I had my 53rd birthday this week. I know it’s not as impressive a milestone as passing the half century mark, but it’s something to be noted and appreciated. Every day is a gift, and I appreciate that I am still here and able to enjoy life to the fullest.
That being said, the pandemic has really cramped our style! When I look back on the past few birthdays, I note that my wife and I were never home on my birthday. On my 50th birthday we were in Golden, BC; on my 51st, Barcelona, Spain; on my 52nd, Oslo, Norway. On my 53rd? Winnipeg!
Anyway, enough whining. Time to mark the occasion.
I resolved to make the best of a Winnipeg-based birthday. This started with taking the day off from work. My plan was to spend the morning railfanning, the afternoon doing a little shopping with my wife, supper at a restaurant with my wife and kids, and the evening at “slide night” with fellow railfans.
I inquired around and it turned out that the Greater Winnipeg Water District Railway was running a few tank cars out to their water treatment facility at Deacon on the southeast edge of the city. The GWWD is a very old and interesting shortline. They were created to service the aqueduct that brings water from Shoal Lake into the city to supply our fresh water needs. Just over a hundred years later, it and the aqueduct are still doing the same function.
They have a small fleet of Montreal Locomotive Works, or MLW, locomotives to haul tank cars of water treatment chemicals, flatcars with equipment, and occasionally “honey wagons” of waste.
I was told that they should be ready to depart the yard in the St. Boniface region of the city around 10:30 AM. I decided to get up early and do some night photography, then meander over around 9:30 to wait for the train to depart.
I did get up early – at 4:30 AM – and after a quick shower, shave and breakfast, I headed out to the CN Rivers subdivision to do some night photography. I’ll write about that another time.
By 9 AM I was passing through downtown on my way to the St. Boniface yard. I arrived at 9:30 and nothing seemed to be happening. There was no locomotive visible – they are normally stored in the shop – and I didn’t see any activity in the yard.
I thought that maybe they started earlier and I missed them. I decided to follow the line to Deacon to see if I could catch up to them. I drove out through Transcona to the Deacon facility but I didn’t see any sign of a train. There certainly wasn’t a train at the Deacon facility…
By this time I was thinking that maybe the trip was postponed and I wouldn’t see them at all. I sent a few messages to my friend Mark Perry, and he told me that the locomotive had just come out of the shop at 10:30. Ahhh, so they were just running a bit later than expected.
I drove toward their yard again, and as I was just about to arrive, I spotted them rolling through the Lafarge plant on Dawson Road. They had just left the yard.
I executed a quick turn and headed to their crossing at Dugald Road to record them. The chase was on!
I started photographing them as they approached the first diamond crossing with CN. I say “first” because the GWWD track crosses CN tracks several times within Winnipeg. This particular CN track runs from the St. Boniface spur to service the Shell Winnipeg Terminal, a large tank farm.
I was about a quarter kilometre away so there is a bit of heat shimmer in the photo, but it’s not too bad.
As they drew closer, I thought about how I wanted to compose the shot. I wanted the spot of fall colour in the bushes nearby, but I also wanted the St. Boniface water tower in the background to set the location. Also, there’s a big white building on the right that needed to be left out of the photo as it would be distracting.
This one was my favourite of the series.
I was pleased.
They slowly rolled forward, blowing for the crossing. Both of the crew gave waves to me as they passed by. The GWWD is a very friendly railway.
After Dugald Road, they crossed Panet Road and the next location is the interchange track with CN. They used to have an interchange with CP from the yard, but that was severed several years ago because it kept getting flooded and it was a very sharp curve anyway.
After the interchange, they cross a small side street, Holden, then the four lane Lagimodiere Boulevard. I decided not to try to get them at any of those locations because I didn’t want to be “behind” them as they passed Symington Yard.
I chose to drive on around Symington Yard to get them at the Plessis Road crossing. This is the last major crossing before they go cross-country on the last stretch before the Perimeter Highway crossing.
I got to Plessis well before they did. They have a triple diamond to cross – CN’s three tracks out of Symington Yard – and they could have had a long wait if a train was heading out. As luck would have it, they didn’t have to wait so neither did I!
I had a choice of which side of the tracks to stand on. I could stand on the south side and get the sun on the nose and side of the train, or I could stand on the north side and get the nose light and some downtown Winnipeg skyline and a touch of fall colour. I chose the latter.
At this point, I wanted to be sure I was able to get to the bridge over the Floodway in time to park and launch my drone. The shot I wanted was to record them going over the bridge, just like I did with the Prairie Dog Central special charter last year.
If I wasn’t getting that shot, I could have taken a few shots of them trundling across the wide open prairie between Plessis and the Perimeter Highway. I did grab this quick shot across the prairie but I was intent on getting east and then south to be well ahead of them.
I reached the Perimeter Highway and parked on the gravel road paralleling the highway. I grabbed my drone and its controller and slung my camera over my shoulder. After checking for traffic, I crossed the highway and ran into the Floodway area.
This area is public property. In fact, there is a walking path that goes around much of the Floodway. I’m told the GWWD bridge over the Floodway is also public property! There certainly aren’t any NO TRESPASSING signs on the bridge like you would see on any CN or CP bridge.
Anyway, I hurried to where I wanted to launch the drone from, breathing a little hard from the rush to get there in time… and realized that there was absolutely no need to hurry. In fact, I couldn’t even see the train at that point.
Eventually, the train’s LED headlights were visible in the distance.
Once I saw the headlights, I turned my drone and controller on. I immediately noticed that the drone controller was missing something important – one of the control sticks!
The drone controller is like a video game controller, with a pair of “joysticks” to manipulate the drone. The sticks are removable and screw into the controller.
I briefly panicked but quickly realized that I could still control the drone – I just had to use the right side as a trackball instead. It worked OK.
I launched the drone and flew it over the Floodway. I positioned it near the bridge, on the “sun side”, and practiced backing it up in preparation for pacing the train.
Then I waited.
After a few minutes, I realized that the drone might run dangerously low on battery power before the train actually arrived… and my spare battery was back in my car.
I decided to land the drone where it was and leave it on, ready to fly again. It would use a lot less battery power just sitting on the ground. I did that and waited for the train to come closer.
Eventually I heard the crossing bells start up at the Perimeter Highway crossing, and GWWD 202 came rolling through.
Crossing the Floodway
I launched the drone again and put it in position, then took a few shots with my camera before putting that away and concentrating on the drone. The engineer gave me a wave as they passed by.
I started the video recording on the drone as the train approached the bridge. As the train got close to the drone, I backed the drone up to pace the train for a bit.
Near the end of the bridge, I “peeled off” with the drone to get a wider view and record the whole train as it left the bridge and continued on.
Once I finished with the drone, I let it hover for a bit while I took a few more long distance photos of the train. They had stopped outside the gate to the Deacon facility. I assume the conductor gets down and unlocks the gate.
I landed my drone and recovered it, and that was the end of that little adventure!
I was very pleased with the still photos I captured of the train, and the drone video turned out quite well, in my opinion. Here’s the video.
Just One More Thing
For my birthday, I asked people to donate to a specific charity, the Black Health Alliance in Canada. I’m not quite at my goal of $250, so if you are able, please consider donating.
Some other charities that I support and/or recommend that could use your support:
- Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, Halifax
- 2-Spirited People of the First Nations
- Winnipeg Harvest
- Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Thanks for anything you can spare. Charities really need your help in these times… especially where door-to-door fundraising isn’t really practical.