Manitoba

Churchill cheers as shipment of goods arrives after 25-hour ice road journey

A tiny dot in the distance grew as it neared a crowd of excited Churchill residents gathered at the outskirts of the town in northern Manitoba Friday.

Manitoba town has been without rail since spring flood washed out line

A delivery of coveted goods arrived in Churchill, Man., on Friday afternoon on specialized winter vehicles called "cat trains." The delivery travelled to Churchill along an ice road from Gillam, Man. (Katie de Meulles)

Dozens of Churchill, Man., residents cheered as a shipment of goods — including Christmas toys — arrived in town via 25-hour ice road journey.

A series of specialized treaded vehicles pulling sleighs called "cat trains" hauled the coveted deliveries along a 300-kilometre-long ice road starting Tuesday. They arrived at about 3 p.m. CT Friday after slugging along cautiously at about 10 kilometres an hour.

As a tiny chain of dots emerged on the tundra horizon, lifelong Churchill resident Katie de Meulles said people began honking their car horns in anticipation.

"It was so epic! I've never seen so many people hugging in my whole life, complete strangers," said de Meulles. She, along with about 70 others holding signs and noisemakers, waited in freezing conditions that felt like –40 C with wind chill in order to greet the group. 

Dozens of people gathered on the outskirts of Churchill Friday to welcome the people who transported the special delivery. (Katie de Meulles)

"Then they unveiled this sled and produced bags of toys and the kids just flocked to them. It was so surreal, the sun's just going down and it's just beautiful."

The community has been without its lone rail line since spring when rains and snow melt washed out large sections of it. Almost everything they've needed since has had to be flown in at a steep cost for locals in the remote community.

Crews with cargo and freight company Polar Industries, together with Churchill's Remote Area Services and members of Fox Lake Cree Nation, spent long hours in recent weeks working on the ice road to the northern Manitoba community, which is about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, on the shore of Hudson Bay. 

Churchill has been without rail service for weeks after a spring flood damaged the only rail line into the northern Manitoba town. (Omnitrax)

The group experienced a series of delays related to ice road conditions, along with troubles navigating sections of the tundra trails as they forged ahead. RCMP officers riding snowmobiles escorted them along the last leg.

"It was definitely an eye opener for many of us who have ever experienced anything like that," said Mark Kohaykewych, president of Polar Industries. "A lot can go wrong in a hurry out here."

The crew towed about 9,000 kilograms of goods this first go-round but plan to take three times that weight per trip when the operation gets going again in January.

Kohaykewych said he is proud of what they've already accomplished.

"But I don't think the reality has quite hit us," he said. "Most of us are still running on adrenaline here."

Members of the crew pose next to a cat train at sunset on the tundra. (Mark Kohaykewych)

The group touched the lives of many in Churchill and brought an extra note of cheer before the holidays, said de Meulles.

"We've had one emotional thing after the other here," she said. "We want to thank them … it's so close to Christmas for them, too, to be away from their families. It's tough."

The federal government and Denver-based Omnitrax, which owns the rail line and port of Churchill, have traded barbs over who should pay for the repairs to the rail line. 

The price of food and fuel increased in background of those feuds.

"This has been a truly been the most challenging time our community has faced and we have all come together with the assistance and efforts of many people that care for our community," Churchill Mayor Mike Spence said in a statement Friday.

Spence said it's important to note that several surrounding First Nations and other communities in the north remain affected by the lack of rail service, too.

"The Town of Churchill wishes to sincerely thanks and acknowledge the many Manitobans, Canadians and those from across the world that have reached out to us and support our community," he said.

The town is holding its annual feast Saturday.

Kohaykewych and other members of his crew caught a plane south to Winnipeg Friday night after unloading the goods.

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology. Before joining CBC Manitoba, he worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service monitoring birds in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and Alberta. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.