Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Churchill by rail: Part 9 - A troubled journey through The Barrens and beyond

 There's a whole lot of nothing in The Barrens, just south of Churchill.

By Paul Ullrich

We were all in a celebratory mood as we left Churchill. Our group held another get together in the park car, reminiscing about all the good time we had as we traveled through The Barrens.

The Barrens is perhaps the bleakest part of the country I've ever seen. The land is so flat that it makes southeastern Saskatchewan look like the Rocky Mountains. There's nothing but arctic moss, stunted trees and shallow ponds spreading beyond the horizon.
There's a well known Canadian book by Farley Mowat called Lost in The Barrens, which was made into a motion picture in 1990. Now that I've been through The Barrens, I don't see how anyone could get lost there! Remember the old joke about the prairies (which was used in the opening theme for Corner Gas) where they say that if your dog runs away you can watch him go for three days? If that happened in The Barrens, you could watch him run for a month!

Those stunted trees don't look like much, but they're very, very old. Things grow slow in permafrost, and those tiny pines are somewhere around 50 to 100 years old! I have a guide book that says that The Barrens goes on for only 40 miles, but there's not much of a transition in scenery when you finally leave it.

We bedded down for the night, still traveling through The Barrens. That's when we received the first signs of a troubled journey.

Our sleeping car attendant handed us our towel bags, then asked us to ration our towels, as they were such short supply that we wouldn't be getting another towel bag like we usually would get on our  second day. I reached up to pull down the window shade on my lower berth, and discovered that it was missing. This meant that I was going to be awoken by the dawn's early light whether I wanted or not for the next two nights.

I awoke well past Gillam, once again in the familiar boreal forest. After we had breakfast, I ordered a coffee to go. When the server brought me the cup, she said, "You might want to hold on to the lid. It's the last one we got. Everything's in short supply on this train!"

Oh, boy!

I took her advice and held onto that lid for dear life until we reached Winnipeg. Had I wanted to, I might've been able to sell it for five bucks on that train!

Things went from bad to worse after that. The sleeper next to us had no hot water, which meant that we had to share the shower. Another sleeper's septic tanks were completely full, which left the car with a very unpleasant door. The attendant kept spraying air freshener throughout the car, which helped for about ten minutes.

I knew that the Churchill train is not one of Via's crack trains, and that I shouldn't expect the same level of service that they have on their other two trains with sleepers, The Canadian and The Ocean.  The Canadian has tablecloths. The Churchill train does not. The Canadian doesn't serve coffee in paper cups.  The Canadian has a new menu ever day. On the Churchill train, we joked that everyone had memorized the menu after the first day, as the selection was always the same.  But setting out with a shortage of supplies, and hot water in one car and a full septic tank in another, especially when you are literally in the middle of nowhere, is not only inexcusable, but a bit frightening.

          An interesting bit of equipment on a siding in The Barrens. Anyone know what it is?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Lantern photo contest is seeking submissions from Winnipeg Model Railroad Club members

 You too can have one of your snappy photos on the cover of The Lantern, just like Felix Lesiuk did!

Continuing with our 60th Anniversary Celebration, the WMRC executive has flashed a bright green signal! Our prizes for The Lantern photo contest will remain the same as last year. 

To refresh everyone’s memory, if we have ten or more exhibitors submitting one entry each by the specified date as posted in The Lantern then the prize to be awarded will be a cheque in the amount of thirty dollars.  If there are fewer than ten entries in any month by the deadline, then the awarded prize will be fifteen dollars. 

The winning entry will have their photograph posted on the cover of the current issue.  Please submit your entry in a vertical format which would fit the cover, provide a brief caption that describes the image and include the camera settings, if possible.  All entries should be sent to Robert Weaver,  The Lantern editor, no later than midnight September 2nd to the following email address:

For September the contest subject is "GREEN".

Friday, August 28, 2015

Churchill by rail: Part 8 - Bears, missles and planes

 One of the more unusual Inuit sculptures at the Eskimo Museum in Churchill.
By Paul Ullrich

Our last day at Churchill was a mixed bag of sightseeing. We were supposed to go on a hike in the boreal forest, but it was raining, so the hike became a bus tour. Most of our group, already tired from being on our feet for most of the day yesterday, were grateful for that.

Our guide Paul, who tied his beard just like Albus Dumbledore, took the wheel of his school bus with the gun rack as we headed out to the hinterlands of Churchill. He told us that Churchill "Has 50 miles of road and 13 streets - you can't get lost. and there's no place to hide!"

The first sight we saw was a polar bear relaxing just off the road. Paul explained that this bear and his buddies had just finished eating a beached beluga whale, so there was no danger of him stalking any of us for a quick snack. Still, we all proceeded wit caution as we stayed close to the bus and used our telephoto lenses at a very safe distance. As his belly was full of fresh beluga, he didn't pay any attention to us at all.

Paul then showed us a polar bear trap that he made. It was a wedge-like structure made of old railroad ties with a braided wire snare inside of it. To catch a polar bear, all you needed to do was to throw a couple of sardines into the narrow part of the wedge. The bear, attracted to the scent, would get entangled in the snare. As polar bears are an endangered species, they are not killed if trapped. They're anesthetized, tagged, and then released. We also drove by Churchill's polar bear prison, where stray bears who wander into town are incarcerated and shipped out to less inhabited areas.

We were taken to Churchill's abandoned rocket research range, home of Manitoba's Black Brant rocket, built by Bristol Aerospace of Winnipeg. Inside one of the structure was the remains of one of these famous rockets hanging from the ceiling. Paul told us that these missiles used solid fuel, which meant that they were really nothing more than giant roman candles.

We also saw Churchill's Miss Piggy, which is not the beloved character from the Muppets, but a slow moving, ungainly aircraft which belly flopped onto a rock ledge shortly after take-off. Miss Piggy was a C-46 Curtiss Commando, which was very similar to the Douglas DC-3 passenger aircraft.

In 1979 this plane, which was already well past its prime, was flying a cargo of soda and a snowmobile when it lost oil pressure. Its rear landing gear caught onto wires on some hydro poles and crash landed onto the rocks without a fatality, and it's been there ever since.

We ended our tour with a visit to Churchill's Eskimo Museum. Run by the Diocese of Churchill, it has one of the oldest and most comprehensive collection of Inuit artifacts and sculptures in Canada. Also on display were well preserved hide-covered kayaks, narwhal horns, a stuffed musk ox, polar bear and a walrus.

Their gift shop has a great selection of the most reasonably priced souvenirs in Churchill, and for that reason alone it is definitely worth a visit!

After our visit to the museum we returned to the Seaport Hotel for a delicious farewell supper before we boarded the train. Everyone raved at how good the ribs were! Who knew that you could find a decent rack of ribs this far north? However, pork isn't locally bred in Churchill. Someone tried it, and the found out all too soon that polar bears have a taste for pork!

When we finished our meal, we gathered our belongings and headed for the train station. Guess what! The train left on time, right at 7:30 PM!

                     This is as close as any of us wanted to get to a polar bear in the wild.
                     Our guide shows us the proper way to snare a polar bear in a trap.
               Here lies Miss Piggy, the airplane that belly flopped onto the rocks 36 years ago. 
The remains of one of the rockets from Churchill's rocket research range still hangs inside one of the abandoned buildings on the site.