Canada: Coast to coast by train – Part 4 - Orlando / Florida Guide
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Winnipeg to Churchill
This part of the journey takes you into remote Canada and is a reminder of the role the railways played as a lifeline for distant communities. On this part of the trip look out for the northern lights and when you get to the end of the line see the Prince of Wales Fort. The Fort took 38 years to build and used stone shipped from Britain. When finished, the fort could be so cold that a man once woke to find his hair frozen to the rock wall beside his bed Also look out for polar bears and belugas in the bay.
Union Station in Winnipeg is still redolent of the days when everyone went by train, and the station building’s rotunda was even used to host the New Year’s Ball in the city’s early years.
As the journey gets underway, poplar fringed wheat fields gradually give way to woodlands, with the odd farmstead hacked out of clearings. Tiny single street communities flash by, short stretches of tarmac soon turning to dirt at the town limits. Sunflowers and maple syrup are unexpected crops before the coniferous forests replaces the last deciduous trees.
The town of The Pas is known as the ‘Gateway to the North’. The area was first visited by Europeans in 1691, and First Nations reserves; disused tripod telegraph poles designed to withstand permafrost; and white thermal pipes, used to keep the ground frozen as long as possible to prevent sink holes, remind you that this is indeed ‘the North’.
Near Loboka, the need for careful progress is evident from overturned freight cars sinking into the ¬boggy muskeg. This is because the track foundations could never hold a crane capable of retrieving them. A short deviation serves the nickel mining town of Thompson before continuing north east. Soon after the town of Gillam, the train crosses the Nelson River on the line’s longest bridge at 300m. Beaver dams block water courses, and survey lines can be seen threading through the stunted spruce and larch, attesting to the tough and brief growing season. These soon give out entirely as you approach the ‘barren lands’, the kind of country you either love or hate.
Churchill lies on the shores of Hudson Bay and has a population of under 1, 000. It is also a remarkable place, hosting a vital port for the area. Which of course was the reason the railway was built. It also hosts a grain silo that holds 140, 00 tonnes, a jail for delinquent polar bears, a National Parks office and hotels catering to those wanting to snorkel alongside belugas or watch bears from tundra buggies.
This train operates twice a week northbound and three times southbound, leaving Winnipeg at midday and taking about 44 hours.
There’s no road to Churchill, so this is still a train with a difference. Perhaps induced by a vague sense of esprit de corps by travelling into such barren country, one is even more aware of the conviviality of Canadians. The dining car becomes a social hub. Heading such a long way north, you suddenly gain a graphic understanding of the climatic zones and changing habitats.
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