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!
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.”
People in Churchill and the north have been talking about a road to Churchill for as long as I can remember. Now the dream will become a reality sooner than later with the original “ice road truckers” coming to the rescue! Only news such as this can take the lead news story during the polar bear season!
The Churchill train depot sits idle as no service from the south is operating due to damaged tracks. A proposed winter ice road may ease the burden for local residents. Natural Habitat Adventures photo.
While the solution is not exactly what Churchillians had in mind to replace the abandoned and washed out Hudson Bay Line, it will allow a reprieve of sorts from the lack of supplies and disconnect with the outer world. The only way to get in and out of Churchill at the moment is by air. The sea route will soon be closed off with the winter ice forming.
Fox Lake Cree Nation and Remote Area Services is partnering with Polar Industries based in Winnipeg are joining forces to construct a winter road to Churchill from Gillam.
Mark Kohaykewych, president of Polar Industries, hopes to haul roughly 250 loads throughout winter to isolated Churchill on the shores of the Hudson Bay. The initial plan is to haul loads of 10,000 to 15,000 pounds to start and increase to 80,000 pounds per load as the ice road takes form over the winter.
“I’ve never backed down from a challenge,” Kohaykewych said. “We’re confident we can get this done.”
Kohaykewych stated that three alternate routes have been mapped out with plans to build the road prior to Christmas. Cargo vehicles will begin hauling by January, dependant on the amount of snowfall and presiding weather conditions. With a rough terrain formed by glacial movement over thousands of years, the small thermokarsts or ponds formed as a result were partly responsible for the flooding that washed out the tracks. As they freeze over winter and snow build -up occurs, the ice road will be more level.
Up to 15 vehicles will be utilized on the ice road project. Wide -track vehicles that are good in the snow with light, wide trackpads will be needed to sufficiently transport heavy loads at a moderate speed. Kohaykewych estimates that three-vehicle convoys will leave daily from Gillam and take 30 hours to cover the 300 – kilometer distance in about 30 hours.
However, he notes that this is not a long-term solution to the crisis the disabled rail line has caused for the town of 900 people. Once winter ends the road will not be passable. Hopes are that a solution to the train route will be found by then.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to keep up with the demand,” Kohaykewych said.
“We have customers in hand and we’re talking with various Churchill operations who will need help.”
Kohaykewych, originally a hometown boy from Churchill, has been collaborating on the project for several months with Churchill Mayor Mike Spence. The two, along with Fox Lake, are prepared to finance the ice road themselves though they are hoping for some provincial assistance as well.
“This effort is to provide much-needed goods and supplies to the community in the short term,” said Fox Lake Chief Walter Spence. “Fox Lake continues to support the Churchill community and Mayor Spence’s efforts to have the rail line repaired and back in operation as quickly as possible.”
Polar Industries is the longest-featured company on Ice Road Truckers and if any company can get this done it’s them. Their experience in many of the most dangerous places to build winter ice roads in North America will be ample knowledge for the relatively safe terrain between Gillam and Churchill.
“This is not unfamiliar territory. We have gone into places like Peawanuck and Fort Severn (on the Hudson Bay coast in Ontario) and that’s a 450-500-kilometre stretch of strictly bush travel,” Kohaykewych said.
With all the media coverage on this potential new venture, Churchill should get the much-needed rail service back sooner than later.
Omnitrax, owner of the Port of Churchill and the damaged Hudson Bay Rail – Line, has apparently obtained an assessment of the severely damaged railroad tracks between Gillam and Churchill. After meeting with Transport Canada officials this past Monday, Omnitrax seems to have a clearer notion of what it will take to repair the tracks.
The company has not yet released the findings and any strategic, updated plan to commence work in the near future. After 13 weeks of inoperability, the Hudson Bay line still sits damaged by spring floods resulting from two historic March blizzards. An August 4th updated engineering report detailing estimated costs for repairs was obtained by Omnitrax though they vowed to divulge the findings only after meeting with Transport Canada.
In early July, repair estimates by Omnitrax ranged between $20 and $60 million which they emphatically stated were “not economically viable”. However, the Canadian government continually insists that the company is responsible via federal transportation laws to keep the lifeline to the north running. Transport Canada, the enforcing agency for the law will not initiate an investigation until it received specific complaints from citizens and other agencies.
Correspondence so far from complainants has not been addressed directly to movement of goods and rail line abandonment prompting responses from some Churchill residents that Ottawa and Omnitrax are dragging their feet in the process. Telling Churchillians they have basically not “complained properly” is not sitting right with many of the distraught residents.
Damaged Hudson Bay rail line. CBC photo.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, mayor of Churchill, instead of encouraging residents to file complaints with the regulator has instilled trust in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trudeau pledged he would find a solution on July 28. Trudeau, however, hasn’t said how he plans to proceed.
Home Hardware owner Rhoda deMeulles exemplifies the business owners woes in town by expressing her frustration on lack of supplies due to no cargo arriving via rail. “It’s hard to realize what you need all at once,” said deMeulles, whose store is close to running out of construction supplies and cash.
“We feel like we’re in jail,” said deMeulles, who still loves the town she adopted 38 years ago. “We need help; we need our rail line back.”
Something has to give as the government continues to subsidize groceries for the town. Everyone is expecting a decision by Omnitrax soon, possibly as early as next week.