Times change and then again, they kind of don’t. Another season and another train ride up to Churchill. This year, VIA Rail is (at least on the surface) presenting a more formal approach in Thompson, seemingly enforcing somethinge called ‘rules’. Now, instead of piling on countless bags of pretty much whatever, there are additional baggage fees and even a charge for rubbermaids full of groceries, although its only a couple bucks.
Of course, none of this seems to be enforced at the baggage car but that’s not the point, ‘policy and procedure’ have reached Thompson. Sigh. I miss the smiles and casual conversation at the ticket booth and the security knowing that folks would show up right to the last minute to buy tickets. This year, I got on the train and it pretty much started moving… crazy. I mean its not like the train is consistently on time but it sure seems like they think they are.
Once on the train, things quickly settle back to normal. Native children run up and down the isles as folks heading back to the rail line communities, Pikwitonei and Ilford, settle into their Tim Horton’s, a beer or two and some intense gambling in the bar car. No more cigarette smoke hanging thick in the lounge, strangely I miss the eye-watering atmosphere it created. But such is life.
Conversations with strangers are eased into, chairs are turned and beds are made, northern residents throw out one-liners followed by the characteristic northern laugh (you’ll recognize it when you hear it… not point describing it until you’re up here). Pretty much the same as I remember, except a noticeable lack of tourists which is a real shame.
Churchill has worked pretty hard to make bear season difficult for independent travelers, something I think was a real mistake. It is almost all group travel now and a lot of those groups are on a very tight schedule. I miss the random folk wandering the streets, eventually meeting up with a local and being guided around the dump, the Legion, etc… Maybe that will all come back some day.
A small group of us lament the changes in bear season and alternately share stories of Churchill as the train tumbles into Gillam. It is a one-hour stop here, they fuel up and refill the water on the train, stuff like that; just enough time to run across the street and have a few drinks at the Gillam Legion! After all, bar services has just closed for the evening.
The Legion is hopping, at least three tables are full! We sit down and drinks are bought for us before we can even process the whole situation. Before the night is over, probably three or four more rounds mysteriously show up at the table and, after briefly dancing on the table (not me, but I know who…!), all of a sudden its ten minutes until the train leaves.
We load up a beer or two and smuggle them onto the train soon finding out that our version of ‘quiet’ is not quite in line with the conductor’s version. After a pseudo-threat of being kicked off the train at Bird (the next sort of community), one which the conductor pretended to radio someone (even if he wasn’t pushing the button), we settle in for a crooked and welcome sleep. Word on the street is that we will be into Churchill on schedule…