An 80-hour round trip by rail, heading north through subarctic Canada, takes you to Churchill – "the polar bear capital of the world". The journey – not the destination – is the real adventure
I climbed down from the warmth of the train to the icy trackside at Churchill station. Arriving 12 hours late in the subarctic blackness of a late October night, I was doubting the wisdom of a round trip to this isolated outpost on the frozen shores of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba, Canada.
With a 14-day Canrail pass to cross Canada east-to-west by train from Montreal to Vancouver, this detour north had seemed entirely feasible on paper. Leaving Winnipeg on Thursday evening and scheduled to arrive early on Saturday morning, I would have a leisurely 12 hours to explore Churchill before catching the returning train later in the day. Well, that was the plan.
Apart from noting on the map that Churchill is as far north as you can travel on the continent by rail, and having some vague notion that it is a popular holiday destination for polar bears, I didn’t really know what to expect. To be honest, it was just a place to get to and come back from using my favourite mode of transport: the train.
The 1,000-mile route winds around the Manitoba Lowlands up to The Pas and then proceeds north-eastwards through increasingly remote boreal forest and barren subarctic tundra. Sitting in one of the observation cars, you have a great elevated view of the icy landscape. Apart from a few distant herds of caribou, I didn’t see any wildlife – but it’s the seemingly boundless emptiness of the region that captivates you during the 40 hours it takes to reach your destination.
Accommodation on the train was comfortable and in the "Sleeper Touring Class" for which I’d opted: the daytime seats in the coach are converted into beds at night. Climbing up the narrow ladder to a top berth is a bit tricky on a moving train, but it’s no hardship for anyone with average agility. Once snugly bedded down and enclosed behind your little curtain, it’s surprisingly easy to drift off to sleep in the gently rocking carriage.
At meals, you are seated anywhere there is a free place available in the restaurant car – so, over the four days, you get to meet quite a few of the other passengers. Some were travelling to Churchill one-way by train, then flying back; others like me had return tickets without a stopover.
Because of the lateness of our arrival (after 9pm), the choice of things to do in Churchill in the few hours before the train was rescheduled to return to Winnipeg were very limited. The best suggestion was to hire a taxi for a quick trip round town.
As polar bears are the main attraction in this part of the world, the driver took us directly to the old dump on the outskirts of the town where they apparently hang out after dark. Intending to attract any of these highly dangerous creatures that might have been downwind nearby, she got out of the car and, alarmingly, began waving around the remains of her half-finished takeaway. It was frankly more a relief than a disappointment that no bears chose to reveal themselves and we drove on.
To state the obvious, there is not much to see in Churchill after dark (other than the Aurora Borealis, which also eluded us). I’ll leave it to others who have visited in daylight to make their recommendations, but we did look at the huge grain silo and ships by the dockside. We drove out to the eerie wreck of a cargo plane that crashed in the 1970s and, further on, saw dozens of husky dogs tied up in the open for the night. (It was unsettling to be told that several had been killed the previous year by wolves.)
The train, not surprisingly, was also delayed on the return journey – and from the rear observation car, you could see why. Sometimes the carriages ahead where bobbing up and down like horses on a carousel and the train therefore had to travel at a very steady speed over the undulating tracks.
Finally back in Winnipeg, I was glad I had a booking for a room at the impressive Fort Garry Hotel, ideally located directly opposite the station and a two-minute walk away. Possibly the most comfortable bed I have every slept in was very welcome after my previous four nights on the train.
Would I make the journey again? Yes, certainly – and I’d recommend the Churchill trip by train to anyone. The train ride is in itself an adventure, but if it’s the polar bears you really want to see when you get there (or anything else the town has to offer in daylight), then perhaps it would be best to allow for a stopover in your schedule until the track is improved on this route.
How to do it
ViaRail (www.viarail.ca) has a Hudson Bay train leaving Winnipeg on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings, returning on Thursday, Saturday and Tuesday evenings. Return fares to Churchill start at about $350 in low season (January 1 to May 31, and October 16 to December 31). An extendable 12-day adult Canrail pass starts at $576 in low season, rising to $923 in peak season (a supplement is payable for travelling Sleeper Touring class).