Churchill Is In Trouble.
Churchill is a town of about 900 full-time residents located in northern Manitoba on the shores of Hudson Bay. How far north, you ask? Roughly 1100 miles north of Winnipeg and about 600 miles below the Arctic Circle. That’s pretty damn far north.
Believe it or not, tourism is a big deal in Churchill because around the middle of October, polar bears begin to gather around the town waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over. The bears spend the entire winter out on the ice hunting seals, which comprise virtually their entire diet. And so, for a month or more, the two hotels, the B&B’s, the restaurants and the people who take you out to see the bears in their “tundra buggies” make a lot of money . . . money that has to carry most of the town through most of the next twelve months.
VIA Rail Canada runs a train between Winnipeg and Churchill two or three days a week bringing lots of tourists and pretty much everything else Churchill needs to survive. But on May 23rd, unprecedented floods from melting snow washed out some of the track, effectively ending all rail service. That’s a huge problem because the road out of Winnipeg ends almost 140 miles south of Churchill. That means for the foreseeable future, the only way to get to Churchill is by plane from Winnipeg, and for that you’ll pay anywhere from $700 to $1100 . . . one way.
That also means all the necessities of life have to come by air and of course prices have skyrocketed. The biggest hit has been on food and other necessities, especially items that are bulky, but don’t weigh much—breakfast cereal or toilet paper, for example.
I was in Churchill several years ago and my host at the B&B is a champion musher who takes tourists on dog sled rides. He owns more than 20 magnificent sled dogs and he feeds them in part from hundred pound blocks of frozen chicken parts that come up from Winnipeg by train.
What can be done? Obviously the train is essential to Churchill’s survival, but that washed out portion of track is part of the rail line that was sold some 20 years ago to OmniTRAX, an American Company with headquarters in Denver. Estimates for the cost of repairs run all the way from 16 to 50 million U.S. dollars and of course, the company is balking.
Clearly, it will take intervention by both the provincial and national governments, although when it comes to debating and authorizing and allocating money, the wheels of government turn slowly. The trouble is, those people up there in Churchill don’t have much time. And neither do the sled dogs.