Churchill, an isolated town in Manitoba’s northern Hudson Bay coastline, is a magnet for outdoor adventurers and nature lovers. Experiencing Churchill’s natural wonder triumvirate — swimming with belugas, chasing the Northern Lights and seeing polar bears spar — is possible on the same trip, depending on the season. But if you don’t see all three phenomena, trust us, after one visit you’ll want to return to this frontier town anyway. Churchill has distinct offerings each winter, spring, summer and fall.
Wildlife to see: Beluga whales
Best time to go: July to August
Summer in Churchill welcomes droves of a white mammal . . . but it’s not what you’re thinking. The western Hudson Bay population of beluga whales is estimated at 58,000, and thousands of those enter the nearby Churchill and Seal estuaries for feeding and breeding. Soon distant squeaks and whistles are heard, and then out of the depths a ghostly beluga whale brushes past or slows to check you out. Jump in a kayak to paddle out towards Hudson Bay. Gasp when you realize those whitecaps are actually a pod of belugas heading towards you.
There are three great tours you still have time to catch. The Summer Rail and Road Trip from Frontiers North Adventures lets you take a scenic drive up to Thompson and then hop a train the rest of the way to Churchill where you can experience beluga whale viewing, a Tundra Buggy tour and dog carting in the boreal forest. Heartland International Travel and Tours offers paddle boarding with beluga whales with Sea North Tours and a whirlwind tour of the town. The Beluga Whale Dream Tour from Lazy Bear Expeditions offers a beluga whale boat tour and cultural and heritage tours of Churchill.
Wildlife to see: Polar Bears
Best time to go: July to November
The polar bear ambles closer and your heart begins to race. Emotions run the gamut: you have the urge to flee, but you’re paralyzed in awe. Is something so serene really that vicious? Locking eyes with a polar bear in the wild will transform you, and Churchill is the most accessible place in the world to view them.
Churchill is known as the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ and the type of backdrop you wish to see polar bears against will dictate the time of year you go. If you dream of seeing polar bears in a snowy environ, head north in October to November. This is when Hudson Bay begins to freeze over and the polar bear party heats up. Dozens and dozens of bears congregate along the coastline, just outside of town limits, eager to socialize, spar with other bears, and get out on the ice to dine on seals. Wildlife enthusiasts view bears from the safety of massive tundra vehicles with companies like Frontiers North Adventures and Great White Bear Tours, while thrill-seekers can safely walk ground-level with bears at isolated tundra lodges with Churchill Wild.
If you shun cold weather, viewing polar bears in the summer will be more your comfort level. July and August is becoming more popular among travellers to see polar bears, but typically you have to head way far out of town if you want to see polar bears. In summer, there are fewer opportunities to do so than in the fall. Lazy Bear Lodge’s Ultimate Bears & Belugas Summer Adventure offers a full-day boat tour up the Hudson Bay coast to infamous Hubbard Point, where multiple polar bears dip in the water to cool off or roll in the pink fireweed onshore. Churchill Wild offers summer polar bear viewings at two of their wilderness eco lodges. Around town, summer bears are often solitary and low-key — you may spot them snoozing in the rocks along the coast and living off the fat reserves they accumulated in winter from hunting seals on the ice.
Sight to see: Northern Lights
Best time to go: February to March
It’s 2 a.m. and -20 degrees Celsius outside. The northern sky is clear and the darkness thick. A fluorescent green swirl unfurls across the black. Suddenly, it’s as though someone flipped on the light switch, and the entire sky illuminates with ethereal sheets of emerald green. Churchill is one of the best places on earth for viewing Aurora Borealis because of its location directly under the aurora oval. Mother Nature can perform any night of the year, but midwinter has the clearest skies to maximize your chances. Choose your viewing style: get a 360-degree view under an aurora dome at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre; recline your chair in the custom-designed Aurora Pod; or view from the observation deck of a warm Tundra Buggy on the frozen Churchill River. Specialized aurora photography outings for independent travellers are available with Nanuk Operations during their award-winning Nights Under Lights experience in the boreal forest, and Discover Churchill’s spectacular Northern Lights tours.
Wildlife to see: Birds
Best time to go: May to June
Pack your binoculars and field guide. More than 250 species of Arctic birds and ducks nest or pass over the Churchill River estuary on the coast of Hudson Bay on their annual spring migration. Guided land tours from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) take you to local haunts to catch glimpses of red-throated loons, arctic terns, eiders, sanderlings, plovers, long-tailed jaegers, snow geese and gulls. The most elusive on the list is the rare Ross’s gull. CNSC’s daily outings allow you to see a wide variety of these bird species, led by a birding expert with decades of experience to maximize every opportunity to get out and witness the wonderful avian fauna of Churchill. CNSC offers a variety of learning vacation experiences to maximize your visit to Churchill.
Wherever you travel in Manitoba, please remember to stay safe by gathering in group sizes in accordance with public health guidelines, staying home if you’re sick, wearing a mask when required, and getting vaccinated.
— For more Manitoba travel ideas please visit www.travelmanitoba.com