I saw a post on Facebook the other day from a friend and colleague in Churchill who was extremely excited to be making a voyage out on Hudson Bay with a local dog musher to the edge of the floe ice. She spoke about not being able to sleep from excitement and then one more night until the trip. This would be her first venture out to the edge of the “frozen Earth” as it extends seaward in its’ annual transient state. That “state” is constantly questioned these days to the point of ad nauseam by pundits who predict an ice- free Earth within the next 50 years or so. These “experts” never see the ice like many of the actual residents of towns that reside near this wondrous phenomena of our planet! The beauty of this world is lost in the data predicting its’ ensuing demise. We deserve to enjoy these wonders of our home without constantly looking over our shoulders.
Rhonda on the edge.
Ok..back to the floe- ice…where am I going with all of this you might ask? I fondly remember the early years of Natural Habitat Adventures Seal Watch trips to the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada. The tour was the initial journey offered to hearty travelers taking helicopters trips out to the floe-ice to spend a few hours in tranquility with harp and hooded seals and facilitate the growing movement to protect them. I worked as a guide on land and on the ice itself enabling people of all ages to enjoy this amazing experience. When we touched down on the floes and patiently awaited the blades to come to rest, time seemed to come to a wondrous halt. Once the sound of the machine was reduced to that last spin of the blades overhead cutting through the cool air, we stepped onto the serene magical formations of sea ice. All thoughts and perceptions of the world were condensed into a zen-like wave of openness of both the mind and the landscape. The two became one….unbelievably without all the information…just nature!
In this age of information it’s funny…well not really…how with “all the facts”, we don’t always seem to have a better life. Yes, we are amazingly informed human beings synced to our portable smart phones and twitterized (first four letters of that method of communication quite apt in many cases) to each other so that one passing moment doesn’t go undocumented or passed around like a half -chewed caramel. We crave attention from peers and demand to know everything about everything. I think I would sometimes rather hear an interesting, provocative explanation to a question rather than the actual correct one spoken from an android who just pulled up the info from his..er..android. In fact, while we’re on the subject of facts, I’m sure I would. In this exchange of information we have lost the ability to have tranquil, detached moments when our minds ease into thought like a young child does effortlessly from time to time. A momentary cleansing of the proverbial slate so to “not” speak. I often catch myself before interrupting my 7 year old son Jack as he gazes off so contentedly into his imaginary world within our world. Not knowing his every thought soothes me. One time, I pried what he was thinking about out of him as his eyeballs morphed into warm, swirly marbles in their sockets…he reluctantly answered, ” an itouch dad”. That was the last time I did any prying.
Ice floe edge in Hudson Bay. Photo Rhonda Reid.
When I read my friends post…on yeah, yeah..I know Facebook…I was jolted back to that state many of us humans have seemingly lost. Her avid anticipation to journey 15 kilometers out on the Hudson Bay ice to its’ edge where upon reaching it, she would find only water….unfrozen ice…caught me…stopped me…made me gaze off into space and think back to simpler times when such a trip seemed wildly normal. That quest for the end of the earth where we find…..nothing..nothing but water..melted ice. A place where we don’t need to google water or ice….we know the difference instinctively…at least I’m pretty sure. The only information we need is kept silently within our minds enriching ourselves and our race at once.
In the Summer of 2003 I was guiding beluga whale and Arctic tundra trips for Natural Habitat Adventures in Churchill. This would be my sixth season showing avid travelers the amazing ecosystem and its’ adapted dynamics of the north. Churchill’s Summer is sublime and completely different than the Fall polar bear season in that the town blends in with the landscape and the mind is allowed to release any stressful anxieties just walking along the quiet streets. The hustle and bustle of polar bear season and the temperature issue can distract from that freedom somewhat. This Summer was different and the change was quite evident upon my arrival.
Seventy five people would go mostly unnoticed in most towns and surely polar bear season in Churchill would swallow them up in an instant, but Summer here is different…newcomers have less camouflage. A film crew of 75 from the Snow Walker production invaded the town that Summer and a buzz, aside from the constant drone from mesquitos, took over. If only for a few months, Churchill had gone Hollywood! While the contrast of personalities was glaring…..though pretty exciting….the town took in these people like they were locals. Some actual locals became part of the film with parts in the picture. Others helped build the sets and assisted any way they could. One family had their entire house redone to be used in the film. When a movie is made in many small towns elsewhere, it usually “puts the town on the map”. Churchill, as we all know, is already on the map…and most of the 900 or so residents are content with the amount of notoriety it receives now. Isn’t that the point of living in such a remote place
In those days Natural Habitat trips were spaced out…no not the travelers..well ok some…but what I mean is there were often up to a week between some scheduled trips usually due to the train schedule and availability. So that Summer I was able to observe the action at close range between meeting and guiding groups. I was asked to be an extra in the film but could not commit to a three week shooting period. And, as much as my travelers would have been impressed to know I was a movie star, I think their dreams of seeing the Arctic and most importantly a couple thousand beluga whales that migrate to the Southern Hudson Bay in Summer were a little more pressing. Still, the thought of getting my start in the film business was quite tempting…but I had a job to do. Oh well..there still is Ocean’s 13..or 14..whatever.
Another exciting experience during that Summer was a reconnaisance helicopter flight along the Knife river to the Northwest. Information had been obtained by one of the producers that a Cessna aircraft had gone down along the river many years ago and had never been salvaged. The production staff needed an old, small aircraft to use for the main crash site in the movie. I just happened to be at the right place, Hudson Bay Helicopters, when pilot Jody, local guide Dennis Compayre, who now writes a blog on Churchill and bears in Onemanspolarbear.com and one of the producers were about to take off on the excursion. I asked if they wouldn’t mind an additional passenger and they said, “another set of eyes would be great”. We stopped first out along the coast at Seal River Lodge to speak with one of the Webers and hopefully get some more information on the exact location of the downed aircraft. The main contact was out on the land so Jody spoke with him via crackling radio, got some sketchy coordinates and we headed off again to search. When we reached the North fork of the Knife we quickly realized the task at hand wasn’t going to be easy as it seemed back in town. Overgrown willows slurping up river water had formed a web so thick and high it would be very difficult to see through it. We slowly moved along the river about 100 ft off the ground, both sides, back and forth for nearly two hours but came up empty. I can remember the adrenaline flowing through my body as hopes of finding the aircraft were thrilling. We were going to strap what we could to an attached chord and bring them back to town similar to the method that polar bears are flown north. I so wanted the trip to be successful so that the adventure would continue….no luck. In the end the film crew used some old pieces from another plane. They just made a wreck from a wreck..nice work.
The town was hopping that Summer…the bars at night were filled with film people telling their stories of movies and adventure in far off lands. In the day people with watches would roam the town trying to locate things in stores…usually very cheaply…or find people they needed to speak with about the set, schedule or next film they were planning. All the time I had to remember that these days were making my stories of adventure I would look back on someday. To have the experience of working in the Arctic environment and being part of the community of Churchill and out on the water of the Hudson Bay and Churchill River almost daily with the majestic belugas and various sea-birds was incredible. To constantly be learning and teaching new links between ecosystems and how they survive that environment was invigorating. Even now, as Summer approaches, I long to be part of that web of life again….the simplicity and vastness of the land that the movie Snow Walker attempted to capture. Take a look at the film and enjoy.
In the true spirit of socialism, Canada will now offer aide to the town of Churchill , Manitoba through incentives offered through the Churchill Port Utilization Program. With a budget of 25 million dollars, the program will offer $5 million a year for the next five years to companies (read; farmers) that use the port of Churchill to deliver one of 19 different grains. With incentive payouts of $9 per tonne of grain shipped out through the deep -water Arctic seaport in 2012, the transition from the monopoly-free Canadian Wheat Board to independent farmer contractors shipping their grain out of Churchill will be a little less painful.
Steve Selden photo.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz unveiled the details in Tisdale, Sask., at the Hudson Bay Route Association’s annual general meeting. Ritz said the program will keep Churchill as a strategic shipping option. The move comes as the grain-handling business in Canada adapts to the new reality of a monopoly-free Canadian Wheat Board. Legislation passed in December now offers Prairie farmers the option to choose whether to market their grain and barley products through the old system of the CWB or to explore other shipping options from other ports in Canada. Ritz pledged to help the port adjust, including $4.1 million for port maintenance and an incentive program to entice companies that hadn’t traditionally used Churchill.
NDP Churchill MP Niki Ashton said this is a clear example of the Conservative government’s disconnect between people and needs on the Prairies.
“The Conservatives showed how little they cared about Churchill by dismantling the wheat board in the first place,” said Ashton. “They got rid of the organization that made up for 90 per cent-plus of the shipments through Churchill. They’re throwing away taxpayers’ money to make up for a system that worked.”
One might ask the question; why would the government approve dissolving the power of the Canadian Wheat Board just to turn around and offer a 25 million incentive structure in order to aide the tiny town of Churchill? Is this the paradox of socialism. Dissolve a capitalistic monopoly in order to have the taxpayers be the ones to keep the level playing field or in this case….level and calm shipping waters. Nothing comes free in society…not even a socialistic based society. People need to pay for equality…whether they want to or not. If Canadians don’t want to ..they can move South. Tough choice eh?
The Port of Churchill formally gained 85 to 90 per cent of its’ shipping business from farmers and companies brokering through the CWB. Now that the market is open for the upcoming shipping season come August, it will be very interesting to see the profile of the customer base either returning to Churchill or trying the operation for the first time. Will this new incentive plan skew the actual interest over the next five years or buy time for the port to develop better operations and more diverse shipping options? And most importantly for the town of Churchill, keep the over 200 residents, almost a quarter of the town population, employed.
The incentive program is a first-come, first-served option with applications accepted after April 20. In years to follow, the applications will begin April 1. Companies will have to prove by Dec. 31 the shipment was made. Eligible applicants are those that legally arrange for and carry out shipments through Churchill on outward ocean-going vessels. The amount of each grant will depend on the amount of grain shipped.
Steve Selden photo.
Everyone will be watching as this issue develops over the Summer. The new structure may be just what the port needs to push Colorado based owner Omnitrax to look for and develop more options for shipping out of Churchill. In some ways the publicity alone through these new incentives will be phenomenal for the port as many officials, farmers and businesses will be exposed to the Arctic seaport that previously seemed to be slowly decaying up in the far North!
Awhile back I posted the first part of this documentary about the Northlander, a DC-4 rescued by a group of Inuit living in Churchill in 1955. There’s also some cool background info on Churchill in general as well as some interviews with some locals. Take a look at the footage and enjoy the story.
Churchill Summer is quickly coming and the tundra will be alive with life. beluga whales will make their way South to Churchill and inhabit the Churchill River and other rivers flowing into the Hudson Bay. keep an eye out for interesting news and previews of this most spectacular time in the Arctic. However, now, just get the popcorn and the muktuk ready and enjoy this amazing story.