Train Trekking to the Great White Bears (Jan. 28, 2004)

It all started out because I'm married to a man who likes long train trips. Really long train trips. In the past five years we've traveled 17,000 miles criss-crossing the US seeing our nation from the window of a train. We enjoy the comfort of sitting back with books in our laps and drinks in our hands while landscapes unfold. Let others fight traffic on freeways or rush through airports. We'll do it the old fashioned way — by rail.

We're realists of course. Rail travel has its problems and we've experienced them all on AMTRAK. We can understand travel delays due to poor weather conditions but we find sitting on a train that isn't moving in the middle of no place due to mechanical breakdowns quickly loses its charm. Train travel isn't something you do if you're in a hurry and micromanaging time. It's travel done with flexibility and patience.

Savvy rail travelers allow layovers at connecting points just in case there are delayed arrivals and departures. You tell the relatives you'll arrive "sometime midweek" and call them. Well-prepared train trekkers know of reasonable motels close to the stations, the nearby diners with good food, and always have an intriguing book in their bags to read while waiting. While half the passengers on AMTRAK want to rant and rave over delays and problems, the other half of us are enjoying rail passenger service while it still exists in this country.

Airlines, freeways and mass transit get subsidies, but the government seems to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to kill AMTRAK for being too archaic for modern travelers. Make train travel difficult due to aging, unmaintained equipment and the necessity of sharing tracks with freight service leads legislators to believe rail travel is no longer wanted or needed and should be eliminated. Every other civilized nation in the world maintains passenger rail travel. Why the U.S. can't and won't is beyond me.

So on to the great white bears. Expanding our travel horizons beyond AMTRAK, we looked to Canada. We had often talked about taking a train across Canada. While you can't do this non-stop you can do it in segments with layovers. And Canada has some rail routes that wander far off the main line, like the Hudson's Bay Railway in Manitoba reaching 1,000 miles north of Winnipeg to Churchill.

So why would Canada build a rail line to a port on Hudson's Bay only open a few months of the year and frozen the rest of the time? Grain. The Canadians figured out that grain grown in the prairie provinces could be shipped to England quicker through Hudson's Bay and the north Atlantic than hauled across Canada and shipped through the Saint Lawrence Seaway and on to Europe. So a rail line was built through countryside and tundra where the are no vehicle roadways. None. At All. You want to go to Churchill you fly in or take the Hudson's Bay Railway.

The town of Churchill has been a lot of things over time — First Nations native settlement, Hudson's Bay Company trading post, military training grounds and spaceport. But with all this human activity, Mother Nature has gifted it with some exceptional attributes. It happens to sit right in the middle of the migration routes of polar bears. Bears summer on the tundra west of the Bay and then come to the shore in the autumn to wait for the Bay to ice up so they can walk out and go seal hunting. Churchill River hosts white beluga whales in the summertime and the skies above feature months of aurora borealis northern lights displays. Put this all together, throw in a few thousand tourists, and you've got a more varied economy to go along with the grain shipping season.

A National Geographic special in the early 1980s stimulated interest worldwide in the idea you could go out on the tundra and actually get close to these magnificent creatures. Tundra Buggies are basically like school busses on eight-foot high tires. Visitors can see the bears but bears can't reach the visitors. It's like a zoo in reverse. Humans are in cages (tundra buggies) and the critters are loose to move around as they please. So a town with less than a thousand regular residents has 15,000 tourists flow through in short visits in a six week period in the fall to see the migrating bears.

For the first time in our lives we took part in an organized tour. While major tour companies buy up huge lots of motel rooms and tundra buggy seats we went out of our way to find a "little guy," Mountain Outin' Tours, because they specialize in rail travel and that's what we wanted.

After driving up and visiting family in Oak Harbor we boarded AMTRAK in Mt. Vernon for a short trip to Vancouver B.C. No surprise: AMTRAK was late. But it had rained six inches the night before and potential flooding slowed train travel. We arrived in Vancouver and took the Sky Train, their monorail system, downtown for sightseeing before an afternoon departure on Via Rail east to Winnipeg.

Our first indication that Canadian rail service was going to be much nicer than AMTRAK was in their way of dealing with delays. Via Rail trains coming from the east were delayed due to flooding in British Columbia so the 60 sleeping car passengers waiting to board were taken out to dinner. If this had been AMTRAK we would have been given a plastic box with a sandwich, apple, chips, a cookie and soda pop. Via Rail had buses transport us to a luxury waterfront hotel. We were handed menus with no prices, offered multiple selections, and had complimentary wine poured for everyone. We spent two hours eating and drinking while the train was resupplied and we boarded with our sleeping accommodations ready for bed. Down quilts, big fluffy towels, complimentary toiletries awaited us and foam ear plugs if the clickity clack of the rails bothered you as you fell asleep.

Via Rail equipment reminds you of US train coaches and sleepers of the 1950s and 60s. It's not new and flashy like AMTRAK equipment but it has been meticulously maintained and it's a very clean and shiny retro look. The food and service puts AMTRAK to shame. Dinner on Via Rail features a place setting of six pieces of silverware around your china plate on a linen tablecloth. There were varied entrees every night with regional beer and wine available. And the teapots for serious tea drinkers held several cups of the brew.

The scenery between Vancouver and Winnipeg is spectacular, especially going over the Canadian Rockies. They actually slow the train down so everyone can take photos of waterfalls and "Kodak Moments" viewscapes. The area around Jasper featured Bighorn Sheep cavorting over rock hillsides along the rail lines and elk standing in meadows looking majestic. The only thing we didn't see were moose.

We arrived in Winnipeg and spent several days playing tourist in this large cosmopolitan city. It's got a long colorful history with diverse ethnic communities and the restaurant dining choices were endless. We choose Greek and German food — hard to come by on the Mendocino Coast.

Out Great White Bear Tour consisted of 16 folks, mostly from California and a tour guide who must be every traveler's dream of the perfect host and provider. The man took care of everything, for everybody, quickly and professionally. He had a dry sense of humor and a wealth of knowledge on what we were to see.

Touring the outskirts of Winnipeg we visited the Oak Hammock Marsh on the central flyway where thousands of geese and ducks migrate through the 14 square mile refuge. Lunch was at Lower Fort Garry, a Hudson's Bay Company trading post, and later we toured the Mennonite Cultural Center in Steinbach. Dinner was with a Grunthal family, chicken ranchers, who host "farm vacations." They walked us through a warm cozy outbuilding with sawdust floors and 10,000 baby chickens wandering around loose. It was almost a visual psychedelic experience as chicks whirled and swirled around the feeders and floor. The dinner featured local Manitoba grown foodstuffs and was accompanied by a trio that sang train songs then sat down and ate with us. Dessert was Saskatoonberry cobbler, kinda like giant huckleberries. The meal ended with them teaching us to sing "O Canada."

Leaving on the Hudson Bay Railway in the evening we found even older passenger rail cars, but again clean and well maintained. Mile after mile of flat lands with timber, then later brush, then tundra unfolded out the window for two nights and a day. Nothing like having an ice age glacier more than a mile thick scrape over the landscape to flatten things out. And there was the novelty of no roads anyplace north of The Pas. While there were cars and trucks near Churchill they all arrive on railcars or are shipped or flown in as is everything folks need there in the way of supplies.

Our first day found us bouncing across the tundra in Tundra Buggies with a thousand questions that tour guides and drivers must get really tired of answering. One was about damage these huge machines do to the environment. We discovered the routes we drove were on old military base training grounds roads and the travel of the buggies was benign compared to what the military used to do to this terrain. We learned not to ask about the dump where the bears go to investigate trash offerings. Churchill has tried incinerators and is beginning to increase recycling efforts to reduce the attraction of the dump but the bears still go there and it seems to be an embarrassment to the community.

We learned the bear warning signs aren't cute — they're serious indicators of territory frequented by large hungry carnivores and this included most of the shoreline. And don't ask locals about lines of sled dogs tied out overnight, miles from town, in bear territory, without protection. They tell you that's how they've always done it.

Since a total freeze up had not yet occurred, slushy potholes six feet deep dotted the worn roadways. The skill with which the drivers moved these huge rigs through holes deep enough to swallow a VW Bug was astounding. We'd hold our breath, then burst into applause every time we slogged through another pothole.

We learned that even if three Tundra Buggies pulled up to watch bears interacting, the bears flat out do not care. They mostly ignored us. We saw that polar bear tracks on the snow go in perfectly straight lines because every living thing gets out of their way.

Mother bears often brought their cubs right up to the buggies for a sniff and a look at all the funny people before wandering away. And believe me, when you look a polar bear in the eye and he makes direct eye contact with you (and they do) it's not like looking into your pet Fluffy or Rover's eyes. These are creatures with a lot of strength and intelligence looking straight back at you — a look way beyond anything a pet returns. I'm sure those polar bears know you'd be a tasty morsel if they could figure out how to get to you up in that metal box.

Days were spent out on the tundra in the buggies, which had restrooms, heaters and were provisioned by a deli before each day's travel. It's something to be eating chicken salad and soup and hot drinks while bears wander around your rig. Nobody ever throws anything out to the bears. If it happens the buggy and everybody in it return immediately to town. No exceptions. And if you drop your camera while taking photos out an open window no one is going to climb out and pick it up for you.

Talk about tourist driven economies. Try being Churchill with less than 1,000 residents and having 15,000 tourists pour through town in the six weeks of the polar bear viewing season. The town is well supplied with motel rooms, restaurants and gift shops for the seasonal influx and the locals realize it's the time of year to make as much money as quickly as possible. And they do. We sure contributed to their economy in the few days we were there. 

Along with every object in the world you could put a polar bear on they had some stunning First Nations native artwork. Probably more stone carving than anything else because that's what they had to work with. Wood was not an option — stone, antler and bone were. Some carvers were invited to bring their artwork onto our bus. It sold immediately and the carver didn't have to pay a middleman.

Being a rockhound I found the physical environment as interesting as the bears. I was overwhelmed by the skies and the flatness of everything. I work in Mendocino on the headlands with an ocean view that goes on forever, but look east and it's forested slopes and mountains beyond. In Churchill, no matter where you look in any direction, it's flat. Seriously flat. The biggest landform in town is about 40 feet tall. The grain elevators at the edge of the bay can be seen for miles and Cape Churchill, if memory serves me, was more than 20 miles away and visible because it had some elevation. The skies and horizons just went on forever in every direction and were unforgettable.

The biggest Trilobite fossil in the world was found here. We saw it in the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg and it was three feet across. When you consider most rockhounds are thrilled to find a Trilobite the size of your fingernail you can see why Churchill was proud of this one The shoreline pre-Cambrian granite was pink and gray and we hauled pebbles home with us.

Back to the bears. We saw 60 of them in our few days — a stunning number. Plus there was a "heatwave" going on so temperatures were only in the 20s and 30s. Our tour guide kept saying "You folks don't know how lucky you are," and we'd reply, "Yes, we do," because we'd all done our homework, all come supplied with below-zero clothing, and all understood the tour could not promise you'd see even one live polar bear if they'd migrated onto the iced-up bay already. 

To see 60 bears in nice weather was almost unreal. We loved it. To sit in silence, in warm comfort and watch adolescent polar bears pushing and shoving and mock fighting for hours on end and mom bears parading this year's cubs by your window makes all those hours you worked to save the money for the trip worthwhile and leaves you mentally plotting on how you could get back to Churchill someday.

There was other wildlife to enjoy too. We saw Arctic Foxes, Ptarmigan, Snowy Owls and wolf tracks. Wolves were new to the area. and unwelcome. They had a bad habit of killing and eating sled dogs. Other times of the year Churchill has Beluga whales in its river, migrating caribou and birds and hoards of mosquitoes and black flies.

On our return trip to Winnipeg by rail we were given a "Drawing Room." Such things actually still exist with train travel in older equipment. By day we had a couch and two movable armchairs for our party of three. By night it became three bunks with our own bathroom. Original art from Canadian artists decorated every compartment.

We got off the train in Thompson to see a company town established in 1957 by mining interests so nickel miners had a place to live and shop. By motor coach we toured Pisew Waterfalls and the rapids of northern Manitoba waterways before catching the train again at Wabowden.

Back in Winnipeg we had one last day with our tour group seeing historical sites in the city. It was actually colder in Winnipeg than 1,000 miles north in Churchill due to the wind chill factor. A fabulous meal ended with our understanding why our tour guide, Rolland Graham and Mountain Outin' tours does not need to advertise much. His customers come back again and again because he provides exemplary service. It's what being a small independent tour provider is all about: personal customer service.

Driving to and from Vancouver we took advantage of one of those "throwaway" newspapers on Pacific Northwest breweries and drank good regional beers and ate pub food. May we suggest Steamworks Brewery in Vancouver, McMenimen's in Centralia and Wild Duck Brewery in Eugene. We also shopped in Liquid Solutions in Portland where there were 450 beers available for purchase — talk about being overwhelmed with choices!

Back at work I kept thinking "Gee, two weeks ago I was watching bears. Gee, a month ago today I was on a Tundra Buggy." Time flies. We're already plotting our next trip back to British Columbia and Alberta to ride a rail line we missed this time. Something will be missing though — they only do day rides. Sleeping on a train has to be one of my favorite things to do. All nestled down in the covers, the rails going clickety clack and rocking you back and forth and the light of the aurora borealis glistening on the snow covered landscape outside the train window, like it was on our Great White Bear Trek.

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