Most tour groups assemble in Winnipeg at an airport hotel — usually the Sheraton Four Points, a short walk from the main terminal — and then depart the following morning by plane to Churchill. Time constraints lead many to return by air to Winnipeg then on to their final destinations. For those with the time, a return to urbanity aboard the Hudson Bay, VIA Rail’s most northern train service, is an exciting option.
The train lumbers along the route between Churchill and Winnipeg three times a week. Just out of Churchill the lights of the town disappear giving birth to a star-filled sky and the dancing lights of the aurora borealis (northern lights). They are best viewed in late August and from December to late April.
Churchill in Summer
During the summer, a number of excursions get you up close and personal with an even larger mammal, the beluga whale. Beluga snorkeling packages, kayaking tours as well as boat and helicopter tours are available through Frontiers North and other tour operators, taking visitors over, on and in the Hudson Bay to get close to these mighty creatures.
Snorkelers have reported that the Beluga whales are curious cetaceans and on occasion come close enough so that you can reach down and touch them. It’s a good thing they are gentle: males can reach 18 feet and weigh between 2,400 and 3,500 pounds, while females can reach 13 feet in length and weigh between 1,500 and 2,600 pounds. A particularly fascinating time to be in the Hudson Bay is in late June during the peak of the belugas’ calving period. Newly born calves are about five feet and weigh approximately 180 pounds. The calves typically remain dependent on their mothers for two years.
(c) Mark Edward Harris
Perhaps the most beautifully illustrated, and informative, book on the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of the globe is “Ultima Thule” (Latin for “Furthest North”), a compilation of stories by, and about, the great explorers of the region by Jean Malaurie and published by W.W. Norton & Company.
These tales from the upper latitudes set the tone for my exploration of Churchill, on the shores of Hudson Bay in the Canadian sub-Arctic. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the great explorers during the day, but retire to a comfortable and warm bed each night. This quest led me to Frontiers North Adventures — a tour operator with a wide selection of travel opportunities in Canada’s wilderness areas.
Europeans first arrived in the Churchill area in 1619 when a Danish expedition wintered where the town would later stand. Only three of the 64 members survived the harsh conditions. The local Chipewyan and Cree peoples were much better adapted to life in this uncompromising landscape. In 1717, the Hudson’s Bay Company succeeded in building the first permanent settlement —including a log fort and trading post — which they named after John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, an ancestor of Winston Churchill. The town is still a remote outpost and is linked to the rest of Canada by rail, plane and the occasional ship. Calm Air and Kivalliq Air offer service between Winnipeg and Churchill and on to the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut.
While Churchill grew in importance as it evolved into North America’s principal Arctic Ocean seaport, it was its polar bear population that put it on the tourist map. Most travelers come to Churchill — nicknamed the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” — during the short polar-bear-viewing season from mid-October to late November. This is when the large omnivores gather at the edge of the Hudson waiting for the bay to freeze over so they can nab their favorite prey, ringed seals, from the newly formed fishing platforms.
The polar bears can be observed from the comfort of specially modified buses known as “tundra buggies.” Participants are shuttled from their respective hotels to the tundra buggy launch where they board buggies that prowl the area for wildlife. Large windows that open and an outdoor platform enable visitors to get up close and personal to the wildlife without putting themselves or the animals in harm’s way. It’s not uncommon to witness male polar bears sparring or a mother polar bear with her cubs.
While polar bears are the big stars of Churchill in late fall, other animals take center stage at other times of the year. During July and August, thousands of beluga whales move into the warmer waters of the Churchill River estuary to calf. Bird-watchers flock to Churchill from late May through August when more than 270 bird species have been recorded in the area ranging from the snowy owl to the tundra swan. The wide variety of species is due to Churchill’s being location at the juncture of three eco-regions: the boreal forest, the Arctic tundra and the Hudson Bay.
The Eskimo Museum in Churchill, Canada. The town is known as the Polar Bear capital of the world. // (c) Mark Edward Harris
It’s important to pick a tour best suited to the interests and goals of the traveler. The tours are less expensive earlier in the short polar-bear-spotting season since the bears are just beginning to arrive. Hotel-based tours offer a well-rounded program combining polar-bear-viewing with activities such as dog-sledding, a visit to the Parks Canada Interpretive Center and a slide presentation by a professional photographer. Some tours include an hour helicopter tour to Cape Churchill for a thrilling overview of the area. To be immersed in the polar bear experience, a stay at the mobile Tundra Buggy Lodge may be the best option. The lodge is transported out then assembled in areas where polar bears are known to congregate. This allows for around-the-clock bear viewing.
The most popular polar bear tours take place during the first three weeks of November and fill up quickly, so it’s vital to secure a place months in advance, ideally before the previous season’s snow has begun to thaw.