A bubbling noise rose up behind me, the gurgle breaking the staccato tempo of the waves gently lapping against the side of my kayak. I whipped my head around, craning my neck just in time to see the snow-white mound of a beluga’s back just as it slipped back under the water’s surface, mere inches from my paddle.
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Glancing back towards the bow of my boat, sunbeams seemed to dance off the shimmering surface of the Churchill River, and I suddenly realized the rays were reflecting off of an entire pod of whales in the distance. A trio of moms were headed straight towards me, their spray shooting up into the bluebird sky as a pair of brown calves followed closely behind.
Magical moments like this are why a trip to Churchill, Manitoba is considered one of Canada’s top destinations for wildlife encounters—and I haven’t even told you about the polar bears yet.
Things to do in Churchill Manitoba
The rugged town of Churchill is home to about 900 hardy residents, and nestled on the shores of the Hudson Bay on the edge of the Arctic. Once a bustling trading post, it’s now better known as the gateway to unforgettable adventures like northern lights viewing, paddling with belugas and walking with polar bears.
A number of outfitters operate day trips and multi-day guided tours around the area, including Frontiers North Adventures who I explored with.
Their year-round itineraries highlight the best experiences in every season: winter trips showcase northern pastimes like dog sledding and photographing the northern lights, spring is ideal for birding, summer brings both belugas and bears, while fall is best for polar bear sightings.
Nature and the elements dictate every part of life around these parts, where most people work in tourism or as researchers. There are just a handful of hotels and restaurants, a few souvenir shops and the Northern Store which is a one-stop shop for everything from furniture to clothing to pricey groceries.
All goods need to be flown in or shipped by train to Churchill, as the challenging terrain makes it hard to produce food—our Tundra Buggy driver Jim Baldwin quipped that last year’s growing season “happened on a Thursday.” His colleague Joe Stover, a lifelong Churchill resident, joked that the misshapen, windswept trees where the branches all face the same direction are “perfect for Christmas time, since you can just shove them in the corner.”
Despite its compact size there are quite a few things to do in Churchill, like touring the community centre which houses the school, library, hockey rink and playground, and visiting the remnants of the Miss Piggy plane crash that happened back in the ‘70s (don’t worry, everyone survived).
The Itsanitaq Museum (which translates to ‘things of the past’) celebrates Inuit art and culture, displaying intricate soapstone carvings, a dancing bear made of marble, ivory and whale bones.
Churchill’s streetscapes and industrial buildings come to life with brightly-painted murals, which are the brainchild of Winnipeg’s Kal Barteski who spearheaded a project to work with other artists to beautify the town. The result of the 2017 project is larger-than-life canvases on everything from apartment buildings to storage units, a welcome addition to the otherwise barren surroundings.
One of the most famous murals is Barteski’s piece on the Polar Bear Holding Facility, AKA Polar Bear Jail. When a bear has been hanging around town too long, it’s trapped and brought into one of the cells where it’s held for 30 days without food to discourage it from coming back (polar bears can fast for several weeks), then released up north or onto the ice.
About 50 polar prisoners end up here each year, and the program has been extremely successful at mitigating encounters.
Polar bears in Churchill
Bear safety is a big deal around these parts; despite how lumbering and large the animals are it turns out they’re fast, good at hiding among rocks and often wander close to town looking for food. “This is polar bear country, we just live in it,” explained our driver Nikki Clace when she picked up our group from the airport.
Warning signs are everywhere reminding people to stay alert, vehicles and homes are left unlocked in case someone needs a quick escape, and an alarm sounds every night at 10 p.m. as a signal to head indoors.
Despite the potential dangers, thousands of people make the trip up to Churchill every year, hoping for a glimpse of the bears which are so iconic that they grace the Canadian Toonie.
Fortunately, run-ins are rare thanks to the town’s bear monitors, and the guides at companies like Frontiers North are mostly highly-trained locals who make safety a top priority, even arranging armed escorts during beach walks just in case.
Visiting Churchill with Frontiers North Adventures
I timed my trip for summer in hopes of seeing belugas, polar bears and the vibrant purple fireweed which blooms in July and August, banking on the fact that the temperatures would be much more pleasant than the -30°C that it can drop down to during winter.
It was still quite chilly in late July with highs of around 10 degrees, so plenty of layers, a warm coat, hat and gloves are recommended—and of course, bug spray. This is Manitoba, after all.
Our group of 18 people on Frontiers North Adventures’ Belugas, Bears and Blooms itinerary ranged in age from 10 to 74, and the variety of excursions and limited fitness required for a trip to Churchill makes it a great fit for multi-generational family travel.
The trip was full of activities, big meals and a bit of downtime which provided a good pace, alternating between adventurous outings and more relaxed sightseeing from a boat or bus. Free time to explore town and a guided walk up to the Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site were on the agenda, along with a fun dog carting excursion with Indigenous-owned Wapusk Adventures lead by the wildly-entertaining Dave Daley.
Daley founded the Hudson Bay Quest dog sled race, and his love for his animals was clear as he shared stories about what sort of training and endurance is involved in racing, before harnessing them up to a cart so we could enjoy an exhilarating ride around his rural property.
Churchill Tundra Buggy tours
A highlight of our Churchill adventure was when we piled onto a giant Tundra Buggy, a customized all-terrain vehicle that’s so rugged it can even drive through water.
Jim hopped behind the wheel and provided colourful commentary during the three-hour trip, cracking jokes like “you won’t hear a ptarmigan go to the bathroom, because the ‘p’ is silent,” as we peered out the panoramic windows at the likes of caribou, sandhill cranes, a bald eagle he calls Ed, pacific loons and even an Arctic Fox snacking on a snow goose.
Churchill polar bear tours and beluga spotting
Our first polar bear sighting happened later that day on a zodiac boat tour with Sea North Tours, as we headed into the Hudson Bay. More than 57,000 beluga whales make their way into these waters each year, and about 4,000 of them end up in the Churchill River Estuary which makes them easy to spot.
In fact, we were able to see their white backs arching out of the water from the shoreline, and the viewings got even better as our boat cruised into the bay. The whales were attracted to the rumbles and bubbles created in our wake, and the curious creatures swam right up beside us, their humongous bodies gliding along just under the water’s surface as we made our way towards a nearby coast.
Dozens of them came up to play, and our entire group squealed with delight at every sighting, constantly swiveling our heads in every direction to try and catch glimpses.
And that’s when we saw them.
As we neared a craggy shoreline, three unmistakable white figures loomed ahead. A trio of polar bears, lounging on huge boulders and soaking up the sun.
Everyone on board gasped with excitement; polar bear sightings aren’t guaranteed in Churchill during the summer, so we knew how lucky we were to get to see the majestic animals up close. We stared at them, mesmerized, as two of the bears decided to cool off by taking a dip in the arctic waters.
They plunged in together and paddled around seemingly unaware of the boats of tourists bobbing in the waves nearby, and as if the moment wasn’t already magical enough a beluga suddenly rose up between us.
It was the perfect Churchill moment, the ultimate display of nature in one of Canada’s most wild and remote destinations.
If you travel to Churchill Manitoba:
How to book: There are a few tour operators including Frontiers North, Lazy Bear Expeditions and Churchill Wild that organize complete Churchill tours which typically include lodging, food, activities and flights from Winnipeg. It’s also possible to do a self-guided option by arranging your own hotel in Churchill and booking day tours through local companies.
What to pack: Frontiers North has packing lists for every season, and what you’ll need to bring varies greatly depending on when you visit. Even if you go to Churchill during summer, be sure to pack lots of warm clothes, waterproof/wind resistant gear and a toque as it can be quite cool especially at night.
Globe Guide explored Churchill as a guest of Frontiers North Adventures and Travel Manitoba. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.
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