Chapter 5. Northern Manitoba
(Bert) At 5 AM the train is motionless. I lay in bed a bit more and then get up to look out the window. No station, no buildings, no people, just north woods. We are side tracked. Fully awake now, I move to the vacant dining car. At 6:15 a freight train passes on the adjoining track. Flat cars are loaded with large crates labeled for Churchill businesses and First People villages of Nunavut bordering Hudson Bay. Our train backs up a few hundred feet, reverses and we continue south. I notice the tamaracks have leafed out and spring is more advanced. I don’t see my first birds until 7:45 AM, Canada Geese yet again. I use the second hand on my watch and the mileposts along the tracks to calculate the train speed. We are crawling along at 11 mph. I recall that in 2007 Bent used his GPS to register the train velocity of 41 mph. No wonder our train is so far off schedule! The train steward now predicts an arrival time of 3 PM, four hours later than scheduled. Later I notice the train is moving faster and this time I calculate its speed as 26 mph. We will still be late.
(Shari) I cannot sleep anymore but realize it is only 6 AM. I get up anyway and make my way to the dining car. Here Bert sits alone and I join him. Soon others arrive and we can eat breakfast. The eggs taste so good after oatmeal for six straight days. Next it is back to the small sleeper cabin for a nap or two. At lunch we find out that we are not expected to arrive in Thompson until 9:30 PM. Each time we ask the question, the answer is later than the previous one. Ugh! How can it take so long? I thought we were doing a pretty good clip and making up the time lost. I guess not. We start to discuss just how fast we are traveling and Bert times between two mile markers. He tells us we are going about 11 mph. It is going to be a long day.
(Bert) A refueling stop at Gillam gives us a chance to stretch our legs outside. Compared to Churchill, the weather is warm, almost hot. The design of the train station is classic, something that could be used in an early 1900s movie set. In the eaves of the overhanging roof Cliff Swallows have built their nests. This is quite far north of the range map shown in Ken’s book on Manitoba Birds.
I’m in my compartment sorting photos on my computer when Dale knocks on the door. The train attendant offered to open the back windows on the last train car and Dale asks if I’d like to join them to see the eagle’s nest. Of course I would. I grab my long lens camera and join Dale, Barbara and the attendant. She has opened the large glass window on the side of the train and unzipped the canvas window at the back. I photograph the receding train tracks, sometimes showing rigidly straight parallel lines and sometimes irregular strings tossed by permafrost. No wonder this train sometimes must move so slowly. It is quieter in this last train car and I can hear birds singing. Surprisingly, I can even hear all three parts of a Tennessee Warbler’s song. At 3:15 we have reached mile 235 and I aim my camera to the side window. When I see the nest I shoot a burst of frames, then turn to the back window and shoot a couple more rounds. When I examine the photos in my view finder I see the adult Bald Eagle is accompanied on the nest with a quarter-size nestling feathered in dark brown.
We are sitting in the viewing car when an alarm sounds. Is there a fire? Why the alarm? Why doesn’t it stop? I volunteer to walk forward on the train and find a steward. When I reach the dining car I can barely hear the alarm, but get the steward and head back to our car. The steward looks all around the car, trying to see what the problem is. Then he asks Dale to lean forward and instantly the alarm stops. Inadvertently, Dale was leaning on the attendant call button. Danger passes.
We eat our third meal on the train, starting at 6 PM. The train arrives in Thompson at 7:15 PM and we lose no time in getting back to the campground and a flurry of activity, some getting groceries, some dumping tanks, some filling with fresh water, and of course putting away our luggage. Tomorrow morning we will be on the road again.
(Shari) I go back to my sleeper and take another nap. I read. I walk to the lounge area where I find a group of six others discussing birds. I go back to the sleeper. The porter comes and gets our group for dinner. He wants to feed us before the 35 6th-graders on the train. How nice. I have salmon which is delicious. No sooner have I gone back to our compartment when I notice we are making the backwards entry into Thompson. It is only 7:15, about 22 hr. after we left last night but 2 hr. before our anticipated arrival. We get off the train and load our luggage into the waiting cars. Someone notices that John and Marilyn are not with us. I walk through the train to the outside of their compartment and find that they are busily reading. I knock on the window and they realize that they should get off. Wouldn’t that have been something? To leave them on the train! It is good to get home and sleep in our own beds tonight. I take care of paying Colleen for the nine nights our rigs stayed at the campground and head for bed.
(Bert) We have a long day of driving ahead of us, heading south in the direction of Winnipeg, but also want to stop for birding along the way. Our first stop is Paint Lake. Again, Tennessee Warblers are common; in less than an hour I hear eight singing on territory. They are by far the most common warbler we have found in our Manitoba spring travels. Dale and Bev are with me when we see a Black-capped Chickadee disappear through a rounded hole in a birch tree. The hole is just below eye level, so I position myself at the tree and have my camera focused on the spot. After waiting 3-4 min., I am just about to give up when the chickadee peaks out of the hole. It grows bolder and sticks out its whole head while my camera quickly clicks. It flies off and I check the viewfinder. Good shots!
While watching a family of Bonaparte’s Gulls squawking, scolding and circling high above us in the tall spruce, we wonder if we have come upon their nest. Do Bonaparte’s Gulls nest in spruce trees? Then I notice a flock of red birds take over the tops of other spruce, where they are prying seeds from the small cones. It takes us several minutes to get a view of their white wings, confirming these are White-winged Crossbills, our first for the trip.
Another stop, at Setting Lake, yields only singing birds, none in sight. I notice here that the Labrador Tea is in bloom, another sign of advancing spring. I wish we could stop again when we pass Grass River. Flocks of mergansers and goldeneyes and several other singles float in the turbulent waterfalls, but I cannot see a good place to pull off the road. We do stop, though, at Devils Lake, a place we overnighted twice before in previous years. Mosquitoes were so bad we have chosen another stop for tonight. In mid-afternoon they are not as dense so we bird for a half hour, seeing a Common Loon sitting on a lakeside nest and watching our first Black Terns for Manitoba.
We pass up Grand Rapids too, where we stayed last trip. Too much broken glass on the parking lot! Flocks of American White Pelicans still favor the rapids as we pass over the bridge. Eventually, we reach our new stop for the night, St. Martin Junction. At our 5 PM social, Shari and I discuss future birding caravans and hand out catalog pages. The group is enthused about our plans for Alaska, Australia and New Zealand and I suspect we will see most of them on one or the other trip. They also have lots of suggestions for us leading trips to Texas, Baja California, Africa and other places. Maybe!
(Shari) The 323 mi. today seem to click off quickly. We stop for a number of bird breaks and finally get to our roadside destination at 5 PM. Doug, Kay, John and Marilyn have beaten us in and John already has his satellite dish up and running. Doug says he’s done a load of wash at the Laundromat that I so conveniently had for him here. He also tells me the restaurant where we were to eat is not open. In fact, it looks like it has not been open in quite some time. Since I promised dinner tonight for everyone, Plan B here we come. I do a little tap dance in the gravel and walk to the small Chicken Delight on the other end of the parking lot. Here they tell me, yes they can feed our group with chicken, coleslaw, fries, rolls and veggie pizza and drinks. We have a short meeting on our travel tomorrow, check-in procedures at the park and future caravans before we walk to the restaurant. Luckily the weather is so nice, since no way would our group fit on the two tables jammed inside the restaurant. Instead, we jam ourselves on the outside picnic table and cover it with food. We are hungry and devoir a good portion of the food. My goodness the chicken tastes good.