Monday, November 29, 2010

Scott Walker: Soon to be Governor, Already a Bozo

The newly-elected governor of Wisconsin, Republican Scott Walker, has announced that he will not proceed with planning or construction of the high speed rail corridor linking Milwaukee with Madison, the home of the University of Wisconsin.

This corridor was among a dozen or so selected for high-speed rail links by the U.S. Department of Transportation and that meant a whopping federal grant to the state of $810 million. It's interesting to note that Wisconsin was the only state to be awarded all the money it had asked for from the $8 billion allocated by the feds for the various high-speed rail projects around the country.

Walker won’t assume office until next year, but is already blustering on the subject:

“I am drawing a line in the sand Mr. President: No matter how much money you and Governor Doyle* try to spend before the end of the year, I will put a stop to this boondoggle the day I take office.”

Sorry, but I have no patience with arrogant blowhards like this babooze. Walker is just another right-wing ideologue who is simply not interested in a rational assessment of the project. Rail? No good, he says. End of discussion.

Here’s the kicker: If Walker has any illusions about diverting that money to other projects in Wisconsin -- that would be roads, of course -- he can forget it. U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood (a former Republican member of Congress, by the way) has made it clear that if Walker rejects the Milwaukee-Madison rail project, every dime must be returned to the DOT in Washington where it will be re-allocated to other states for their rail projects. And what about all those badly-needed jobs that $810 million would have created in Wisconsin? Gone.

You’re really off to a great start, Governor-elect Walker.

*Outgoing Democratic Governor Jim Doyle

Friday, November 26, 2010

Comments (well, most of them) are still welcomed

Some weeks back, I began getting a rash of comments almost daily that came through as nothing but a weird collection of symbols. In my vast ignorance of these things, at first I thought perhaps these indecipherable messages were Chinese characters or Arabic letters that Google translated into boxes and dashes. Then I began to think they were the work of some annoying cranks ... you know, the creeps who think it's clever to create viruses that screw up our computers. At any rate, using a section of the Google blogging program, I set up a barrier which permits me to screen all comments. That may be the reason fewer comments then normal are showing up. (God knows, it couldn't possibly be that my blogs are just not interesting enough to stimulate any comment!)

Please know that I am delighted to hear from any of you and will be sure to post any comments, assuming they're relevant and appropriate.

And, of course, I'll be more than glad to answer any questions you might have about Amtrak, VIA Rail or train travel in general. Just email me at


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Observations from the Great Hall in Union Station

During the Golden Age of train travel, Chicago’s Union Station was America’s most important rail hub, with passengers from almost everywhere connecting with trains going to just about anywhere.

The glory days of the Broadway Limited and the Super Chief and the Dixie Flyer may be long gone, but some 50,000 rail passengers still pass through this venerable station every day. Some are commuters heading home to one of Chicago’s outlying bedroom communities; others are hurrying to board one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains – the Empire Builder to Seattle, perhaps, or the California Zephyr, on its two-night journey to the San Francisco Bay area.

Last month, I had some time to kill before boarding the Pere Marquette and heading to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a meeting of the National Association of Railroad Passengers and found myself absorbed with the constant flow of foot traffic passing my seat in the Great Hall of this magnificent old station. After a while, I begin jotting down some random observations:

· Regardless of age, men all pretty much look alike; just the shapes vary. And the haircuts.

· An airline pilot hurries past. It’s not the uniform that makes him look so dashing, it’s the cap.

· Some women, no matter how slim and stylish, simply cannot manage high heels.

· Veteran travelers walk briskly, pulling their small-wheeled bags; first-timers appear tentative and struggle awkwardly with impossibly oversized luggage.

· Western boots look absolutely fabulous on some women; ridiculous on others.

· And, on the subject of boots, several Amish families pass by dressed in their modest dark blue and black garments; straw hats on the men, demure bonnets on the women. The men wear practical black leather boots, but the women are all sporting the latest athletic footwear from Nike or Adidas.

· How does a bald Jewish man keep his yarmulke from slipping off?

· What prompts a 60ish overweight woman to get a tattoo of Tweety Bird on her upper arm? And why is it impossible to imagine that tattoo on a slim woman of the same age?

· Once in the station, 90% of the women push sunglasses up onto their foreheads; only 20% of the men do the same (none of the bald ones).

· With time to kill, older travelers tend to read or watch the passing parade; the younger ones are texting – some even as they hurry to their trains.

But the time passed and my train to Grand Rapids was boarding. I stood up, gathered my things and stepped out into the flow – each of us focused on our own coming or going, passing through the Great Hall of Chicago’s Union Station.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

About Those Hudson Bay Bears ...and Their Future

This morning I drove out to the Churchill Northern Studies Center, some 20 kilometers out of town, where I had an appointment to meet with Michael Goodyear, executive director of the center. His facility is home to students and scholars and researchers with a common passion: learning more about this vast area and how to preserve it and the wildlife found here.

Goodyear is a 40ish, friendly man clad in what appears to be the standard uniform for these parts: flannel shirt, jeans and thick-soled boots. He offers me a cup of coffee and a seat, settles into a swivel chair and, after a few pleasantries, our conversation turns to the circumstances facing the area wildlife.

The main problem in a nutshell, says Goodyear, is global warming. He is emphatic: the planet is indeed warming and that is a fact beyond dispute. The only possible controversy, he says, is the extent to which the warming is “human driven.”

Whatever the cause, warming is having a discernable and quantifiable effect on the polar bears, who spend each winter out on the frozen surface of Hudson Bay hunting their main source of food, the ringed seal. The bay, he says, is freezing later and thawing earlier than ever before, allowing less time for the bears to fatten up on seals. That, in turn, means bears gain less weight over the winters and they are therefore less prepared for what amounts to their summer-long fast.

Goodyear says hard numbers confirm the impact the change in climate conditions has had on the bears. There are now 934 polar bears in the area, and that’s a decline of 22 percent over the past 20 years.

But can’t the bears simply move farther north to areas where the bay freezes earlier and thaws later in the Spring? Certainly, he says, but there are already other bears north of here, and any given habitat can only sustain a finite number of animals, whether bears or foxes or lemmings.

I ask him what his prediction is for the future of these polar bears. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair and stares out the window for a moment. “I’m an optimist,” he says finally, “so I’ll give you my most optimistic prediction. It is this: in 50 years the polar bears will be gone from the western Hudson Bay area.”

Thirty minutes later, I’m back in my rental car, bouncing over the dirt road on the way back into Churchill. I was warned to be alert for bears during this drive, and I keep my eyes open. After another half hour, I pull up in front of my little bed and breakfast.

I’d seen no bears.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

More About Churchill's Polar Bears - Hungry Ones!

The big attraction Churchill holds for visitors, of course, is the polar bears. For a couple of months, beginning sometime in October, the town is full of people from all over the world and they are here for the bears.

They -- the bears -- are found all over the general area, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can go out on the ice and hunt the ringed seal, their main source of food.

It's not uncommon for a bear to wander into town. They are, after all, afraid of nothing and no one. Many of the locals carry "crackers", which explode and sound like a gun shot. The crackers are used, of course, to encourage the bears to head back out onto the tundra. Nevertheless, visitors are warned to be alert if walking around town at night.

(What? In pitch black ... in 15 degrees ... with a 60 mph wind howling in off Hudson Bay ... and polar bears around? Are you kidding??)

Indeed, they are not kidding. On each of the two nights I was there, I heard crackers exploding. But no need to worry, I was assured. Over the years, only two people have been killed by bears in the town.

One was a notorious drunk who had broken into a grocery store and stolen a dozen or so packages of fresh meat. As luck would have it, upon leaving the scene of his crime, he encountered a bear. The animal might conceivably have chosen to avoid the guy were it not for all that fresh meat, which he had stuffed inside his parka – safely hidden from law enforcement, perhaps, but not the bear, who made short work of both the stolen meat and the town drunk.

The other fatality occurred when a group of teenagers came across a bear that had wandered into town and began pelting the animal with snowballs. The bear, apparently lacking a sense of humor, took exception to the game. The kids scattered in every direction and all but one got away … the one the bear chose to pursue when they broke and ran. Talk about the luck of the draw!

More to come: What does the future hold for the polar bears of Churchill?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Out Onto the Tundra ... In Search of Polar Bears

It began snowing sometime before dawn this morning and by the time I’m picked up in front of the Bluesky Bed & Sled there are 3-4 inches on the ground. Even at 7:45, it’s still dark. I’m the last to board the bus, which has already collected two dozen or so people from hotels and other B&B’s around town … all of us expecting to see polar bears.

For 30 minutes the bus rumbles along a dirt road until finally reaching a staging areas for the tundra buggies, ponderous over-sized vehicles with huge tires that are ideal for hauling visitors along what pass for roads through the tundra -- ruts and bumps alternating with low spots filled with as much as three feet of icy water, already turning to gray slush as the temperature continues to fall.

Operating our tundra-buggy is a garrulous character named Mac, who keeps up a steady patter -- interesting information about the tundra and the wildlife found here: both red and the arctic foxes, ptarmigan, an assortment of other birds including huge ravens, and, of course, polar bears.
By now the visibility has worsened and the snow is four of five inches deep. Mac says that will help us spot the bears. After spending the past six or seven months on land, their coats will no longer be stark white and they will stand out against the snow.

Twenty minutes later, the buggy jolts to a stop and Mac turns to face us. “Now it would be a good idea if we all remained nice and quiet,” he says. And he points directly in front of us.

Sure enough, a dusky polar bear is ambling across the rutty road in front of us, swaying side-to-side as he approaches, peering at our huge buggy through the blowing snow. Passengers crowd against the windows and begin snapping pictures. As the bear strolls alongside the buggy, I push through the door out onto the open platform at the rear, right into the teeth of the icy wind. My fingers stiffen and start turning numb. No matter. When I look over the side, the bear is right in front of me.
I snap the photo and peer at the little monitor on the back of the digital camera. There he is … I got him … my bear ... and he’s staring right into my lens.

He circles the vehicle, looking up at the people crowding against the windows, then, clearly losing interest, wanders off into the scrubby willow underbrush, flops down into the snow, stretches and, for all the world, appears to go to sleep. After waiting a minute or two, we move on.

We come across more bears during the rest of the afternoon, including two young males who entertain us for well over a half hour as they roll and tussle and chase each other in circles.

“Just a couple of 800 pound puppies,” says Mac. “But step outside, and those cute little guys would literally have you for lunch.”

Soon the light begins to fail and we head back to the staging area and transfer into the bus for the 20 minute ride back into Churchill. As we ride through the gathering dusk, I take out my camera and sneak another look at the photo of my bear. He’s still there. Looking right at me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Running of the ... Dogs, in Churchill

To use an apt Hawaiian-pidgin expression, it’s freeze-ass cold in Churchill on my second day, with temperatures in the 20s and a vicious wind blowing in off of Hudson Bay. Weather reports say snow is on the way, but there is none on the ground now and the dozen visitors who have come for a dog sled ride will have to settle for the wheeled version.

Gerald and Jenafor Azure, co-proprietors of the Bluesky Bed & Sled in Churchill, have 21 sled dogs. Can you imagine looking after that many animals? And let me assure you, these dogs (both male and female) get very special treatment.

And they love to run! From the moment cars begin pulling up to their compound, they are yipping and yapping and jumping around excitedly … ready and eager to go.

All are mixed breed, many (probably most, from the looks of them) with a generous part Siberian Husky, the tip-off being the characteristic blue eyes.

Visitors are already waddling around in heavy parkas, windproof pants and boots. Two at a time they're bundled into one of two wheeled carts and draped in a heavy blanket as the dogs are being selected and hooked into their harnesses.

Interestingly, there are no reins or other manual restraints on these dogs. They are controlled only by shouted voice commands from Gerald: GEE to turn right; HAW to turn left. I ask Gerald how he stops his team. “I holler WHOA”, he says, “and step hard on the brake.” Then, after a pause, he grins and adds, “Most of the time that works pretty good.”

Then …they’re off! Two eight-dog teams pulling and straining as the carts, each carrying two people plus Gerald and another musher, gather momentum, then disappear down the dirt road at an astonishing speed. Minutes later, back they come, still running flat out until reluctantly being brought to a stop when the next two passengers are waiting for their turn.

Gerald helps a couple from South Dakota off of his sled. The woman can barely speak from the cold, but her eyes are shining. "Amazing," she gasps. "Absolutely amazing."

Tomorrow I will be off in search of polar bears.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

North from Winnipeg to Polar Bear Country

The ride from Winnipeg up to Churchill – some 1050 miles and almost due north – takes almost two days. We left Winnipeg at noon on a Sunday and arrived in Churchill the following Tuesday morning.

First impression of the scenery along the way -- pretty bleak, mostly flat terrain with scrubby trees that got shorter and shorter the farther north we went. Still it was interesting, and certainly different, as we passed through little towns between long stretches of wilderness that was frequently broken up by streams and small lakes crusting over with ice, most of which were dominated by domed beaver lodges.

VIA Rail train # 693 rattled along at a respectable speed for the first day, but by the following afternoon would occasionally slow to a crawl over stretches of track where the roadbed was spongy because of the permafrost ground softening.

Nevertheless, we arrived right on schedule, bright and early on the second morning. Well, not “bright” exactly, since the sun never appeared through the sodden low overcast and it wasn’t until well after 8:30 that the darkness had fully lifted.

The warmth came the moment I stepped in Bluesky Bed & Sled, a bed and breakfast establishment run by Jenafor Azure. This is their busiest time with guests coming and going on a daily basis and Jenafor’s mother, known only as “Grandma” to guests throughout their stays, had come from Alberta the week before to pitch in.

For the balance of the morning I wandered around town a bit, then drove over to the Churchill Northern Studies Center about 20 kilometers away to chat with Mike Goodyear, the executive director. More on that meeting in a few days.

Tomorrow I’ll watch Jenafor’s husband, Gerald, hook up his dog team and take visitors and guests on a wild ride in a dog cart, and the following day I’ll be on a tundra buggy out in the surrounding countryside in search of polar bears … which is why all us shivering tourists are here in the first place.

The big question on everyone's lips: We've come this far and we're so damn cold ... but will we see bears?