Arnaud Maldague made this epic bicycle journey along the tracks of the Hudson Bay Line from Churchill to Gillam to bring awareness to the plight of Churchill, Nunavut and communities affected by the loss of rail service. For over a year the tracks have been unusable and no train is able to reach the northern terminus of Churchill. With a new deal for a local group and financial investor to buy the port in place, hopes are high that the isolation will end soon. Below is Arnaud’s account of the situation:
“After skiing the Arctic for 100 days, I arrived in Churchill, Canada, only to discover the city had no more functioning railroad. The rails were flooded on 23 may 2017 after a huge winter storm hit the region earlier this winter. The damaged rails suffered some washouts, which cut the city only ground supply and communication mean. Private owner Omnitrax, whom is legally bind to maintain the tracks, refused to repair the line, pretexting exaggerated costs and financial failure. The government refused to funnel money to the company, resulting in a political drama and no repairs. Churchill’s citizen are stuck with high prices, jobs cuts and a bitter feeling of being abandoned. The situation also impacted the whole Kivalliq region, Nunavut, which relied on Churchill rail supply line. One year later, nothing had changed… Since the rails were part of my itinerary and “The Manneken Trip” expedition, I decided to shoot this video while cycling the rails down towards Gillam and later Winnipeg. The idea was to generate some awareness and report on the state of the rails. As expected, the damages aren’t that bad, and could easily be repaired. It was a horrible ride with its lot of nice surprises! Nature was super beautiful however : the taiga, the boreal forest and lots of birds. Three days after finishing the trip, 41 communities joined together with private company Fairfax and AGT in order to buy the Hudson Bay Railroad and port. It’s an historic move from these community which retransfer ownership into local hands! However, no date has been set for the repairs yet… Due to intensive and long winters, repairs can only take place during the few summer months. If repairs don’t start soon, Churchill might have to face another winter without train.”
We hope you all enjoy our first guest blog report from Churchill and Natural Habitat Adventures guide Moira Le Patourel. Her group of travelers experienced a classic and exciting week in Churchill and the photos and report below give a feel of the adventure experienced!
“The first trip of the summer is always an exciting one in Churchill. Vast Ice floes are visible out in the bay, seemingly close to shore, but just slightly too far away to use the spotting scope to search for polar bears still out on the ice. Bears had already been spotted close to town and our first group of the summer was lucky enough to spot a resting polar bear on the beach, while out on the tundra on their first evening in Churchill.
Things were in full bloom on the tundra in a spectacular array of colours; snow-white from the White Mountain Avens, with their buttercup-yellow center, a carpet of brilliant green from the Sea Purslane, and a vibrant mat of magenta from the Purple Hedysarum. It was certainly a feast for the eyes!
Sea pursalane inhabits the beach areas in Churchill. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Beluga sightings were excellent throughout the trip, with several young calves spotted swimming with their mothers. During our final morning on the zodiacs, the river was all a-splash with beluga activity – pods of feeding-frenzied belugas, young and old, cavorted around the boats in pursuit of their fast-moving prey – capelin. Arctic terns plummeted into the water from the surface, with the white whales pushing the capelin up from below. Quite the sight to behold!
Beluga whales in the Churchill River with excited Nat Hab travelers. Moira Le Patourel photo.
A visit with local sled dogs and their owner was an interesting way for our visitors to learn about what life is like for a musher and his team in the remote sub-Arctic town of Churchill. With the train to Churchill not running at the moment, the logistics have become more complicated over the past month, and the cost of living has significantly gone up for the residents of Churchill. Our group learned about what those changes meant for mushers and dog teams in the area.
Churchill sled dogs are alaways a popular attraction. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Walks in both tundra and taiga habitat allowed us to spot many different bird species; some of the favourites were nesting/dive-bombing Arctic terns, red-necked phalaropes, lesser yellowlegs, Pacific loons and tundra swans with young. Churchill certainly is the place to be in the summer, especially for those visitors in search of feathered friends. Many guests on this trip were able to add several species to their life lists.
Many laughs, smiles, hugs and songs (you can’t leave without singing Baby Beluga at least once!) were shared by all for our first adventure in Churchill this summer. Looking forward to what the coming days will bring!”
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.
The first groups of travelers have been experiencing dramatic cold and sensational northern lights in Churchill these last couple of weeks. Here are some pictorial field notes from the far north and northern lights season guru Brad Josephs. So much of what Nat Hab’s aurora borealis trips encompass is more than seeing the northern lights. The amazing train trip north and stops at Pisew Falls and Thompson leading to the journey through boreal forest and taiga coming to rest in Churchill. Dog-sledding, igloo building, curling and various other cultural experiences make this an unforgettable adventure. Northern lights above the vast frozen Hudson Bay is more often than not the proverbial “icing on the cake”! Enjoy
Natural Habitat Adventures group with guide Brad Josephs. Brad Josephs photo.
Dog – sledding in Churchill. Brad Josephs photo.
Moonscape above the boreal forest before the aurora appeared in Churchill. Brad Josephs photo.
Northern lights above Wapusk Adventures tee – pee and boreal forest. Brad Josephs photo.
Northern lights action at the Natural Habitat Aurora Pod. Brad Josephs photo.
Natural Habitat Adventures travelers beneath the northern lights in Churchill. Brad Josephs photo.