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Churchill!

Why Churchill? I guess it was the lure of great views of all those tundra nesting species plus the chance to spend time in a remote place – accessible only by rail, by flying in or arriving by boat during the short summer period when the Hudson Bay is no longer frozen. Churchill is mostly famous for being THE place to see polar bears – they come inland when the Hudson Bay ices thaws and then gather up in October and November waiting for the Bay to freeze again. The spring and summer months are the times to visit for breeding birds. Ross’s Gull is always a possibility, it once nested just on the outskirts of town and is seen most years, usually breeding a little further out of town these days.

9th June 2009 – Journey under way!

Spent the morning catching up on emails and a few work bits and pieces. Last minute packing, making sandwiches for the train journey etc. After lunch Heidi picked us up and we felt like we were starting our adventure. We checked our baggage in at the station and headed over to The Forks, a nearby shopping centre (more of your individual type shops than retail chains). We wandered around until suppertime then chose a Sri Lankan food vendor for a tasty curry.

The train station (Union Station) is very plush. We though we should get back there in plenty of time for the train as we anticipated a lot of people vying for seats.

Union Station, Winnipeg - plush departure lounge

Union Station, Winnipeg - plush departure lounge

8 people (including us) boarded at Winnipeg! Beer o’clock was taken in the very splendid dining car and we started our train list almost as soon as we had pulled out of the station. Ian taught me how to play cribbage. Then the sun slowly set over the Prairie and we reclined our seats and went to sleep.

The reclining seats were reasonably comfortable

The reclining seats were reasonably comfortable

10th June 2009 – train day

I woke at 5.40am and we were passing through forest. The only time we left the forested area today was when we stopped at the towns of The Pas (pronounced the paw) at around 9am and Thompson at around 7pm. An unimaginably vast area of forest. The train stopped every now and again gaining and losing local passengers. Dinner in the dining car tonight, very cheap at only $10.50 a head, the quality beating British Rail hands down. We chatted to two of our fellow travellers, an ex-pat couple who now live in Canada, in Churchill. They must have a liking for wild places as they previously lived in the Yukon – and i thought it was wild and woolly living in the Hebrides!

The train consisted of two engines (one to pull the train and one to supply the train with power, but also for emergency pulling), the baggage car, two standard carriages, the dining car and the sleeper car.

The train consisted of two engines (one to pull the train and one to supply the carriages with power, but also for emergency pulling), the baggage car, two standard carriages, the dining car and the sleeper car.

Thoughts. You know when you are cycling in the UK you are always spotting single random workmens rubber gloves in the road. Well here on the railway it seems to be random yellow plastic buckets at the side of the track. Very odd.

Dining car was rather posh. The kitchen had a proper chef.

Dining car was rather posh. The kitchen had a proper chef.

Forest, forest, forest. This was the view for the whole day

Forest, forest, forest. This was the view out of the window for the whole day

Ian didn't realise there is a station named after him

Ian didn't realise there is a station named after him

Got thrashed some more at cribbage. Still trundling steadily through the forest we settled down for a second night on the train.

11th June 2009 – a LONG day!

An excellent nights sleep although i do recall some bumpiness and noise in the night. I awoke to a more open landscape – heathery plants and lichen, small lochans, short, stunted spruce trees and snow in the gullies, frozen lakes just thawing round the edges. Spot of the morning must have been a pair of Surf Scoters on a nearby lochan.

Pity the train window was so dirty, would have got some stunning shots

Pity the train window was so dirty, would have got some stunning shots

LOADS of snow!

LOADS of snow!

Things had really slowed up now and at times the train was only averaging 6mph, picking it’s way slowly and carefully across the tundra. The terrain apparantly plays havoc with the rails – i guess it can be likened to building your railway on a sponge, not too bad when the water is frozen but rather dodgy when things start to thaw!

More and more snow as we headed north but a fascinating landscape and always compulsive viewing. Found that 6mph is an ideal speed for birding from a train – the list grew – Pacific Loons (lifer for me!), Willow Ptarmigan (Red Grouse to us), Whimbrel and Arctic Terns.

Around 3.30pm the train stopped. We were only around 40 miles from Churchill. We sat and looked out of the window for a while, stonking male Lapland Buntings and Snow Buntings. The crew gave us the news that the track was washed out and an engineer was coming out from Churchill to assess the situation.

We were allowed off the train for a while and had a wander down the track. You could see how scarily undulating the track is – no wonder they go so slow!

The tundra train, 40 miles out from Churchill

The tundra train, 40 miles out from Churchill

Ian took this great shot. One of the Churchill locals retrieved his bike from the baggage car and cycled off down the track to see what was going on.

Ian took this great shot. One of the Churchill locals retrieved his bike from the baggage car and cycled off down the track to see what was going on.

It was bad news, the track was washed out for 20 feet and was 4 feet deep. We have to reverse all the way back to Gillam and see what happens from there. Via Rail were very obliging andĀ  provided us with dinner. Another night on the train.

The thought of another night on the train sent us just a little crazy, Ian forget where he should be putting his neck pillow

The thought of another night on the train sent us just a little crazy, Ian forget where he should be putting his neck pillow

12th June 2009 – Churchill, at last!

A reasonably comfy night on the train. I think i’ve now perfected the art of sleeping in a restricted area. Thank goodness the train wasn’t busy, i was able to hog 4 seats to myself. Breakfast was provided by Via Rail. We finally arrived in Gillam at 9.30am – a total of 62 hours since leaving Winnipeg on Tuesday evening, and still not at Churchill! I made it my first priority to telephone Jenafor at the bed and breakfast we had booked: Blue Sky Bed and Sled she would have been expecting us yesterday! Luckily Jenafor is used to the train situation and was very understanding.

You just don't see this roadsign in the UK (watch for skidoo's crossing the road)

You just don't see this roadsign in the UK (watch for skidoo's crossing the road)

We left Gillam during the late afternoon, Via Rail arranged for us to be flown into Churchill on a Calm Air flight.

Churchill, now just 40 minutes away!

Churchill, now just 40 minutes away!

We were met at Churchill airport by a happy smiling Jenafor who then whisked us off to their lovely warm, cozy Blue Sky Bed and Breakfast Lots of Snow Buntings and a few White-crowned Sparrows in the garden. Can’t belive the amount of snow still here and the Churchill River and the Hudson Bay are still frozen solid.

The lovely bed and breakfast we stayed at

The lovely bed and breakfast we stayed at

If you are visiting Churchill don't even consider staying anywhere but here, it was great, you get looked after really well.

If you are visiting Churchill don't even consider staying anywhere but here, it was great, you get looked after really well.

Two of Gerald and Jenafors sled dogs. Thunder in the background and Isobel who is blind but still part of the dog team. Those of you that know me well know i'm not really a doggie person but i just fell in love with these guys, they were just adorable,

Two of Gerald and Jenafors sled dogs. Thunder in the background and Isobel who is blind but still part of the dog team. Those of you that know me well know i'm not really a doggie person but i just fell in love with these guys, they were just adorable,

When Jenafors other half, Gerald, arrived home from work we went with them to the dog yard. They do dog sledding and i think their dogs must be the best kept in the north! The dogs are a lively bunch and were ecstatic to see Gerald and Jenafor. Ian and i wandered down a track for a while but it was blocked by snow. Lots of Snow Buntings and Ian got some lovely digiscoped shots.

Snow near the dog yard

Snow near the dog yard

Feeding time at the dog yard. All the dogs were excited to see Gerald and Jenafor

Feeding time at the dog yard. All the dogs were excited to see Gerald and Jenafor

Jenafor doing the daily dog yard cleanup

Jenafor doing the daily dog yard cleanup

Ian's digiscoped pic of just a few of the many Snow Buntings around

Ian's digiscoped pic of just a few of the many Snow Buntings around

13th June 2009 – exploring

An early morning coffee on the deck looking out across an area of tundra. The garden is still full of Snow Bunts, White-crowned, Harris’s and House Sparrows. (How the hell do those House Spadgers survive here in the winter when it’s -50′C). Ian had wandered off birding so i drank my coffee and enjoyed the scenery. After a delish breakfast of sausage, egg and homemade pancakes with wild berry sauce and yoghurt we had had a wander into town, exploring a little. Booked car hire for tommorow.

An Arctic Tern sitting on a pile of snow in the town

An Arctic Tern sitting on a pile of snow in the town

As i mentioned the river and bay are still one block of ice, unusual for this time of year. At least it should mean the polar bears are still out there, although Gerald and Jenafor tell us that we must always be vigilant as it’s possible to encounter one at any time of the year.

These warning signs are dotted about around the town and they are NOT a joke!

These warning signs are dotted about around the town and they are NOT a joke!

The beach at Churchill town and the frozen Hudson Bay beyond

The beach at Churchill town and the frozen Hudson Bay beyond

We explored Goose Creek Road but it was all very wet – a lot of the usual wader nesting areas are under flood water or snow. We did get amazing views of Surf Scoters right by the road. (We thought about you Tom, it was definitely a Tom Tams eat your heart out moment). A bit different to the way distant views i’ve had of these in the Hebrides where they are usually distant specs somewhere between Luskentyre and Taransay.

Amazing views of Surf Scoter at the side of the road, this was taken with my puny 55mm lens!

Amazing views of Surf Scoter at the side of the road, this was taken with my puny 55mm lens!

More Surf Scoter

More Surf Scoter

Walked down to the weir area of the Churchill River where theĀ  floodwater had created an open area that was just stuffed with birds – Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, Black Scoter and White-winged Scoter (our Common and Velvet Scoter), Little Gull, Pacific Loon, Red-throated Loon, Red-breasted and Common Merganser and a whole array of ducks and geese (Long-tailed duck and Ross’s Goose were new for the trip). Wow, great birding!

Birding at the weir on the Churchill River

Birding at the weir on the Churchill River

Went to Gerald and Jenafors summer cottage just off Goose Creek Road, we had a bonfire and Gerald cooked sausages over the fire. Drank beer, chatted then grabbed an early night.

Gerald and Jenafors summer cottage

Gerald and Jenafors summer cottage

Gearld, with Thunder and Isobel. Getting the fire ready.

Gearld, with Thunder and Isobel. Getting the fire ready.

14th June 2009 – we have wheels

Woke to pouring rain. Ian still braved an early morning bird but for once i gave it a miss and sat and chatted to Jenafor while she made our tasty breakfast pizza. Picked up our hire motor – ordinary cars just aren’t practical in this sort of place so we have a pick up truck. Our very own tinkering truck. Mind you it’s not 4 wheel drive so we’ll have to be a little cautious. Goose Creek Road was washing out and the culvert was raised up. Hope it gets fixed soon!

Oops! the culvert washing out at Goose Creek Road

Oops! the culvert washing out at Goose Creek Road

It struck me, and not for the first time, how much like the Hebrides this place is (and i don’t mean the empty shelves in the Stornoway Co-op when the ferry hasn’t come in). I reckon Stornoway should be twinned with Churchill. It is not quite so undulating here but outside of town the place has that silent wildness about it, the only sounds being natural ones.

Amazing scenery. Great tinkering truck.

Amazing scenery. Great tinkering truck.

What a fascinating place this is. We explored the beaches and found Common Eider on half frozen inland lakes. Also new for the trip was Parasitic Jaeger (Arctic Skua to you and me).

A grounded ship, frozen into the ice in the bay

A grounded ship, frozen into the ice in the bay

15th June 2009

Up early and out for a few hours birding before breakfast. Went to the weir. Cold, cold, cold. But again the birding was great with Sabine’s Gull new for the trip (and a lifer for me!). It really is beyond my comprehension how people survive here in the winter, ok, i don’t suppose they are wandering about in wussy English winter clothing but even so… Is winter in Churchill what it will be like in the Hebrides when the effects of global warming turn off the gulf stream? They are on similar latitudes after all.

If you are of a sensitive disposition don’t look at the next two photos – Ian and i in our underwear

Ian, practising to be a Damart model. Great long johns and thermal polo neck! He almost looks like he's going to be practicing a little ballet in this pose.

Ian, practising to be a Damart model. Great long johns and thermal polo neck! He almost looks like he's going to be practicing a little ballet in this pose.

Not that i really have anything to scoff about. In the mushers den modelling my old thermal cycling top and the bright purple long johns i borrowed from Heidi.

Not that i really have anything to scoff about. In the mushers den modelling my old thermal cycling top and the bright purple long johns i borrowed from Heidi.

Explored more of the surrounding area, again the same thing, some of the roads are blocked by snow and some are washed out by flood water. No evidence of all the nesting birds we were expecting.

Searching the beach for nesting birds. Fat chance!

Searching the beach for nesting birds. Fat chance!

Miss Piggy, a local tourist attraction. A Curtiss C-46 Commando which crash-landed in November 1979 (and called Miss Piggy because of the sheer volume of cargo she could carry).

Miss Piggy, a local tourist attraction. A Curtiss C-46 Commando which crash-landed in November 1979 (and called Miss Piggy because of the sheer volume of cargo she could carry).

16th to 18th June 2009 – birding, birding and more birding…

Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

If the roads weren't washed out they were blocked by snow

If the roads weren't washed out they were blocked by snow

A cold, misty morning

A cold, misty morning

Got into a daily routine of up early and out birding, returning for breakfast at 9.30am. We had great views of Smith’s Longspur, a colour-ringed, singing male and a lifer for both of us. We found Pine Grosbeak in someones garden at their feeders. Wow, great bird! Hoary Redpoll (Arctic Redpoll) was on the same feeders the next day when we checked them out.

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

These Willow Ptarmigan (Red Grouse) were really easy to take pictures of

These Willow Ptarmigan (Red Grouse) were really easy to take pictures of

Yet another road washout

Yet another road washout

The polar bear compound. Where troublesome polar bears are put until they can be released.

The polar bear compound. Where troublesome polar bears are put until they can be released.

To read more about the polar bear compound see the Manitoba Conservation website

Polar bear trap

Polar bear trap

The main street in Churchill

The main street in Churchill

On the 18th We headed up to Cape Merry after supper, the road is now passable and it looks like the ice is starting to free up.

Couldn't resist photographing these buildings at Cape Merry

Couldn't resist photographing these buildings at Cape Merry

Apart from the expanse of ice in the background this could be one of the old shielings on Lewis

Apart from the expanse of ice in the background this could be one of the old shielings on Lewis

All of the hire vehicles have these stickers

All of the hire vehicles have these stickers

Inukshuk. Inuit people used Inukshuks as a traditional method of marking their path along the barren tundra and harsh, frozen shorelines. In Churchill or in other Arctic areas in Canada, no natural landmarks can be found for miles and the rock figures will have arms or legs which lead people to safe areas or good fishing spots.

Inukshuk. Inuit people used Inukshuks as a traditional method of marking their path along the barren tundra and harsh, frozen shorelines. In Churchill or in other Arctic areas in Canada, no natural landmarks can be found for miles and the rock figures will have arms or legs which lead people to safe areas or good fishing spots.

Where are all the nesting tundra birds? We spoke to a guy from the Northern Studies Centre who is studying Hudsonian Godwits, he had only just found the first nest, and then only one. The most snow in decades, and late snow has really slowed things up here. We saw displaying Stilt Sandpipers and lots of displaying Snipe but saw no evidence of nesting. There were waders about – American Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Baird’s Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Semipalmated Plover but nowhere for them to nest. It remains to be seen whether there will be much of a breeding season here in Churchill this year.

19th June 2009 – starting to defrost

We changed our early morning location today to Cape Merry, lots of birds gathering in the ice-free areas, apart from popping back for breakfast at 9.30am we stayed up there most of the day. Gerald and Jenafor lent us their fold-up chairs. Such a variety of birds with Pacific and Red-throated Loons, Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, Eider, all three Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Arctic Skua, Ring-billed and Herring Gull, Canada Goose, and Snow Goose just to name a few. A brief but clear fly-by of a King Eider came close to being bird of the trip. During the day the ice freed up more and quite an open area lay in front of us. We were totally amazed to see Beluga Whales, eerily white, surfacing slowly then disappearing back beneath the surface. Wow, what can i say!

Birding at Cape Merry

Birding at Cape Merry

20th June 2009 – time to leave :-(

Our last day and an early start. Headed up to Cape Merry and it was a bright, calm morning. The only sounds to be heard were the blowing of the many Beluga as they surfaced and the sound of wingbeats as duck flew back and forward. Magic! The river has opened up even more overnight and the open water extends into the bay. Is spring finally here just as we are about to leave?

Common Mergansers (Goosander) loafing on the ice

Common Mergansers (Goosander) loafing on the ice

It came on to rain so we retreated to the truck and sat there, looking out for the next hour or so in the vain hope of a last minute Ross’s Gull. It wasn’t to be.

Back for breakfast, pack our stuff and see what Via Rail have in store for us. Big surprise (not) the train got cancelled. The track got shut down and we’re to be flown out to Thompson later today and will stay in a hotel overnight.

The rain had now stopped and We had chance for some more birding so headed back up to Cape Merry, the lure of that Ross’s Gull just too much to resist. We passed a few hours sitting in the (almost) warm sunshine watching the ice drift down the river. No Ross’s Gull but plenty of peace, quiet and solitude. I can’t stop saying it can i, but what a fab spot!

Off to Gypsy’s for an early supper, had to have our favourite, the seafood pasta. The guys in there told us that 2 polar bears had been spotted today off Cape Merry. They are on their way back in then.

Only 5 of us were due to catch tonight’s train, Via had chartered a plane for the 5 of us and we took off for Thompson. Incredible views of the bay and the tundra from the aircraft.

Warm and green at Thompson. Mozzies too. Bit of a shock really. Feel like i’ve been away for ages. A night at the Mystery Lake Motor Hotel to look forward too. Sounds great doesn’t it, i imagined a homely old wooden place next to a lake. Instead it was a concrete motel in the middle of Thompson, full of partying twenty-somethings and stinking of smoke. Ah well back to reality then eh?!

21st June 2009 – more train problems

Breakfast at Tim Hortons then hung around the hotel for an hour until it was time to go to the station. The train into Thompson was, surprise, surprise, late. But not too late and left at 2pm. It was full of people returning from Thompson’s Nickel Days celebrations (don’t ask, i don’t have enough room to explain). The air-con wasn’t working in one of the carriages or in the dining car and was deemed too hot for the chef to cook. So, we had the prospect of no dinner. After a noisy 2-3 hours most people got off at Thicket Portage, a small township literally in the middle of nowhere. It seems that the train is a lifeline to the folks there as there are no roads in. Lots of people were waiting with quad bikes and trailers to get their supplies from the baggage car.

The Thicket Portage locals retrieving their supplies from the train

The Thicket Portage locals retrieving their supplies from the train

Our journey continued and as a cooked dinner wasn’t an option Via Rail provided us with complimentary, freshly made sandwiches, salad and ice cream. Better than nought i guess. A couple of beers and an early night. At least the air-con is working in our carriage.

22nd June 2009 – home

A night of weird dreams (just how did John Craven, yes, he of John Craven’s Newsround fame, get in my dream?? Bizarre!) and a cricky neck. It had at least cooled down a little on the train and a fry up for breakfast was possible.

Eventually arrived back at Winnipeg, late in the afternoon, only 4 hours late. Hired a car aswe still have another 3 weeks break yet until autumn banding starts. Drove back to Delta. Hot and humid and as soon as we stepped out of the car we were assulted by mozzies the size of helicopters that have a vicious bite. Need DEET!

2 comments to Churchill!

  • Yvonne

    Hi Sal, sounds like your trip to Canada was really good and you saw and heard quite a bit of wildlife! Yes, it’s a great place with lots of opportunities – if only i was 30 years younger LOL!

  • SALLY TALBOT

    Hi Yvonne
    Loved the blog and pics, pity about the weather and no polar bears. You just can’t believe how people survive in places like that.
    Wasn’t quite as cold when I was in Bobcaygeon in the eighties most of the time mozzies not too bad and humidity quite low.
    Heard and saw the cat bird, also the ospreys are back which was good too see,plenty of red winged blackbirds and those big blousy north American robins. The loons sound really eerie at night, also heard coyotes howling in the distance, all new expierences for an English country girl. Oh how I wish I could get there for good, still trying
    Well Iv’e rambled enough, look forward to more blog updates and pics
    Regards to Ian
    Love
    Sal