The first of three guest posts on David McCormack’s recent trip to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.
The VIA Rail service to Churchill runs twice weekly between Winnipeg to The Pas to Churchill and once a week only between The Pas and Churchill. The total journey time for the entire line is approximately 45 hours (assuming no delays). The days I was up there, the consist was made up of 2 engines, 1 luggage car, 3 passenger coaches, 1 skyline dome, and 1 sleeper car.
This journey has three distinct sections, as described below.
Section 1 – The South Prairies
This section is the classic prairies we think of when one mentions Manitoba. Passing many farms and towns. There were also two rail museums along this route which I saw, one at Canora and the other in Dauphin.
One surprising thing along this section of track was that it followed some nice valleys, which I was not expecting.
Section 2 – The Life Line
The portion between The Pas and Gillam, well, more specifically Thompson and Pikwitonei (and Ilford), is the stable all weather lifeline for these communities. The train has a long scheduled stop at Thompson, with much of that time spent loading and unloading freight for the communities (as well as catching up for any lost time along the way). I took a peek at the freight looks to be mostly food and other staples that were picked up in town.
During the entire trip, this was the only section where the train felt busy as the stops along here had a lot of activity as the freight was loaded off the train by hand. It is common to see a few friendly dogs at these stops as well come out to greet the train.
Section 3 – Barren Tundra
The last section was the most desolate of all, the section going North from Gillam (the last major community with year round road access) to Churchill. The bulk of the freight is loaded in Thompson, rather than Gillam, likely because Thompson has more services and the poor road conditions to Gillam.
During the trip, I was also lucky enough to see the Northern Lights for the first time. I first noticed them when we were in Ilford. I spent the next few hours watching them from the cabin as we continued to travel north. When we arrived in Gillam at 1am, I hopped out with the camera to snap a few pics of them.
Once the line turns north, there aren’t a lot of signs of settlements. Pretty much all that I saw was snow, tundra, and some power lines until Churchill.
The closer to the tourist season you go, the more amenities that will be open. Whale season is June – August, and polar bear season is October – November. When I was there in late April, many things were closed. There was only one restaurant open (which was only doing take out), the Northern Store (general store, grocery store, everything store), and the community center.
Usually late April / early May isn’t the best time for traveling in Canada because most of the time you have leafless trees, gray skies, and unpredictable weather. This unpredictably turned out to be advantageous. In Winnipeg it was full spring weather of 20c, meanwhile Churchill was -8c (-19c with the wind), enabling me to get both snow photos and sunny spring reflecting photos in the same trip (even on the same train).
If you are considering making this trip by train, I’ll offer a few learnings that may help make your trip more pleasant.
Food – When on the train, the food options provided are limited to a small set of microwave meals for purchase. It would be wise to bring your own food on the trip. That said, we did have about 10 minutes in Canora, which is enough time to hit up the Timmies or a small store to pick up some provisions. The stop in Thompson is usually several hours, so you can walk into town (about 15 minutes) or take a taxi for ~10$ to pick up food, or stock up your provisions at the grocery store.
Hiking Churchill – Ensure that if you are hiking in Churchill during Polar Bear season that you follow the recommended safety practices.
Personal Safety – The communities of The Pas and Thompson appear to be suffering with significant addiction problems. Within these two towns, the problems are in full sight. Many different people had told me about the safety issues in these towns (as well as some apolytic comments on the internet). Based upon my limited observations, I didn’t find them to be any more dangerous than any other town center suffering addiction problems. I would say that being aware of your environment and not doing anything stupid, and you should have no issues.
Wye – During this trip north, the train was wyed (turn around) twice. Once in the arrival into Thompson, which means it backs the last mile or two into the station. On the arrival into Churchill it also is wyed and backed in the station for the last 3 miles.
Train Delays – Train delays are quite common, especially the south bound arrival into Winnipeg. It would be wise not to plan any connecting transportation that day.
Train Accommodations – If you have the means, booking a sleeper makes the trip much more comfortable.