by Frances Koncan, September 6th 2017
In March 2017, a blizzard of unprecedented size hit the town of Churchill, Manitoba and the surrounding area. Lasting over three days, the blizzard created white-out conditions and brought emergency services to a halt.
I was an Artist-in-Residence at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) at the time the blizzard hit. I had been sent up north by the Manitoba Arts Council to research a new play focused on mental health in Northern communities. After an initial week of dog-sledding, snowshoeing, and aurora watching, the blizzard hit fast, trapping myself, the staff of CNSC, and a group of college students from Atlanta, Georgia inside the facility.
But, before the blizzard hit, I had the opportunity to snowshoe my way through some of the abandoned buildings of the Churchill Rocket Research Range, a former rocket launching site used from 1954-1998 for sub-orbital launches to study the upper atmosphere.
The site was initially chosen due to its high aurora activity.
This site was used by both the Canadian and US military for a variety of projects, including the testing of CARDE’s solid fuel propellant system with PVT-1.
Many companies have since shown interest in re-developing the site for continued study and research, but at this time, it remains solely the location of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and serves primarily as a local tourist spot.
The day after the blizzard ended was when I and an entire college class of students from Atlanta, Georgia were scheduled to fly back to Winnipeg. With the blizzard having completely covered roads, this was an unlikely prospect. We spent most of the day waiting to see if a snowplow would be able to reach us, and in the meanwhile we built igloos.
The hours passed and I was sure we had missed our flight, but eventually a snowplow did reach us, and we were told the plane was would wait for us since as a group we made up the majority of the plane! The snow plow cleared the path to the airport for us and we took off, only 8 hours behind schedule!
The town of Churchill is still recovering from this blizzard. Train service has still not been restored, and this has caused the price of food and other necessities to skyrocket. The lack of train service has had a disastrous impact on Churchill’s tourist seasons of whale watching and polar bear spotting.
I was able to understand through my visit how the town has a rich history, how how its numerous facilities make it an integral part of the Manitoba’s scientific community.
We asked Frances to write this story about the north and aerospace or aviation aspects that she observed, not knowing how the story would take shape. Well it seems to have gone very well. We could not have predicted that the storms of this past winter would have such a deleterious effect on the railway to Churchill. Yet here she was in the middle of “The Big One.” And she got to go to the Canadian Mecca for Rocketry, the Churchill Rocket Range.
Despite Frances being at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre for a writing experience, we are advised that she regularly ventured out (properly attired) in -30C weather to help retrieve “tipped-over” snowmobiles. And on that last day, she even drove a snow-plow! Now, how Canadian an experience is that, eh?
A big thank you to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre for hosting Frances and providing her an excellent context for her story writing.