Few Canadians have stood on the shore of Hudson Bay. It is a defining feature of our Country. A vast inland sea that covers more than 10% of Canada. I wanted to see Hudson Bay for myself after throwing all those sticks in the river. I had considered doing it the old way, paddling all the way in some kind of boat or canoe, but my preferred method of travel is motorcycle.
My newly acquired KTM 640 Adventure is well suited for touring on the kinds of road I would encounter. Light weight and long travel off road suspension to handle any kind of road. Givi luggage easily adapts to just about any motorcycle made. With some racks from Motech, the bags snapped right onto the KTM looking like they were meant to be there. This would be my first experience on gravel road touring. I had toured some on pavement, the previous year I qualifed for the Iron Butt Saddlesore 1000 and Bun Burner 1500 on a round North America tour, but that is another story. That one ended me with wondering if there were any roads uninfested by nose to tail 18 wheelers, hence the gravel road thing.
I went for day trips locally to improve my off pavement riding skills. We were ready.
I plotted a route that would allow me to stay mostly on unpaved gravel roads and take me through the same country the fur traders travelled, more or less following the Saskatchewan Route. I discovered that there is no road to Hudson Bay. The closest a road gets is Gillam Manitoba. To get to Churchill, my destination, I would have to (a) ride through the bush, (b) paddle one of the rivers, (c) take a plane or (d) a train. I opt for d, keeping option a open. My brother worked in the nickel mines in Thompson in his student days. When I shared my plan to see Hudson Bay with him, he had been thinking about going back to see Thompson, so we decided to visit the Bay together. They would be coming from Eastern Ontario by car. We reserved seats on the train for August 8.
The modern bush plane looks like any small commuter type plane except that they have stand on two canoe size floats in water instead of wheels on a runway. I watch as they load one up with all manner of freight including what appears to be a washing machine. If you have ever carried a washing machine up the basement steps you know how heavy they are. I am sticking around to see how this will end. I have heard the stories about how the old bush pilots would have to tie their planes to a tree on the shore so they could rev up the engine until it was going to pull the plane in half and then cut the rope with a knife so they would have enough power to take off before they crashed into the opposite shore. Bet they never carried a washing machine. No drama here though, the plane left the dock and wound up its turbo prop with roar and pretty much leaped straight into the air.
I stay overnight, but I have to move on. I am anxious to arrive in Thompson in time to join with my brother Rene and his wife Shirley and the train to Churchill.
From La Ronge I travel all gravel and dirt roads through virgin forest. The KTM floats over the gravel and dirt roads. I get comfortable with the roads and become a connoiseur of the unpaved road. Another old Saskatchewan joke is that Saskatchewan is Cree for bad roads. If it isn't it should be.
Churchill was one of the great Canadian government mega projects of the 1930's, but not as well known or successful as the east west railways, the St. Lawrence Seaway or Trans Canada Highway.
The Government wanted to build a major port on the Hudson Bay and use it to transport prairie grain and northern minerals through the Bay to the rest of the world, exchanging thousands of miles of land transportation for cheaper sea transport. The weak links were land transport to Hudson Bay and 6 months of ice covered bay. The rail line uses conventional wooden ties and steel rails. Extreme cold causes steel to shatter like glass. Temperature fluctuations from very hot summers to very cold winters plays havoc with the road bed. Wooden ties rot. Permafrost, swamps, rivers and lakes to cross or go around. A white elephant, the railroad got passed from one rail line to another after the government lost interest, each milking it for its meager profit, none investing in upkeep. It looks bad, but someone is working on it. The maintenance vehicles are wearing New York State license plates.
I reach Thompson by mid day, days before I am to meet my brother and sister in law, and get on the train. I decide to push on to Gillam that same day and see what there is to see. The 300 km to Gillam is all upaved except for a few miles of pavement at both ends. The country here is flat, the trees are like sticks, this is the muskeg, also known as moose pasture. There is a thick swampy mattress of vegetation everywhere consisting mostly of peat low shrubs and reindeer moss, which is not a moss at all but a shrubby lichen. The trees would barely make broom handles. The topsoil is so thin over the permafrost that trees lean in all directions, the slightest disturbance knocking them about. The Russians call this the drunken forest.
Gillam is a company town for Manitoba Hydro, but there is plenty of private business to serve the needs of the Gillamites (Gillaminians?). Manitoba Hydro employees are mostly skilled technicians, if you squint Gillam could be a suburb in any southern Canadian city, the difference being that is 300 kilometers of treacherous road to the next suburb.
A small mall has all the conveniences and necessities. The largest and most imposing building in town is the railway station, built in a day when the train station was the most important building in any town. Despite its remoteness, a 21st Century moment occurs when the town's only gas station locks its doors all morning because their data line went down, which meant they were unable to sell anything, thanks to our brave new world of computer network retail management. Fortunately service was restored at noon, or I would have been unable to leave.
I return to Thompson to find a room and wait for my brother and sister in law to arrive. Thompson is the site of several underground nickel mines and a smelter. It is also Manitoba's northern administrative center, government is also an important industry. Thompson has a well deserved reputation as a rough town, but not, as I discovered, because the miners are drinking and carousing in the bars. Most of the miners are settled in long timers who have survived many layoffs and are now marking time for pensions and retirement. Everywhere I go in Thompson are clumps of young people doing the sorts of things idle youth do all over the world, pissing everybody off. It is not often that I am nervous walking the street in broad daylight, but in Thompson I am a little nervous, especially when I walk past a scrum of 30 or so a few feet from my nice motor hotel and hear, 'Pass me the pipe!", I am thinking this is probably not the peace pipe.
On the plus side, the Thompsonites have done a great deal to keep their town looking nice. Typically a northern town will look scruffy to southern eyes, when it is freezing cold most of the year, it is easy to let outside maintenance slide. Northern buildings tend more to the utilitarian than the architectural. Extreme cold and long arctic nights means buildings have more wall and less glass. One solution to the unimaginative exteriors is to cover the featureless walls with huge murals. A medium rise apartment building sports a wolf head mural that covers one side of the building. Painted and decorated wolf statues complete the wolf theme all through town like those painted cows in other cities. All the familiar food and retail franchises are represented. Even a mine building has been turned into a giant canvas celebrating its own history.
While waiting for my brother I was investigating what to do with my motorcycle while I complete my trip to Hudson Bay. I visited the local motorcycle/ATV dealer, they store their outside stuff behind a barricade of chain link and razor wire that would be overkill at a maximum security prison. Hmmm. I spoke to somebody there who told me I they would store my bike and gave me a cell phone number to call when I needed to lock it in, I suspect this is someone who may change their mind later. The train station is located in an industrial area which looks to be completely unsupervised most of the time. A private campground on the edge of town parks vehicles for train travellers and provides a shuttle service back and forth to the train station. When it came time to board the train, the ATV dealer had closed, and I was unable to reach my contact, so I opted for the campground, as did my brother with his car. An excellent choice as it turned out. The campground is a family run operation, from their home in the grounds, so there would always be people around. The KTM is parked in view of the house and one of the campground owner's sons, a fan of dual sport motorcycles, takes personal charge of watching over my bike.
My brother and sister in law and I do the Thompson tour. My brother visits his old haunts, and we arrange to tour the Inco nickel processing plant. The Inco tour is very cool. We are seeing the smelter and how the ore is processed after it is mined. Ore is crushed, melted in crucibles, dissolved in toxic looking green liquid and deposited electrolytically as medallions that vaguely resemble half size silvery turtles candy. The whole process including smelting is done electrically, it was the nickel mine in Thompson that kick started the hydro electric damming of the Hudson's Bay watershed.
The train trip was supposed to only be about 20 hours, so we had declined a private cabin with beds, as we wanted to see everything anyway. The train was about 8 hours late. We were supposed to board at noon and arrive in Churchill the following morning around 7 AM. Instead we left at about 7 PM and it was late in the afternoon of the next day that we arrived in Churchill. I had already noted the poor condition of the tracks when I had followed them on my motorcycle. The track was so bad that the train rarely exceeded 16 km/hr (10 Mph). I had my GPS with me, so we always knew exactly how fast we were going. However, 10 miles per hour is a perfect speed for sightseeing, and traveling by train is a very pleasant way to travel. The cars and seats are roomy, you can stand up without hitting your head and you can walk around. Meals are served in the dining car in high style. The food is excellent. The train is operated by VIA Rail, Canada's national passenger train service, but the tracks are not, the tracks are owned the Hudson Bay Railway who are owned by Omni Rail. The result of all this Gordian complexity is a railway that is in terrible shape.
When we finally arrived in Churchill around 7 pm, we went straight to the rooms we had booked. Our rooms were actually good sized one bedroom apartments, with a small kitchen, large living room and a loft bedroom and bathroom. Very nice accommodations. Up here the nights are long and light, even in August, so we still had plenty of time to explore. Churchill is a deep water port, but the port looks almost abandoned, a few small work boats and some abandoned rusty relics. Seemingly far more important is tourism and northern administration. There are a lot of government buildings, including offices for Nunavut, the newly created territory that was once recently the eastern part of the Northwest Territories. There are also weather stations, research stations, military installations, and a large airport. There are plenty of roads and vehicles, but the roads don't go anywhere except back to Churchill, just like the domed town in the "Truman Show". Every restaurant in Churchill is excellent, they are staffed by trained chefs, mostly in their twenties. There is a large population of 'twenty somethings' in Churchill, mostly from the south, university educated adventure seeking types. Another group, like the owners of our hotel, are the young retired, 'fifty somethings' who have taken their savings and are operating tourism related business. In the distance I see a guy without a helmet riding what appears to be a mid to late 60's Harley stripped down bagger .
The main tourist attraction of Churchill are the polar bears. Twice a year, fall and spring, the polar bears come through Churchill on their migration to and from the ice covered bay. In the middle of summer there are few bears, and we did not see any, although there were supposed to be a few young males hanging around. Polar bears are unpredictable and dangerous when hungry. The residents carry double barrelled shotguns when bears are around. We are told that polar bear will kill and eat humans if they are hungry. 'Do not feed the bears' has a more personal meaning here. During the migration tourists are taken out on all terrain mobile campers, tundra buggies, a cross between a school bus and a monster truck. Tundra buggies are about ten feet off the ground, and completely self contained. A flat tire might be troublesome though.
Instead of bears we see the beluga whales. Beluga whales are about twice the length of dolphins, which they resemble. They are in the Churchill River estuary to feed on capelin, a herring size fish. The belugas are everywhere, they can be seen from shore as they surface to breathe and dive below the surface again to feed. We go out on a tour boat to watch them. Before we leave we are given a short introduction to the biology of the Beluga. Beluga, like dolphins experience their environment through sonar, they emit high pitched squeals and use the echoes to locate and observe what is around them. We go out in the water, and are soon surrounded by beluga. They appear to be oblivious to our presence in the way that cows feeding in a field are aware of but ignore human trespassers. They are busy, and they don't care about us much, but you sense they are watchful just the same.
Things that get left in the arctic seemingly last a long time. We came across the remains of a crashed airplane near the airport. Other than the numerous bullet holes from local hunters, presumably after the fact, it all looks pretty much like it had just crashed. Shiny but broken engines are still amongst the litter. The plane has been sitting there for over 30 years.
There is no forest here just a tree here and a clump there hiding behind a large rock. Churchill is on the edge of the tundra, which looks like a clipped lawn or a cow pasture, but is actually small shrubby plants a few inches high. There is a lot of bare rock.
There are walking trails, but they have warning signs indicating that strollers will be eaten by bears. We take a chance anyway, we are hoping to see a bear, but we don't. We do see a bear trap, a section of culvert on trailer wheels with a door that slams shut on a bear that tries to take the bait.
We are to leave on the next train out. This time the train is even more late. A freight train has derailed somewhere between Churchill and Thompson. A common occurrence, and the single track must be cleared before anything else can move. We finally leave, but track troubles are not over.
We end up sitting in Gillam most of the next day. Better to wait in the station then in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately somebody has arranged for those interested to tour the generating stations at the dam. I go, and am glad I did. Our tour guide is a technician. This means we get a highly informative tour from someone who knows what they are talking about. She also takes us places that I suspect any professional tour guide wouldn't dream of taking a tour group. At one point we are standing underneath the rotor of a spinning generator that is pushing 140,000 horsepower worth of electrons down a few half inch thick wires to Minnesota. We are all crouching because if we stood up it would take our heads off. We learn that a technician was killed that day checking the transmission wires by leaning out of a helicopter hovering beside the wires somewhere in the middle of nowhere. We take our electricity for granted, if you ever get a chance to stand on top of or underneath a 600,000 pound spinning generator rotor, do not miss the opportunity. You can feel the power by the way it shakes earth around it. The energy it creates is keeping the lights on Manitoba, Minnesota, North Dakota and Northwest Ontario. Impressive stuff.
The tour is over, the track is clear, and the train departs Gillam, still at 10 mph though. Travel schedules, connections and reservations for those who have them are ruined. The staff on the train are apologetic, even though it is not their fault. Passengers get treated to free meals by the train staff. Neither me or my brother has a schedule so we enjoy the extra time. The train trip to Churchill has been well worth while and I would recommend it to anybody, just make sure your schedule is totally flexible.
My return to Edmonton was uneventful. I chose a slightly different route back that put me through more southern and populated areas, but still in the north central parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. A little south of Thompson, muskeg is replaced with deep soil, big trees and old timey looking farms with big red barns green fields. Nipawin Saskatchewan is the nearest thing to time travel to the late 1950's. Everybody in Prince Albert knows what a KTM is and thinks they are cool. All the gas stations are gone from the small towns of north east Alberta.
This was my first trip to what I consider the real north. I don't have to travel very far to see the boreal forest, it is in the river valley a few blocks away. But Edmonton is the last city of the south not the first city of the north. The north is still untamed frontier, there isn't much left on the planet, but there is still a lot more of it up here.