CHURCHILL, Man. – Churchill mayor Mike Spence looks out across the water through a chilly mist as a cold wind tussles his hair and utters a simple sentence: “No ice.”
In most ports that wouldn’t be a big deal, but in Churchill, which exports about half a million tonnes of prairie crops most years, the ice shuts down the port for most of the year. The port is only open from mid-summer until early November.
Like the prairie farmer’s brief season between the last frost in the spring and the first frost of fall, the port’s life is dictated by the time between the melting of the ice and the onset of a new ice cover in the autumn.
At this time of year there should only be one ship left loading and almost no grain left in the port’s terminal.
But instead, there are five ships waiting at Churchill, with one more scheduled to arrive Oct. 31.
It should make for white knuckle time for port officials and ship’s crews, but due to global warming, there isn’t as much stress as there would have been a couple of decades ago.
“Last year we put a big push on to finish off all of our vessels by the end of October, and then the first two weeks of November were beautiful,” said Lyle Fetterly, general manager of the Hudson Bay Port Co.
“There was no ice in the river or in the bay at all.”
Churchill is often the cheapest export route for grain from Saskatchewan’s eastern grain belt and northwestern Manitoba. But getting grain to the port, and getting those ships out before the ice covers the water is a yearly logistical struggle.
OmniTrax Ltd., the Denver company that owns the rail line and the port corporation, has been trying to increase the port’s efficiency, and that means getting more grain to and through the port.
Their efforts appear to be working, according to Fetterly.
“This year we really saw our improvements come into play,” he said.
Three years ago the port could only load ships at a rate of about 900 tonnes per hour. Last year the rate increased to about 1,000 tonnes per hour. This year it boosted to 1,200 tonnes per hour.
That increased efficiency is being used now to fill the last ships waiting in the port.
They aren’t supposed to be there, but two weeks ago a wind and rain storm that lasted days prevented loading, so the tidy timetable was torn up.
Bill Drew, executive director of the Churchill Gateway Development Corp., was excited to see the giant Big Sky loading. It is a panamax, the largest size of vessel that can fit through the Panama Canal.
“I want to see that one pull out,” he said, watching as it loaded its last two compartments. “I’m going to come back to see it leave.”