Port of Churchill grain shipping operation on the Churchill River. Port of Churchill photo.
Just when you thought the Port of Churchill and accompanying Hudson Bay Line were in a negotiated sale…again…another potential suitor has arisen to acquire the assets and begin shipping from the port.
Executives from Herun Group Co. Ltd., a Chinese company with massive agricultural interests as well as a wealth of port-operating experience, visited Churchill a month ago to gather more information and inspect the port facility. The company is one of the largest firms in China and seemingly has the financial clout and long-term experience in the shipping industry to offer a long-term solution to keeping the port and train line open.
Concerns that the Port of Churchill would fall into foreign hands and their primary interests would be alleviated by an agreement with the Manitoba Metis Federation and thus have that group own 51 percent of the company. Herun has also agreed to pay the $20 million price to Omnitrax without relying on any additional support from the Canadian government according to Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand.
“Herun made it very clear they’re prepared to come up with a substantial amount of cash,” he said.
Herun owns and operates 11 international ports and recently closed a deal to acquire a port in Brazil, the country China trades the most with. Since Herun also processes various grains and oilseeds, interest in Churchill’s port facility is paramount.
“To me, in order to make this situation work for the railroad and Port of Churchill, you really need to have a company that is in the business,” said Joe Ng, chairman of JNE Group of professional engineers based out of Hamilton, which arranged the tour.
Port of Churchill. Claude Daudet photo.
“Otherwise, new people come in and after two years they can’t utilize the rail and port and they bail out.”
Herun’s interest stems from the fact that it imports raw materials such as soybeans and canola for its China crushing facilities.
Missinippi Rail and One North, a consortium of First Nations and Toronto-based Fairfax Financial Holdings Inc. are also in partnership to purchase the facilities. Omnitrax and Ottawa have been in negotiations with each other since late last year.
However, Omnitrax Canada President, Merv Tweed, reported that the latter group has only signed a letter of intent and Omnitrax has received inquiries from several other Canadian companies. “We are continuing discussions with a number of interested parties,” Tweed said.
A most recent inquiry and potential buyer, another First Nations group named iChurchill, appeared this past week with a comprehensive proposal that includes utilizing Churchill’s port and rail line to ship wood and possibly oil in addition to grain.
Ng conceded Herun is not first in line with their new proposal. “We’ve come in late so we have to wait until other people finish talking. It’s no different than a lineup at a counter,” said Ng, the 2016 winner of Entrepreneur of the Year awarded by the Association of Chinese Canadian Entrepreneurs.
Any new deal with the prospective buyers would include the damaged rail lines, as well as some buildings and land and in other northern towns like Gillam. The estimated $46 million in track repairs would be covered by the company that ends up purchasing the facilities. The governments annual $5 million in maintenance payments currently paid to Omnitrax would continue with the new owner.
Even though Churchill has a pretty short shipping season, Herun is looking ahead to the future according to Ng. “As far as they’re concerned, the world’s turning warmer every year, and there might be longer and longer shipping seasons as years go by,” he said.
Great White Bear Tour’s latest monster build. Krys Walczak photo.
Rear view of the new Great White Bear Tours all-terrain vehicle. Krys Walczak photo.
Great White Bear and Anything Custom has done it again. They created this mini monster ATV, “Sherpa”, with a top speed of 28mph on land and 3.8mph in the water. The Walkoski crew is testing it out as they drive to Churchill. They left Gillam late last night and we will update you on the journey as soon as we hear. The machine will be used throughout the year but mainly during the polar bear season in October and November in Churchill.
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.”
The project comes on the heels of the polar bear season in Churchill, a much needed economic boost to the community!