Arnaud Maldague made this epic bicycle journey along the tracks of the Hudson Bay Line from Churchill to Gillam to bring awareness to the plight of Churchill, Nunavut and communities affected by the loss of rail service. For over a year the tracks have been unusable and no train is able to reach the northern terminus of Churchill. With a new deal for a local group and financial investor to buy the port in place, hopes are high that the isolation will end soon. Below is Arnaud’s account of the situation:
“After skiing the Arctic for 100 days, I arrived in Churchill, Canada, only to discover the city had no more functioning railroad. The rails were flooded on 23 may 2017 after a huge winter storm hit the region earlier this winter. The damaged rails suffered some washouts, which cut the city only ground supply and communication mean. Private owner Omnitrax, whom is legally bind to maintain the tracks, refused to repair the line, pretexting exaggerated costs and financial failure. The government refused to funnel money to the company, resulting in a political drama and no repairs. Churchill’s citizen are stuck with high prices, jobs cuts and a bitter feeling of being abandoned. The situation also impacted the whole Kivalliq region, Nunavut, which relied on Churchill rail supply line. One year later, nothing had changed… Since the rails were part of my itinerary and “The Manneken Trip” expedition, I decided to shoot this video while cycling the rails down towards Gillam and later Winnipeg. The idea was to generate some awareness and report on the state of the rails. As expected, the damages aren’t that bad, and could easily be repaired. It was a horrible ride with its lot of nice surprises! Nature was super beautiful however : the taiga, the boreal forest and lots of birds. Three days after finishing the trip, 41 communities joined together with private company Fairfax and AGT in order to buy the Hudson Bay Railroad and port. It’s an historic move from these community which retransfer ownership into local hands! However, no date has been set for the repairs yet… Due to intensive and long winters, repairs can only take place during the few summer months. If repairs don’t start soon, Churchill might have to face another winter without train.”
When one thinks Arctic landscape, one usually visualizes serene endless tundra or boreal forest with snow covered trees! There’s a section of that austere boreal forest in Inuvik that has five dormant satellite receivers that look alien to the habitat and have been ready for use since 2016.
The satellite receivers were built by Norway’s Kongsberg Satellite Services and American satellite company Planet Lab. Over 18 months ago the application process for federal licensing commenced and since has been caught up in government red tape. The anticipated turnaround was six months.
Going into the application process, both companies expected a turnaround of about 180 days. Word surfaced last week that the licenses were finally approved though no formal announcement has been made. Global Affairs Canada, needs to approve an auxiliary license under Canada’s Remote Sensing Space Systems Act. Until this happens the dishes cannot be activated. Since these installations are integral to a remote sensing space system they need approval from the two agencies.
Inoperable Invuk Satellite receivers constructed two years ago are unused due to one federal license still needing approval. Rolf Skatteboe photo.
President and CEO of Kongsberg Satellite Services, Rolf Skatteboe, stated the license delays are costing his business money since he is unable to fulfill a contract with the European Space Agency.
“I’ve got the message … hey you’ve gotten the approvals now you can get started, which unfortunately isn’t true,” he said.
Global Affairs Canada apparently has cleared the department to “proceed in evaluating our application” according to Skatteboe.
“We still don’t know … when we will potentially get a license or not,” Skatteboe said. “That’s the most frustrating part.”
Planet Lab and Kongsberg have spent millions to build the installations at Inuvik Skatteboe values the single large antenna installation at around $6 million, and four of the smaller Planet Lab installations at roughly $8 million. The sixth antenna has received the licensing it needs since its use under the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act did not require review.
Kongsberg constructed its satellite installations in Inuvik prior to being issued a license since the building season in the North is so short and doesn’t allow for flexibility. The company didn’t anticipate delays of the magnitude that has occurred.
Skatteboe added Kongsberg contracted with the European Space Agency to utilize the Inuvik ground station in conjunction with the European Space Agency (ESA) environmental Earth monitoring project named the Copernicus program.
A Kongsberg Satellite Services satellite station in Svalbard, Norway is one of 21 stations around the world and had very little resistance for permitting unlike what he has encountered in Canada according to company president and CEO Rolf Skatteboe. Rolf Skatteboe photo.
“[Kongsberg Satellite] has 21 ground stations around the world and they have all been licensed without any problems,” he said.
“So [Kongsberg] did not expect any problems related to approval to receive … data from an ESA satellite, an organization where Canada also is an associated member.”
“[Kongsberg Satellite] applied more than a year before the system was planned to be operational,” said Skatteboe.
The uncertainty surrounding when, or if, Kongsberg’s installations will ever be approved for use is the main concern.
“If Canada decided what we’re doing is a threat to national security, fine, I accept that,” he said.
“The frustrating part is that we haven’t gotten any feedback on the timescale for them to rule on this one.”
Global Affairs Canada, department spokesperson Brittany Venhola-Fletcher said in an email statement that, “Global Affairs Canada continues to work closely” with Kongsberg and Planet Labs to finalize and hopefully approve their licensing application.
Some of North America’s largest caribou herd – females only- are heading north toward Nunavik. The females head out of Quebec’s boreal forest a few weeks ahead of males to get settled in and have their calves. Averaging 20 km per day, the caribou will used their scoop – shaped hooves to dig for lichen deep beneath the snow to keep energy for the trek. Once they arrive in the north they will feast on a plethora of grasses and plants.
This amazing footage was captured by Wild Canadian Year film crew lead by filmmaker Justin McGuire. The crew flew by helicopter into the barren tundra region and placed a 360 degree camera ahead of the herd and hoped for the best.
“You find yourself in another world. It’s a landscape of quietness and caribou tracks – a vast expanse of compacted snow formed by thousands of moving animals.” stated McGuire . “We watched hopefully. After all our efforts, it would still take a bit of luck to get a our shot. And then – success! The migrating caribou passed right by the 360-camera, seemingly inquisitive of this foreign arrival in their land.”
The never – before – seen footage is truly unique and intimate!
Environment Canada defines blizzard conditions as visibility is less than 400 m resulting from blowing and/or falling snow for a minimum of four hours. Well, Churchill endured these conditions and more for over 56 hours and now the digging out begins.
Between 9 a.m. Tuesday and 5 p.m.Thursday the town and region was under siege from mother nature’s wrath and was under full blizzard conditions. Now the town looks like the north pole. Wind and frigid conditions have prevailed hindering clean – up efforts and it will be awhile before the town is functioning normally.
Peak gusts of 105 km/hr kept the town at a standstill with only the health center open after the loading dock was cleared and used as an entrance for patients. As usual in Churchill, snowfall will be hard to measure within town limits as the wind gusts move the snow into massive drifts. More accurate measurements can be found in the boreal forest but hard to reach for sure.
These photos are pretty unbelievable and are the most snow we have seen from one system in decades! What a ride the last few days have been for all the hearty Churchillians! We should be getting some epic northern lights shots within the next week with unique snow formations in the frames.
An eight-foot tunnel of snow to get into the house! Kelly Turcotte photo.
Churchill’s loader clearing the streets finally. Jodi Grosbrink photo.
No way out of the human door even. Jodi Grosbrink photo.
Snow piled up in Churchill all the way to second story of apartments. Jodi Grosbrink photo.
Churchill is surely snowbound. Jodi Grosbrink photo.
Engine compartment of a Churchill vehicle. Belinda Fitzpatrick photo.
Traveling from Winnipeg to Churchill to experience the incredible natural wonders found in the frontier town has limited options. You can, of course, fly via the small airlines and hope the weather provides a window in and out of Churchill. You cannot drive, unless you have ample time and are on a four wheeler or a dogsled…closest you can get is Thompson or a bit farther on gravel road. In fact, my favorite mode of travel is by train.
When I guided Churchill Summer beluga whale adventures for about 10 years, I would take the train one -way, as Natural Habitat does now in summer and winter both, with small groups of 12-15 travelers. The memory that stays with me the most from those days is without a doubt the interactions with thousands of beluga whales in the chilly waters of the Churchill River and Hudson Bay. I still feel the pull to return each summer as if I were the one migrating to warmer waters as the whales do from the Hudson Straits in the north.
However, the other thrill that clearly stands above many of my most treasured memories is the train journey from Churchill to Winnipeg. The anticipation for each trip would build until we boarded, in Union Station in Winnipeg at around 9:00pm at night. Traveling northwest through some prairie – land into Saskatchewan and back into Manitoba was better done at night. Once morning arrived and the group was waking in their sleeper births the landscape changed to more deciduous trees and slowly transition into boreal forest then taiga and tundra. Lakes and rivers were all over the land as we slowly rocked north and slowed even more as permafrost rested below the tracks.
All in all the trip was scheduled for 36 hours though quite often an additional four or five would put us in Churchill around noon or later. This allowed for guests to sleep in and enjoy a nice breakfast on board while Churchill slowly appeared on the horizon. What a way to ease everyone into “tundra time” as Churchillians call the calming pace of life in town. By the time we reached Churchill everyone was more able to search patiently for wildlife on land as well as enjoy the surreal interactions of beluga whales on the water.
This video filmed and produced by Natural Habitat Adventures guide Brad Josephs during a northern lights trip this season gives an inside and outside view of one of the most exciting and relaxing trips on rails you can experience! Whether the landscape or wildlife or even northern lights are your passion, chances arise throughout the journey to experience all or some of these.