The MV Nunalik sailed into the Churchill River early Sunday morning with a load of vital supplies for one of Manitoba's most northern communities.
The deck of the vessel is stacked with shipping containers, vehicles — like a new tundra buggy for one of the local outfitters — and 120 massive cylinders of propane needed to keep the community warm for the winter.
The $6 million propane shipment was arranged by the Manitoba government as a measure to guarantee the town has enough heating fuel for the winter.
The off-loading of the propane, which started Sunday afternoon, is a task never attempted at Churchill's port. Normally the heating fuel arrives by rail from the south but several flooded out sections of track have blocked shipments by land since the spring.
Once the fuel and supplies are removed from the ship, five Via Rail passenger cars and two locomotives will be plucked off the dock and loaded by crane onto the ship.
It's also the first time the port has attempted to load this type of equipment onto a ship.
The removal of the rail cars are a touchy subject for residents in Churchill. Normally they would return south on the Omnitrax-owned rail line.
'It's tough to see friends leaving'
Their removal by sea is symbolic for many in the Hudson Bay town, seeing it as a failure in part of a series of attempts to get the rail line reopened.
"With the train goes the hope getting our rail fixed anytime soon," said resident Dorota Walkoski, who says the disruption has caused some to pack up and move away from Churchill. "There's more people leaving the community, the classrooms have smaller class sizes … people are moving elsewhere or moving back home.
"It's tough to see friends leaving."
Walkoski, whose husband owns and operates Great White Bear Tours in Churchill, answers quickly when asked what the line means to the community.
"It's everything," she said. "Everything relies on the rail, it brings in our tourists it brings in our food, it brings in everyday things that people take for granted … when we need something it comes up on the train."
The Nunalik was loaded in Valleyfield Quebec several days ago and is behind schedule because of a storm on the Hudson Bay earlier this week. Churchill is the ship's first stop on a route that will take it further north to communities in Nunavut.
Until this point Churchill mayor Mike Spence had refused to accept the rail line couldn't be fixed before winter. Now with a heavy sigh, the community leader admits that possibility has slipped away.
"It's disappointing that the rail line probably won't be repaired before winter," Spence said Sunday. "This is the first time without a rail line since around 1928."
With that immediate future in mind, Spence says the town is working with the federal government on enhancing the Nutrition North program to ease food prices.
Spence says he's also working with Calm Air executives to get a break on flights to and from the community so residents can get out for a few days and shop in Thompson or Winnipeg.
A town meeting will be held next week and Spence says federal resource minister Jim Carr has promised to come up to speak with residents.
Late last week Ottawa announced it would give Omnitrax 30 days to fix the damaged line or face a lawsuit.
The company responded by criticizing Canada for not financially supporting the operations of the rail line over the last several years. Omnitrax executives compare the route to Manitoba's north to a public utility.
Many residents of Churchill have called on Ottawa to re-nationalize the port and take control of the rail line and its operations.
Walkoski doesn't care about the politics involved in fixing the rail line. She said "this should have all been fixed long ago."
Decline in tourism
The community is dealing with steep increases in shipping costs as much of its supplies now arrive by air.
Churchill has also seen a big decline in tourism as many visitors come to the northern town by rail, especially in the summer and early fall. But visitors to the town have started arriving in stronger numbers in recent weeks thanks to the start of polar bear season.
The Nunalik will not be the last ship to come to Churchill this fall. Two other vessels — including one containing a winter supply of gasoline and jet fuel — will arrive later in October.
Calm Air recently stepped up and pledged to deliver the fuel and store it in its own tanks normally reserved for jet fuel after questions arose about the tank farm owned and operated by Omnitrax.
Calm Air and the province have also agreed to subsidize the cost of the shipment to ease the rising cost of gas for residents.
The company says it will ship jet fuel up to Churchill by air if there is a shortage later in the winter.