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Armchair Brakeman
Churchill, Manitoba

I first heard about Churchill in the pages of Canadian Geographic. I read an article about  polar bears congregating  near the small town of Churchill while waiting for the ice to freeze. Churchill is on the Hudson Bay and the sea ice freezes first near the town because of the fresh water delivered by the nearby Seal and Churchill Rivers. The bears want to get on the ice to hunt seals which are their main food supply. The article also mentioned that the only way to get to Churchill is by plane or train. There are no roads that led to civilization.

I don’t know how long the bears have been coming to Churchill but the train has been coming since 1929. The Hudson Bay Railway reached its northern terminus at Churchill in August 1929. In September 1951 the railway became part of the Canadian National System. In August 1997 The Hudson Bay Railway took over the operation of the former CN Lines between The Pas, Flin Flon, Lyn Lake and Churchill Manitoba.

Today VIA, Canada’s national railway has a train that goes to Churchill three times a week. The “Hudson Bay” leaves Winnipeg at 20:45 (8:45PM) each Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, and travels north  through the tundra to the Polar Bear Capital of the World, Churchill, Manitoba.

I have gone to Churchill two times. The first time I went alone and took Air Canada to Winnipeg and took the train from there. I must have been short of time or else IO would have traveled the whole way by rail. The trip was great. Winnipeg has a bus service from the airport to town and the bus driver dropped me off one block from my hotel. Even though the train left at night I wanted to be in Winnipeg a day early to see the sights of the city.

The second time I went, I brought my 25 year old son Kraig. This time, again, we took Air Canada to Winnipeg and the bus service to down town. It was a carbon copy of my first trip. After a day in Winnipeg, the train left the station in the evening and for the next 36 hours we were on the train. Although Churchill is almost direct north from Winnipeg it has to travel west to miss Lake Winnipeg and actually goes into the province of Saskatchewan before heading northeast towards Churchill. It is on this stretch of tracks that we pass The Pas and Thompson. Thompson is as far as any paved road goes. 1149 kilometers from Winnipeg, 548 kilometers to go.

Although we left at night, you can still see that it doesn’t take long for the terrain to become barren and you feel like you are quickly in no man’s land. With 36 hours of train travel you have to have a couple of books to help you pass the time. Although we took the Comfort Class and slept in the seats (which recline impressively), bedrooms are available. Late-night talkers and snorers made sleeping a bit of a challenge, especially after having snoozed during various portions of the day, but overall, sleeping in the seats was not at unpleasant. The bathrooms were clean, and the meals served in the dining car are very good.

I had made arrangements to stay at a bed and breakfast in Churchill, and they had a taxi waiting for me at the train station.  The town is small, (about 1000 people) and cab fare from one end of town to the other is very inexpensive. The weather in Churchill is very cold sometimes. On my first trip I encountered -20 C weather and was glad I had prepared for cold weather. Average temperature in October is 0C to -15C.

We went at the end of October when the ice is not yet frozen but the bears are there waiting. Several different companies provide vehicular tours of the tundra to get close to the bears. The vehicle we went on was a converted school bus with enormous wheels. This made it easy to drive in the tundra and also made it high enough that the bears could not reach into the windows. There also was a company that had special vehicles built just for traveling on the tundra and viewing the bears. A number of these were strung together so visitors could sleep on the tundra (in the vehicles) safely among the bears.

We really enjoyed watching the bears. They act just like overgrown puppies - always playing and frolicking around. Although they look like they could be fun to play with, they are very dangerous. When the kids of the town go out to trick-or-treat on Halloween, fathers and volunteers walk with them with their shotguns to scare off any bears they may encounter.

Churchill also has a bear jail. When the town catches a bear in the city or too close to the city they tranquilize him and take him to the bear jail. If the same bear lands in the jail three times he is then taken by truck 30 or 40 miles away and dropped off. That usually takes care of the bear for that season. When the ice freezes over the bears travel across it and are gone till next year.

It is truly a great sight to see these bears in their natural habitat and I recommend it to everyone. Decreasing ice on the Hudson Bay due to global warming is in danger of changing this yearly pilgrimage of the polar bears, but for now, Churchill is still the Polar Bear Capital of the World.  

If you do plan on going, you must plan far in advance. The train is sometimes full and the hotels in town can fill up quickly. Plan your trip about a year ahead of time.



Departs Winnipeg:  20:45 (8:45PM)   Tues, Thus, Sun
Arrives Churchill:   36 hours later                     

Departs Churchill:  20:30 (8:30 PM)     Mon, Wed, Fri
Arrives Winnipeg:  36 hours later

Fares (
Canadian Dollar)

Comfort Class
(basically, a comfortable seat that reclines)                                                      
Adults     $312.90
Senior    $312.90
Youth      $312.90
Student   $312.90
Child       $157.50

Sleeper class (sofa bed, private bathroom [under the bed at night], and sink)
Bedroom for one: $1,142.40
Bedroom for two: $1,499.40

Semi-private, upper or lower berths are also available.



Tracks on the way to churchill
On the way to Churchill

Churchill train station
Churchill train station

Bear on the tundra, Churchill
Polar bear on the tundra in Churchill

Bears at the buggy, Churchill
Bears at the buggy, Churchill

Fellow traveler in Churchill
Fellow traveler in Churchill

Downtown Churchill
Downtown Churchill

Sunset at Churchill
Buggies heading in off the tundra at the
end of the day.

Bears on the Tundra
Bears on the tundra

Buggy at Churchill
Tundra buggy at Churchill