Churchill, Manitoba, a two-and-a-half hour flight north of Winnipeg, Manitoba’s capital city, is known around the world as polar bear central. Venture out over the tundra in specially designed vehicles for safely viewing the bears. Photographers and wildlife enthusiasts so inclined can even eat, sleep and rise right out on the capes, in the midst of the glorious bears, as hundreds of them roam the coastline every October and November awaiting the freeze of the Hudson Bay.
At some point — perhaps all at once while you kayak among beluga whales, or perhaps gradually as you zoom your Nikon in on a polar bear or some other wild and magnificent creature — but, eventually, you realize this place belongs to the wildlife.
You’re completely in their realm. There is just something very wonderful about that. Churchill, Canada’s arctic seaport on Hudson Bay, boasts some of the most unique nature experiences in the world.
Kayak or snorkel with beluga whales. Gaze in awe as polar bears spar along an ice-strewn coastline. Watch gulls soar over ocean surf. Here, on a canvas often white, colours slash across the tundra and stroke the night sky in hues from mint to blood red.
Pick your potion. Following are four perfect experiences for Churchill — accessible only by rail or air — whether you come spring, summer, winter or fall.
Spring’s Wings: Birding in Churchill
Churchill, Manitoba is well-known to bird watchers as a birding “hotspot.” On a week-long tour in June, daily guided tours and field trips allow you to see a wide variety of sub-Arctic species and to search for such rarities as the Ross’s gull and Harris’ sparrow. Unique birds common to Churchill include the Arctic loon, jaeger, willow ptarmigan and Smith’s longspur. Magnificent ice sculptures line the shore and the star-shaped Prince of Wales Fort offers top historical diversion.
Summer Unbound: Snorkelling with Whales
The Churchill River, as well as the Seal River, attracts thousands of beluga whales or “sea canaries,” so called because of the numerous high-pitched whistles and vocalizations they emit. Snow white beluga whales gracefully break the surface of the river sharing their songs via hydrophones attached to tour boats. Snorkel fans enjoy once-in-a-lifetime experiences while floating in the cool waters of the Bay and seeing a 13-foot beluga whale turn its head to get a better look.
Fall in with the Bears
Enjoy the dynamic scenery by 36-hour train ride or two-hour jet flight en route to Churchill. First, wildlife enthusiasts make an important choice between lodge- or hotel-based tours. Hotel-based tours are based in the town of Churchill and include more community-based activities such as visiting the Eskimo Museum or dog sledding. Guests are transferred to a tundra vehicle on bear-viewing days. Witness polar bears strolling along the ice-packed shoreline. Laugh as bears lie spread-eagled on an icy lake trying to cool off. Lodge-based tours are a bit of a misnomer. The “lodge” is a live-aboard row of tundra vehicles set out on the tundra miles from the town of Churchill and high off the ground safely out of reach of curious bears. You eat in a dining car, sleep in private bunks and share basic shower and washroom facilities. But, and this is a big but, you wake with the bears, who are often sparring right outside the vehicle, and see the tundra when the light is at its best.
Mounds of snow are either just that, or a snoozing curled-up bear. At night, the vehicle viewing platform becomes a backyard with a million tiny patio lights overhead.
Winter Whites, Black and Blue Nights
Discover the wilderness frontier where northern lights dance their way across serene night skies. Catch the northern lights from November to March as shifting curtains of green, yellow, red and blue move and twirl. Legend has it that if you whistle at the lights, they will dance right to the ground. For culture buffs, dog sledding and igloo building are at their peaks January to March. Trips to the Eskimo Museum, Parks Canada Visitor Centre and area gift shops round out a winter trip.