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19 September 2012

The Idea of North -- GG's Winnipeg-to-Churchill MN wilderness train in a few weeks! Polar bears! Aurora! The Adventure of a Lifetime

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Hi et salut hallo f_minorites,
Been busy lately, pecked about the ankles by angry ducks ... so I'm sorry if I haven't posted much lately. But I faithfully read (almost) every post.
* * *
Between the last week of September and the first week or two of October, (mostly adolescent male) polar bears will make their annual migration around and through the tiny Hudson Bay grain shipping port town of Churchill, Manitoba Canada.
I guess rich pervs can comfortably fly there from Toronto or Montreal, but Normal Human Beings catch a train (diesel, 'cause you're going Way Off The Electric Grid) in Winnipeg and head North through the vast gorgeous Canadian forest wilderness for 2.5 days until -- far beyond the Tree Line, in Arctic permafrost tundra -- it finally reaches Churchill.
(Like all beach towns, you'll be just a block or two from the beach, which is the astonishingly otherworldly Hudson Bay.)
One Human Being who rode this train there and back again was Glenn Gould. In 1967 the CBC asked what he'd like to contribute to a big Anniversary, and GG took a tape recorder and talked to the passengers riding this train to the Canadian North.
The result -- after GG's revolutionary mixing -- was his first radio documentary, "The Idea of North."
(If you've never heard TIoN, a little web shopping or library surfing could get all three radiodocs to your ears in a few days.)
It's my wish that the world-unique train trip, the wilderness, and the annual polar bear migration might seduce just 1 or 2 or maybe 3 addled f_minorites to investigate buying a round-trip seat or sleep box on This Amazing Train.
I promise any GG fan addled and irresponsible enough (as I once was) only The Adventure of a Lifetime. I promise nothing more than that.
(Except up-close-and-personal encounters with polar bears, polar bear warning signs, barred doors up and down main street to keep the polar bears from whacking tourists ...)

For a week you'll be Less Than No. 1 on the Food Chain. Running shoes are much better than great wilderness boots.
For whacks like me, this is one of the most famous train journeys on the planet, the subject not just of TIoN, but of documentaries that have peppered TV for decades.
Likely, you've waited too long to book this famous trip -- but it's been my experience that if you want a journey bad enough, and you whine, and bribe, and lie, and wheedle, and then just show up waving cash, they usually find space for you and your backpack.
Or for you and a pal, and both your backpacks.
The crammed snack bar car -- this is a heavy-drinking frontier train, affordable transportation for the people in these parts -- is possibly the most interesting cage of colorful people I've ever spent hours in.
You could semi-officialize something This Train has never had -- a living, travelling memorial to GG's 1967 trip, what it meant to him, and what it did to his creative life. By just chatting with passengers, or lending them flash drives of TIoN, f_minor could treat Glenn to another train ride to Churchill. Glenn made the Canadian Arctic his own just as much as Toronto.
The buzz is that Churchill is the world's hottest, most active spot to view the Aurora. It sure looked astonishing to me. The Native-Canadians are mostly Inuit, some Swampy Cree, they have their own (missionary-introduced) alphabet, and if you are lucky and courteous, they will share some of their experience with you.
The food's very interesting, some of it stunningly delicious, and unobtainable in civilized regions. (Calling Churchill "civilized" would be a stretch.)
In my Amazing Adventure, there was no hint, no rumor, no whisper that the polar bear -- the largest and best hunter-carnivore on Earth, mostly it hunts seals on winter ice -- might be coming to the end of its millennia as undisputed ruler of the circumpolar Arctic. The anamolous numbers of polar bear drownings hadn't yet been reported by US federal scientists.
GG's earlier trip ditto -- everyone assumed the great and dangerous wild polar bear would be there for humans to marvel at forever.
So now, as you ponder a wildly irresponsible and impulsive adventure, there's an added urgency. We're looking at a future, some now think in our lifetimes, when there'll still be polar bears ... but only in the world's zoos. As the polar ice melts, the wild bears will drown trying to swim to the next ice cake.
If you are completely impulsive and irresponsible -- bring me back photos and souvenirs, send me a postcard!
Massachusetts USA
"Of all our regrets, the coldest and most empty are of temptations we have successfully resisted."
-- James Branch Cabell
(from memory, but that's pretty close)


LandscapeWindscreen said...

As romantic as the idea of GG (Glenn Gould, his fans just call him GG) recording the interviews on the Muskeg Express is, he actually conducted the interviews in CBC studio in Toronto. One person remembers that he did ask quite intelligent questiona and was “conducting” during the interview. It would later take weeks for the whole thing to be cut and pasted together again. It was the first ever broadcast in stereo by the CBC if I remember correctly and even if some issues are out of date now it is still fascinating to hear. Apparently also one of Brian Eno’s favourite recordings and he probably knows more about ambient music tha I ever will !

So it is a late November morning in 2009. I stand on the platform of a local commuter train in Solothurn, Switzerland. It is still dark, the moon is shining. Snow had fallen the previous night and it was bloody cold. I am about to board a train that will take me to Bern, about an hour away, working as an IT tekkie for the bloody swiss army. I still need some nicotine and coffee to get me going. I board the train and put this on my iPod.
(that chair at the beginning is a little in-joke for fans of GG. He was very fond of this low chair)

And as the train rolls through the fields and farming villages slowly towards the hilly Emmental region towards Bern I listen to IoN ina lucid, almost dreamy state. For a brief time there is trouble with the electricity and for about 5 minutes the cabin is filled with darkness. Other commuters complain, I want it to go on, listeing to the comments about the isolation in the arctic north while fields and forests covered in snow and fading moonlight pass by. The train arrives in Bern as Wally McLean makes his final commets I wonder if the other passangers would care about what they just missed.

So go on then, unplug the phone, dim the lights, roll a fat one or open a beer, or just chill, grab some headphones and listen to IoN for it is more than just a documentary. A Spoken Word Opera with characters, a Fool, a Skeptic, a Cynic, the Romantic Lead, the Narrator and the basso continuo of the Muskeg Express talking to each other while having never met. And while you’re at it why not listen to his other similar documentaries about the Memnonites and Newfundland ? You can also go the extra mile and get some of his CDs because these days he would have celebrated his 80th and his record lebel is re-releasing heaps of good stuff at bargain prices.

I have heard that it is no longer possible to get from YYZ up to Churchill by train, but if this line still exists you can call me a romantic fool for wanting to get up there. Hell, but isn't it wonderful to be a fool sometimes ?

James J. Olson said...

So, when are we leaving?