The deMeulles Auto Gas Bar in Churchill reflects the price of gas prior to the rail line washout. Dale deMeulles photo.
Churchill’s gas prices have been reduced by fifty cents a litre thanks to the federal government accessing the economic stimulus fund once again. With petrol prices nearing the $10/gallon mark, this latest reprieve will keep the cost at about $8/gallon. And we complain about gas prices when they reach $3/gallon or more? Kind of puts things in perspective a little, eh?
With federal findings of a probe of Omnitrax, owner of the Port of Churchill facility and the defunct Hudson Bay Line, due to be released soon, residents are enduring rising prices and increased isolation leading to economic strife.
Last week, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr confirmed that the Ottawa government would allocate $132,870 for Exchange Petroleum to lower gasoline prices to prior levels before the Hudson Bay Rail Line was devastated by flooding last May. Shipping on the railway was the only way to keep costs for supplies and fuel low. Now, ten months later, the pressure is causing long-time residents to move south in search of a more affordable lifestyle.
In September 2016, Ottawa approved the Churchill and Region Economic Development Fund, intended for the diversification of northern Manitoba’s economy following Omnitrax laying off most of the port’s workforce that summer. Businesses have benefitted from the money by offsetting rising shipping costs of materials shipped by barge or airplane.
Last December Carr visited Churchill and announced the government would add $2.7 million to the existing $4.6 million relief fund. After seemingly turning a blind eye to the issue the federal government now is coming to the rescue.
The new windfall of cash will be transferred to Exchange Petroleum, owner of the Calm Air fuel-storage tanks located at the Churchill airport. These tanks are being used due to issues with the port’s storage tanks related to the viability of winter storage of the fuel.
Churchill Port tank farm is unable to store fuel for the town through the winter. Churchill Tank Farm photo.
“This project is a great example of how collaboration and partnerships can help lessen Churchill’s acute economic hardships, restore a quality of life, and keep its entrepreneurs in business,” Exchange CEO Gary Bell wrote in a statement.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence expressed thanks to Ottawa for its leadership and funding while conveying optimistic thoughts that rail line repairs would commence in the spring.
“This announcement means real savings for residents and businesses of Churchill during these difficult economic times,” Spence wrote. “It’s important to also give a great deal of credit to Exchange Petroleum who stepped in last fall.”
This awe-inspiring video compilation from Alan Dyer in Churchill portrays the essence of experiencing the northern lights in such a remote and beautiful raw location. This season more than ever has literally shed inspirational “light” on the town of Churchill and all the strong people that have endured being isolated even more since the Hudson Bay Rail Line has been washed out. Hopefully, before next aurora season, the train will be back running to Churchill and the northern lights will be shining just as brightly!
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!
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.”