Small Town in the Arctic: Churchill, Manitoba

Churchill, Manitoba
Some 850 residents make their home in Churchill.

I’ve walked up and down Kelsey Boulevard so many times that I’m beginning to wear down the pavement. Kelsey is the main street here in Churchill, Manitoba. In fact, it’s the only paved street, and to get anywhere in this Canadian town, it usually involves a trek down Kelsey.

Although I came to Churchill to write about beluga whales (see Snorkeling with Belugas), my main destination so far has been Gypsy’s Café, a favorite local hang-out just off the road. Like most of the buildings in Churchill, the Café doesn’t look like much – a metal building painted orange and tan – yet it’s always filled with people.

When we first arrived at Gypsy’s, everyone turned to stare at my friend, Heike, and me as we walked in. After all, it was summertime, and most of the tourists were gone. But we didn’t mind the curiosity. Instead, we dug into our tasty food and wondered about a big paper sign on the wall that read, “Fruit in on Thursday. Place your orders now.”

It was worth coming back on Thursday, we decided, just to see what kind of fruit showed up.

But the food was so good at Gypsy’s that we didn’t wait until Thursday to go back. We showed up for lunch the very next day. This time, we were greeted as if we’d been in Churchill all along – just two more souls that the wind had blown to this land in the frozen North.

There are two things, though, to keep in mind about small towns. The first is that there are no secrets. Imagine our surprise when we actually received a phone call at Gypsy’s during our second visit to the café! The caller, a scientist we had wanted to interview, had been told we were there and wanted to meet up. Word travels fast in small towns.

The second thing to remember is that you’re going to see the same people over and over – which we learned was a pleasant thing.

By day three of our visit, we were already bumping into locals we had met on days one and two. First, we ran into Kristin, our fun kayaking guide, and joined her for lunch – at Gypsy’s.

Later, as we walked once again up Kelsey to our hotel, we met up with the archives librarian, who was out walking her dog. “Did we need anything else from the library?” she inquired. We assured her that all was well.

Even the cashier at the Northern, the only grocery in town, knew us on sight by day three. It was there, in line to buy some apple juice, that we were treated to the latest local gossip – one of the local park rangers (yup, by now we knew who she was) had sadly lost her dog to a polar bear.

The only person we didn’t bump into was the mayor, Mike Spence. Though we looked for him all over town, hoping to get a short interview, we kept missing him by a hair.

“I just saw him on his bike,” one person told us. “No, he was heading over to his restaurant,” another said.

It turns out that “mayor” is just one of Mike’s jobs. He also co-owns the Sea Port Hotel, the Watchee Lodge and Tamarac Rentals, which does vehicle rentals. With so many places to be, it’s no wonder the man is hard to track down.

Many of the other locals work two or three jobs, as well. Karla is just one example. Like many of the other 850 Churchillians, she moved here from Winnipeg. Now she works as the local probation officer; other days she works as a bartender and a waitress.

“I was wondering who you were,” Karla told us when we met. “At first, when I saw you on Kelsey Boulevard, I thought you were flight attendants. But when you stayed the next day, I knew you were tourists.”

Yup, there are no secrets here.

We met up with Karla and kayaking guide Kristin at the Sea Point bar our last night in Churchill. The librarian had recommended we go there, as it was “the night spot for young people your age.”

We were introduced to several people already there, some who worked for the town government (staff of 30); others who just come to Churchill during the summer and polar bear season, then move south to Winnipeg to wait out the winter.

Over drinks, they talked of life in Churchill – snowy landscapes, room to breathe, polar bears and star-filled nights. And, lamented one of the local girls, very FEW available men.

By the time the sun had finally gone down, around 10 p.m., Heike and I were beginning to wish we could stay longer in Churchill. It seemed a shame to leave just as we had gotten to know people.

“Don’t worry,” said Karla as we gave our goodbyes. “You’ll be back; everybody comes back.”

Then, as a final parting gift from this northern land, eerie lights appeared in the sky as we trudged sadly back down Kelsey. The green and white lines of the Northern Lights danced in waves, and then moved slowly across the sky before gradually disappearing. It seemed a fitting end to our evening.

There was time for one more doughnut down at Gypsy’s that next morning before our flight left. But just as we were leaving for the airport, we got a phone call. It was the mayor! He had heard from someone last night that we were looking for him.

Five minutes later, Mike Spence appeared at Gypsy’s. He grabbed a cup of coffee and joined us, talking of Churchill’s past and future.

During the Cold War, he said, the Americans had a base here. But they eventually moved out and the Canadian military moved in. Then in 1974, the military pulled out altogether, leaving a handful of locals and hundreds of polar bears.

And that was just fine. “We’ve been guilty in the past of not knowing what we have here,” Mike said. “But we know now, and we’re moving in a positive direction. Our jewels are the beluga whales, the polar bears and the Northern Lights.”

“And the people,” I decided, as we told Mike “goodbye” and headed to the tiny airport.

It’s true that I came to Manitoba to see whales and Northern Lights, but in the end, it’s the people of Churchill who will make me come back.



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