago and Toronto. The current one was introduced in 1981. Also note that from New York to beyond Albany, the route duplicates in the Hudson Valley that of the Ethan Allen Express to Rutland, recently availed of and described. With a running time of 12h22, it would seem on the surface an ideal candidate for an overnight train, but then it would mostly service the interests of passengers on either end and not take enough advantage of intermediate passenger revenue, so the Maple Leaf is a day train, leaving Penn Station at the unfortunately early hour of 7:15 AM.


Day One I had to set the alarm for 5 AM (!!!) to leave for the subway in the drizzle by six. At the gate in Penn Station, there was a Canadian check-in set up by Amtrak, where you were given luggage tags and a form to fill out. The train left on time, went up the west side, over the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge and up the Hudson Valley in the continuing drizzle. The Toronto passengers were all in the first coach, but all coaches had comfortable reclining seats with fold-down tables and laptop plug-ins. There was none of that nonsensical airline business of “no electronics” or “tables in the upright and locked position”. I set up my laptop on my table at the window, plugged in to the outlet right next to me, used the neighboring table for food I purchased in the Café car during the day, had my bag in the seat next to me, and was well-ensconced for the trip in my own “home office”. I made good use of the time working on the material two postings ago on Canadian history. After Albany we turned west to Buffalo and then to Niagara Falls and the border. After stopping on the NY side, we crossed the bridge over the spectacular gorge situated to the north of the falls, but any somewhat distant view of the falls was obstructed by the highway bridge to the south of us. We then stopped for customs in Niagara Falls ON.


In 2011/24, we discussed the Borderlands between the US and Canada and how crossing the international line had become more problematic over the years, in contrast to how Europe had “lightened up” within the Schengen zone. When I’ve taken the Maple Leaf in the past, to my recollection, there was no paperwork--just as when you cross in a car--and at most, customs officials would walk through the train and you’d be on your way. (Actually, I never saw what good that did--did they somehow wave a magic wand to check everyone out?)


Not anymore. We’d been told earlier how it would go when we’d been given a form to fill out. On arrival, not only was it “Everyone off the train”, it was “with all your luggage”. And so we trudged in the continuing drizzle into the Niagara Falls customs office at the rail station. It was a bothersome ordeal, but I had fun making the most of it.


The official asked me where I was staying in Canada. Foolish question, to assume one single destination per person. So I started listing: Toronto, train, Winnipeg. She interrupted me to move on, but I said I wasn’t finished: train, Churchill, then the same in reverse. Did I know anyone in Canada? So I said, yes, in Calgary, Edmonton--another interruption, but I persisted: Windsor and Regina. But were their relatives I was visiting? No. She should have asked it right in the first place. She kept it up for a while, and of course, so did I.


In the next area, they x-rayed my bag (but they don’t do this to cars crossing on the vehicular bridge adjacent to the rail bridge!!!) and then the person doing that decided to spot-check my bag, so we went into a side room. What’s this? What’s that? Then he found my pills. What’s this pill for? It’s calcium. And this pill? It’s vitamins. How about this small one? Lipitor. And we went on, and on. Once he decided I was neither spy nor drug smuggler, I went to sit in the waiting room, since the train stayed there for a full hour, even once everyone was finished. Granted, not everyone got spot-checked as I did, but I’ve crossed between Iron-Curtain countries more easily.


Fortunately, I was able to make good use of the time. I was to physically pick up in Toronto the four VIA tickets I’d purchased months before on the phone. Also, while I’d gotten three Rooms-for-One, I’d been wait-listed for an upgrade from a berth to a Room-for-One leaving Winnipeg, and it had come through a few weeks earlier. I had to pay for that upgrade as well, and I was able to take care of it all at the Niagara Falls station instead of in Toronto. Small blessings.


When we reboarded the train with a Canadian crew, we couldn’t use the same first car and found seats in other cars. Why I cannot imagine. It was then under two more hours around the western end of Lake Ontario to Toronto.


Toronto’s Union Station is the busiest passenger transportation facility in Canada, serving 200,000 passengers daily and 65 million annually, which is more annual passengers than Toronto Airport serves. (Yay!). It was built between 1914 and 1920 and is the largest and most opulent rail station in Canada. The building is owned by the city, and the trainshed and trackage are owned by the commuter rail operator GO Transit. The station has been designated a National Historic Site of Canada. It’s located in the Québec City-Windsor Corridor, the most densely populated region of Canada, spanning 1,150 km (710 mi), and is therefore also in the busiest intercity rail corridor, which makes it VIA’s most-used facility. The Corridor yields VIA about 67% of its annual revenue.


The arrival in Toronto in the dark and drizzly early evening remains memorable. Rush hour had already passed, and there was little activity remaining in the station. Coming up the slope from the train area, I entered the magnificent Great Hall (through those columns on the right). But the three pictures presented so far are misleading in that they are daytime pictures. When I stepped outside into the wet darkness under the station’s illuminated columns on Front Street West and pulled my hood up over my jacket, I had an eerie, yet comforting feeling of arriving in a special place. I went around the east side of the station and walked three blocks down The Esplanade, a historic grand street in the old part of town. I’d booked a night in the Novotel Toronto, located in a recycled commercial building that even had a large stone arcade covering the street. Stepping inside and shaking off the raindrops, there was a welcoming (gas) fireplace chasing away the chill. I knew I’d like this place.


Day Two Although it’s possible one can connect on the same day between the trains I was taking, there was only less than two and a half hours leeway, and I thought it wiser to spend one night in Toronto. That means I had the entire next day until 10 PM, and I decided to explore what is essentially Old Toronto. However, it doesn’t go by that name. I was exploring the Old Town of York. The settlement had been named York after the victorious soldier-son of George III, Prince Frederick, the Duke of York and Albany. Later, after he kept on losing battles, they dropped that name and the city was incorporated as Toronto in 1834, reverting to its original native name. Toronto, however, is frequently pronounced colloquially as though it were written Tronno.


Since The Esplanade was already on the edge of the old town, that’s the area I strolled through for a half-day. It’s filled with 19C and early 20C commercial architecture. It’s always fun to watch local produce for sale, and I went through the stalls of the Saint Lawrence Market, which dates from 1803, although the buildings are of a later period. The rest of the afternoon I spent writing in the computer area of the hotel lobby, but in the early evening, I went to the dedicated Panorama Lounge in the station to await the 10 PM departure of the Canadian.


This is a map of the VIA network. With Churchill, I will have been on all the overnight connections (and then some) in Canada except to Gaspé, which is on my to-do list. Note the route of the Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver, and the connection up to Churchill (which is via The Pas/Le Pas [no S], a midnight stop). Also note that the route leaves Manitoba for a short stretch in Saskatchewan, just before The Pas.


The Canadian is VIA’s premier train, running transcontinentally over 2/3 of the country over four nights. I would be taking it to Winnipeg over two nights. Its history is complex, a fact I discussed with another railfan over breakfast one day on the train. It involves two Canadian rail companies, Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP). Note these two routes of the Canadian.


The original Canadian was a CP train (red route on map) from 1955 to 1978. At the same time CN operated the Super Continental over a more northerly route (blue on map) from 1955 to 1977. In 1977-8, all passenger services were taken over by VIA, the Canadian permanently, and the Super Continental until 1981 and from 1985-1990. At first the Canadian operated over its original route, including two sections east of Sudbury, one to Montréal and one to Toronto. When huge budget cuts hit VIA in 1990, the Super Continental service was abolished entirely, and the Canadian was moved north to the route of the Super Continental. Service was also reduced from daily to three times a week. It is also much slower than the original train, and no longer serves Montréal and Ottawa directly, as it had.


These service cutbacks and changes are unfortunate. It would still be better to leave from Montréal and Ottawa as well as Toronto, but one can live with that change. Daily service is also better, but we put up with thrice weekly. But in the East, losing the route along Lake Superior is a definite loss, since the upper route is nowhere as scenic, and services mostly small communities. And west of Winnipeg, which pair of important cities deserves to be served?


There’s another issue. Look at the Alberta-British Columbia border west of Edmonton and Calgary. This is the area of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks of Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay. The former southern route serviced Banff and Lake Louise at the south end, while the present northern route services Jasper. Both deserve service. I’ve taken the Canadian both to Banff and to Jasper, and both are great destinations worthy of recognition.


This is the Canadian near Jasper, well beyond where I’m going this trip, but it gives an idea of what the train looks like. Here is the dining car, with good food and service; meals are included for sleeping-car passengers. There are several lounge cars with observatory domes, but particularly nice is the Park Car. It’s named in honor of the National Parks, and has a circular, glassed-in rear as well as a raised viewing dome. Note also the view down the stairs to the main part of the lounge.


Right after departure, I went to the end of the train to the Park Car. As in the other lounges, the attendant was serving champagne (OK, Canadian sparkling wine). She also had a huge tray of assorted petits-fours, and the ambience was fun, indicating the start of a good trip. On a side counter were fresh fruit, packaged cookies, and muffins. I later found out that the muffins, which seemed to be apple-bran, were baked regularly aboard the train. They alone were worth the trip.


I liked my compartment, a so-called Room-for-One. It was compact, but had a great bed. Usually compartment beds come down in an unwieldy fashion from up above, but this one came down from one side like an ironing board, attached at the head. One side of the foot of the bed tapered, so that you could (barely) stand on the floor. It also lifted easily to use the toilet, which it otherwise covered. It was a nice, cozy little room in which I got a lot of writing done the next day.


Day Three After that first night, by morning we had easily left the built-up area of Ontario and were in the midst of the taiga, stopping at one small town after another. There was occasional patchy snow on the ground, and flurries now and then. We stopped for train servicing at one small town, and I walked in the sunny chill to the front and back of the train, to see what the two engines looked like as well as the Park Car’s rounded rear. I believe there were some 18 cars on the train plus two engines and two baggage cars. A few of the first cars were coach class, and the rest sleepers. Three meals a day were included for sleeper passengers in the dining car, among a great deal of conversation with others seated at the table. This type of civilized living you do not get on a plane. Then came my second and final night.


Day Four Arrival in Winnipeg was at 9 AM, where the train stayed for several hours to change crew and for maintenance. Through passengers could get off and walk around the city, but it was my last stop on this segment of the trip. Winnipeg’s Union Station is a grand beaux-arts structure dating from 1911. It now hosts just the Canadian and Hudson Bay, but it once had regular cross-border service to Minneapolis, including the Winnipeger, Winnipeg Limited, and others, but that all disappeared before Amtrak. I reported in an aside in 2011/19 about rail improvements in Boston that bustling rail developments in Minneapolis include consideration of the possibility of reinstating service to Winnipeg. (Yay!)


It was another memorable arrival: chilly weather on a quiet Saturday morning, and it’s an image that remains with me. Since I could see my breath, I broke out the red Antarctica coat and Norwegian cap, although I probably could have gotten away with less, particularly as the morning grew warmer. I wanted to walk about near the station for a bit, then check into the hotel, then finish my visit. The city began to stir only gradually as I stepped out of Union Station onto Main Street and made my way to the Forks.


Picture three parallel vertical lines. The left one is Main Street, the middle one the rail line through Union Station, and the right one the Red River, flowing north. I took the next street that ducked under the rail line to visit the river area that used to be rail yards but is being developed into a pleasant park at the junction of two rivers, since this is the point where the Assiniboine River from the west flows into the Red at the south end of the park area, hence the name The Forks / La Fourche. Included in the area are a public market and museums.


The day was bright and sunny, and joggers greeted me as I walked along the path. There were historical markers along the Red River discussing Louis Riel, the Métis, and the Red River Settlement, mentioning locations up and down the river. At the upper end of the park (downstream) I came across the modernistic Esplanade Riel Pedestrian Bridge, all of which hangs by cables from a central pylon. I crossed it to visit Saint-Boniface, which bills itself as le Quartier Français de Winnipeg. This French quarter was founded in 1818 by Québec missionaries and settled by francophone fur trappers, Métis, and others. It was incorporated into Winnipeg in 1972. I understand Manitoba French is a dialectical variation of Québec French.


Most interesting in Saint Boniface is the cathedral, set back a block from the river by a neat, grassy walk flanked by a cemetery, which includes the grave of Louis Riel. Six cathedrals have stood on the same site over time; the fifth one was largely destroyed by fire in 1968, and its white stone façade stands very impressively in front of the sixth, a rather modernistic one. The juxtaposition of the two structures is impressive.


I returned over the bridge and went through Union Station again, at which point I heard the reboarding call for the Canadian, but I continued just three blocks beyond Main Street and two up to the Place Louis Riel Suite Hotel (I never got a good explanation why “Place” was part of the name). What fun it is finding hotels online, especially within downtown walking distance. I got an very good bargain paying for the room in advance and almost disappeared inside of it. I’d read that the hotel had been built as an apartment house, and I ended up with a large bedroom, large bath, kitchen, and huge living room. I decamped around the desk in the living room so I could write and made forages to the other rooms as needed. I only used the kitchen dining counter to lunch on a couple of apple-bran muffins I’d nicked from the train.


In the afternoon I walked over to the only place I really remembered about Winnipeg from our drive through here years ago, the Manitoba Legislative Building (1920). What I remembered was the magnificent stone Grand Staircase inside the main entrance hall flanked by huge life-size solid-bronze statues of bison, the provincial emblem. They stand far enough forward so that it’s difficult to photograph them from the front, hence this picture from the top of the stairs, but seeing them in person is impressive. Each statue weighs 2268 kg (4990 lbs or 2 ½ tons).


I then made my way up to the commercial area on Portage Avenue and its famously windy intersection with Main Street, and intersection considered the center of town, and well-known to Canadians. Beyond that, to its north was the Exchange District, which has a notable collection of early 20C architecture--the time Winnipeg’s population was exploding--particularly around Old Market Square. Returning to the hotel, I used some of Winnipeg’s skyway system, similar to that in Minneapolis, whereby buildings are connected one story above ground for blocks and blocks.


Day Five The next day I was northward (roughly) bound. The Hudson Bay was supposed to leave Winnipeg just after noon, but it was delayed in arriving by one hour, which delayed our departure. However, this was to be a very different sort of rail experience, a laid-back one where you expect that sort of thing and take it in stride. In some ways, the schedule is just a suggestion. Also, they have long stops scheduled at three of the somewhat larger stations, so the time is made up by using up that “fat”. And then we’d get late all over again. As the room attendant described it, this route is “rustic”. This short video shows the Hudson Bay leaving Winnipeg in August 2009. While the person who posted this on YouTube has videos of several such departures, in different seasons, I purposely chose this one because it is without snow. The trip north was in late October, and both en route and in Churchill there were occasional snow flurries, and patchy snow and ice on the ground, but there was no total snow cover anywhere, which presumably happens later in the season. Since many if not most of the pictures I show from now on show snow, to imagine my experience you have to picture mostly a brown terrain with frequent patches of snow. Of course, it’s easier to spot a polar bear in the distance on a dark background!


Most long-distance travelers are headed for Churchill, with a few stopping along the way for a backwoods experience. The three larger stops are The Pas / Le Pas (no S), Thompson, and Gillam. Only the first two have road connections to the south, after which the rail line becomes Churchill’s only land connection to the rest of the world. [In contrast, Darwin, also at a remote (hot) location in northern Australia, has two connections, The Ghan and the Stuart Highway.] Thompson, about 2/3 the way to Churchill, was the only place we had some time in both directions to get out and stretch our legs on the platform. On the schedule, I count 84 potential stops. Some are indicated to be “request only”, but even so, the train rarely had to stop at most of the “scheduled” stops. The route is used heavily by local rural populations, many indigenous, to be able to go from miniscule towns to shop in small towns. But since the train runs only twice a week in each direction, that would seem to require a stayover.


Churchill is indeed on the North Coast of North America, but all things are relative. I started out in New York at roughly 41°N, reached Winnipeg at 50°, and Churchill at 59°. But Stockholm is also at 59°, and Anchorage is at 61°. In contrast, Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen is at 78°. So there’s north--and there’s north.


It would be very reasonable to wonder why anyone would suddenly build a rail line up into the underpopulated North, but the answer involves freight more than people. Starting in the early 20C, grain producers and others, rather than shipping their goods all the way to the Atlantic or Pacific, wanted a rail ‘n’ sail route reaching them in central Canada, making use of the relative closeness of Hudson Bay. In 1912, Port Nelson at the end of the Nelson River and on Hudson Bay was chosen, and Canadian National started building the line in stages, swinging in an arc that eventually pointed northeast toward that destination. After much time and expense, it was decided that that harbor would silt up to easily, and Churchill was selected as the alternative after WWI. That’s the reason that the rail line today, proceeding northeast along the Nelson River, suddenly turns left to head due north to Churchill, on the east bank of the Churchill River. However, construction was slow, and the line didn’t reach Churchill until 1929.


Even after the link from farmland to the sea was operational, it still took many more years to become viable, and of course remains seasonal, based on ice (see below). CN built a handsome rail station in Churchill (newly restored and landmarked), larger and more ornate than others in the north, which showed their optimism for passenger business in northern Manitoba in the early 1930’s. However, even during the height of ocean travel in those years, few if any ocean liner passengers wanted to enter Canada via Hudson Bay. In 1932, a certain Grant MacEwan was the first person to cross through what was then Churchill customs as a passenger on his way from Britain to Saskatchewan. Most people entered Canada via the Saint Lawrence River, but he was strongly determined to take the Hudson Bay route. I doubt that many people followed his lead.


This is a map of Manitoba. Locate Winnipeg on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, which flow into large, shallow Lake Winnipeg, which gives the city its name (Cree win-nipi means “muddy water”). Note also the smaller Lake Manitoba to its west. The train route is a large C, and skirts both these lakes by first running west on the main line to Portage la Prairie, then northwest via Dauphin and into Saskatchewan. After cutting a gentle arc there, it returns to Manitoba just before The Pas, then continues northeast via Thompson along the Nelson River. Churchill is at the mouth of the Churchill River, so you can picture the sudden dog-leg taken north when plans changed.


We can mention now the significance of all this river water you see on the map entering Hudson Bay on its southwest coast. This dilutes the salt water of the Bay, making it brackish near the coast, so that ice freezes here first. This is what attracts the polar bears to this region, since it offers the earliest possible departure time on ice floes to sea. By the way, note Canada’s only quadripoint where Manitoba meets Saskatchewan, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories.


A plain is a large, flat, usually treeless stretch of land. If it’s also a grassland, it’s a prairie as well, and both terms apply in particular to the central area of both Canada and the US. Winnipeg is on the eastern edge of the Canadian prairies, a fact that struck the eye immediately on the train in the stretch of Manitoba angling up to the Saskatchewan border. There were fields of very black earth, such as on this Manitoba Prairie farm near our route, which made me do a little more research. This is a map of the prairie soil types in the Prairie Provinces, all of which extend south into the US. The area of black soil is very distinctive. We mentioned earlier the town of Portage la Prairie, which even acknowledges in its name that it’s on the prairie. The name derives from people having to portage (carry their canoe) across the prairie from the Assiniboine River to Lake Manitoba. Now, for the next point, also take note of the area on this map between the black soil and Lake Manitoba.


Remember that a biome (2011/26) is a system of climatic conditions affecting a community of plants and animals, such as the tundra biome or taiga biome. The prairie is also a biome, one that contrasts with the taiga biome further north in the Prairie Provinces. But biomes do not clash, with a clear border between them. Where they meet is a transitional area, such as the one above near Lake Manitoba. Actually, it then runs west, as on the following map, and is referred to as the aspen parkland, a biome in its own right, although a transitional one.


The aspen parkland consists of groves of aspen poplars and spruce interspersed with areas of prairie grasslands. It’s the largest transition zone in the world between boreal forest (taiga) and grassland, and the competition is constant to see if the prairie or the forest overtakes the other. This biome runs in a band no wider than 500 km (311 mi). Winnipeg has tallgrass prairie to the west, as mentioned above, and also to the south, and the aspen parkland to the northeast.


Before we leave the prairie area, look for a third time at this language map that has served us as a population indicator. Compare how closely the above map of the prairie compares with the population of anglophones in central Canada. Also note the small brown area that indicates the francophone area of Winnipeg, Saint-Boniface.


Day Six That first day moved quickly, given that we left at 1 PM, and we were in Saskatchewan by dinner time, although it was dark and we saw nothing, given the season and latitude. You haven’t really experienced darkness until you’ve seen it in the wilderness at night. We went through The Pas that first night, but by midday of our one full day on the train, we were in Thompson, and stepped out for a stroll. This was the day when there would be occasional flurries, and you’d see the boreal trees all white in snow and ice, and then later, another area with no snow. This is a satellite view of the North American boreal forest. As you can judge, the route to Churchill was now all taiga (green) leading up to tundra (gray). We then had our second and final night on the train, leading to a morning arrival in Churchill the next day.


The train was short. It had two engines, a baggage car (many locals were carrying supplies), two coaches, a dining car, and four sleepers. I was in the third sleeper, and had a bit of a walk to the dining car. The layout of the sleepers was well-balanced, and I was ecstatic about my room.


The front of the sleeping car had six berth areas, that were seats during the day, but then made up into an upper and lower across the aisle from another pair, and a third pair opposite the shower room (good showers!). Then came four bedrooms (“Rooms for Two”), and finally eight Rooms-for-One. I’d heard that with the latter some were up a step and some level with the corridor. I didn’t care one way or the other until I saw how much better the level ones were--and I’d lucked out and had one in each direction. These rooms went in pairs, four on each side of the corridor. The step-up one had a bed that folded somehow out of the wall, I don’t know. It seemed to be the very traditional type that you have to have the attendant set up for you. But the next one down the hall, the level-entry one (mine!), had the usual seat and nearby a toilet with sink. But then there was a shade on one wall. You raised the shade, and your bed was hiding behind it and rolled out of the wall! Actually the bed, when closed, went underneath the raised compartment next door. It was very easy to slide out, and also to partially close at night to use the toilet. Better yet, I pulled it out halfway and used it as a desk for the laptop while I sat over on the seat. It was a great setup.


But I’d heard that they’d been cutting back. I wasn’t able to get a straight answer if there’d ever been an observation car on this train. The only lounge area was the unused seats in the back of the dining car, so there wasn’t many places to go. I also heard that the three main-course choices on the menu was a reduction--there used to be a much more ample menu. Also, curiously, meals were NOT included for sleeper passengers, so you paid per meal--I ran a tab. The food was good, and I was really happy to see as one of the choices pierogies. The Prairie Provinces have a large Slavic population, largely Ukrainian, and this was par for the course. For the uninitiated, pierogis, which my mother used to serve, bear some resemblance to ravioli, but are really quite different. They’re boiled or fried dumplings consisting of a pocket of dough usually filled with potatoes, cheese, sauerkraut, or other items, and served with sour cream.


There was one unfortunate situation. The train was quite full, due to a number of tour groups, and the dining car steward could not handle the pressure. Sometimes he catered to them and gave them one of the three meal sittings to themselves. More likely, he’d announce on the PA a seating “with reservations only”, and I never once found out how he gave out his reservations. He was quite rude to a couple I’d met, and I ended up in a shouting match with him at the head of the dining car. Still, it all worked out, and was a great ride north to Churchill.

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