Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Churchill: gloved up

I leave the Northern stores wrapped up snugly and prepared for a day out in Churchill. The Northern is Churchill’s biggest store, and it really is a ‘general’ store. It has a small supermarket with a surprisingly large selection of fresh fruit and vegetables, a small electrical department, a video rental store, a clothes department and just about every small thing you could need around the household.

I walk back towards the station and then turn left alongside a partly snowed over park, towards the Town Centre Complex. This large, low building hugs the crest of a low hill on the north-eastern side of town, stretching along the edge of the community for several blocks. It’s not particularly pretty, but then its large amorphous shape serves a purpose. As well as housing the town’s school, hospital, theatre, library and council rooms, the large complex forms a large barrier between the town and the shore of the Hudson Bay. As soon as I walk round the side of the building to visit the beach, I realise why that’s a good idea. As far as I can see, the bay is still frozen over. All my hopes of seeing the ocean at the end of my forty hour train ride evaporate.

And because the sea is still frozen, the wind that is coming off the bay is perishing. The moment I turn the corner and walk towards the beach, the temperature drops about another ten degrees with the wind-chill. Even with my extra layers, the icy wind cuts through me, and it feels about –15C. And remember, this is May. In January this icy wind-chill factor can push the temperature down to nearly –60C.

I trudge down the track towards the sandy beach. The last time I saw sand, I was in California, when it was a rather agreeable 15C. I can’t believe that just a few weeks ago I considered that chilly. On the edge of the beach stands a stone Inuit sculpture. These beautiful abstract structures don’t require much explanation. In this inhospitable environment, these simple stone structures tell you that other people have been here before; that you are not alone. They are a friendly greeting, made from the materials found lying to hand, but arranged in a way that could only be made by another human being. The precise meanings of different sculptures revealed messages about hazards, territories or even good fishing grounds. Although Churchill’s population is now predominantly white and Anglo-Canadian, this sculpture is a beautiful reminder of this territory’s traditions and origins.

I feel like I should sit and consider this barren seascape for a bit longer; maybe stop and sketch for a while. But as they say back home, it’s brass monkeys out here and I’m cold. I scoot back towards the town, but take a right and walk a little way out of town towards Churchill’s most notable landmark. Out on the edge of town stand the enormous grain elevators of the Port of Churchill. It’s because of the port that Churchill has a railway line. I don’t know the exact figures, but Churchill handles tens of thousands of tonnes of grain and other freight every year, even though it is closed in by ice for almost half of the year. In a magazine article published in Montréal before I left on my trip, Omni-Trax (the new owners of the Port of Churchill) were openly optimistic about the opportunities for increasing the volume of freight that passes through the port. Over the next few decades, it is expected that the effect of global warming will be to allow sea passage to and from Churchill for longer every year. The period that the port is iced in has already been seen to be slowly reducing. Some of the Churchill residents I spoke to were pessimistic, however, and pointed out that despite the effect global warming on the polar ice, it’s still impossible to work outside in the winter when it gets below –40C, and the winters don’t appear to be getting any warmer up here..

Churchill is the only sea port in the Canadian prairies, and grain shipped through here can reach Europe two and a half days more quickly than if shipped through some of the eastern ports, such as Montréal or Boston. Importing and exporting produce and products through Churchill avoids thousands of kilometres of railway and, because of the curvature of the Earth, allows for a quick sea crossing to Europe.

But at this exact moment, the port stands silent. The ice is beginning to break up and melt, but it will be some time before shipping commences for the summer season of 2006.

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