Anyone can do it – go to Churchill, that is. Just drive to Thompson and take the train from there. The Via Rail ticket will set you back a bit less than $70 one way – at least that was the fare in July. Check August, which is a busier time up north.
And the trip is so worth it! The scenery is stunning, and it gets better the further north you go. Thompson itself is a very pretty town with some good hotels if you choose to stay overnight. There is a nice little restaurant at Paint Lake Resort, a half hour from the city. Don’t forget to stop at Pisew Falls either on your way up or when you return.
The train ride presents one wondrous sight after another – lakes and forests – some beautiful, some eerie. The train stops at Pikwitonei, a small lakeside town not far from Thompson, and Gillam, but it could stop anywhere if it is flagged along the way. Don’t worry. Stopping and starting, and some very slow-going at times where the ground is marshy, is all part of the charm. Be patient. It is a 16-hour journey and there is no sleeper or food service car right now, due to you-know-what, although they do give you a little bag containing some Pringles, a health bar and a small bottle of water. I would bring my own snacks, water and a pizza if you feel hungry.
The seats are comfortable and the cars are relatively clean. They board families first. There is a plug-in to charge your phone, but bring a charger block as the outlet is not USB compatible.
From Winnipeg, drive straight up the Number 6 (it doglegs East at Ponton but is still listed a PTH 6). After two hours of driving, stop for a late breakfast at Ashern, the last town of any size before Thompson, or at Moosehorn another 10 minutes up the road.
From there, it is another five hours to Thompson. You should probably fill up at Grand Rapids, just in case My’s is not open at the junction of #39 and #6, where the highway turns east.
If you leave early and push it you can get to Thompson in plenty of time to catch your train at 5:00 p.m. Be sure to leave your car somewhere safe (most people check their cars into Mayor Colleen Smook’s campground) while you are on the train.
Before you leave home, reserve your seat for the train. It is running at half capacity thanks to COVID-19 and the locals can load it up pretty fast for the first half of the ride.
I don’t have to tell you about the mystery and romance of Churchill, the incredible scenery, the belugas, the polar bears, the arctic flowers, but just in case you need a refresher, go to https://whatsupwinnipeg.ca/churchill-by-land/ to see the photographs of my latest journey.
We stayed at the Lazy Bear Lodge, in my opinion, the best place in town. Built entirely of hand hewn logs by owner Wally Daudrich, the inn also offers tours on the Sam Hearn excursion boat out into the Bay where you can see the belugas, which are luminous under the sea water, and where you have the best chance of spotting a polar bear in August or September. https://www.lazybearlodge.com/ Lazy Bear Expeditions can also take you to Fort Prince of Wales and to tour the tundra. Ask about the dogsled on wheels adventure, too.
A visit to Itsanitaq Museum (formerly the Eskimo Museum) will provide insights into the lives of the original inhabitants of the region. For authentic, locally made gifts, be sure to visit Penny Rawlings at the Arctic Trading Company.
Try to spend at least a day in Thompson, not just to explore the city and its wolves, but to check out the many lakes and other sites surrounding it.
Then, on the way back by road, there are several options. I like to meander, following road signs that catch my attention to visit the tiny towns and hamlets along the way, but you could also come back by detouring to Number 10 and visiting Snow Lake (visit Wekusko Falls), Flin Flon and the Pas, Swan River, Duck Mountain, Dauphin, Riding Mountain . . . come to think of it, do you have all summer?
There is so much to see and do that stay-cationing in Manitoba could become a real habit!