In the winter of 2017, a three-day blizzard blanketed Churchill, a small town that sits on the edge of the Hudson Bay in the remote subarctic. As drifts reached rooftops and encompassed buses, residents of the northern Manitoba town fought the storm, digging through towering walls of snow 8 feet thick. As a local state of emergency was declared, the community rallied to help one another—far from the last time they would come together in times of need.
That May, massive floods, a result of the blizzard, washed away the tracks which provided access to the town of 900 people. No roads lead to Churchill, and so residents relied on the train for travel and to import goods. When this crucial connection was lost, charter flights became the only way to haul cargo and visit loved ones during the holidays. These added expenses came at a further price for many townsfolks, who were forced to leave Churchill after the train’s disappearance.
As shipping costs skyrocketed and the price of fuel, food and supplies soared, living expenses became too costly for some families. Just a week ago, I walked through the only grocery store in Churchill, where the price of pumpkins was $20, and milk was selling for $11 a gallon. When dogsledding, our musher talked about the exorbitant rise in the cost of shipping feed for his kennel. Our bus driver spoke of the difficulty of caring for children and saying goodbye to old friends. Yet despite these hurdles, I saw many examples of communal kindnesses during my visit. The entire town turned out to celebrate the wedding of two local hotel owners during a particularly chilly night. Our Expedition Leaders brought a pumpkin on the plane as a gift for our Churchill driver’s young daughters. As we drove through the streets, beautiful murals bedecked buildings, bringing recognition to the people of this northern community. Those who had persevered found solace and strength in numbers.
Churchill residents describe Halloween as their most festive occasion. This year as with every year, children donned their costumes and took to the streets to trick-or-treat under the watchful eye of parents, on alert for potential prowling polar bears. That evening, at about 7 pm, a whistle sounded. As ringing resounded in the icy night air, citizens rushed to the station to watch as a train approached.
As the train rolled into Churchill for the first time since the floods of May 2017, hugs and smiles abounded, and celebrations ensued for those who had weathered the storm and its lingering effects. The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, landed the following day to join the community in announcing the restoration of the railway, emphasizing that, “Supporting the North is of fundamental importance to the future of Canada.” As feasts are prepared and bonfires burn bright in skies reflecting northern lights and stars, Nat Hab rejoices along with Churchill residents. The train has restored a vital lifeline to this isolated community and has brought with it the hope of new beginnings.
Each fall, polar bears congregate on the shores of the Hudson Bay to wait for the ice to freeze over so that they can begin their annual seal hunt. In summer, beluga whales migrate to Churchill’s warmer waters to feed and raise their calves. During the winter, the northern lights glisten and whirl in shades of emerald green above onlooker’s heads. Though these natural wonders leave travelers in awe, equally striking are the people— the First Nations, Dene, Inuit and settlers—who have made this subarctic town their home. Churchill is the fur trapper who travels 60 miles over the tundra, camping in below freezing conditions. Churchill is the Polar Rover driver, whose eagle eyes can spot the buttery lump of a bear, silver gleam of a fox or a foraging snowy owl from miles away. Churchill is the Cree woman who is a silent watch guard over the land, protecting both bears and people. Their resiliency and resolve leave lasting impressions with all who visit. Churchill, home to few, beloved by many, is welcoming to all who journey there. With the trains return, the town will usher in more people, along with a promising future.