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On her way to see beluga whales and eat elk in historic Churchill, Man., Catherine Dawson March learns the joys and frustrations of crossing Canada on a train

The tracks that run through the tundra in northern Manitoba are notoriously unstable, which makes the 1,700 kilometre trip to Winnipeg a long, slow ride.

The tracks that run through the tundra in northern Manitoba are notoriously unstable, which makes the 1,700 kilometre trip to Winnipeg a long, slow ride.

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

Mile 210: "Did you notice," my son says, staring out the train window, as most of us had been doing for many hours now, "that dragonfly is going faster than us?" I laugh, and look up from our card game. I don't think our train is moving that slowly. My God. He's right.

My husband sighs, opens the official train schedule, again, and discusses the situation with an Australian equally obsessed by where we should be by now. "If we just passed Atikameg Lake, then we wouldn't get to Thicket Portage until 8 p.m." "I heard we might make up time by cutting short a long stop in Thompson …" On and on they go, parsing our achingly slow trundle from Winnipeg, through a corner of Saskatchewan and into northern Manitoba on our 1,700-kilometre ride to Churchill, Man. At least it passes the time.

And that's what we've signed up for on this vacation: family time.

We left Toronto two nights ago on the Canadian, on Via Rail's storied cross-country journey. After a night in Winnipeg, we transferred to a smaller, regional Via train for another two nights to reach Churchill, where we would spend a couple of days at Lazy Bear Lodge looking for beluga whales in Hudson Bay before taking the train home. "That's, uhhh, a lot of time on the train," said my husband, then my kids, and more than one skeptical friend when they heard our plans.

So far, despite the current five-hour delay, I'm still glad we didn't choose to fly into Churchill (there are no roads). Taking the train was, I figured, an upgrade on our usual summer driving trip. On the train, everyone could look at the scenery, no one would argue over directions or fight over space in the back seat. We'd skip the stress of flying, too. Best of all, on the train we could all find a quiet corner to escape each other – did I mention I have a teenager?

But long-haul rail travel, as I would come to learn, can be like travelling in an alternative universe, sending you into a fugue state of enforced relaxation that is as wonderful as it is frustrating.

Lazy Bear Lodge is Churchill’s 33-room log-cabin hotel, one of the nicest spots in town to stay.

Lazy Bear Lodge is Churchill’s 33-room log-cabin hotel, one of the nicest spots in town to stay.

Mile 300: While waiting for our breakfast in the dining car, we're moving so slowly my daughter notices that the raspberries in the bushes alongside the tracks are ripe. "We could jump down off the first car, fill up our hats and still get back on the last car before it passes us. We wouldn't even have to run." Her plan is seriously tempting.

All four of us are so excited to get on the train in Toronto that the 2.5-hour delay we spend in Via's business lounge at Union Station barely registers. "See, the Canadian is on the $10 bill!" my husband tells the kids. They're actually impressed. We are joining around 100,000 travellers who ride each year, taking part in a piece of history.

Games help while away the hours on board The Canadian.

Games help while away the hours on board The Canadian.

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

It's after midnight when we're finally allowed on board. Our cabin is a tight seven by five feet, and no space goes to waste. I'm amazed at all the knobs and buttons and switches – no touch-screen digital swiping here. The top bunk is yanked down from the ceiling with a thunk, while the bottom bunk is pulled from the wall and bangs heavily into place. An arm's length from the bottom bunk is a steel sink, three-mirror vanity, steel faucet and drinking-water spout. A tiny toilet stall is hidden behind a closet door, and we find fluffy towels and sweet-smelling soaps and lotions for the shower down the hallway that we share with 10 other rooms and six berths. These stainless steel railcars were built in the mid-1950s and cannot be replaced (no one makes them any more) so Via must maintain the remaining fleet well, or revamp the interiors for its five-star-hotel Prestige service.

Walking the corridors of a moving train is like trying to stay upright on the jerky floors of a funhouse. It's not long before I'm nursing a number of new bruises on my hips and forearms, while the kids discover that running through the hallways is even more fun. Still, it's worth moving to the back of the train, where the Prestige cars are located, to spend time in the cucumber-shaped lounge cars (Via calls them Park cars). The dome-window seating area gives us grand views of Northern Ontario's never-ending lakes, while the second-level seating room lets you watch the track stretch out until it meets at the horizon. There's also a bar, which can be as lively as your neighbourhood pub. I'm pleasantly surprised to find almost everyone on the train is in a good mood – what a change from flying.

A whistle stop in northern Ontario gives passengers a few minutes to get off The Canadian and stretch their legs.

A whistle stop in northern Ontario gives passengers a few minutes to get off The Canadian and stretch their legs.

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

Mile 262: Overheard in the dome car: "There's time, and then there's Via time."

Delays are a fact of life when you take long-haul passenger trains in Canada. As the Canadian crosses the country, it is often shunted aside, giving way to more-profitable freight trains. But on the regional route north to Churchill, it's the unstable track itself that slows everything down. Those 1,700 kilometres were completed in 1929 by the federal government, much of it on permafrost. These days, the track is owned by an American company called Omnitrax. It's responsible for the upkeep (with help from the federal government), but until the hundreds of tricky spots are fixed, trains must travel excruciatingly slowly. If it's a hot day, they move even more slowly. And we left Winnipeg to go north in a heat wave.

"As the train trip gets longer, locomotive engineers are only allowed to work for a certain number of hours, after which they must take mandatory rest," Michael Woelcke, Via's general manager of regional services, explained to me later. And when that happens, the train stops moving for eight hours. It doesn't happen often, but it happens often enough that a local heading home to Churchill predicts our epic, 10-hour delay hours before Via admits it to passengers.

But misery can be a good icebreaker. I get to talking with Steve, a student spending his summer touring Canada by train. He shows me videos on his iPad of the train-delay party he got swept up in at Toronto's Union Station. Musicians heading west on the electronica Full Flex Express tour groaned when a four-hour delay was announced. "Skrillex comes in on his Segway, hears about the wait, then rolls back out of the station," Steve says. "He's back half an hour later with a box of vodka bottles. They were pouring drinks for everyone, they had an enormous skipping rope going in Union Station, it was wild."

But there is no free-flowing vodka on our slow ride to Churchill. Regional trains have far fewer frills than the Canadian. Goodbye all-day complimentary tea, coffee and snacks (even if you're paying for meal service), no more wine-tasting classes, or intimate concerts from travelling musicians. Via's mandate for regional service is simply to provide a transit service for the many tiny remote communities it serves. Which it does, slowly.

Old hydro poles slowly sink into the muskeg along the tracks in northern Manitoba.

Old hydro poles slowly sink into the muskeg along the tracks in northern Manitoba.

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

Mile 320: Stare long enough at the old hydro poles sinking into the muskeg and it looks like thousands of yogis by the tracks in warrior pose, their move deteriorating over generations as the wood is swallowed by the swamp.

On the train to Churchill, passengers don't seem to mind the drop in service, or the older, mustier sleeping cars. The train staff are as helpful and cheery as ever and we're all in vacation mode, happy to skip the stress of security (unlike at the airport, no one even looks at your bags) and share stories or play cards with our neighbours instead of ignoring them. Being late becomes our new normal. I find it amazing that no one lets loose with a little train rage.

Via's Woelcke wasn't surprised to hear that. "On a train, there's a little more acceptance of the fact the schedule needs to be flexible. … Some people say, 'Well, look, I just got an extra eight hours for the same money!'"

I wouldn't go that far, but it sure is a relief to finally arrive in Churchill.

This frontier town of just more than 800, half indigenous, half non-native, must rely more than ever on its natural attractions – polar bears, beluga whales and the barren beauty of the tundra – to survive. We came for the belugas, and our way to the whale-watching boat bobbing in the Churchill River, I see why the town is courting tourism so desperately.

Thousands of belugas are found in Churchill River and Hudson Bay every summer.

Thousands of belugas are found in Churchill River and Hudson Bay every summer.

Lazy Bear Lodge

On the edge of Churchill, a deep-water port and enormous grain elevator sit empty, waiting for grain trains that don't come (it used to be a popular spot to ship goods over the Arctic Ocean). Built in 1931, the port looks abandoned: No one fixes the broken windows or replaces the peeling paint. Only half a dozen ships arrived in 2015, and the federal subsidy that ensures some freight is still shipped this far north ends in 2016, though the town is hoping it is renewed.

Many who live here stay just for "the seasons" (whale: July and August; polar bear: October and November), and fewer remain for winters of -45 C and plagues of mosquitoes when it warms up.

A cargo plane once crashed in the tundra outside the Churchill airport. The locals decided to leave it there, and dubbed it ‘Miss Piggy.’

A cargo plane once crashed in the tundra outside the Churchill airport. The locals decided to leave it there, and dubbed it ‘Miss Piggy.’

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

Summer visitors may come for the whales, but Churchill, built on the migration path of polar bears, is better known as "the polar bear capital of the world." Co-existing with the biggest land carnivore on the planet means that life is a bit looser in the subarctic; locals tend to ignore things such as seatbelts. When a cargo plane crashes just outside the airport, why bother moving it? Let it sit on the rocks, shredded metal and all, as a place for the kids, the tourists and the polar bears to hang out. Visitors might be ordering lattes at the Lazy Bear Café (the only place in town to get them), but locals are buying ATVs in the cereal aisle at the Northern Store down the street.

In fact, even though it's not bear season, our first instructions when we arrive at Lazy Bear Lodge, the only log cabin in a town full of prefab buildings, is bear safety – and it's done under the fierce eyes of a massive bearskin nailed to the wall.

Even in the summer, visitors must keep an eye out for polar bears – especially on walks outside of town.

Even in the summer, visitors must keep an eye out for polar bears – especially on walks outside of town.

Travel Manitoba

So it's a surprise the next day to hear a shopkeeper wave off the danger, telling a nervous woman from San Francisco, "You want to see bears? Rent a car, pack a lunch and a bottle of wine, and go out for a drive. That's the best way to see bears."

But that sounds more like setting yourself up as bait. So we sign up for a few of Lazy Bear's guided trips.

Our first trip out into the Churchill River and Hudson Bay is in an aluminum boat, just like the one Relic drove in The Beachcombers. The whales come here by the thousands every summer to calve – so many that we could see white slips of breaching belugas from the shore.

But out on the water we can hear them. When our guide tells us that the curious whales respond to high-pitched singing and noises, our son – whose voice hasn't broken yet – squeals into action. Soon, we're surrounded and followed by families of three-to-four-metre-long beluga adults and smaller calves. It's magical.

Taking a break during a whistle stop in Dauphin, Man.

Taking a break during a whistle stop in Dauphin, Man.

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

The next day, decked out in dry suits (a waterproof bodysuit that's shrink-wrapped over your clothes), both kids snorkel and squeal with the whales at the mouth of the river, managing to pet them as they swim by.

But I'm even more surprised how Canadian history – often hated at school – comes alive for both kids as we stand amid the crumbling stone and cannons of the star-shaped Prince of Wales Fort, built in the late 1700s to defend the English fur-trading port of Churchill from the French.

Our guide weaves stories about the hard life of trappers, traders and Hudson's Bay Co. officers who lived with little and ate even less.

When Jack discovers a shard of brown glass in the rubble, he is tickled to learn that it might be hundreds of years old and promises to hand it over to the Parks Canada office in town.

The fort is on an isolated point. A frigid wind chills us to the bone, but we can't move too quickly back to the boat. Our guide, with a big gun slung over her shoulder, scans the rocks around us constantly for bears. "You don't want them surprising you," Judd says.

We see no bears, but try to warm our bellies with handfuls of crowberries, bearberries, cranberries and gooseberries scooped off the glacial scarred rocks. It almost works.

That night at the Lazy Bear Café, we find the berries we ate on the tundra in our salad and eat local with orders of elk and Arctic char and wild blueberry pie. The log-cabin look of the restaurant (even the menu comes in a wooden booklet) and lodge is more charming than cheesy. And the lodge's lounge, with its overstuffed couches and eclectic decor, is where you can share stories with other guests about who saw what on the tundra that day.

Exhausted from our exploits, we suck back tea and hot chocolate in the lobby and study an odd map on the wall. It displays the world from a Northern perspective. Toronto (our centre of the universe) doesn't even rate a pinpoint. It makes us realize just how far we have come, and – sigh – how long we might spend going home on the train the next day.

Crowberries are a favourite of birds, and humans, alike.

Crowberries are a favourite of birds, and humans, alike.

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

Mile 430: I find the juxtaposition of time on a train is more pronounced. As the scenery rushes by outside, time feels suspended inside – you can't wait to get out at the next whistle stop and feel the sun on your skin. Then, on the station platform, time speeds up. Too soon the horn blows and it's time to get back on.

We're late leaving Churchill (natch), but I'm also kind of looking forward to this enforced Zen again.

The dome-seating area becomes my new home. Up here, it's as quiet as a church – murmured conversation, the click of a camera phone, that's it. Passengers sit spellbound by the endless passing of pine and spruce turned black by the setting sun, by clouds the colour of a fresh bruise and by blinding flashes of light reflected off dark bogs still as glass. Some passengers fall asleep here, or pad up in the night to watch for the Northern Lights.

And it's not just me who has fallen under the stupefied spell of train travel. "I am only getting out of bed for meals," our 15-year-old declares as she heads into her cabin.

And where else could she get away with that?

If you go

Pack patience and a sense of adventure when taking the train. On the Canadian, one-way sleeper berths (basically bunk beds with curtains beside the hallway) start at $1,031 and include three meals a day for the entire Toronto-Vancouver run. Private cabins start at $1,429 (one way, includes meals) and travelling in economy (one way, no meals, no sleeping quarters) starts at $455. Prices drop if you're getting out at Winnipeg. One-way tickets for the regional Winnipeg-to-Churchill run start at $464 for cabins, $361 for berths and $182 for an economy seat.

Watch polar bears swim all around you at Winnipeg’s Journey to Churchill exhibit at the Assiniboine Zoo.

Make sure to overnight in Winnipeg between trains and delays shouldn't mess with your train transfer. It'll also give you time to check out the incredible Journey to Churchill exhibit at the Assiniboine Park Zoo. An underwater tunnel means that the carnivores swim all around you, tearing apart a fish or two at snack time. The view is incredible. Beside this exhibit, the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre explains what the organization is doing for Churchill's orphaned polar bear cubs – wander outside to the back of the building and you get surprisingly close to the bears' play area. Visitors are eye level with the animals as they wander over to have a look through the thick chain-link fencing. And it's chilling.

Interactive displays draw visitors in at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

Interactive displays draw visitors in at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

Another must-do is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The building is as impressive as the interactive exhibits that entice visitors to explore topics they might not be drawn to: My young son became absorbed by a shadow-driven video game about Muslim head wear, while my daughter was transfixed by electronic books on struggles faced by the disabled. Wander up the eye-popping marble ramps for seven floors of memorable moments, then take the last few steps up to the glass-walled Tower of Hope for a grand view of the city and its historic Red and Assiniboine rivers.

And if you're in Winnipeg, you might as well indulge in the local sweet treat: Schmoo torte is an angel food cake studded with flaked pecans and almonds, covered in whipped cream and drizzled in caramel sauce. Slices are huge at Baked Expectations (161 Osborne St.;


In Churchill, the Lazy Bear Lodge is the nicest hotel in town. (Summer tours start at two nights for $420 a person/double occupancy, includes some meals and tours; Bespoke experiences can be had with Churchill Wild at lodges outside the town of Churchill (week-long adventures start at $10,195 a person).

In Winnipeg, the grand old CP hotel – the Fort Garry – is a five-minute walk up Broadway Avenue from the train station (rooms from $99; But for something newer, chicer and sleeker, and not that much farther away, book the Alt Winnipeg on Donald Street, right near the MTS Centre. (Rooms $149,

The writer received a reduced rate from Via; accommodation in Churchill was courtesy of Travel Manitoba. Neither company approved or reviewed the story.

Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly said up to 900,000 travellers take Via's The Canadian train from Toronto to Vancouver each year. In fact, the number is closer to 100,000. Also, an earlier version incorrectly said no ships arrived at the port of Churchill in 2015 and there was no longer a federal subsidy to ensure that freight is shipped. In fact, six ships arrived at the port in 2015 and the federal subsidy, the Churchill Port Utilisation Program, expires in 2016.