It’s not easy getting to this town of ~700 people, and yet so many people do it. Like in Nunavut, a stone’s throw away, there are no roads to Churchill. However, there’s a train… and it plods. Moving at a snail’s pace, it’s 45 hours from Winnipeg, or “just” 18 hours from Thompson (itself only a 6 hour drive from Winnipeg).
We met people from far and wide who took this option, both domestic and international travellers. Even an elderly Chinese couple from Calgary, for instance, driving 15 hours (sleeping two nights in their car) to Thompson, a city with a notoriously sketchy reputation, and taking the train up. Nobody had any good things to say about the ride, beyond the money they saved. For us though? Again, like Nunavut: airline points. Two hours in an otherwise extremely overpriced flight from Winnipeg. Between 2017 and 2019, that was actually the only option, when floods wrecked the train tracks and repairs were delayed.
It’s really a wonder how this community survives. Of course, there’s one big draw: polar bears.
Gimli to Riding Mountain, Manitoba
This trip was planned to be just Churchill, with a side of obligatory Winnipeg. Maybe a short drive too, given how much time we had before heading to Churchill. With good weather in the forecast, we bit the bullet and I quickly cobbled together a plan together solely based on the only reasonably priced accommodation I could find with space available on Thanksgiving.
Well, that short drive turned into two of the most Canadian days I’ve ever had.
My last time in Winnipeg was two years ago, on the way home from Quebec. Knowing that I’d probably never have a reason to come here otherwise, I picked a flight home with a nine hour layover in Winnipeg, and spent an exhausting six hours walking downtown and visiting the spectacular Canadian Museum for Human Rights before taking the bus back to the airport.
That was enough time to say I’d been to Manitoba, I thought then. And yet here I am again…with a few days.
This time though, I’m with my friend Daniele, in a sort of sequel to the Yukon trip. One Canadian bucket list item down then, and another one now: we’re headed to Churchill.
Moose Jaw to Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan
Exhausted from days of driving, Louise and I arrived into Moose Jaw and made a beeline for the geothermal mineral pool…where time and any sense of urgency slipped away from us. That alone was worth visiting town for, and it seems that plenty of families and couples from nearby Regina had the same idea.
But aside from being a getaway for Reginans, Moose Jaw is a pretty cool town in its own right. Though small and compact, Main St downtown is picturesque with beautiful historical buildings, murals, and tree carvings in the nearby parks. Outside of downtown, well, there’s Mac the Moose and a cute little burrowing owl centre dedicated to the pop can-sized birds that take over gopher holes.
Its branch of the Western Development Museum, which we didn’t have time to visit, is dedicated to planes, trains, and automobiles, and that legacy lives on. Formerly an important rail junction between the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s cross-country Dominion line and its Soo Line heading southeast to Chicago, there’s a grand train station too…which is now a grand liquor store. Well, at least there’s still the planes: Moose Jaw’s home to the Canadian Air Force’s famed aerobatics team, the Snowbirds. We were lucky enough to see them on a lark, practicing in formation right above us.
What it’s currently most famous for, however, is what’s underground.
Cypress Hills to Grasslands NP, Saskatchewan
As we left behind the prairie on our way to Maple Creek, we felt more like we had took a wrong turn and left Canada for a different continent. Surrounded by flat fields one minute, then descending into an Okanagan river valley the next. (Hey, there’s even a winery in the area.) Left turn onto some gravel roads, then here’s what looks like a bunch of desert shrubs. Now right turn aaaaand we’re in the Sahara.
Saskatoon to Maple Creek, Saskatchewan
I know what this looks like.
It’s the second year of a pandemic, international borders are a hassle, the world’s on fire (specifically British Columbia), and I’ve visited every other province and territory of Canada. And so, Saskatchewan, right?
Even Saskatchewanians (Saskatchewaners? Saskatchewanderers? who knows) seem altogether forgiving of this explanation. When I mentioned that my friend Louise and I are on here a roadtrip, they assume we’re passing through. When I then say that we flew in and rented a car for a 10 day “Saskatchewander”, well… Even some of them were surprised. Many expressed the irony of us picking a trip here, when they would pick Vancouver for theirs.
Surface knowledge doesn’t exactly spark passion: Canada’s quadrangular province renowned for being flat, treeless fields of grain, containing the portion of the Trans Canada highway you can speed straight through on a cross-country trip without stopping. I’ve made all these jokes myself.
I will admit that this originated as an exercise in box-checking, to fill in that last gap. But the planning process alone revealed so much to see, turning what started as a joke idea into genuine enthusiasm such that I had to cut out large portions of the province (the forested northern part full of lakes!) from my plans and focus just on the southwest. This wasn’t a trip I would have done without a pandemic, but having done it, this is a trip that I would heartily do in a world without one. It’s a shame that it took a pandemic to made me realise how much I’ve been missing out.
Stereotypes be gone! Saskatoon makes an immediate first impression — and it’s not one of being flat and treeless.
Kluane, Yukon / Tatshenshini-Alsek, British Columbia
About two hours west of Whitehorse is Haines Junction, the gateway to the St. Elias mountains, the world’s highest coastal mountain range. The whole chain is divided into four parks: Kluane (Yukon), Tatshenshini-Alsek (BC), and Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay (both in Alaska), all of which combined form a UNESCO world heritage site. The Himalayas of North America, so to speak, minus the fame — I admit I hadn’t even heard of this place until this trip.
The tallest mountain in Canada is Mount Logan (a whopping 5250m), deep inside Kluane National Park and Reserve. Without a helicopter or any serious mountaineering chops though, it’s neither accessible nor visible. But does it matter? Just look at this landscape!
Dawson City, Yukon
The city of Townsville! The Town of the City of Dawson! Dawson City may no longer be an actual city, with well under 2000 people remaining, but in 1898, it may as well have been the centre of the world. In just a few walkable city blocks, 40,000 prospectors from around the world crowded into what was once a First Nations settlement, transforming it with newfound riches into a place to see and be seen.
It’s not hard to imagine. Strip out the cars from the dirt roads. Un-collapse a few buildings falling apart from being built directly on the permafrost. Slightly straighten the walls of some hundred-year-old buildings. Picture everyone dressed like a costumed Parks Canada employee, and multiply the population by a few hundred to account for the covid visitor numbers. To make those sepia photos all over town come to life, I don’t even need to close my eyes to do it.
The endless stories associated with this place are the stuff of legends. The crazy thing is that Dawson continues to thrive and continues to be stranger than fiction.
Dempster Highway / Tombstone, Yukon
The Dempster Highway has a formidable reputation. With the 2017 road extension from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, it’s Canada’s only road to the Arctic Ocean. Chewer of tires and chipper of windshields, the road is mud and gravel the whole way, generally the domain of speeding long-haul trucks launching dust and rocks at your tiny inferior metal box. You’re in the middle of nowhere most of the time, just you and the tundra as far as the eye can see, and assistance isn’t readily available should you run into some trouble.
To Yukoners, that’s basically another road. To the ignorant city-dwelling southerner that I am, I picture vast, barren expanses of snow and ice, bears chasing you from any direction you’re out in the open, and endless calls with car insurance for the 15 dings on my rental vehicle despite driving nervously at 30 km/h for hundreds of kilometres. An adventure — one which won’t lead to the Arctic Ocean this year due to covid closing the NWT border to non-resident travel, but a beautiful adventure nonetheless.
So imagine my surprise when it turns out everything is the exact opposite of what I picture. Except for the beautiful part. That part wasn’t a surprise.
Whitehorse / Klondike Highway, Yukon
I don’t need to tell you that the world’s a mess right now. It feels exceedingly lucky to have a break from it all.
Yukon is the smallest of Canada’s three sparsely-populated northern territories, all of which have emerged virtually unscathed by the pandemic with no remaining active cases and a grand total of 20, having closed their borders to the rest of Canada, which itself has mostly closed its borders to the world. With smaller healthcare systems responsible for residents scattered across vast and remote areas, it’s understandable — Whitehorse is the north’s largest (and Yukon’s only) city, with 25,000 people.
But the prolonged closures have taken a heavy toll in other regards, as the north does depend economically on the south. Enter the pandemic bubble: Yukon has opened itself to other territory residents and British Columbians without imposing a quarantine requirement. No other provinces or countries. And that means… No other tourists. Height of the tourist season, and basically no people. Talk to any business, and they’re dealing with a brutal year. Talk to the visitor centres around the territory, and visitor numbers are down roughly 95%. Well, all the more physical distance for us, I guess… though it seems like every other tourist we see is also from Vancouver!