Manitoba’s northeast boundary, disputed between Manitoba and Ontario, was drawn running in a generally northeast direction from the northeast corner of the rectangular 1881 version of Manitoba. The result was that Manitoba obtained part of the Hudson Bay shoreline on which is now located Churchill, Canada’s only Arctic Seaport. “The shortest route from the prairies to Europe is via Hudson Bay and the North Atlantic, so it makes sense to have a port on the coast of the bay. Thus it was that, at the urging of the prairie wheat farmer, a port was established at the mouth of the Churchill River…. The Hudson Bay Railway [from Winnipeg to Churchill] was completed in 1929, and in 1931 two ships left the grain terminal late in the summer.”[i] It was hoped that Churchill would become the major terminal for grain export from the Prairies but this was not all. Later Churchill “became the home of an international atmospheric research centre [and a military base] and it still houses the Institute of Arctic Ecophysiology and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre”[ii] but it never became the major port that was hoped. However, its population reached about 5000 in the late 1950s, but with the closure of the military base and a decline in grain shipments, it had fallen to 923 in 2006. The future of the railway, which is now owned by a U.S.-based company, is in doubt, but now that the economic emphasis is on ecotourism based on polar bear and beluga whale viewing, it is more important than ever to the welfare of the community. Many visitors arrive by rail, the journey being part of the overall experience.
The photo shows the mouth of the Churchill River between a peninsula on which is located Fort Prince of Wales 1 to the west and Cape Merry 2 to the east. The town of Churchill 3 is located in the centre of the photo with the Hudson Bay Railway entering from the south. 4 The line leads to the large elevators 5 located by the wharf 6 at which grain ships are loaded. South of town are sidings on which numerous railcars are located 7. Imperial Oil’s storage tanks 8 are located east of the wharf. A main road 9 runs along the southern edge of town and continues east to Fort Churchill (off the photo). Where it turns to the east is a cluster of buildings in four rows 10. This is Akudlik that “was built between Churchill and the airport (off the photo to the east) during the 1950s to house workers for the Northwest Territory Government. When the government headquarters moved north to Rankin Inlet (outside Manitoba), the workers left.”[iii] To the north is Akudlik Marsh 11, with several lakes including Lake Isabella 12 and Lake Rosabella 13, which offer excellent bird viewing including the rare Ross’s Gull.[iv] Although polar bears are seen in the town of Churchill, most of the “watching” goes on well to the east and south of town.[v]
The mouth of the Churchill River is tidal with a large area of tidal marsh occurring south of town 14. The white line off Cape Merry 15 is probably the contact line between out-flowing river water and seawater.
[i] Sweet, G. “Churchill: Historic Settlement, Arctic Seaport, Tourist Centre” in Welsted, Everitt and Stadel op. cit. 1996, 172.
[ii] Sweet, G. op. cit. 1996, 172.
[iii] Senecal, C. Pelicans to Polar Bears: Watching Wildlife in Manitoba. Winnipeg: Heartland Publications, 1999, 242.
[iv] Senecal, C. op. cit. 1999, 242.
[v] Cordozo, Y. and Hirsch, B. “Bear Watching for All Seasons” Times Colonist (Victoria) May 27, 2004, p E3.