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.
In a surprising merger of two competing groups from the north, they have now joined forces to purchase the Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay rail line. This development could be a last-ditch effort to pressure the federal government to initiate track repairs before the long, cold winter sets in.
Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, an acting representative of Missinippi Rail LP, has declared that his former group, Mathias Colomb First Nation, will no longer seek ownership of the Port facilities and rail operations. He has shifted his focus to working with other parties in a bid to acquire the port and its assets currently owned by U. S. company Omnitrax.
Sun is setting on the chance to repair the Hudson Bay Rail Line. Don Wilson photo.
Dumas offered $20 million to Omnitrax as chief last June. Omnitrax accepted and the two parties signed an agreement to transfer the port, rail and marine tank farm. The Assembly of Manitoba elected him grand chief of Chiefs in July and the prior agreement dissolved.
Another set of suitors also signed the letter to the PMO. Chief Christian Sinclair of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and Churchill mayor Mike Spence head up the coalition called One North.
“It’s got to be a mutually combined business model that will work for everybody’s interests,” Sinclair said, adding his understanding is Ottawa is ready to go with some form of a plan, but details have to be worked out.
Chief Christian Sinclair heads a group that will purchase the Port of Churchill. CBC photo.
Concerning the port and rail purchase, Chief Christian Sinclair stated recently “if we can send a man to the moon, I’m sure we can fix a rail line.”
Federal Natural Resource Minister Jim Carr released a statement on Friday saying Ottawa has made Omnitrax aware that the company is responsible for repair costs.
The government issued a release of its own that stated they have “formally demanded” the Hudson Bay Railway Company repair the Hudson Bay Rail Line per a 2008 agreement with the federal government. According to the government the agreement “requires the company to operate, maintain and repair the entire Hudson Bay Railway Line in a timely manner with diligence until March 31, 2029.”
Omnitrax staff have defended themselves by calling the rail line “a public utility,” and state they are unable to pay for the repairs.
Since late May, when floods damaged multiple sections of the rail line, Churchill residents have been without rail service from the south. Estimates between $20 and $60 million have left groups fighting to find who is responsible for the bill. Meanwhile, food prices have skyrocketed leaving locals frustrated regarding the future of the town.
Churchill Mayor Mike Spence says Omnitrax and Ottawa have to work out a deal. Sean Kavanagh CBC photo.
At this point the “repair train has left the station” so to speak. Sinclair had previously said time is critical and he could be in Winnipeg “within hours” to sign what is necessary to move ahead. However, as we near the end of September, it would take a mammoth effort to complete repairs before the winter is upon us.
Manitoba Travel recently released this short video in a series of promotional films highlighting the incredible features of the province. This particular clip takes us on a journey from Winnipeg to Churchill and builds the anticipation for travelers heading to Churchill this year. Polar bears, beluga whales, migratory birds and incredible landscapes await those bold enough to journey north. Enjoy!
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.
Jeff and Kathy Klofft from Boston continue their guest blog series documenting their trip to Churchill last fall with Natural Habitat Adventures. Enjoy!
Our Churchill Adventure Trip Report
Of course, our first flight was canceled…we didn’t even leave Boston before our plans were derailed! (see our blog post about our challenges getting to Canada from Boston) Go See it Travel
Luckily, we were supplied with contact numbers from both our travel agent Expeditions Trips and the Natural Habitat Adventures in Winnipeg. We called both to let them know our new arrival time- unfortunately 12:30 AM, meaning we’d miss our briefing dinner, but would be likely to make our Sunday AM charter with our group. The Expeditions Trips agent called as soon as the day started on the west coast where they were located, and we spoke to a super helpful representative at Nat Hab in Winnipeg, who assured us we would be picked up at the airport even with our late arrival and told us all of the details we need to know. The driver was there as promised, our guide, Katie, left us all the briefing information we needed for the next day, and vouchers for the dinner we missed (which we couldn’t use but appreciated!) An example of how seamless and proactive Natural Habitat was, was that our driver made a point of explaining that on our charter flight the next morning, we should take note of the changes in the ecosystems as we flew north; from the plains agricultural regions, to lakes region, to the boreal forest and icy tundra. While we had read about this in the pre – departure materials, had the shuttle driver not made a point to share that with us, we might have flown north and not thought to notice this phenomenon from the plane windows, and it turned out to be one of the many amazing experiences we had during our trip!
Checking into the Fort Garry hotel in Winnipeg. Jeff Klofft photo.
Upon our arrival in Churchill, our first excursion was to the Parks Canada Visitor Reception Centre, where we had the privilege of meeting park ranger, Rhonda Reid, who after taking a moment to remove her outer “non-issue” fleece, stepped into her official role as park ranger, where she regaled us with information about polar bears and stories about life living in in the north in polar bear country. The best stories were about the detention center for unruly juvenile polar bears, who like young drunk college students can sometimes act badly, and are kept a while till the ice freezes and then sent on their way out onto the frozen bay! We also saw many taxidermy specimens of other creatures we might see in the area. (All legally obtained by Parks Canada from wild life law enforcement seizures)
Parks Canada ranger Rhonda Reid interprets a polar bear den for travelers. Jeff Klofft photo.
After our stop at the Visitors Center, we made our way by bus with our driver for the trip, Stephanie, to the Rover Launch area for Great White Bear Tours, one of two outfitters permitted to run vehicles in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.
Don Walkoski, founder of Great White Bear Tours and the Polar Rover vehicles and driver Stefanie, Jeff klofft photo.
We enjoyed some wildlife spotting from the bus on the way to the launch and on the tundra as the sun set.
A red fox prowls the tundra for lemmings under the snow. Jeff Klofft photo.
Stu, our steady Polar Rover driver. Jeff Klofft photo.
We were introduced to our Rover driver for the duration of our visit to Churchill, Stu, a retired RCMP and current polar river driver for Great White Bear. Stu, not only shared insight into life in Churchill, having grown up there, but was also very knowledgeable about the animals we saw and helping guests to spot them in the distance. When the rover was stopped for meals or snacks, he quickly transitioned to waiter extraordinaire, serving amazingly gourmet meals from coolers in the rear of the rover. We were also pleasantly surprised by the level Natural Habitat went to accommodate special diets. There were few vegetarians and others with religious diet restrictions, which were accommodated cheerfully and unobtrusively.
Replica polar bear den at Parcs Canada Visitor Center in Churchill. Jeff Klofft photo.
I had heard the rovers described as school buses on big wheels, but they are much more than that! The heated extra wide vehicle with a marine style toilet in the rear, comfortable coach bus style seating, a large mesh grate floor viewing platform in the back, made for a very comfortable day in the rover!
Polar rover with curious polar bear nearby. Brad Josephs photo.
Churchill sunset across the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Jeff Klofft photo.
A polar bear under the grated back observation deck on our Polar Rover. Jeff Klofft photo.