Photography Louise Christie
Polar boulders. Caribushes. Muskrocks. Victoria-based wildlife guide Andrew MacPherson has seen them all during summer sojourns in the Arctic.
Drift through Wapusk National Park near the west shore of Hudson Bay aboard a slow-moving train and you will too, as wildlife melds with the landscape. A quartz boulder suddenly morphs into a polar bear sprawled in a grove of white birch. All at once a patch of spongy, bleached-yellow moss sprouts a sik sik - an arctic ground squirrel the size of a cat - curious about passers-by.
Wapusk is a national park most Canadians will more likely cross by rail rather than on foot and which was created in 1996 with pregnant polar bears in mind. In fact, wapusk is a Cree word for "white bear." Female polar bears head to dens as far as 100-kilometres inland, MacPherson explained to Pique during a recent visit. The naturalist emphasized the uniqueness of this transition zone at the 60th parallel, where Arctic tundra meets boreal forest. All three North American bear species are found here - black, polar, and barren land grizzly.
The word barren neatly sums up this mantle of peat. Roly-poly is another way of looking at it: summer heat combined with a relentless upswell of the earth's crust causes the tundra to ripple. Across the taiga, Via Rail's Hudson Bay glides delicately over a gravel rail bed layered atop muskeg and permafrost. When warmed, the undulating ground slows train travel to a crawl, not great for business if you're hauling grain to the port of Churchill but a trance-inducing pace for wildlife watchers. Between now and November is prime time to catch the show, both in the national park and Churchill, as polar bears rouse themselves from summer semi-hibernation and gather on the shores around Hudson Bay to await the arrival of shelf ice.
Just as unpredictable as the annual freeze up is the future of train travel in northern Manitoba itself. According to Catherine Kaloutsky, Via Rail's senior communications officer, this may be either one of the last years the Hudson Bay operates or the dawn of a new era, depending on whether or not the U.S.-based owner, OmniTRAX, puts money into upgrades or not. When approached during the 36-hour, 1,700-kilometre journey north from Winnipeg to Churchill, Kaloutsky estimated the cost of repairs at $1 million per mile.
Parks Canada commemorates the construction of the Hudson Bay Railway in the 1920s as a National Historic Event. Before the passenger train service was named Hudson Bay in 1997 - the year OmniTrax took responsibility for the rail line as well as operations at the Port of Churchill - the twice-weekly run was called the Muskeg Express.