Our Journey to the Tundra

We checked out of our nice apartment hotel room and headed back to the train station. We were getting on the 12:00 PM train to Churchill. This train only leaves twice a week, so that’s why we have to stay in Winnipeg so much (we stay there for two more days on the way back). I had been warned ahead of time, thanks to Twitter, that the food was not nice, freshly prepared meals like the Canadian. It was snack bar, microwavable food, a lot like the Amtrak. So we planned ahead and bought some stuff at the local Chinese grocery.

When I booked the train, many months ago, the nice man with VIA Rail that helped me, Mett, told me I had sold out the sleeper car. I guess I thought that meant there were going to be more sleeper cars. Nope. Just us. Only three rooms, and we had them. Thank goodness I plan a little too far in advance sometimes.  So our nice porter Scarlet checked us in and showed us our rooms.


Our much shorter train to Churchill, Manitoba.


Our room.


The wall opens and makes it a much more usable space.

There weren’t very many people on the train when it left out of Winnipeg. We later learned from Scarlet that the train route is considered an essential service, since it’s the only way some of the communities along the way can go anywhere, including to the grocery store! You can literally stand outside and hail the train on its way by, and they have to stop and pick you up, if they see you. The train will also drop you off anywhere, including in the middle of a field. Sure enough, the next day we arrived at a small town called Thicket Portage. A large group of First Nation people got on the train. They were waiting by the tracks with what quite possibly was the entire population of Thicket Portage, some in trucks, some on ATVs, most standing around. About half the population boarded the train, heading to Thompson to go grocery shopping! The train is only twice a week, so they have to stay overnight when they go to the “city.” I truly couldn’t believe that this was real, but it was. I don’t know how people can be happy living that way, but to each their own. I asked grandma what these people could possibly do all day, and her response: Fish and f***. Yes. My saintly, 86 year old grandma. And she told me she knew it was true because a local had told her so.  I didn’t ask her any more questions.


Thicket Portage.

We arrived in Thompson with about three hours to waste. We decided to go eat at Boston Pizza. The Husband and I were familiar with Boston Pizza from our days of drinking in Clifton Hill from the age of 19-21. (Legal drinking age in Canada is 19 and we both grew up pretty close to the border). We figured we would get lunch there, and take out for dinner as well. So we hailed a cab (yes, they have cabs everywhere, even super small towns) and headed for lunch. We returned to the train fat and happy, and ready for the final day of our trip to the tundra.

After we left Thompson, we learned that places like Thicket Portage weren’t as isolated as a town could be in Canada. The road ends in Thompson. You cannot drive north. So all the “towns” we would pass from Thompson to Churchill really required the train for everything. And you could tell just by how the terrain looked that it was remote. No stores. Really, no houses. A few homes would be clustered together, a town of their own.  The fields we saw from Winnipeg to Thompson were gone, replaced by forest. And as we got farther north, and closer to the tundra, the trees even started to change. They had no growth on the north side of the trees. Bare. Honestly, it started to look like a land that Tim Burton would have invented. Everything seemed a little off. Turns out, the snow in the winter is so coarse that when the north wind blows it, it literally acts like sandpaper to the bark, and removes everything from the north side of the tree.


One sided trees in the tundra.

We arrived in Churchill right on time, around 8:30 AM, which was surprising to us because we left Thompson almost two hours later the day before.  But we were there. We made it to the tundra. Churchill is a tiny little town, population around 1,000. And it was cold. Not cold enough to snow, but just by a little. And with the wind and rain, it felt way below freezing, especially to my warm Floridian blood. Thanks to the weather, we had to take two taxis the two blocks to our hotel. There was no way to walk all of that luggage there. We arrived early to hotel, and we were still able to check in to all four rooms I had booked. And the lovely owner let us eat breakfast there too! As soon as we dropped all of our luggage off, my brother Steven and his wife Audra arrived. They had flown in from Baltimore, leaving the day before with a night layover in Winnipeg. Only one airline flies to Churchill: Calm Air. And they only have two flights a day. Honestly, they don’t make it easy to get to Churchill, no matter which way you go.  And yet, all SEVEN of us made it!

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Our room at the Polar Inn. It was nice and comfortable and really much better than I expected, since it is in the tundra!

After eating a lovely breakfast, those of us brave enough to face the weather and the chance of coming across a polar bear headed out to explore the town. There is one grocery store and the price of everything proves just how hard it is to get there. $4.15 for a 2 liter of Pepsi. $10 for a salt shaker. $15 for peanut butter.  So we bought nothing and continued on exploring. There are three restaurants, all with bars, a Legion, a school, community center, hospital, a port, and Indian museum. That’s about it. The main source of employment is the port, followed by tourism. The thousands of beluga whales that come to the Hudson Bay at Churchill bring tourists in the summer and the polar bears and Northern Lights bring the tourists in the fall. Apparently no one goes there in the winter, and even a lot of the residents leave. It gets as cold as 50 degrees Celsius below zero. No thanks.

We spent the rest of the day meandering around, eating, drinking, playing cards, talking to all the other people from our train that were also at our hotel and really just enjoyed not being on the train. The next morning our tour guide Mark from Northstar tours picked us up in his bus to go see polar bears. Our first stop was a famous spot where a plane, called Miss Piggy, crashed.  The power wires caught the tail just before she landed, so instead of a huge crash, she just kind of landed on the rocks. And she still sits there. But no polar bears.  We could see to the Bay, and there were tons of beluga whales swimming! You could see their gleaming white whale bodies coming up out of the water and back.


Me, my brother and his wife, looking for bears around Miss Piggy.



So we drove even farther down the desolate road to another spot, and started hiking.  After about 20 minutes we saw nothing but polar bear poop. I asked my brother to check to see if it was warm, but he wasn’t interested.


Brother and bear poop. And one sided trees.

Turns out, I bet it was because ten minutes later, I SAW A BEAR! There he was, lying next to a rock, sleeping. I only noticed him because I could see his little bear ear. He was so cute laying there with his paws out in front of him. I just wanted to snuggle right up with him. Mark advised me that it wasn’t a good idea, so I stayed back. After about 20 minutes Mr. Bear decided to wake up, and we got the hell out before he could have us for breakfast.


Polar bear!!


Me and the polar bear!

After driving around and not seeing any more bears, we went to Gypsy’s for lunch. It’s this remarkable bakery/deli/restaurant/bar owned by a super nice Portuguese family. They have fabulous food and even do a lunch buffet with a different specialty every weekday. So we had a fabulous meal and headed back out. Our first stop was bear jail. Yes, bear jail. When a bear is caught in town and becoming too comfortable with people they catch him and helicopter him away to the wilderness. And you would not believe our luck: the helicopter was just landing to take two polar bear cubs and their mom back to safety in the wilderness! We got to stay there the entire time that they loaded the two baby cubs in to the back of the helicopter, then loaded momma bear in to the net below, which hangs from the helicopter while it flies. The baby bears were so cute! They were sedated enough for both their safety and the drivers, but awake enough to pick their heads up and look around! Oh their cute little faces! I could have just died. Then mom came out on the back of a four wheeler, and three guys slid the 800 pound bear to the ground on the net. A few minutes later, the bears were flying thru the sky, on their way back to their home. It made the whole train trip to the tundra worth it.

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Momma bear and two cubs heading back in to the wild!

We honestly could have called it quits and headed home after that. But tour guide Mark had a better idea. We drove around more and saw another bear! This guy was just lying on the ground, kind of rolling around like he was stretching and trying to find a comfy spot. He was so big too! It’s quite surprising to see just how giant these bears are.


This big white lump in the middle is a bear!

We saw some more local landmarks and went in to the forest, with lichen covering the ground. It’s this mossy plant and when you step on it your foot sinks pretty far in to the ground.Then when you lift your foot it goes right back. It’s super pretty and really neat to see.


The forest.

After the tour we went back to Gypsy’s for coffee and Mark came with us. He told us what it was like growing up in Churchill and living there for 62 years. They actually order out of a Sears catalog at a little Sears outpost when they need stuff. He said it arrives a few weeks later. As a person who likes instant gratification, I can’t imagine life like this! But some people are meant for it, and thank god for that or I wouldn’t have a good tour guide on vacation.


The whole fam!


Grandma and Mark, the tour guide.

After our coffee the Husband and I headed to happy hour at the Tundra Inn Pub. $3.75 for a nice cold Labatt Lite? Sounds good to me! So we sat at the bar and made friends with the bartender Robyn. It’s usually dead on Wednesday nights she told us, and it was true that night. We were the only people there, with the exception of a random drop-in-for-a-beer-and-leave.  We stayed there and drank most of the night, talking to Robyn about being a seasonal employee that comes up from Winnipeg and works at the bar during the busy season.  Luckily, young adults get a youth rate on Calm Air and can fly for a pretty decent rate back and forth.  So we did what we love doing on vacation and sat and drank while talking to Robyn about living in Churchill.


The Tundra Inn Pub.

The next day we checked out of all the rooms but one, and kept the one room for the day. We were leaving on the train at 7:00 PM and Steven and Audra were flying out at 8:00. So we spent the day walking around the town again, hoping for one more bear sighting. But no such luck. We were happy with the bears we saw anyway.  So we all said goodbye and got on the train while Steven and Audra headed to the airport.  We had our rooms again on the train and quickly settled back in. We were hoping to see the Northern Lights on the train, since it was cloudy the entire time in Churchill. We stayed up until a little after midnight, gave up and went to bed. We learned the next morning that Aurora Borealis showed up right after we closed our curtains and called it a night.  Darn it! We spent the rest of the day on the train, with the exception of our lunch stop in Thompson. At bedtime, we decided to set an alarm to be sure we wake up in case the lights were out again. And sure enough, they were! We saw the Northern Lights! Very faint glimmers of undulating green sky were showing up in the far north sky. They weren’t super bright, but they were there. And they were beautiful.  And grandma was awake to see them, making the trip 100% successful. We had gone to Churchill at the time of year because bear season was too cold for us, and there is a small chance right now of seeing the polar bears at the beginning of their season, the beluga whales at the end of theirs, and the Northern Lights if the skies manage to stay clear long enough. And we actually saw all three. It appeared our bad luck was completely used up at the beginning of the trip and it was good luck from here out.

We spent the rest of the day on the train, and arrived in Winnipeg around 5 PM. We stayed there for two days while we waited for the Canadian to pick us back up today and take us across the Rockies to Vancouver. All aboard!

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