APRIL 2006


We have been thinking about moving Cat Train Tours to Ilford, Manitoba from Lynn Lake, Manitoba because of the history. Sure Lynn Lake, Mb has the history of being moved from Sherridon, Manitoba by the Cat Trains in the early 1950s but Ilford, Mb was the Cat Train capital of Manitoba back in the 1930s and held this title for almost 50 years. A lot of freight was shipped from this remote community to the gold mines in northern Manitoba and Ontario. It is amazing how far they traveled on the Cat Trains back in the days before having satellite phones and 2 way radios. In those days men were men and moose were nervous!

We decided to do a test run with the natural caboose and a very important guest who would help market Cat Train Tours. We also invited another guest named Orrin but his Mom wouldn’t let him return to the Great White North after last years tour that he did with us. Remember Mom knows best which is maybe a good thing for Orrin?

So with the VIP guest booked for March 23 pick up at the airport in Thompson, Mb we have to hustle to get the Cat Trains ready. This is not a small feat since we have to move them 500 km from the Kingdom in Lynn Lake, Mb to Ilford, Mb. The only really big problem is the “so call road” out of Lynn Lake, Mb which is only 300 kms and takes 4.5 hours to bounce over in the Ford semi. Then we have 132 kms of beautiful gravel road to travel before we hit the ice roads for the rest of the way to Ilford, Mb. The ice is the best part on the road to Ilford, Mb. So we are looking at 10-12 hours in the Ford semi one way to haul the sleighs in. On the return trip we bring out the collectables as we call them; salvage from cleaning up an old freighting yard in Ilford, Mb that has been a 4 year project. So I loaded up the Linn Tractor and the all steel deck sleigh on my buddy Barry’s 53 foot triple axle step deck trailer. I headed out at 5:00 am on a Friday morning 5 days before the VIP guest is to arrive on a simple trip to run this load to Ilford, Mb and reload with collectables for the Kingdom.

Everything is going “too well” on the start of the trip so a wheel bearing on the trailer decided to catch fire and make for a beautiful show of light in the dark early morning. I had a very hard time to put the fire out with snow because I was saving the fire extinguisher as a last resort. I could not believe my eyes! The trailer is on fire with the Linn Tractor on its deck, the thought of losing the Linn Tractor to a fire was heart wrenching. I have sunk the Linn Tractor in swamps and lakes and always recovered HIM but to lose him to a fire on a modern semi trailer on a paved highway would be very sad ending indeed. So I fought the fire and won, anything for my Linn Tractor.

Now I have an axle on the trailer which is no good because the wheel bearing is burnt out and I can’t call a tow truck in the Great White North (no cell phone service). So off came the tires and the axle gets chained up because I must get this load to Ilford, Mb before they close the winter ice road due to melting ice. Besides my cup of coffee is always half full so now I have 2 spare tires for this trip! And I didn’t need that 3rd axle anyways because I’m not hauling a heavy load so I only need 2 axles.

So off I go making the Ford semi scream for mercy with the screaming jimmy engine that is not happy unless it is screaming out the DUAL exhaust on the 32 year old truck. I made excellent time to Thompson, Mb and got fueled up and headed to Ilford, Mb. This was perfect timing because the sun had gone down so the ice road was crisp and firm for excellent traveling. With the tire chains on the Ford I pulled the load with ease over the ice road. When I arrived in Ilford, Mb, the fancy new D5M cat was waiting to help unload the Linn Tractor and deck sleigh. This is a very nice machine and made unloading and loading the collectables easy in the middle of the night.

So with a good load of collectables I head out at 2:00 am over the ice road. Once I got to York Landing on the ice road I slept across the seats of the Ford because I didn’t want to run the “HILL OF SLIDE” in the dark. The “HILL OF SLIDE” is a steep hill on a portage on the ice road which is at an angle as you climb up you slide sideways as you go over the top. The engineer who thought this up was not at the top of his class or maybe he did not even graduate?

So with the Ford screaming for mercy with the DUAL exhaust stacks blowing great exhaust fog as I take on the “HILL OF SLIDE” and the tire chains clattering away as they are air born from the top of the tires due to the speed that the tires are turning. The Ford climbed the hill with ease and started sliding towards the bush as it climbed. The tire chains and wheels were spinning for all their might to get traction as the Ford screamed over the hill and slid close to the bush. I sure was glad to have slept and taken the hill in the early morning daylight verses the darkness of the night because one mistake on the “HILL OF SLIDE” could be very expensive. With the “HILL OF SLIDE” behind me, it was clear sailing on the ice road at a top speed of 15 MPH. Once off the ice road and on the good gravel road to Thompson, Mb, the Ford Semi just screamed along making the best time ever with the heavy load of collectables. After a good breakfast in Thompson, Mb I loaded up some more recyclables and headed to the Kingdom which is only 4.5 hours away or 300 kms whichever comes first. 

The return trip to the Kingdom was going great until I was about 5 miles away and a big explosion happened at the back of buddy Barry’s trailer. It stopped the Ford Semi dead in its tracks. What had happened was that 2 semi tires exploded together with the force of a bomb which blew away the airbag suspension and the air lines on the trailer. With the loss of air, the brakes came on, right now, and stopped the Ford semi as if it hit a brick wall! The cause of the tire explosion was rocks that had fallen off the gravel trucks that have been hauling over the road for about a week. The truckers were over-loading the trucks and these rocks that were the size of bowling balls were falling on the road and smashing into sharp objects. I had been swerving around these rocks on the road, but I guess I missed one rock. So with the tires blown on the trailer in the middle of the road, I was able to change them with the “2 spare tires” I acquired at the first of the trip from the wheel bearing burning up!

As I changed the 2 tires the gravel trucks never even stopped or slowed down to see what was the trouble? So to slow them down I laid my tires and tools farther and farther out in the other lane hoping they would drive over them or slow down. Once I got the tire changed I arrived at the Kingdom only 3 hours after I should have. But I was nice enough to stop by the local café and present the truckers with a nice size rock on the dinner table. It was the least I could do after their rocks cost me $2500.00 Cdn money which is cheap considering it could have been someone’s life.

Now instead of a day off to relax and reload the next set of sleighs to Ilford, Mb. I must bust my butt to fix up buddy Barry’s trailer for the next trip. So the nice triple axle trailer will now become a 2 axle trailer because where are we going to get parts in the Great White North on a Sunday. The trailer has to be ready for the next trip to Ilford, Mb on Monday before the road is closed.  So at midnight I finished loading the caboose and welding sleigh plus the TD-6 know as the “Curse of Reverse” I figured if I sent him to Ilford, Mb the CURSE should leave the Kingdom, I hope.

We left on Monday morning with the kids who are going to miss some school but I think it might be a bit of a punishment for them instead of a holiday?  They will be trapped in a small winter freighting caboose for 14 days, no internet, no friends, no junk food, no phones and no weird music that they listen to. So I think the kids would gladly go to boarding school if we asked them after this trip. Southern Belle is driving the 1964 Bel-Air car with the big back seat with one kid and I have the other kid in the Ford Semi so the fighting won’t start right off the bat! We made good time until we are about 70 kms or 1 hour from Thompson, Mb and we came to a spot in the road where they decided to “fix it up” using rock blasted from a quarry and a skiff of gravel. Well blast rock is sharper then razor blades and cuts up car tires faster then the Ginsu knife. The engineer who thought this method up was probably the same one who designed the “HILL OF SLIDE”.  He must have gotten a promotion from ice roads to provincial highways which included a steep pay raise too! So I watch in the mirror of the Ford Semi expecting to see the Bel-Air have a tire blow and then I will have to be the gentlemen and change it for Southern Belle. But to my surprise I watched in the mirror as the inside tire on buddy Barry’s tire blows apart and takes out the air bag suspension which causes the loss of air and the brakes to lock on. I know the routine because it was less then 48 hours ago that the same thing happened but 2 tires had blown!

The sharp blast rock must have cut the tire causing it to blow, so that is 3 tires, 2 air bags which is about $4000.00 in repairs. So with these repairs because of this “so called road” in 48 hours, I can see why the tourism has declined in the last 10 years. The tourists would max out their VISA on a road that is only 300 kms long and after one experience and never come back. We changed the tire quickly and blocked off the air bag, anything to get this load over the ice to Ilford, Mb before it closes. We shopped in Thompson, Mb for the last of the supplies we will need and as we are in the mall shopping the local thieves are stealing my ski-doo sleigh from under the caboose! Not bad I would say, stealing something at 7:00 pm in a mall parking lot under a street light. But I think I got the last laugh on that thief. The bottom is busted out of that ski-doo sleigh because I had loaded anything and everything on that sleigh. So the thief did me a favor by saving me from having to throw it out at the local land fill. I imagine he would upset when he went to use his “new” sleigh and found out there was no bottom. Once again my cup of coffee is half full, always thinking positive. 

After we shopped until we dropped, Southern Belle needed a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee (a Canadian thing) to keep her awake on the drive to the start of the ice road. Remember the last time she was in Thompson, Mb she was in a wheel chair and now she is walking and driving a 64 Bel-Air car which she calls Christine (from an old 80’s movie). We left Tim Horton’s and we both have our coffee custom made to what we like and the lids are marked with the number of sugars and cream. Once we hit the outskirts of town that is when I realized the waitress made a mistake and put the wrong lids on the cups. I didn’t get any sugar in my coffee so that means Southern Belle must have my cup. Of course I drink hers thinking that she will be drinking my coffee to help stay awake. Wrong, Southern Belle is driving a standard shift Bel-Air car holding a cup of coffee that is for me. When I pulled over to sleep where the ice road began, Southern Belle gets out of the Bel-Air holding my coffee cup which has sugar in it and she would not drink because it was too sweet. She was more wide awake mad over the coffee and hoping I would stop and give her the cup of coffee then if she had drank the coffee! Oh well is all I said and drank the cup of coffee she was holding. I didn’t want to waste it, but this didn’t help me sleep very well that night in the caboose on top of buddy Barry’s trailer.

In the early morning I get everyone up so we can run the ice road when it is still cold and firm. The Bel-Air car handles the road excellent with Southern Belle at the wheel and when we arrive in Ilford, Mb everyone is amazed to see a 42 year old car made the winter road. Of course, I’m the KING OF OBSOLETE, what else would I drive? We unloaded the Ford Semi and reloaded with more collectables for the return trip to the Kingdom but we can’t leave town until the coldness of the night. Ice roads will not handle the weight of the semi in the heat of the day. So at 5:30 am we headed out on a return trip to Thompson, Mb to store the Ford Semi, followed by the Bel-Air car to pick up the VIP guest. This way the Ford Semi will be in Thompson, Mb when we come back out of Ilford, Mb in a week and half time by train. We made really good time and the old obsolete vehicles performed well over the ice roads and gravel roads to Thompson, Mb.

We made Thompson, Mb with about 15 minutes to spare to pick up our VIP guest who we will call Steve. When Steve walked out of the airport and saw the 64 Bel-Air car with the big back seat all he said was “Wow, you are the KING OF OBSOLETE!” Also he asked about taking the low riding car on the ice road. I assured him that it was not the first time the muffler had fallen off and it won’t be the last! We will make it with no problems. Of course the airline lost Steve’s luggage as a welcome to Canada present so off to the local store to try and max out his Visa. Plus we had to get him dressed for the Great White North since he had just spent 6 months at the South Pole as a Caterpillar Genset mechanic so his wardrobe didn’t suit our climate. So we looked at the airline losing his luggage as a good thing.  Steve would have melted away with all those extreme winter clothes he had brought for our nice weather.

With the gas tank on the Bel-Air car full and the last of the fast food eaten we head out on the 4 hour drive to Ilford, Mb. Steve was amazed at how well the low riding Bel-Air car rode on the gravel road to the start of the ice road. Once on the ice road we stopped and took pictures of all the nice cracks and dimensions in the ice. We made Ilford, Mb in good time to eat our Subway subs for supper in the caboose, which would be the last of the fast food for 14 days.  Poor Steve drew a short straw and got the top bunk which in a freighting caboose is hot since heat rises. The best bunks are the bottom ones which are the right temperature and easy to get in and out of when you have a big bald spot like mine.

So the first night on the Cat Train Tour was spent under the street lights of Ilford, Mb because we didn’t want to leave town in the dark. Not because we are afraid of the dark but we need pictures to market our tours. We had to get certain pictures to relive the history of Ilford, Mb as the Cat Train capital of Manitoba. The next morning after numerous cups of coffee we head the Cat Train out of town. The mighty Linn Tractor pulled the caboose and welding sleigh while the TD-6 known as the Curse of Reverse pulled the all steel deck sleigh. The Famous Black Cat got to break trail with Steve driving and pulling the skid sleigh. One of the kids decided to ride in the skid sleigh to entertain Steve as he drove. We made good time until lunch time when the cat train stopped for a meal and a nap. The crew needed a nap to recover from jet lag and driving on through the night to get over the winter ice roads. This was ok, because I got to service the equipment.

Once naptime was over we were freighting again, traveling at a top speed of 5 kms and enjoying the scenery as it went by. The creeks we crossed were not a problem even for the Linn Tractor when tandem pulled with the Famous Black Cat. Steve was the fellow who decided on the spot to set up camp for the night. This turned out to be an excellent location for viewing the Northern Lights. The caboose is a little small for 5 people to live in of different genders but we are gentlemen and everything went well. High school years would have been a different story and private areas would have been seen when the changing curtain falls to the floor numerous times. Oh the memories from my wasted youth. But we are all adults and mature now so there were no close calls even at bathroom breaks. We went to sleep on the Cat Train Trail watching pictures of Steve’s South Pole tour which made it very unique because of the 2 worlds meeting.

We awoke in the morning to sunshine beaming through the caboose windows, so we knew it was morning. On the Cat Trains we try not to look at the clock or follow it, we let nature take over. Breakfast was an excellent meal of pancakes smothered in fresh maple syrup from a fellow named IHIAM in Ontario. What more could a fellow ask for but the best in the Great White North! So we fired up the equipment and headed out on the Cat Train Trail. Steve is in the lead driving the Famous Black Cat blazing trail at a top speed of 5 kms per hour. We come to a creek and Steve asks about crossing it because he doesn’t want to sink the Famous Black Cat for the 17th time. I assured Steve to drive across the creek and everything will be well. Wrong! The Famous Black Cat broke through the ice and went into 5 feet of water. I was very surprised to see the cat fit so nicely in the creek and the water covered it so only the headlights were above the water surface. Steve standing on the seat so not to get wet was in shock. I guess he has never sunk a cat before so I calmed his nerves by thanking him for this excellent photo shot. The Famous Black Cat has been sunk 16 times and recovered with only 2 pictures ever taken. Now we have 3 digital cameras and a camcorder to document the 17th sinking. Steve was very surprised that I was happy with the sinking because of the photo opportunity. I think it was one of the best sinkings we ever had and the pictures we got were well worth it.

With Steve still standing on the seat of my cat, I asked him if I could drive his D2 cat when I come to the USA to visit him. He said “No” for some reason?  Maybe because of fear of me driving his cat into the Mississippi river? After we all had a good laugh, the salvaging of the Famous Black Cat began. The mighty Linn Tractor could not get the cat out of the creek due to the frozen bank. So the TD-6 known as the Curse of Reverse was sent into the creek to bust up the bank. Now Steve was really scratching his head, we have one cat in the creek and now we put another one in the creek but don’t sink it as bad as the Famous Black Cat. I could see the expression on his face as the Linn Tractor pulled out the Curse of Reverse that he thought we do things a little differently in the Great White North. Once the Curse of Reverse was out of the way, the Linn Tractor pulled the Famous Black Cat up out of the creek with a little help from the Curse of Reverse.  So busting up the frozen bank worked out great. But it was a little embarrassing when we had a bunch of ski-dooers stop by when the Famous Black Cat was in the creek. So we all joked around and blamed the “fellow from the South Pole” for sinking the cat. We were going to tell them it was for a “photo shoot”, but then they would think we were smoking the drapes or something!

The Famous Black Cat spent the night after the 17th sinking under a blue tarp with a propane heater keeping him warm. We could not work on him that night because Steve had more home movies from the South Pole that we wanted to watch. In the morning after bacon and eggs we drained 35 gallons of water and oil from inside the Famous Black Cat and then we poured new oil in him. The welding sleigh carries enough supplies to service all the cats and Linn Tractor after a sinking. This is because there is no store or help on the Cat Train Trails that we travel.

We hooked up the sleighs and headed back to Steve’s favorite spot on the Cat Train Trail for spending a couple of more nights. We decided to stay in one spot for a couple of days and relax and enjoy nature at its finest. Plus we had a big bonfire and built a snow fort to go with the snowmen too. This worked out good because the weather turned nasty and it was better to be in the bush, out of the wind, plus the pictures would not have turned out very good! By the time we were ready to travel back to the town of Ilford, Mb the weather had turned for the better. We arrived back in Ilford, Mb on Tuesday evening so Steve could catch the VIA passenger train out on Wednesday morning, a week after he arrived in the Great White North.

We parked the Cat Trains at the VIA station so we can get pictures when the train arrives at 7:00 am, as we say for the “marketing”. Steve hopped the train and rode all the way to Winnipeg Manitoba which worked out good because he got to see more of the Great White North then he did from the airplane.

With Steve on the VIA train we have 2 days until the next train to get things organized in Ilford, Mb. We must get the sleighs and cats put away for summer plus make arrangements for the CAT TRAIN TOURS to be based out of Ilford, Mb. On Friday morning at 5:30 am we get up and get ready for the 7:00 am train, the 1964 Bel-Air car never fails and starts. We needed the Bel-Air car to haul our luggage to the train or we would have been dragging the luggage by hand to get it to the station. Everything goes smoothly and we ride the 5 hour train ride to Thompson, Mb.  This was very relaxing and enjoyable. The train crew told us about Steve and how he rode the train all the way to Winnipeg, Mb. This was great to know since we didn’t know how Steve had made out after we said goodbye to him in Ilford, Mb. One of the nice things about living in the Great White North is there is no cell phone service so when you are on the Cat Trains nobody can bother you.

We arrived in Thompson, Mb and I picked up the Ford Semi that I had left at my buddy’s place while Southern Belle rode a taxi and got fast food. Oh those burgers tasted great (after 2 weeks in the bush) on the drive back to the Kingdom. I drove very slowly the last few miles to the Kingdom watching out for those “killer rocks” on the road. It was good to be back in the Kingdom relaxing and watching the snow melting as another Cat Train season came to an end.