There are two main reasons to visit Churchill, Man.: to see polar bears, and to ship grain to global markets.
But amid a shakeup of the Canadian grain industry, the outlook for the port on the shores of Hudson Bay is uncertain.
The first blow to hit Churchill came in 2012, when the government took away the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly on buying and selling wheat and barley in Western Canada.
The move triggered a transformation at the company, now known as CWB, as it tried to compete with global food companies that export Canadian grain. CWB began building a network of ships and terminals focused on moving Western Canadian crops through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway – not Churchill and the North.
Another challenge for Churchill came this month, with news that a U.S.-Saudi partnership called G3 Global Grain Group would become majority investor in government-controlled CWB. So far, CWB has not committed to shipping grain through the port.
Churchill is the closest – and cheapest – port to the Prairies, but the short shipping season and the connecting railway's ability to handle only smaller trains make it a port with "challenges," said Karl Gerrand, the head of G3.
"My general view on Churchill is that it's a port that has its challenges but could well be part of our plan going forward," Mr. Gerrand from Winnipeg. "It's got a short shipping window, logistics are challenging to get it up there. It's generally designed for smaller moves."
A CWB spokeswoman would not reveal information on grain shipments, but said the company planned to ship through Churchill "when it makes sense commercially."
Ottawa built the Port of Churchill in the 1930s in a nation-building exercise aimed at opening the Arctic seas to trade. It was taken over for a nominal price in 1997 by Omnitrax Inc., a Denver-based rail company that also bought the 820-kilometre Hudson Bay Railway that connects Churchill with The Pas, Man., to the south.
Those in the grain trade know Churchill as a deep sea port that can get a shipment of Prairie wheat to Europe faster and often cheaper than other Canadian marine terminals.
But due to ice, the port only is open about three months of the year, and is connected to the Prairies by a railway built on muskeg and unable to bear the weight of a typical grain train of 100 or more hopper cars.
Thanks in part to a $25-million, five-year government subsidy program announced when CWB's monopoly ended, other grain companies have been shipping though Churchill. Average yearly grain tonnage has held steady at just over 500,000 tonnes. Omnitrax has told Churchill's leaders that number is not expected to change this season.
"I'd rather see that number go up," said Mike Spence, mayor of Churchill since 1996. "You've got this year and next year and that'll be the end of the subsidy, and then what happens?"
Mr. Spence said grain shipments have fallen short of expectations in the past couple years, and he fears volumes will slip when the subsidies end in 2017. The port has imported fertilizer in recent years, and there has been talk of moving phosphate out of Saskatchewan. The development of mines in Nunavut and elsewhere in the North also pose opportunities for the port, he said, but lately the port's sole product has been grain.
Mr. Spence said he is optimistic about the future of the port, which employs 100 at its peak. But he says Omnitrax and governments need to sign customers and upgrade rail and port infrastructure if the port is to remain competitive.
The government subsidy of $9.20 a tonne can account for about 15 per cent of the cost of shipping, and has helped encourage Richardson International, Paterson Grain, Louis Dreyfus and others to ship through Churchill.
"Everybody's found some movements that are worthwhile for them. And it's largely about the nine bucks," said Mark Hemmes, president of Quorum Corp., the independent agency appointed by Ottawa to monitor the grain transportation system.
Jeffrey English, a spokesman for Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, said the program has succeeded at encouraging a range of companies to ship through Churchill, but said it is too early to say if it will be extended beyond 2017.
Since the government revoked its monopoly, CWB has transformed itself into a grain trader focused on moving wheat, canola and other crops through the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence Seaway. CWB has bought two Great Lakes ships, and acquired a network of elevators in the Prairies that feed into newly acquired port terminals in Thunder Bay, Ont., and Trois-Rivières, Que.
Bunge Ltd., which controls G3, has a port terminal in Quebec City.
Mr. Gerrand of G3 said the terminals that bookend the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence route play a "huge" role in the company's future.
Since CWB lost its monopoly, port owner Omnitrax has been wooing other grain companies, and has been shipping flax, peas and other crops. Merv Tweed, president of Omnitrax Canada, said CWB accounts for less than 10 per cent of the company's business.
"We've reached out to other shippers that might have an interest in moving product through Churchill. The Wheat Board in the past have been clients – in the last couple of years not so much. Obviously they have their own investments that they want to use as much as possible. So it's made us more aggressive on the outside and has produced a few new suppliers as well."