Sunday, January 24, 2016

Portage 1987, Second Section - to Churchill

RCMP St Roch, Vancouver, 1968, photo by LC Gagnon

Train 93, the Hudson Bay, departed Winnipeg on Thursday, June 18, 1987 
and we boarded at Portage la Prairie at around 2310hr. 

We would travel almost 1100 miles in the next 33 hours or so.

After about 12 hours in Churchill,
we'd return - another 1100 miles over 33 hours.

We were seen off by my aunt and uncle who had previously made the trip and who had encouraged us to see this part of the Canadian north. With interest, we had read the history books and articles which they had mailed to us to help us prepare and appreciate our journey ... in the days before the internet. Canada Post had struggled under the weight of tomes by Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat, and newspaper articles on the Canadian Wheat Board, Transport Canada and the future of Churchill.

To oversimplify the many accounts of arctic exploration: Generally, early European explorers of the Arctic saw themselves as superior to, and they were standoffish toward ... the local animal-hide-wearing 'savages' (hello, Royal Navy!). Generally, these superior beings were found frozen to death, emaciated, with no teeth, in their tents ... if they were ever found at all. Those who embraced indigenous ways did quite well and even made new friends along the way!

As the result of packages dispatched from Portage, our northern knowledge spanned everything from Henry Hudson and Jens Munk and their 'high-mortality tours' ... to the Hudson's Bay Company.

We knew that the Franklin Expedition's Ultimate Mortality Tour led to a less hubristic and more systematic exploration of the Arctic - by diverse expeditions - to solve the Franklin mystery. Apparently, without a trace, the Franklin Expedition had vanished from the face of the otherwise-perfectly-ordered Victorian earth.

The era was capped by the indisputable bi-polar firsts of Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his added achievement of being the first to complete the Northwest Passage: 1903-1906.

Previously, I had picked up my own knowledge of Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville by lounging in front of CBC TV ... and Henry Larsen from a library book I found when I was still in my single digit phase. Having read the book at an impressionable age, actually seeing Larsen's little St. Roch at Vancouver in 1968, and restored in 1982, were particularly memorable experiences.

*  *  *

Train 93 in 1987

On the schematic 1958 Official Guide map below, you will conclude that our trip began on some old Canadian Northern Railway routes. From Portage, we proceeded via Gladstone and Dauphin, Manitoba and CaNoRa (not a 'misspelling' of Kenora) and Hudson Bay (Junction), Saskatchewan. 

After the station stop at Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan,  the train reversed, a switch was thrown and we then advanced north at a right angle to the station lead. 

Official Guide, 1958. Collection of LC Gagnon
*  *  *

Friday, June 19
Late in the morning, we found ourselves at The Pas.

At The Pas, Manitoba. Our power 6301/6302 had been rebuilt at the CNR Pointe St Charles shops in 1983. This included 'light-weighting' the units by removing their steam generators.

(Our passenger train, heated by steam from the locomotive, demonstrates the persistence of steam engine technology from circa 1880 ... Cars each had their own steamlines - which were coupled along the length of the train by a carman with a hammer when the train was made up)

Thus lightened, our locomotives were better suited to the unstable 'floating' roadbed built on the deep muskeg near Hudson Bay. However, our train now required a steam generator car - which is seen behind the power. Making steam was still the responsibility of the engine crew in the 1980s.

Believe it or not, VIA functioned with 1950s equipment for much of its early life. Historically, our 6300s were sort of analogous to the immortal B-52 bomber airframe of the US Air Force.

In the words of a VIA employee of the era, the refurbished 6300s were 'brand-new 30 year old locomotives'.

We were in the former CNR sleeping car Edwardsville - built in 1954. It was customary for VIA's predecessor railways' wool sleeping car blankets to still be in use well into the 1980s. Dyed in the wool railway crests made the blankets theft-resistant and fixed the age of the blanket within Canada's glorious railway history - Beaver Crest! .. Maple Leaf Herald! .. Lachine Remount Depot!

... Aside from railway enthusiasts, who else would have stolen these blankets? ... maybe collectors of hospital patient gowns and other textile fabrications for Lilliputians.

With a recent rare infusion of new money, VIA had just issued new uniforms to its onboard staff. Our VIA crew was young and their morale was very good - perhaps being away from VIA mainline supervision accounted for this. 

Our car attendant provided the best service we ever had on our travels over the years.

In history, The Pas generally marked the political, construction and operational beginning of the Hudson Bay line.
A little to the north of The Pas, another line branches off with routes to Flin Flon and Lynn Lake.

In the early 1980s, we had watched cargoes like those above loaded onto VIA's premier train - The Canadian.
VIA was the underfunded steam-heated pickup truck running through Canada's roadless wilderness.

Some yard facilities can be seen as we look south from the station.
Spot the locomotive engineer waiting for his iron horse.

Ten minutes after our scheduled departure, the Lynn Lake train was scheduled to leave on its 240 mile, 10 hour journey. On this train, in-car space heaters harken back to the days before 'modern' trainlined steam heat technology. However, my notes record that a steam generator was added.

In the afternoon ...

Later in the afternoon ...

We were in the rear vestibule from Wabowden to Thompson.
It was hot and sunny.

This shows the 'tail' of the Thompson Sub wye.
Down the wye to the right is The Pas, to the left is Churchill.
The train ran with the power leading to Thompson.
The train turned on the wye at Thompson and backed into the station.

Atlas of Canada; 1981; Reader's Digest Association.

The map above shows the railway (grey) from The Pas to Thompson.
The highway system is shown in red.
The VIA timetable states it is 714 miles from The Pas to Thompson.
First Nations Reserves are named, numbered and the reserve area is shaded in red.

With the Thompson passenger station at that right, and the afternoon sun behind us, you can see that the people travelling in the coaches are boarding the first of three coaches. Closest to the camera (with the little door hatch) is the dining car. The sleeping cars follow the dining car.

At the end of the Manitoba highway system, Thompson saw us transformed into a sort of mixed train with highway trailers bound for Churchill added to our train.

Another aspect of the train's duties (found in our notes of the trip) was to drop off supplies for railway maintenance of way crews.

These unique steam trainlined piggyback (TOFC) flat cars were cut in before the passenger consist. The steam is not used by these freight cars, but it must be passed through to the passenger cars for heating. Having freight on the tailend of the consist would subject the occupied passenger cars to dangerous buff forces in the event of a derailment or collision.

Another view of our train at the Thompson station.
We left Thompson about 30 minutes late, so around 20hr.

A railway roadbed without adequate culverts to relieve water pressure building up on one side is a 'dam'.
Freshets from thaws, torrential rain and burst beaver dams are not always predictable.
I don't know what happened here, but fun and surprises often attend a wilderness railway such as this.

We were in the vestibule from Thompson until Pikwitonei (shown above).
You can see that the train's arrival is still a significant event.
Again, the first coach is handling the passengers.

*  *  *

Saturday, June 20

The early hours of June 20 were eagerly anticipated as the longest period of daylight we would see. There were strong thunderstorms with very bright lightning around midnight. Probably without a clear sky above: at 01hr, I could still read the large print of a newspaper without using artificial light. 

At 0420hr, we were at Weir River and about 90 minutes late. Pre-dawn light on the horizon had started around 03hr. There were no trees over 20 feet in height.

The early morning gave us a good view of the scenery closer to Hudson Bay.

As the timetable below shows, we were travelling about 175 miles with speed limited to 30 mph.

CNR Prairie Region Timetable 27, October 27, 1985.

CNR Prairie Region Timetable 27, October 27, 1985.

Outside, it had become overcast and cold.
Hudson Bay typically bends the average isotherm lines south around itself in summer.
A cooler air mass had probably moved over us during the night as well.

The overnight difference in external coach temperature was at least 25 degrees Celsius.

I think you can see someone's distant smudge to the right of the tracks.
Notice the electricity pylons - freeing Churchill from dependence on local coal, then diesel-powered generators.

Demographically, as Canadian tourists, we seemed to be 'rare birds'.
'Older' American polar bear tourists and birders seemed to be the most prominent group riding south of the dining car kitchen.
(The dining car usually separates the coach passengers from the extra fare sleeping car passengers)
In size, after the large American group, there were a few Canadian residents returning to Churchill.

In hindsight, we can assume that we never met the most typical users of the train - northern residents living along the line itself.

Over breakfast, I asked a returning Churchill resident in the tourist trade about the future of Churchill. Susan later recorded our conversation in our trip account ...

He thought it was encouraging that the CNR [still a Crown Corporation then] had agreed to invest $1.5 in new development at Churchill. He said there was much talk about possible development but no new ideas ... possibly a supertanker port linked to a trans-western oil pipeline; or a nuclear submarine supply depot; or a wildlife reserve. We learned that if you fish in tidewater at Churchill you require a Manitoba fishing licence as well as one from the Northwest Territories [Nunavut was not separated from the NT until 1999].

He thought that Canada taking on the job of keeping the Northwest Passage open to demonstrate a claim on the waters was stupid - the passage being as much international waters (he thought) as the Persian Gulf. The Americans would be there regardless. He predicted economic development would be delayed by unsettled land claims and this included the current Inuit and Dene claims - which overlapped each other. He thought that the decisions made would be 'political' and would have little to do with the wishes of the northern people.

... Over the years, our vacations were perhaps more pleasant because we seldom talked to the real people who lived in the areas of Canada we visited. Our trips were getaways by car or by railway sleeping car ... to escape the internecine hospital politics of our workplace. We surveyed the land and its features - often tracing the convenient guiding framework of railways. We studied the museum-based histories of the land's geology and natural life ... and the efforts and achievements of humans to find a way to survive on the land - and with each other.

Almost at Churchill.

Imagery date June 15, 2014 - from: GoogleEarth
On this GoogleEarth view of the Churchill area, you can see the Churchill River to the west, and the Googletized salt water of Hudson Bay to the north. In the north-west, the tracks reach the townsite and the station, and beyond that: the elevator and its rail yard, oil storage tanks, etc.

Our passenger train was wyed and then reversed into the station.

To the north-east are military lands (e.g. the former US Army Air Corps/Force Fort Churchill, 1942) and the airport. During the excellent bus tour - which was enjoyed by many of our train's passengers - we were told that the runway is two miles long and that it can accommodate B-52 bombers. In addition to receiving NORAD planes or commercial aircraft in distress, I assumed there was another possible reason for the investment in this installation. Our visit took place just before the miraculous end of the Cold War. (Without much justification, we seem to worry less about the same risk of nuclear annihilation today) During that era, some of us educated ourselves on the false metaphysical theories underlying 'limited nuclear war' ...

During a superpower confrontation, strategic bombers (i.e. city bombers like the B-52s) would be advanced from US 'homeland' bases which were certain to be targeted ... and these aircraft would be dispersed farther 'forward' to hopefully preserve them for later potential use as the war progressed. Upon being told that B-52s could land here by the tour host, in a low voice I insensitively said to my spouse - with the hope that I would be overheard by a few of our American co-tourists - "If there's a war, Churchill gets it!" 

*  *  *

Arrival at Churchill, Manitoba after wyeing the train at 0845hr.

The camera is facing south at the Churchill station, with yard limits and the sea behind us and Manual Block System traffic control beginning at the sign. Our train has backed into the station and the first order of  business will be setting off the TOFC flats for unloading during the day. 

As we would be leaving with the same equipment that evening, we checked our suitcase at the station so we could enjoy our Saturday at Churchill.

Our tour bus was a brand new yellow school bus with a good HEATER.
The tour was conducted by a member of one of Churchill's original families - about which we had read in Churchill history books. 
His family immigrated to Canada from Norway in 1925.

Vacation fun fact: Around the first day of summer, we found that Hudson Bay had some open water ... but Lake Louise, Alberta had none.

The next post will show some of the sights of Churchill - many were railway related. While we would have been pleased to see polar bears, most of them had headed inland for the denning season. With no seals to eat on land, they would return - hungry - in the fall, waiting for the ice to form so they could get out on the bay and resume hunting. Churchill stands on the bears' traditional route back to the sea. 

As another preview of our tour, here are some of my spouse's notes ...

'As soon as we got on the bus, some people, who chose not to eat on the train, chose to take up our bus tour time [$20 a head .. $37 in 2015 + the lost opportunity to see Churchill] and whine about needing breakfast. So our very pleasant tour conductor (with the patience of a saint) agreed to take everyone to the Community Centre where there was a cafeteria so that these ones could eat. 
'At one point, a member of the Bus Group attempted to speak with the Bird Group and the Bird Lady said - 'Many Canadians like to come to our climate in the winter because our winter is lack their summer' and the Bus Lady said 'Well we're not Canadians we're American' like she had just been insulted and the Bird Lady said in a very cold tone ... 
"I know that, I am telling you how it is!"
'I've heard that used a couple of times this trip. It is to inform the other party that it is not up for discussion - it is a fact.'

The next posting will look at some of the railway features of Churchill.