Churchill – Town on Hudson Bay, Best Known for its Polar Bears During Fall Season!
Churchill, Manitoba – it’s Canada’s only Arctic seaport, with an interesting history that goes back well beyond the fur trade. It’s well known for its polar bear population, in fact it’s called the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”! Plus it is on the list of terrific holiday destinations for numerous outdoor adventures like kayaking and hiking, and a hot spot for bird watching and beluga whale watching. Come see the Northern Lights, taste the incredible local Arctic Char, and get the photo opportunities of a lifetime in this Canadian northern wilderness destination!
The first thing you’ll need to do when planning your Churchill, Manitoba adventures is planning how you’re going to actually get to Churchill. It’s not as simple as driving there – there are no roads that lead to Churchill! It’s technically possible to ride the train there, but it costs about as much as flying in. Attempting a trek to Churchill isn’t advised; not only is it a long and remote endeavor resulting in a hefty price tag of a rescue should you become lost or in any danger, but you are also facing polar bears and the legendary black flies and mosquitoes that will eat you alive before the polar bears even have a chance.
You can fly into Churchill any season of the year. The available airlines that fly to Churchill include Calm Air International LP, and you can reach them at (800) 839-2256. Make sure to book your flights well in advance of your departure date, particularly during the fall season, and keep in mind that a trip to Churchill from Winnipeg is roughly two hours long. For local air charters in Churchill you can always contact Hudson Bay Helicopters at (204) 675-2575.
If you’re interested in taking the trail, the Via Rail Canada train leaves from Union Station in Winnipeg for Churchill every Sunday and Tuesday morning at 9:00 a.m. and makes its arrival in Churchill every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, departing Churchill the same day. The train is a relaxing way to travel but can cost about as much as a flight to Churchill and takes about two days of travel time. Some people prefer this method of getting to Churchill, making the journey a part of the holiday. The train features a dining lounge where you can socialize – or not. There are also layovers in The Pas, Thompson and Gillam – not terribly long layovers, but long enough to get out and walk around for a little change of scenery. The train personnel will let you know exactly how long the stop will be, allowing you the opportunity to stretch your legs a bit and visit a local establishment for a drink.
Of course, once you get to Churchill you’ll want to check into your accommodation before setting out on some great white northern adventures. Places like the Seaport Hotel at 299 Kelsey Boulevard, Churchill, Manitoba come recommended. It includes everything you’d expect from a small hotel at a decent price, and it’s well located within Churchill.
If you’re looking for something with a bit more character, try the Lazy Bear Lodge. Located at 313 Kelsey Blvd in Churchill, the Lazy Bear Lodge is a charming log cabin with all the characteristics you would hope to have in a “rustic” style vacation stay in Canada’s north. Lots of handcrafted furniture, comfort food, and big warm wood stoves await you at the Lazy Bear Lodge, a perfect home base for a polar bear tour.
If you want to go all in, get the ultimate Churchill polar bear experience and stay on board the Frontiers North Tundra Buggy Lodge! Bringing you out into the heart of polar bear country, these tundra buggies are fantastically designed and provide you with an unbeatable immersive experience into the north. On a clear night the northern lights will dance across the sky as the chef prepares regional cuisine and hearty favourites. The accommodation units, which go by the names “Hearne” and “La Perouse” are named after two important figures in Churchill’s history. These units offer both upper and lower sleeping berths, each with a window so you can spot polar bears right from your own sleeping quarters! The berths have a reading light and four 110-volt electrical outlets, and you’ll be sleeping on a standard twin sized coil mattress.
The lodge is on wheels, and more than five and a half feet off the ground, making it safe from the curious polar bears. Since the lodge is the only building around, the polar bears always want to come check things out. The lodge is completely self contained with no food, water or waste touching the ground, so no free snacks for the polar bears – and with good reason. Feeding the polar bears is illegal, and you can land yourself in a heap of trouble and also get yourself fined $15,000. Since polar bears are so deadly, no one wants them learning to associate humans with free handouts. An encounter with a polar bear outside of the Tundra Buggy is dangerous enough already – in fact, Churchill has procedures that are followed any time a polar bear is spotted within town and it’s taken pretty seriously.
Polar bear attacks are a very real possibility when visiting Churchill, so measures are put into place to decrease the chances that you’ll become a polar bear’s dinner. You can reduce the chance of a polar bear attack by avoiding carrying food or other items that smell strong, by staying aware of your surroundings, by carrying pepper spray or a firearm or other non-lethal bear deterrents such as flares, “bear bangers” (like a flare that makes a loud gunshot sound, aimed into the air – not at the bear). Camping in areas with polar bear activity isn’t advised but in the event that you are sleeping outside overnight you’ll need to set up a trip wire alarm system and set a watch. Some campers have electric fences they surround their site with. Always travel in a group of two or more, and if a bear approaches it’s advised to stay together.
During the times of the Churchill area’s Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders, the issue of polar bears was dealt with promptly by shooting any bears that came near. As brutal as that seems by today’s standards in an age when we hear about the majestic bear and its endangered habitat, you would only have to lose one friend or family member to a bloody bear attack to have zero qualms about firing at any bear that came within a mile of your camp. Fortunately the issue of polar bear activity is dealt with today in ways that allow both bears and humans to exist in relative peace, sharing the north.
Instead of shooting them on sight, a much different course of action is taken. Tranquilizing the polar bears isn’t a good idea since the drugged bears usually end up staggering away out of sight and then dozing it off until they wake up annoyed and still relatively close by. So before tranquilizing any problem bears, a team will first try to convince the bear to keep moving along. If anyone in Churchill spots a bear near town, they dial 204-675-BEAR, alerting the bear patrol. Immediately the team will arrive in pickups with large spotlights, warning anyone who happens to be outdoors that there is a polar bear in that area. They’ll do their best to monitor the situation and discourage the bear from getting any closer, sending it back the way it came. If that doesn’t work, they will tranquilize it. But what do you do with a tranquilized bear if it’s only going to cause more problems when it wakes up? The answer is: put it into polar bear jail!
In 1982, Manitoba Conservation constructed a holding facility to place the problem bears in, bears who strayed too close to town during the fall migration and would not leave. Instead of shooting the bears, the highly successful Polar Bear Alert Program has reduced instances of dangerous polar bear-human encounters. If you’re visiting Churchill you’ll be urged to be on the alert during polar bear season, ready to notify someone if a bear is spotted. The polar bear “jail” is a large old aircraft hangar near the airport, reinforced with a lot of steel and containing a few aggressive 1200 pound polar bears who just couldn’t be convinced to keep out of town. As angry as the bears might be about being captured and held in the facility, it’s considerably better than the alternative. The bears are cared for, and once the bay freezes over the polar bear “wardens” tranquilize them once again before air lifting them by helicopter roughly three river systems to the north of the town – just enough distance to keep them from wandering right back into Churchill again.
Another large animal also attracts visitors to Churchill each year: the beluga whale. Belugas whales continue to enchant people with their big happy whale faces, canary bird sounding call, shimmering white skin that lights up the sea around them – it’s no wonder they’re deemed one of the “cutest” creatures around. The west Hudson Bay beluga whale population is one of the country’s seven, returns fom the winter seasons spent at the Arctic ice cap to have their calves in the Churchill river bed. You can spot a lot of whales during this time, as the river is filled with them. Boats carefully navigate the waters carrying loads of tourists toting fancy camera equipment, hoping to catch some great shots of these adorable creatures. As many as three thousand whales come to the river every summer, making it the perfect place to come see the spectacular wildlife that exists around Churchill Manitoba.
Beluga whale sight seeing tours are offered through a number of tour operators such as www.churchillnaturetours.com featuring beluga whales and wildflowers during the months of July and August. Lazy Bear Lodge, the cozy accommodations described above, also offer a number of tours including beluga sight seeing.
While you’re visiting Churchill, make sure to spend some time visiting the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. The CNSC is a non profit independent research station that has situated itself along the coast of the beautiful Hudson Bay. Take advantage of the nature study tours this facility offers, including polar bear and beluga tours, wildflower tours and northern lights nights. Qualified instructors lead courses, and the proceeds go towards furthering research and education in the Canadian sub-arctic. The Churchill Northern Studies Centre work hard to support school and youth group visits, hosting travelers coming to study and learn, offering university credit courses and providing ecological research initiatives. Come for a facility tour, just call ahead at 204-675-2307or visit them at www.churchillscience.ca. You won’t regret making the trip to incredible Churchill!
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