The ’59 Trail, Part Three

The ’59 Trail.
The ’59 Trail,
Unknown artist, reproduced with permission

Part 3 of my uncle, John Alldridge’s 1959 report from Canada’s Far North for the Birmingham Mail – Jerry F

Churchill, on Hudson’s Bay

Until you have spent a day and a night in Churchill, you don’t know what cold means.

The first white men to risk a winter in Churchill all died of frostbite. That was in 1619. But it hasn’t got one degree warmer…

In January the temperature goes down to 50 below. Which is not particularly cold for Canada. But add to that a 40-mile-an-hour wind blowing off the frozen Hudson Bay and you have a cold that knifes through ordinary cotton and wool until a man might as well be naked.

The Canadian Army has taken full advantage of it. Every year 2,500 young Canadians go out from Churchill on winter exercises. They spend days on the trail with the thermometer never much above 50 below.

“Jerry F
Canadian Army on cold-weather exercises.
Canadian Army on cold-weather exercises,
Unknown photographer, reproduced with permission

Each man carries with him 70lb of equipment – 21lb of clothing, a 35lb rucksack holding his bedroll and rations, an 8lb rifle and six rounds of ammunition.

He also takes his turn on a two-man haul pulling a sledge loaded with another 110lb of equipment.

Out there in that blinding whiteness he learns, among other things, that not only can a man stay alive under such conditions, but can also be reasonably comfortable.

The object of these exercises is simple enough: land battles may never be fought in the Arctic. But the lessons learned here could keep a fighting man on his feet in northern Norway, or Siberia, or even on the grim winter plains east of Moscow …

Only too well aware of what I was letting myself in for, the Hudson’s Bay Company in Winnipeg thoughtfully fitted me out with a fur-padded parka, a flannel shirt in a hideous green-and-black tartan check, and field boots.

They also slipped into my duffel bag a bottle of the Company’s own exclusive brand of whisky (specially distilled in Edinburgh) to take the chill off.

The distance between Winnipeg and Churchill is about 1,000 miles. At The Pas, five hundred miles out, the road ends. So if you want to make the trip in one movement you must either go by rail or by air.

By rail it is cheap — but it takes an interminable forty hours. A seat on the plane is expensive: but you get there in six hours. So I went by air…

It is an incredibly monotonous flight. For the first three hours you are flying over what appears from 7,000 ft. to be a vast peat-bog studded with thousands of frozen puddles. (Some of those ‘puddles’ are lakes the size of Windermere).

For the second three hours you dawdle across a snow-bound stubble field. God help any bush pilot whose plane had to force-land down there in winter…

When you first sight it Churchill looks like a beleaguered fortress in a desert of snow. But what seems from the air to be a crusader’s castle is actually a gigantic grain elevator. For today Churchill, with its shifting population of 4,000, is half grain port, half army camp.

In the 87 days in the year when the port is free from ice eight million bushels of prairie wheat pour through here into Europe, some of it in ships from Manchester and Glasgow.

Last year 83 ships got in and out before the ice closed tight again. Which means a pretty fast turn-round.

And in the short summer the white whales bask in hundreds on the beach, tamely awaiting destruction to stock half the beauty parlours in Europe and America with hand lotion, soap and perfume.

Besides being Canada’s most northerly port, Churchill is its oldest civilised settlement in the North. The British flag was flying here as long ago as 1717. And from here, in 1777, a tough young Canadian called Samuel Hearne started a trek that took him a thousand miles north to the Arctic Ocean.

So Churchill, you would think, would have something to show for its sturdy, hard-hitting past besides a mouldering old fort on the other side of the river.

But seen in close-up it is a depressing disappointment — a sprawling, down-at-heel shack-town that seems to have given up all pretensions to self-respect years ago.

It has no main drainage, no running water, not a single made-up road, not one street lamp and a makeshift power plant that breaks down every time a stronger-than-usual gale blows.

Most of its houses are of unpainted clapboard. Only last week four burned down — including the best restaurant in town – because the town’s main water supply was frozen solid.

Admittedly I was seeing it at its worst. Perhaps under snow, when last year’s garbage is tactfully hidden, and those rutted roads are plugged, it has a certain Christmas card charm.

But at this time of year, when the snow is turning to slush and from slush to mud, and each passing car sends up a gusher, then Churchill looks like an abandoned holiday camp dumped in the middle of Siberia.

Yet the remarkable thing is that people like living here.

One reason is not hard to see. Most of them came here originally on a short-term work ticket. And unkempt, down-at-heel though it may seem on the surface, there is gold in those unpainted shacks.

A 28-dollar-a-week grocery clerk in Winnipeg can earn 40 dollars a week in Churchill. A waiter in the town’s two beer parlours is certain of 70 dollars a week and free board. A private soldier living it up in that palatial, wind-proof Fort Churchill can stack away 100 dollars a week “isolation allowance.”

There are children born here who have never seen a cow or heard a cock crow. But their parents can afford to fly them off to Miami for a holiday.

Churchill can show only 40 miles of so-called roads. But you can count 300 cars risking their springs on the slush-filled pot-holes.

And Churchill is certainly a town with a mighty thirst. They take their drinking seriously here. Len Stocks opened the town’s first Government liquor store just before Christmas. By the end of his first year he expects to show a turn-over of nearly half-a-million dollars.

Reproduced with permission
© 2023

Jerry F 2023