Days 29 – 30 (June 26th – 27th) The Crossing of Newfoundland: St John’s to Rocky Harbour

Newfoundland is quite wide, so this was a 2 day trip, stopping at Grand Falls Windsor and staying overnight at the even more unlikely named Hotel Robin Hood.

En route we stopped at Gander airport. We stopped here for 2 reasons.

The first that my brother Andrew had told us he remembered stopping here when long haul transatlantic flights needed to stop to refuel and he remembered getting off a large plane and being ushered into a small building with no resources.

The second reason came from Ora who had told us 38 planes had been diverted to Gander airport after the 9/11 attack in the USA and how the local people people had opened their homes to help these displaced people, some of whom were there for days. Yet again, Newfoundland was instrumental in helping in a crisis.
There is even a musical about it Come From Away which is meant to be brilliant.

On to Great Falls-Windsor and The Robin Hood Hotel.

Great Falls is known for it’s salmon fishing and at a salmon research centre we were hoping to find out more about these fish and perhaps explore the river a little on foot. The centre was closed but their cafe, overlooking the river, was open and one of many examples of great individual cafes we found across the island, with food that wasn’t fried, contained actual vegetables and was imaginative. When a veggie rice dish is enjoyed so much you know something is wrong with Canadian cuisine…

Salmon Research Centre

As part of her daily routine Helen enjoys wandering around outside hotels in the dark and in doing so locked herself out. She was eventually rescued by the retired hotel owner, who explained the naming of the hotel. An ex-Nottingham resident he and his wife came over decades ago and took over a hotel restaurant, building up the business he has today.

The next day we continued over to our hotel in the Gros Morne National Park, situated in the small town of Rocky Harbour.

Days 30 – 33 (June 27th – June 30th): Gros Morne

In tourist terms Gros Morne National Park is the jewel in the crown of Newfoundland’s offerings, a site of unique geological importance, hosting some of the oldest strata and fossils on the planet, combined with superb views and features. Rocky Harbour is by far the best place to stay but is plagued with coach parties, most staying at our hotel, the Ocean View which conveniently possesses both a pub and a restaurant overlooking the harbour. The bar hosts typical Newfoundland entertainment, Anchors Aweigh and Kitchen Party which played on alternate nights. The majority of the former also work as guides on some of the boat trips around the area. They are also the most popular, combining quite boring Newfoundland music with good jokes and skits, one being them recreating how The Who or Led Zeppelin would cover a quite boring Newfoundland song (short videos available on request).

Day 1 was cool, windy and overcast but we visited a couple of spots, Green Point, on the coast, where we found another red chair. Red chairs are dotted around the National Parks of Canada at strategic lookouts and it is unusual to find them empty. It is always fun to see where they are hidden and whether it’s worth the effort for the sit down!

Green Point is a well-known geological highlight as well as being a good vantage point to view the wild coastline and the mountains behind.

One of the most popular boat trips is on Western Brook Pond, an ex-fiord now connected to the sea only by a stream, so taking the boat requires a 2 mile walk to the dock. We couldn’t book onto the boat trip but we did the walk anyway in a brief spell of good weather.

The next day we’d booked an alternative boat trip, in Bonne Bay, situated just south of Rocky Harbour. We stopped at Jenniex House, an historical home that had been moved across the bay over the ice when the widow of the original builder and settler to the area remarried. It was built in 1926 and moved in 1938. The lady of the house had over 10 children with her 2nd husband and they all lived in this 2 up 2 down poorly insulated basic home. It was full of artifacts and were told some of the children still lived in the area.

The view across the bay towards The Tablelands was fantastic.

The boat trip itself was interesting, a pair of Bald Eagles nest up the valley and were easily seen

Juvenile Bald Eagle

Touring the fiord in glorious weather gave us the opportunity to see the best parts of the park

The national park is effectively split in 2, with Bonne Bay separating the northern section (Gros Morne) from the The Tablelands. Traveling between the 2 involves an hours drive or a foot passenger ferry so we never made it to the southern section, despite this being a unique geological feature (the bare mountain is made from the earth’s mantle, so from much deeper than normal rocks and made from materials which plants find difficult to colonise). A good description is found in Two for the Tablelands, a murder novel written by a local writer we found in a local drugstore, although some of a delicate disposition may find the death scene a little disturbing!

After 3 evenings of typical Newfoundland cuisine we were ready to move north to reputedly one of the best restaurants in Newfoundland.

Days 33 – 36 (June 30th – July 3rd) the Far North

It was time to leave sunny and warm Rocky Harbour for the harsh realities of the northern peninsula, a land of moose, icebergs, norsemen and potholes. On our way we stopped at a couple of places, firstly Port au Choix, a small port best known for it’s cold water shrimp and valuable archaeology. Port au Choix National Historic Site is a desolate place, a limestone headland, devoid of vegetation and very exposed but which nevertheless attracted a progression of different peoples over a 6000 year period to exploit the natural riches found in the area. The visitor centre gave an overview of which peoples were there and when and why it was so appealing to them. Outside were a number of walks to see evidence of their habitations. Uninspired we moved on in search of food, in the form of divine shrimp sandwiches at the iconic Anchor Cafe.

The next stop was Flowers Cove, one of only 2 locations on earth where thrombolites can be found. A short walkway lead to a beach littered with these huge geological momentos and the village council had provided an information board.

Finally, the road turned east and we headed inland towards our destination, St Anthony. We were staying in the Grenfell Heritage Hotel & Suites, notable only for its history about Wilfred Grenfell, a doctor who brought healthcare to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador in the early 20th century.

Our target the next day was L’Anse aux Meadows, the only known site in North America with remains of a complete 11th-century Norse settlement, the earliest evidence of Europeans in North America. En route we stopped off at yet another fantastic Newfoundland cafe, Cafe Nymph, owned by the Dark Tickle company. As is normal for local companies, they have several strings to their bow, from cafe, to boat trips to..fruit. The local area is rich in berries: partridgeberries, bakeapple and blueberries. These are used in a number of different products, all available at exorbitant cost (they are handpicked after all..). They also did proper coffee, a rarity in Newfoundland. And great milkshakes. And Curry. All with a hint of berry.

L’Anse aux Meadows documents the arrival of up to 3 Norse trading ships led by Leif Ericson, a Norse trader based in Greenland. The emphasis was on trading, not conquest hence the distinction between Norsemen and Vikings, and it is thought Ericson saw profit in skins and wood products being shipped back to Greenland and ultimately Norway. The group lived in low structures built from a wooden frame and turfed, an effective way of combating the ferocious winter weather. It seems as though this was a short-lived venture, the ships only staying 2 or 3 years as limited trading opportunities (and, perhaps, aggressive Natives) making the project unsustainable.

The site has a great walk around the area in which the Norsemen (and women) lived. A wonderful reconstruction taken from details in the Norse Sagas. Along the coastline we came across river otters and Black duck duckling-minding services before encountering the inevitable red chairs.

Despite L’Anse aux Meadows being a Canadian Parks site (i.e. a serious archaeological exhibit), describing the actual findings at the site rather than an interpretation (see below), the publicists obviously couldn’t resist ensuring that the first thing one sees on arrival is a large sculpture of ferocious-looking Vikings…

Back in St Anthony we went to the Lightkeepers Cafe as they were staying open until 9pm as it was Canada Day (aka “kick the brits out day”). Located at a prime whale and iceberg watching point we saw an iceberg before enjoying moose spring rolls and various bits of fish and shellfish. Our waitress, however, proved to be the most entertaining act of the night. Too young to serve us alcohol, she held a licence to shoot one moose per year. She was at university in St John’s doing biochemistry and hoped to become a paramedic.

The 2nd of July, a very special day requiring considerable forethought and preparation. As was proving increasingly common, the weather forecast was dire but the weather was fine. We headed up to Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve, a reserve for purists located in the aptly named Ha Ha Bay and lacking all fripperies such as visitor facilities or information. A very rough track led onto the headland, a barren site indeed with some areas devoid of vegetation, others well covered. Lacking any botanical knowledge there was little to gain from peering at the plants so we walked to the end of the peninsula and watched the sea between us and Labrador. It was fantastic, with Great Northern Divers (Loons, as they’re known in N America), auks (Guillemots, Razorbills, Black Guillemots) and Black Ducks dotted across the huge expanse of ocean and Minke Whales popping up now and again…in glorious warm sunshine at the top of Newfoundland. A truly magical place.

Minke Whale

That afternoon we returned to the area, this time to Norstead, a reconstruction of a Viking Age settlement together with actors playing key roles in the various buildings. The best building was the boat shed, housing a replica Norse trading vessel. This was built in the US and sailed to Newfoundland as a gift for the exhibition. The village is a more tourist-friendly, and commercial, feature but does claim to be based on actual Norse villages found in Greenland and elsewhere. The ships were able to transport up to 20 tons of goods plus a crew of 35, all having to work and sleep exposed to the elements. As a birthday treat, I had my runes read by an authentic(!) rune-reading Norsewoman called Albruna. I had to choose 3 stones, past, present and future. My past indicated a belief and sensitivity to my ancestors, my present involved a challenge and my future involved water and writing (poetry). Considering where we are and what we are doing, I am now obviously a convert.

Other interesting buildings showed us living quarters, where up to 25 people slept. In the blacksmiths forge we were told the average age for death was 25 -30 as they succumbed to black lung. This meant their sons started in the forge aged 9 so they were ready to take over when their father died!

In the most unlikely spot in Newfoundland is found the Norseman restaurant. More remote than L’Anse aux Meadows, in a shack located overlooking the west coast of the bay, this has to be the best restaurant on the island. With our table overlooking the ocean, we watched as the sun slowly set, Helen worked her way through the free glasses of fizz kindly provided by the staff and we worked our way through some proper food, lobster ravioli, shrimp on a pea fritter, rack of lamb etc etc

Sun setting at The Norseman

This was the end of our stay in the north of the island. One interesting fact about Newfoundland is that most people instinctively think it is located in the far north and this isn’t true. The Norseman is actually at the same latitude as the New Forest and so the majority of the island is on a par with France in terms of the power of the sun.

Days 36 – 37 (July 3rd – July 4th). Port Anthony to Cape St George

Newfoundland has nearly twice the land area of Great Britain, with a population in the hundreds of thousands. This means that the roads are empty and covering distances such as the first leg of our journey to Corner Brook which, although being around 300 miles, can be driven at a good average speed. The only hazards are potholes and, allegedly, Moose and Caribou although we had yet to see one. Petrol is cheaper than at home but the cars guzzle far more than at home. Other than that, we arrived in good time at the instantly forgettable town of Corner Brook.

Corner Brook lies in a ski area, the surrounding mountains festooned with ski lifts and runs. We had time to wander round and explore, returning to the equally forgettable hotel. The hotel restaurant, however, was slightly more interesting in its approach to staffing problems, although it might have been wiser to have shared this with us in advance. Their wheeze was to take the order and prepare it all at once, so saving time and effort..which is great until starters and main courses all arrive together, and one or both are rejected by the customers for quite understandable reasons!

The next day, heading through Stephenville Crossing and Stephenville, two of the more depressing towns on the island, probably due to the withdrawal of US bases over the past decade or so, we arrived on the peninsula of Port-au-Port, at the end of which, Cape St George, was our B&B for 3 nights, the Inn at the Cape. Owned by a retired ex-college lecturer who was extremely knowledgeable about the history of Newfoundland and proved to be a good source of information about the area.

One problem with B&B is the eternal conflict between the desires of guests and owners when it comes to the breakfast part. Whereas owners like to get it over with as quickly as possible, many guests prefer a more leisurely approach. Furthermore, the worst B&Bs want you to order the day before and although that is exactly what would happen if we were self-catering, that is simply barbaric in this day and age.

Our worst fears were realised when we were asked to order the night before, for the latest possible time of 9am. Then we were asked again. And later on, the owner’s wife knocked on our door to ask again….

That evening we made our way to the headland and watched what we thought could be Fin whales feeding just off the coast. It was time to do some serious whale-watching homework in preparation for the next day.

Days 38 – 39 (July 5th – July 6th). Exploring the Peninsula of Port-au-Port

Glorious weather tempered by a cold wind whipping up the waves hampered our whale watching so we walked up on to the north-west side of the peninsula where the dramatic cliffs held small numbers of black guillemot, kittiwake, gannet and other auks.

At various places around the cape can be found “bread ovens” which reflect some of the history of the west coast which is predominantly of French origin. During the summer, bread rolls are baked around midday and anyone can help themselves with a small tip for the students manning the stall. The stall we went to had 5 students in attendance, all spending their summer working for the company that provides this service. They were unclear why this is done, but perhaps it’s a way to maintain the heritage of the area.

Moving on along the peninsula we came across Mainland, opposite Red Island. The village, the sun, the flowers all combined to make this one of the prettiest places we’ve seen, with the added bonus of seals frolicking in the surf. We stopped at the tearoom, which served a variety of cakes, sandwiches, a wide range of different teas and had a huge pile of locally grown lettuces for sale. This building doubled up as a heritage centre for all the different nationalities living in the area from French to the Mi’kmaq aboriginal people. We quickly found the people to be far more out-going than elsewhere in Newfoundland, always keen to ask where we were from and then tell us about their relatives, mainly from the UK or France.

Moving on to Lourdes, location of the only food takeaway on the peninsula (the significance of this will become clear). We went in, purely in the hope they’d be selling something other than fried fish / burger / chips and spoke with the girl behind the counter whose sister lives in Leeds, and a punter who’d come in to order his daily ration of deep fried something. He spoke at length about his French mother and his 17 siblings and how proud he was of his French heritage, before completing his order… seems as though cuisine was the first casualty of the move to Newfoundland! Large families are a common theme in Newfoundland and we were told on various occasions about being 1 of 13, 1 of 15 etc. I’m not sure where they all are as the population of the province remains constant at approx. 500,000. 98% live on Newfoundland and the other 2% on Labrador.

Completing the circuit we drove past the huge mineral extraction at Lower Cove and then stopped at Sheaves Cove for an hour to contemplate the sea before returning to the cafe we ate at the night before.

Our final day was to be a washout from 2 perspectives. It rained all day and the nearest restaurant was closed, making food a real issue since the nearest take-out was 45 minutes in one direction and had already been ruled out the day before and the nearest open restaurant was probably the same distance away, but in the other direction. A day for catching up on admin, planning the next few hotels and eating chocolate. Dinner consisted of something out of a tin from the local general store. Roll on breakfast tomorrow and our pre-ordered selection of real food!

Days 40 – 47 (July 7th – 14th) Heading west

The poor weather continued as we set off from Cape St George towards Port aux Basque to catch the ferry to North Sydney on Nova Scotia, followed by a stop on the New Brunswick coast, an overnight train from Moncton to Quebec for some cuisine francais, another train to Toronto and finally, the overnight sleeper to Winnipeg. From dropping off the car in Moncton to arriving in Winnipeg this route crossed 3 provinces (New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario), 2 time zones and approximately 2000 miles.

But first was a brief stop in the Cordroy Valley, the only decent wetland in Newfoundland and home of one of the rarest birds in East Canada, the Piping Plover. The Cordroy Valley Wetland Interpretation Centre was closed and we made our way to the nearby Cordroy Valley Provincial Park, basically a spit across the mouth of the river, and started searching the beaches for this elusive bird in the midst of a gale. Luckily the tide was coming in, which forces shore birds onto ever-decreasing sand banks and we were able to locate a pair within 20 minutes of so. Ticked off, we continued through an incredible mountain range to the St Christopher Hotel in Port aux Basque where we stayed overnight. The following morning we took the 7 hour ferry to North Sydney in glorious sunshine and calm seas. Like most places in Newfoundland, everywhere is dominated by the landscape, even a major ferry terminal barely impacts on the view.

Our ship was a smaller version of the one we took overnight to the east side of Newfoundland yet could easily cope with the huge trucks which keep the island supplied and the intriguing but massive RVs which were found in groups at certain points across the island but never seemed to be seen individually…I’d love to see what’s inside these mobile mansions.

Finally, we set sail, leaving the coast of Newfoundland, one of the most charismatic places we’ve ever been.

In our visit of 16 days we saw much of the island but many parts remain to be explored and, most notably, we failed to get to Labrador, which is a kind of Newfoundland+ in terms of isolation and wilderness and is certainly ripe for a return visit in future. Exploring these places needs a different approach as the tourist infrastructure is only set-up for those visiting the main tourist spots. An RV might be the answer to this but not one we need to think about quite yet.

Once back in Nova Scotia we stayed overnight in Sydney, at a Travelodge overlooking another bay, adjacent to another hotel proudly advertising it’s Filipino restaurant and bar..until we asked and found out the alcohol licence had not yet been approved! Another casualty of COVID’s impact on the tourist trade.

Another free but uninspiring breakfast that is hard to enjoy as you witness the amount of single use items. Overflowing trash cans full of plastic, very little seems to be recycled so there is a hope that it is used in producing energy in massive incinerators? It certainly doesn’t end up on any of the beaches we have been to, they are pristine. The other hope is that this is another backlash of COVID and that when these big companies restock they move over to paper utensils!

Moving on the following day we had a 250 mile trip to the Little Shemogue Inn, just in New Brunswick and adjacent to the huge road bridge linking Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick. Situated on a creek, in the middle of nowhere and with it’s own restaurant this seemed a great spot to stop before dropping the car off. The Inn and the annex in which we stayed were very well appointed, with a great view and were decorated tastefully with what looked like aged wooden beams..despite having been built in 1995.

On arrival we were informed that the restaurant was closed as the cook’s husband was ill and then we were ambushed by swarms of voracious mosquitos as we unloaded the car, meaning a 30 mile round trip to the nearest restaurant and no chance of persuading Helen to walk along the seafront. So, once again it was fish and chips again…although we were compensated by the views from the beach by the restaurant and then from our room as the sun set.

The following day we dropped the car off at Moncton. We had covered a total of 3691 miles in 31 days and accumulated quite a nice layer of dead insect corpses on the front of the car. After a wait of 5 hours at the station we boarded the overnight train to Quebec City. Sleeper trains are brilliant for eating up the miles and the bonus is the restaurant car where food is part of the ticket price. Occasionally, however, the train hits a moose, which can cause some delays but, according to our waiter in the restaurant car, only if the impact damages the train in some way.

An early arrival in Quebec meant dropping bags off at the hotel, and spending the day waiting for the room to be made available. This gave us valuable sightseeing time, exploring the cellars of the fort, the cathedral, descending to the ancient port to have a quick look round the Bad Art museum and finally the Museum of Civilisation, which had exhibitions on Pompeii and Poo..

Quebec is far more attractive than Montreal and although one would expect it to be very “french” this may be more of an illusion than you’d think. One of the guides in the fort told us that most of the French stuff such as the restaurants were mainly for the tourists! The city has a lot of arty shops, art galleries, locally sourced clothes shops and interesting shops selling artisanal goods. Walking round the old part of the city doesn’t take long, thankfully, as it was very hot, crowded and expensive.

We found a suitable restaurant.

3 of my most favourite things..

Opposite the hotel was a park within which a music festivals was being held.

Early start the next day to catch the early morning train to Toronto via Montreal. Canadian stations and trains are modern and clean and the staff are unfailingly helpful and polite. We’d upgraded to business class so we enjoyed uninterrupted wifi, coffee and free food as we sped across the flat Canadian landscape. The train system still mandates mask wearing at all reasonable times.

With a short overnight stop in Toronto we stayed at the hotel nearest the station, the Fairmont Royal York, a massive structure originally built by the railway company and which fits in with the very New York-like skyline, except it is much cleaner although, walking the streets, the smell of cannabis was everywhere. Next to the hotel is the iconic CN Tower. Skylines like this always remind me of the Monty Python insurance sketch.

Boarding the train to Winnipeg we had 36 hours to fill. The train was quite possibly a relic from the wild frontier days but was very spacious, although none of the cabins could be locked. Apparently, they’ve never had a problem with theft..

Cabins aside there was a lounge and observation car so plenty of space to wander around in and look at the outside world. Our fellow travellers were a mixed bunch, many from other parts of Canada, others on organised tours from the UK and Australia and a few from Toronto who’d grabbed cheap tickets and fancied a few days off, including a manic, very gay and extremely loud flight attendant who made everyone’s life a misery if he sat anywhere near them.

The train was going through to Vancouver, a marathon 4 night journey. One young chap spent much of his time in the observation car with a radio piece in his ear and a railway map…a true train-spotter whose hobby was participating in the train equivalent of war-gaming at a club in Toronto. He was apparently on his honeymoon and from time to time a young lady did appear to sit with him for a while…

The attendant who ran the buffer car also gave talks in the observation car and organised bingo, beer-tasting and quiz sessions so the atmosphere on-board was very congenial and well-organised. However, with 36 hours to fill we needed some structure to our day apart from reading and re-arranging the armchairs in our cabin. Firstly we had to photograph the train from the panoramic car..

Then photograph the scenery which was the same until the outskirts of Winnipeg….

Make note of iconic names…

Get off for occasional “fresh air” stops….

There were many times when we simply didn’t move due to there being only one track and freight trains taking precedence.

As we approached Winnipeg the landscape changed and we entered the prairie.

And finally, we arrived in Winnipeg.

One of the purposes of our trip was to meet up with the Marsh family, cousins ranging from 95 to 2 years old. More on our wonderful relatives later except to say we were met by Louise and Gary my 2nd cousins who I last saw when I was 18 years old. Louise and I had been WhatsApping since 2018 when we first decided to go to Canada and at last I couldn’t quite believe we were here!

Louise had asked for 2 hours warning of our arrival and at that stage we were 2 hours late. Via Rail then told us we would be on roughly on time but had to wait for 1 more freight train and to refuel before being allowed off the train, so of course her 2 hour warning turned into 20 minutes and we met in the station car park with big smiles all round. We were whisked off to their house some 20 minutes away and a week’s worth of the legendary Marsh hospitality!

Louise & Gary collected us from the station

Days 47 – 51 (July 14th – July 18th) Winnipeg. The family and the Cabin.

After an evening of catch up with Louise and Gary with a bit of reminiscing, the following day we were driven on a tour of the city by Louise taking in a history of previous houses, schools etc of the Marshes. It included the original place where I had stayed all those years ago but now with a new property as the original house had blown up, luckily after Irene and George had moved! One stop-off was at her son Jon’s house which is situated along the Red River and has 2 red chairs, providing yet another photo opportunity….

We then went to see Irene (Rene) my 95 year old cousin who came to Canada as an 18 year old war bride. How brave was that, travelling on her own to a country and family that was all so new?

Maybe after years of war, rationing and blackouts an adventure was needed? She was married to George for over 60 years, has 3 children, lots of grandchildren and even more great grandchildren (apologies as I cannot remember the exact numbers!).

We chatted about family, and I heard a lot of new stories about her time working in Uxbridge and her close relationship with Doug, her uncle who was the same age as Rene. (He died in his 30’s from disseminated sclerosis).

Whilst there, Dawn, Rene’s eldest daughter, dropped in, another photo opportunity. We would catch up with her, Bev (Rene’s other daughter) and her husband Pat on Tuesday when we had arranged to go out for a meal.

Then it was time for our big adventure, to stay at the cabin, a long-awaited trip originally envisaged back in pre-COVID times. Once the car was packed up Gary drove us over the border into Ontario where we saw the original cabin built by Louise’s father where my parents had stayed in the 1990’s. We were picked up by Louise and Gary’s youngest son James in his new “pontoon” boat in the midst of a rainstorm. By the time we’d crossed over Shoal Lake to Dominique Island the weather had cleared.

Many Canadians have cabins which can vary hugely in location, size, structure, design and sophistication. They are a refuge from the searing heat of the summer in the cities as well as providing a peaceful haven and a great place for kids to enjoy their summer holidays. Self-sufficiency and a talent for problem-solving are a given when staying on an island miles from civilisation. Gary & Louise bought their 2 acre lake-side plot many years ago and subsequently designed and built a fabulous wooden cabin adjacent to the landing stage. Behind their cabin (which, to be fair, is more like a small house) is another, smaller cabin they had originally built, useful for hosting family members visiting from England. Efficient solar panels and good battery storage allow basics like a fridge, internet and light and modern advances in composting have even permitted the installation of modern toilets although piss-pots are available, an outside shower for use only by the hardy and the compost toilet. Special mention of the loo roll holder, a nail my dad sent over in the 1990’s, he had been shown their plot of land as yet unbuilt on and wanted to make a donation!

Behind the cabin is unspoiled forest humming with life, be it birds, bears, or, most likely, voracious insects. Design is critical, with good airflow vital in the hot summers and sufficient space by the water to allow time in the breeze coming off the lake. This place is fantastic but must have required years of planning and hard work to get right. In winter the lake is frozen and so the cabin can be accessed by car via an ice road over the lake. Huge wood stoves are essential to keep the cabins warm.

The transition from life in the city to life at the cabin is huge. Imagine a place without services? There, life slows down, and things happen more slowly. Recent floods had destroyed or seriously damaged most of the landing stages in the area so how individual cabin-owners adapted to this became very important, hence the pontoon boat became a critical part of island infrastructure as it allowed continued access to the cabin and a vital space on the edge of the lake so life could continue whilst insurance claims and repairs were carried out.

On our first evening James and his daughter Amelia took us all on a tour of the lake, planning the return leg to coincide with sunset.

The lake has breeding Loons and White Pelicans as well as garter snakes and various amphibians but what was even more obvious was the camaraderie of the cabin owners dotted round the lake. They face many common problems which are best resolved by working together and this fosters a great spirit of cooperation. An example of this happened the next day as were trying to shake off the after-effects of Louise & Gary’s superb hospitality and the wonderful cake which Louse had provided to welcome us (and we were too hasty to start eating before taking a photo..)

In the morning, James & Heidi’s children leapt into kayaks, jumped onto paddle boards or simply swam over to nearby properties followed by an influx of children from those properties, all enjoying direct access to the lake from the pontoon boat and enjoying the challenge of jumping off the gazebo. At “peak child” we must have reached double figures. What a great way to grow up!

One group of birds closely related to Swifts are the hummingbirds, of which one species breeds in the east of North America, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. At the cabin there are a couple of hummingbird feeders containing sugar solution which attracts these beautiful birds. Their metabolic rate is so high that overnight, when they can’t feed, they need to enter a state of torpor in order to survive the night.

After another late night and superb hospitality we prepared to leave this paradise, taking in a full tour of the lake, including a visit to a local Indian reserve to top up fuel.

Returning from the cabin we passed a tourist attraction unique to Winnipeg, plus the obligatory red chair!

Back to Winnipeg and a few more days of wonderful hospitality.

Day 52 (July 19th). Downtown Winnipeg. The Peasant Cookery restaurant and Chimney Swift roost.

There is only 1 Swift species in eastern North America, the Chimney Swift. This is closely related to our Swift in the UK and the two species share many characteristics. The obvious difference between the birds is that Chimney Swifts evolved to breed within the tree trunks of massive trees of which there were many across the continent. When man started “remodelling” the landscape the large trees were felled and the Swifts learnt to use chimneys in factories and private homes. These are now disappearing as heating systems change and factories close and Chimney Swift numbers have declined fast with a reduction of 90% in breeding numbers since 1970 and an estimated population in Canada of 20,000 to 70,000 birds. As in the UK there are people obsessed with watching, counting and conserving this fantastic species. In the hope we could see these birds we’d been in touch with a lady called Amanda who works for the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative, run by Nature Manitoba which is based in Winnipeg. She sent the address of a large Swift roost and also a 12 page spreadsheet listing nest sites locations across the province.

On the 19th we had invited Louise, Gary, his two sisters Dawn & Bev and Bev’s husband Pat, himself born in England, to the Peasant Cookery restaurant to thank them for their incredible hospitality. Unbeknown to us Tali had been in touch with Louise and had put a sum behind the bar as a birthday present for Helen & myself.

Clockwise from left: Louise, Helen, Pat, Bev, Dawn, Gary & Andy

We had a fabulous meal and then Gary took us to the Swift roost site across town, arriving as a few small groups of birds were flying past the large chimney of an apartment block. At the car park we met a lady who’d been captivated by the Swifts throughout the season and she sent the video below, taken earlier in the season when numbers were higher. A more professional video (but not filmed in Winnipeg) can be found here. A fabulous end to a lovely day.

Days 53 – 57 (July 20th – July 24th) Winnipeg, continued

Following our adventures at the lake and in Winnipeg we had a few days to regroup, organise, get haircuts, visit Rene and replace dwindling supplies before heading up north to Churchill on Hudson Bay.

Louise took us to Winnipeg Zoo which is well-known for its Polar Bear enclosure which also doubles up as an exhibition for the unique natural features of Churchill. The bears were incredible, the display allowed for unique views of them in the water, their grace belying their huge bulk. Some of the bears were transported from Churchill as they were in need of veterinary assistance and, upon recovery, became part of the exhibit.

The butterfly house

And, of course, another pair of red chairs…

That evening we were invited to dinner by Jon, Alycia and their 4 charming and engaging children Alexa, Dawson, Avery and Brooklyn. A 5 minute visit to Dawson’s room to see his lego structures turned into ½ hour grilling over the differences between pants/panties, bathroom/loo and the various different names they have for seasonal hats/hats by Alexa..

A tasty meal of wild salmon and roasted vegetables was rounded off with chocolate puffed rice cake. Another lovely evening spent with the Marshes.

The next day we had been invited to Jules (Louise’s dad) house on the outskirts of Winnipeg along with his wife Gladys. When we were told we would park on the road, we envisaged a residential street but were wowed with a wooden house, hidden in 2 acres of grounds.

We were treated to a traditional Ukrainian pie made by his daughter Pauline (a baker) with savoury minced beef and pork and various herbs and spices. Delicious!

We learned a lot about her fathers life and he was kind enough to sign and give us a copy of his autobiography “A Bowl of Cherries”.

The house he built himself and the garden is Gladys’s domain and she grows a selection of fruit and vegetables. We walked around the 2 acres and saw a deer and a fawn and the river but no turtles. Then after a quick trip to his workshop and a view of his latest invention as a work in progress we left.

Time to prepare for Churchill.

Days 57 – 65 (July 24th – 1st August). Churchill and farewell to Winnipeg

The rail journey from Winnipeg to Churchill is 1697 km in length, takes 45 hours and requires 2 nights on the train. The only other option is to fly from Winnipeg, a 2.5 hour flight. There are no roads after Thompson. Churchill is located at 58.7679° N (approximately the same latitude as Orkney) on the southern-most tip of Hudson Bay, a bay large enough to accommodate the whole of Germany as an island.

Hudson Bay

The history of Churchill includes the usual English vs French argey-bargey and there is a fort which was originally designed to protect the lucrative trade in furs. Less well-known is the long history of the different tribes which lived in the area prior to westerners arriving on the scene and who continue to do so today (the majority of Churchillians are of First Nation origin). As one might imagine this is a continued source of friction even to this day (see below).

Churchill and the isolated lands to the south lie on permafrost, a potentially tricky material upon which to build a railway. Although most people are aware of Churchill in the context of tourism, this wasn’t the reason to build a hazardous and expensive train line back in the 1920s, so why was it built at all?

As the journey progresses the scenery changes from crops and herds of cattle to a much wilder mixture of trees, water and marsh land, with beaver lodges seen in virtually every lake and the occasional moose sighting to spice up the journey.

Rarely, the train stops and passengers can disembark for a few minutes and some of these places are of interest for their history, wildlife or industry

As we approached Churchill the track became much less stable as the train rocks widely from side-to-side and crawls over some of the more dodgy sections. And the weather deteriorated so that by the time we arrived it was 8C, windy and wet

Welcome to Churchill

Churchill is situated on a peninsula next to the estuary of the Churchill river which flows into Hudson bay, so on one side is fresh water and on the other, the sea.

We booked on 2 tours; firstly a boat tour which took us out to the fort situated at the mouth of the river on Eskimo Point and then went up river to find some of the thousands of Beluga Whales which congregate in the outflow of the river to give birth in the relatively warm and rich waters. Having crossed the river we disembarked and walked up to the fort accompanied by a guide and monitored at distance by a number of bear monitors whose job is to track the polar bears in the area and ensure tourists are kept a safe distance away. This was our introduction to the impact polar bears have on the life of everyone who lives in the area. Unlike the other bear species in Canada, polar bears actively hunt human beings and although many of the bears in the area stick to the coastal areas occasionally a young bear may wander into town, causing havoc before it is either encouraged to leave or is captured and placed in bear jail (more later). It is deliberate policy in Churchill that no-one locks their car or house, in case someone needs refuge from a marauding bear. All round the town the bear alert phone number is advertised and on the outskirts of the town there are signs discouraging people from proceeding any further.

For many of the people on our boat the fort was simply a good viewpoint over Eskimo Point where bears had been reported over the past week.

The front door

Our luck was in, despite the freezing cold wind and occasional squalls, a bear was seen to stand up and walk across a grassy area in the middle of the point. Others were seen nearer the rocks along the coast but blended in well to the background making a positive id difficult. Leaving the fort the skipper was persuaded to head out round Eskimo point where a mother bear and young were found.

Bird-wise the trip was also eventful as a Parasitic Jaeger, otherwise known as an arctic skua in the UK (the American name far better reflects the lifestyle of this species), was seen over Eskimo Point. Jaegers don’t bother finding their own food, they simply steal it from other birds, primarily Arctic terns, pursuing them remorselessly until they drop it, to the advantage of the skua. To do this they need to be incredibly fast and resourceful flyers and this, plus their dark and sinister plumage, makes them look the part of a piratical bird.

Arctic tern. Courtesy of K.Hyndman

Heading to the river, Beluga Whales were everywhere, the adults are white and when they come up for air it looks like a white rock appearing from the ocean before gracefully curving back under water. Some were accompanied by grey immature whales. The water was very silty so it was impossible to see where the whales were until they actually surfaced so getting a good head shot proved to be a matter of luck rather than judgement and, combined with the choppy conditions it made photography challenging at best.

Returning to land we raced back to the Tundra Inn restaurant to warm up, celebrate our first bear and whale sightings and enjoy the local cuisine. The place was crammed, with both locals and tour groups, as it was “music” night and a local guitar maestro was giving it his all throughout the evening. It was a good way to end our 2 days of travelling.

Day 2 was worse, weather-wise, freezing cold and very wet but luckily we were booked on a tour led by a legend of Churchill tourism, the redoubtable Rhonda and her prehistoric bus.

The not so magic bus

We were to be shown many of the local sites and, hopefully, some wildlife along the way. Rhonda lives in Churchill and has strong views on, well, everything but particularly on how the indigenous peoples have been and are treated. Our 3 hour trip lasted 4.5 hours, primarily because she enjoys taking about all things local. En route to Cape Merry, where we could see but weren’t allowed (for bear reasons) to access two more red chairs, we stopped to learn more about the shipping of grain from Churchill, see below.

Cape Merry and the inaccessible red chairs

She told us about lichens, ice ages, local politics, the Caribou Fly season, the horror of which alone would be enough to never consider moving to Churchill!

Art is big thing in Churchill, partially through the influence of indigenous peoples..

…and a more recent explosion of murals, linked to beliefs of the local tribes but stimulated by recent events, described below.

Then we saw a crashed plane, called Miss Piggy because of the size of cargoes she flew, a remarkably lucky escape for the crew who all survived. Since then the plane has also been subjected to the local artists.

Stopping at the airport and the disused US military base where the Polar Bear Jail is now located. This is a disused hangar in which Polar Bears are housed during the summer when pack ice isn’t present in the bay. During this period young bears can’t access seals and so effectively starve until the ice returns and seal hunting can recommence. Young bears often roam the town and if they can’t be persuaded to leave then they are imprisoned until the ice returns. Polar bears weren’t common around Churchill until the US Air Force closed their facility in the town. That may have something to do with many ex-servicemen having polar bear pelts on their walls….

We visited the rocket launch site where research was carried out into the military implications of the aurora borealis, the arctic marine research centre and visited the Churchill Northern Study Centre, located out on the tundra in the Wildlife Management Area.

Tundra: the Wildlife Management Area

Within the town there is widespread mistrust of the government. Poverty is high, incomes are low and 80% of the population live in housing provided by the province of Manitoba. Despite promises to the contrary the establishment of research labs doesn’t benefit the town, tourism doesn’t really make much of a difference except to a handful of local families and the loss of the military base was a big blow to the local economy but it was the events of 2017 which really caused a huge international uproar primarily due to the hardship caused over the ensuing years.

In 2017 the railway was washed out south of Churchill. This meant the shipping of grain stopped, the jobs at the processing plant went, the plant was mothballed and declared unsustainable by the US owners. Food prices went through the roof and the town was in crisis. The government did nothing to help and in response the art community reacted by creating huge murals on buildings across the town to advertise their plight. The cry from the people was “know I’m here”, they felt neglected and discarded by government.

In the end 2 Canadian companies bought up the grain plant and invested in fixing the railway and grain shipments are due to recommence next year. The town is on the mend and, hopefully lessons have been learnt by the Canadian politicians as when the Prime Minister came to open the renovated grain plant he started his speech with the words: “I knew you were here”. Time will tell.

Churchill is also well-known for hosting a wide range of bird species most often associated with the arctic in contrast to the rest of Manitoba. That afternoon I went out birding with 2 people from the bus trip, Kathryn & David from Brandon. For bear reasons we were only allowed to walk round the ponds at the grain facility but found some nice birds.

Red-necked phalarope

The Tundra Inn restaurant was closed so we ended up at the Lazy Bear Cafe, a teetotal establishment located in the Lazy Bear Lodge, a recently built hotel / shop / restaurant complex built specifically to host organised groups coming up by air from Winnipeg. Flights, a few days accommodation and a few trips thrown in for good measure can leave each participant short by CAN$ 5,000 or more. Nothing is cheap in Churchill except liquor.

On our way to the Lazy Bear we got talking to a local who was originally from Newfoundland. His cousin was the blacksmith in the Viking Village referred to in a previous blog.

Our final day in Churchill. Sunny, calm and hot. We walked to the beach where the capelin were out and the gulls and terns were frenziedly diving in and taking advantage of this huge food source. As we were leaving the Belugas started arriving on the scene, powering across the bay to join in the party.

May require some imagination…

Back on the train for the 2 day marathon to Winnipeg.

At one of the scheduled stops Helen was asked if she wanted to call “All aboard!” when the train was ready to depart. This consisted of standing on a step, twirling an arm around your head and shouting as loud as possible. I don’t think we left anyone behind!

Arriving in Winnipeg only 3 1/2 hours late, we caught a taxi to Louise and Gary’s who kindly lent us their home (they were at the lake for the long weekend) for a couple of days on solid ground.

We also got the chance to see the family again and to say our goodbyes before heading West.