Rankin Inlet in a deep freeze of -60C a couple of days ago. Susan Enuaraq photo.
Rankin Inlet, Nunavut gets cold in the winter. Located on the northwestern shore of the Hudson Bay at 62 degrees and between Chesterfield Inlet and Arviat, the town is definitely in a remote yet exposed region. Weather is just a part of life and recently the weather has been colder than cold.
Schools in the south get “snow days” though when you get to the 60-degree latitudes school closures are “cold days”…usually accompanied by some snow as well. When temperatures fall to -60C with the windchill or more than just about everyone will stay home and not risk going outside and expose skin. For the past few days, schools have cautiously remained closed.
“I don’t remember the last time we actually closed due to weather. This is a bit of an extreme,” said Mike Osmond, chair of the Rankin Inlet District Education Authority.
Temperatures are getting to –40 C before the windchill and when the winds are factored in, it feels colder than –60 C.
“You’ve got blustery winds with some of the coldest temperatures that people have ever experienced,” said David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, adding that his charts say skin freezes in two minutes at –55 C.
Windchill was expected to reach above -65C in the past couple of days and we are watching the area closely to see how the community fairs with the dangerous cold. Blame for the almost 15 degrees colder than normal temperatures is being placed on the polar vortex, a combination of an aggressive weather system and frigid air temperatures.
Elders in the Arviat and Rankin region are advising native hunters to remain home until the chill breaks. Living on the land in the past didn’t have this luxury as they had to scavenge for food in even the most dangerous conditions. Grocery stores in these communities of nearly 2,500 people now allow for a community to survive the winter and feel secure in the far north. These towns in the remote northern region do pay high prices for this luxury but there is no other way to survive as a flourishing community.
However, now that people can go to the grocery store, they don’t have to risk their lives hunting in extreme temperatures. Replacing cultural traditions, however, can sometimes be hard for natives to the region used to living off the land and some have gotten themselves into risky situations.
December through February is the coldest time of the year in Rankin Inlet and the urge to get outdoors is always there. However, for many just relaxing inside until the treacherous temperatures rise is sometimes a matter of life or death!
Dave Daley leaving the start in Churchill. Nace Hageman photo.
For a second consecutive year the Hudson Bay Quest dog sled race, that runs from Churchill to Gillam every March, has been canceled. The ongoing saga of a washed out train line, known as the Hudson Bay Line, after runoff from two late-season blizzards in 2017 has again wreaked havoc on the region’s lifestyle. Without the train line to transport dogs and supplies for mushers, the expenses would be too steep for those wanting to compete.
“Normally what would happen was we would have our sponsors bring the mushers’ dog teams either to Churchill or from Churchill, depending on which direction the race was going,” said Bill Dingwall, Hudson Bay Quest committee chair.
“But this year, without the train, we couldn’t guarantee that the teams would either be able to get to the start or the finish, or home from the finish.”
The alternative would be returning by land with the dog teams after the race finishes and the cost for most mushers would be prohibitive
“That was quite a daunting task for a lot of the mushers and it would have cost them a lot more money,” said Dingwell.
“Once we put out that you’d be on your own to get to the start and home after the finish, I think it was an easy decision for a lot of the guys.”
Last year the Quest was canceled as well by one of the severe blizzards that buried the open tundra and made the trail too treacherous to run the dog teams.
“We were very disappointed last year because it was such a last minute decision to cancel,” he said. “This year we knew going in not having a rail line was going to be extremely hard to do with logistics of moving mushers, moving handlers, moving even our race marshal, our vets, and everybody … It wasn’t safe to do it, honestly.”
The Hudson Bay Quest is well known among the heartiest mushers as one of the most challenging races in North America. it annually draws mushers from all over the world and some use it as a stepping stone to bigger races such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. On a smaller scale, mushers are self – sufficient out on the land just like those races.
“It’s not as long [as others] but it’s a hard race … It’s so hard that if you finish the race, you get your registration money back. Doesn’t matter when you finish, we have a timeline, but if you finish we give your registration money back just because it’s that much of an accomplishment, we feel.”
In a “normal year”, which in the north such a phrase carries a completely different meaning, the Quest will draw from 12 – 16 mushers and dog teams. This year only four had entered this far and three of those opted to defer their registration fees to next years event with the hope that the train line will be repaired and the region will be back in business. A decision to only proceed this year if a minimum of six racers entered was made early on. With the deadline to enter looming race organizers officially pulled the plug on this one.
The race has been an iconic event for the region for a long time and once the rail line is repaired it will happen again. Churchill, in particular, has suffered extensively from the lack of train service. The polar bear season was a needed boost to the morale and economy of the town but a long-term solution is needed. Town officials expect news soon on the transfer of the port and accompanying rail line and the future of the Hudson Bay Quest. Stay posted to our site for upcoming news on the ongoing drama in the north!
Festivities at the Inuvik Sunrise Festival in 2012. Inuvik Phil photo.
The sun will rise today in Inuvik, NWT for the first time since December 5th. The celebration will be rejoiced by the 3,300 townsfolk and hundreds of travelers during the weekend’s 31st Annual Inuvik Sunrise Festival to honor the return of light to the region.
An ice village in the Twin Lakes area has been constructed as the main attraction and will feature igloos,sculptures, a teepee and an expanded sliding hill for kids to enjoy. Three days of fun and celebration will occur mainly in the Midnight Sun and Twin Lakes districts.
“Hibernation time” is how Kylik Kisoun-Taylor, Owner of Tundra North Tours, describes the sun -lees period leading up to the reemergence. The continuous 24 – hour darkness is in stark contrast to the non-stop daylight in the summer.
“I feel like this town really shuts down. The restaurants aren’t as busy, everyone is really recuperating, and then once the sun comes out, everyone comes back alive.”, states Kisoun – Taylor.
Relatives of resident families and loved ones also return for visits at this uplifting time of year. It’s a celebration of life itself.
Sunrise in Inuvik. Town of Inuvik photo.
“It’s really nice to see because you want to show off where you live and what better time to show it off than when there is all of this great stuff to look, at a festival, bonfire and fireworks.” says Mackenzie Chauvin who took advantage of an airline discount to visit his cousin.
“They started talking to us about the sunrise festival and the darkness and that it’s really just a good time to get an authentic visit to see what Inuvik’s about.”, states Chauvin.
Canadian North and Air North are both offering discounted tickets for travelers jorneying to Inuvik for the festival.
Drum dancing at the Inuvik Sunrise Festival. Lu North photo.
Chris Sharpe, Inuvik’s marketing and communications coordinator, is enjoying his first northern winter. He is proud to announce some new activities this year, such as a concert by well-known Canadian musician and songwriter, Norman Foote, .as well as a dance party and DJ workshop. Drum dancing and vendors from local eateries will kick off the festival.
“I recommend it to everybody. If you live on this earth, you should try everything at least once. I’m really glad I experienced it, and I’m super excited the sun is coming back,” he laughed.
The ice road to Churchill via Gillam is finished and ready for business. Polar Industries Ltd. photo.
Christmas is coming a little early to Churchill this year!
The winter “ice” road project initiated by Polar Industries, Fox Lake Cree Nation and Churchill’s Remote Area Services between Churchill and Gillam has been completed and supplies are scheduled to arrive in town by Wednesday.
“The guys finished up late [Thursday] night and they’re on their way back out to Gillam so we can start our actual journey with freight on Sunday,” explained Polar Industries president Mark Kohaykewych.
“We’re doing a spiritual, traditional ceremony since we are crossing Fox Lake traditional land. We’ve been accepting a lot of freight the last week and the trucks are leaving to head up to Gillam for Sunday afternoon.”
Kohaykewych set a tentative completion date of Christmas and thanks to weather conditions consisting of cold conditions and relatively little snowfall the artery is ready for shipping albeit not overly large loads.
“We’re just starting off with two, we don’t want to go too heavy on this first journey. We definitely want the ground to harden up and we don’t want to be busting through any rivers or damaging any ice bridges that we’ve created,” Kohaykewych said. “We’re splitting the load between three cat trains, 20,000 pounds apiece.”
Last May the tracks between Churchill and the south suffered extensive damage from melting snow and ice that had accumulated after major blizzards blanketed the region. The ice road became a reality after the realization the Hudson Bay Rail Line between Gillam and Churchill would not be repaired before Spring. With no projected repair timeline in sight, the winter road will help ease the financial hardship incurred by residents and businesses having to pay for air shipping costs nearly quadruple that of ground shipping.
“We’re cross-docking off of the transport trucks onto sleighs that we’ve manufactured and then pulling them with what the general public would know as dozers or cat trains,” Kohaykewych said. “I’m figuring we should be on the road between 30-36 hours.”
The road will allow Santa to drive his sleigh safely across the tundra and arrive in Churchill by Christmas Day!
Santa Claus might just make it to the polar bear capital of the world via his sleigh this year! If all goes a planned, this coming Christmas Churchillians will have an “ice road” that will allow shipping of various goods and supplies, not to mention Christmas presents to the isolated town from the south.
The “road”, over frozen tundra and icy ponds, is being carved out between Gillam and Churchill and reports are that two-thirds of the passage is complete. Christmas is the projected finish date though the hope is that it will be functional before that.
“I kind of want to bring this as a Christmas Present to Churchill,” said Mark Kohaykewych of Polar Industries. “I want to roll in there before the 25th.”
Fox Lake Cree Nation and Churchill’s Remote Area Services have been working with Polar Industries, the main contractor, for weeks constructing a 300-kilometre “ice road” between Churchill and Gillam. With the Hudson Bay Line, as the stretch is referred to, washed out, the town has become isolated by no land accessibility. Cargo shipped by air has become prohibitively costly for businesses and residents. Line and port owner Omnitrax continues to battle with the Federal government over who’s responsible for the track repairs. In the meantime, and basically out of desperation, the three groups launched a plan to bring perishable food and supplies and fuel to Churchill.
Progress over the rough terrain has been unexpectantly faster than anticipated.Check out this video link of the work taking place in the north:
“We went up on Friday just to see the progress of what my crew was doing and I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “We’ve probably got about 110 kilometres left to go.”
Work crews have faced one major barrier despite the unseasonal frigid temperatures in November…waiting for freeze-up of some of the deeper thermokarsts or tundra ponds and connecting creeks that are scattered all across the tundra.
Ice road construction between Gillam and Churchill. Mark Kohaykewych photo.
“You’re pushing snow over it, then you’ve got to let it freeze, flood, create ice. For my crew up there and myself, we’re not very patient up there, let me tell you that. Trying to wait for the ice to freeze up properly is like watching paint dry for most folks.”
While on site, work crews are utilizing old trappers cabins to sleep and get out of the cold after long, extended shifts in efforts to finish before Christmas.
“I think at the start, a lot of people were skeptical about this and as we get closer and closer and sharing our progress, the response is overwhelming. I didn’t realize how much of an effect we’d actually have on the town.” stated Kohaykewych.
While major efforts are enduring and progress has been dramatic, Kohaykewych is appealing to the Canadian government for some funding to help with the meager budget Polar Industries has for the project.
“So, if anybody out there can assist us to put pressure on some government agencies to get some funding and assistance here, and get this done on a non-shoe-strong budget, we’d greatly appreciate it.”