Train to Churchill 

Ecotourism in the famed Hudson Bay outpost isn't just about polar bears

The first European visitors to Churchill, Manitoba, are forgiven for not recommending it as a destination. In 1619 Jens Munk's Danish expedition wintered where the town now stands — only three of 64 crew members survived to journey back to Denmark.

Numerous better-prepared expeditions similarly failed the rigours of nine months of ice, snow and isolation, and it wasn't until 1717 that the Hudson Bay Company established a permanent post upstream from the mouth of the Churchill River. Capitalizing on the fur trade just out of the reach of the rival North West Company's York Factory 200 km to the south, it dealt mainly with taiga and barren lands Chipewyans who delivered fur from as far as the Rocky Mountains. The original log structure was eventually replaced by Prince of Wales Fort, a low stone edifice closer to the bay, which English and French colonials promptly began trading like a hockey card (well, a stolen hockey card). Between the decline of the fur trade and the rise in agriculture, Churchill's relevance phased in and out, eventually landing in as a Prairie grain terminus and Canada's only subarctic port. The military, hunters, and rocket scientists (really — they were studying the atmosphere) came and went. In the 1980s, Churchill reinvented itself as an ecotourism destination where binoculared pilgrims dropped as much as $10K to safely view polar bears from massive 4WD buses known as "tundra buggies."

In the three-week window during late October and early November when hundreds of bears lounge around Churchill waiting for the ocean to solidify so they can return to the business of hunting seals, thousands of bear-mad humans also await, so I've decided to visit in less-crazed summer when the town's natural charms — Belugas, birds, wildflowers — are more subtle. There's even a chance to see bears as they debark from the dwindling ice. I've also chosen to approach in languid comfort — by train from Winnipeg on the track that opened in 1929 after some 15 years of halting construction. VIA Rail now plies the 1,700-km route thrice weekly, a journey of 40 hours (give or take a day). After a night at the historic Fort Garry Hotel in the third week of June, I drag my bag across the street to the station for a noon departure. The train pulls out at 3 p.m..

It takes forever to escape the city. But once we break from the muddy meanders of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, then the graffiti of underpasses and industrial parks, the transition is stark: Prairie so flat you could see a tent pitched a kilometre away — despite rippling oceans of soy, rye, wheat and canola. It has been a wet spring and is still teeming rain when I turn in, clouds low and black like they're begging for an oil change.

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