Travel, Explorer Guide to Churchill, Manitoba
Churchill, Manitoba: Polar Bears, Beluga Whales and more…
By Doreen Pendgracs
updated 8/06 by GoNOMAD Staff
Seeing polar bears up close and personal puts you in awe. They’re big, they’re beautiful and they’re something few of us will ever encounter outside of a zoo-unless you venture to the remote, northern community of Churchill, Manitoba, “The Polar Bear Capital of the World.”
You’re almost guaranteed to see your fill of Polar bears if you visit Churchill during October or November, when upwards of 300 “Lords of the North” wait along the shores of Hudson Bay for the ice to freeze, giving them open hunting season for the thousands of seals that inhabit these Arctic waters. This is the best time to see Polar bears in Churchill!
Staring a Polar bear inthe eye through the window of a tundra buggy is an adrenaline rush like no other.
But face-to-face encounters with big white bears aren’t the only reason to put Churchill on the list of great destinations.
In summer — anytime from mid-June through August — it’s Beluga whale season, when thousands of the smiling white aquatic ambassadors head to Churchill to have their young. Visitors can get up close and personal with these gentle “white dolphins” as they swim alongside the boat or zodiac-close enough to touch!
The brave-at-heart — and those with ultra warm clothing–should come in winter and catch a free show in the skies, as the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights, can be seen in the clear Churchill skies, peaking in March.
As the meeting place of three distinct geographical zones–tundra, boreal and maritime–the geological setting of Churchill is unique.
In fact, Churchill’s setting on a peninsula where the Hudson Bay meets the fresh water of the Churchill River adds to its rich offerings, and the number of state parks makes it ideal for outdoor adventurers and wildlife watchers. But Churchill isn’t strictly for nature buffs. Churchill’s aboriginal communities and history as a fur-trading post for the Hudson Bay Company means there is lots of history to check out. Fans can explore the Prince of Wales Fort — a massive stone fortress with 40-foot thick walls-where Samuel Hearne, the great explorer and fur trader, lost a battle with French invaders in 1782.
Parks Canada offers tours of the fort and has excellent videos available on the rich history of the region. There are also several other national parks and historic sites in the area. Churchill also houses the Arctic’s only remaining grain terminal and tours of this massive structure can be arranged on request. Churchill is also home to an excellent “must-see” Eskimo Museum with an abundance of artifacts from the aboriginal heritage of the Inuit, Cree, Dene and Metis people who first settled this Arctic community.
Nature or history, fall, winter, spring or summer, Churchill is an ideal destination for the adventurous traveler. In any season, three to five days is a perfect length of time to take in all the wonders of this Arctic haven. Granted, you won’t find any five-star hotels here (not even any four-stars!), but you will find plenty of stars in the clear, unobstructed skies of northern Canada.
MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS Mother Nature is the unrivaled major attraction in Churchill, from Polar bears to northern lights, this is the place to check out arctic nature. Polar Bears Probably the most unusual–and exciting thing to do is to ride a tundra vehicle onto the wild terrain in search of Polar bears. The “tundra buggy” as it’s called locally, is best described as a converted bus that moves slowly–very slowly–along the uneven terrain on rubber and chain tracks.
They move slower than molasses in January and you may bump around quite a bit, but the buggies are the only safe way to get close enough to a polar bear to see the color of his eyes. The tundra vehicles operate on a non-stop basis during busy Polar bear season and are generally included as part of the package you would book with your guide or tour operator.
In summer, Beluga whale-watching by small boat or zodiacs allows you to get close enough to touch the friendly creatures. You might also spot a polar bear or two in summer, but consider it a bonus if you do, as they spend most of their time out on the tundra sleeping, wandering along the coast or simply waiting for the return of winter.
Historical Sites Churchill is home to a number of Canada’s National Historic Sites and Parks including Cape Merry, Prince of Wales Fort and Wapusk National Park — still undeveloped with respect to tourist facilities. Parks Canada
Toll-free 1-888-773-8888, (204) 675-8863
http://www.parkscanada.pch.gc.ca/parks/main_e.htm Cultural Attractions
The major cultural attraction is Churchill’s Eskimo Museum, open year round. It is a “must see” while in town, as the museum boasts a collection of more than 800 pieces of Inuit art and 3,000 local artifacts. Allow one to two hours for your visit-more if you’re a real fan of soapstone or whale-bone carvings and aboriginal heritage. Free admission. (204) 675-2030.
Besides Polar bears, Beluga whales and northern lights, there are plenty of other outdoor activities you can arrange independently, including winter dog sledding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, hiking, canoeing and kayaking from June through September.
Snorkeling is possible during July and August. The water is cold, and a dry suit is recommended. Two tour companies offer snorkeling experiences with Beluga whales in Churchill — SeaNorth Tours and Lazy Bear Lodge Tours.
You can also bring your own equipment, as there are no rentals in Churchill. A unique reason for snorkeling in Churchill is the chance to share the pristine waters with the friendly Beluga whales, who have their young each spring in the Churchill and Seal Rivers.
You can also go SCUBA diving with a dry suit from late July to early August, but you must bring your own tanks. Tanks can be filled prior to departure for Churchill if you obtain the necessary Dangerous Goods Certification papers, or you can fill your tanks in town at the local hospital-an easier option. Beware, this option is only available to experienced divers, local guides will not take novices out to dive in the river.
ALTERNATIVES One of the best facilities for information on year-round learning and volunteering opportunities is the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. The CNSC offers independent Learning Vacations as well as Elderhostel courses. Courses on Churchill’s highlights including northern astronomy and the Aurora Borealis, cultural heritage, birding and wildlife photography are suitable for all ages. The accommodations are basic and dorm-style, but the experience is well worth a bit of roughing it.
Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC):
P.O. Box 610, Churchill, Manitoba,
Canada R0B 0E0
fax: (204) 675-2139
There are also opportunities to learn about the local aboriginal culture. Dene drumming and caribou hair tufting classes may be available at the Arctic Trading Company
Arctic Trading Company
TOURING While independent travelers can view the northern lights and Beluga whales on their own, for Polar bear watching outside of town, it’s best to take a tundra buggy or hire a guide.
Many local outfitters and tour operators provide a variety of excursions for all seasons–tundra buggies, heli-tours, hovercraft trips and historical or cultural tours–that can be booked upon your arrival or through your travel agent. Reservations are highly recommended if you’re planning to visit during peak season of October and November, but local operators will do everything in their power to accommodate drop-in requests any time of year. As with anything in this harsh and sometimes unpredictable climate, tours and activities are always held on a weather permitting basis. Most can be arranged through:
North Star Travel and Tours
Nature First Tours & Transportation
For unique snorkeling or SCUBA opportunities:
Sea North Tours Ltd
39 Franklin Street, Box 222
Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, R0B 0E0.
Lazy Bear Tours
Lazy Bear Lodge, Kelsey Blvd
There are also several specialty lodges with tours–short flights from Churchill-that are accessible by helicopter or small plane. A full list is available from the Churchill Chamber of Commerce or Travel Manitoba.
offers seasonal eco-tourism adventures March through November.
June through September, North Knife Lake Lodge offers the region’s best in fly-in fishing for northern pike, lake trout, walleye, whitefish and Arctic grayling.
September through February, a variety of hunting opportunities–including geese, ptarmigan, and caribou–are available in the region through Dymond Lake Lodge
For other lodges and tour operators, check the Town of Churchill website
townofchurchill.ca or GoNOMAD.com’s listings.
Accommodations in Churchill are limited, so it’s best to book well in advance–even a year ahead–if you plan to visit during peak bear season of October or November. For a complete list of options, contact Travel Manitoba or check polarbearalley.com.
Accommodations range from basic rooms at the Iceberg Inn to the cozy, log-cabin atmosphere of the Lazy Bear Lodge, to fully-equipped, two story suites at the Aurora Inn. Average rate is $70-100 CDN per night from December-September and $100-200 per night during the peak polar bear season, (October/November).
The Polar Inn & Suites operates a nice place conveniently located in town
Clean spacious rooms are available at the centrally located Tundra Inn which also offers an adjacent dining room and lounge.
The Bear Country Inn offers a nice atmosphere and is priced right for the budget traveler.
Fully-equipped suites are available at the centrally located Aurora Inn
Everything is casual in Churchill; leave your dinner jacket and fancy clothes at home. Menus often feature locally caught fish or meats, but prices are a little higher than you might expect because everything else has to be brought in by air or rail.
A great, casual place for people watching is the local favorite, Gypsy’s Bakery, with European-style pastry, a deli, and a full liquor license. The Reef at the Seaport Hotel also offers full-service dining as well as the Captain’s Cove lounge for a bit of nightlife.
During the peak bear season of October and November, it’s best to make a reservation, or dine early or late to avoid any lineups. Gypsy Bakery and the Reef are open year-round, the rest are open from May to December.
You can also purchase grocery and sundry items at The Northern Store which carries a limited supply of everything from eggs to clothing and housewares. Watch out though, the Northern Store closes at 6 pm (except Fridays at 8 pm) and is not open Sundays.
Don’t come to Churchill looking for extensive shopping opportunities. There is little other than typical souvenirs and local handcrafts. But those looking for aboriginal art will be in for a pleasant surprise. Fabulous works of soapstone and whalebone carvings, as well as beautifully beaded moccasins and mukluks, are easy to find. The Crossroads Cultural Arts Co-op is a locally-run, non profit coop featuring artwork and crafts produced in Churchill.
The Eskimo Museum, Northern Images and Arctic Trading Company all have a wide selection of soapstone artwork, prints, books and souvenirs. Wapusk General Store, located in a beautifully-crafted log building, focuses more on silver jewelry and glasswear.
HAPPENINGS There aren’t too many cultural events going on in Churchill, but three major festivals are celebrated: the Aurora Winter Fest, held mid-March; the July 1st Canada Day Celebrations; and Parks Day, celebrated each July 16th at national parks and historic sites across Canada.
The Aurora Winter Fest is held the middle weekend in March. In addition to the free show put on by the northern lights, this winter festival offers an assortment of activities including dog sledding, trapping events such as log splitting, moose calling, snowshoe racing, fireworks and the best in northern entertainment.
The Hudson Bay Quest is a 250-mile long dog sled race between Churchill, Manitoba and Arviat, Nunavut. It is held in conjunction with the Aurora WinterFest and includes a musher’s feast and start/finish line events.
On July 1st—Canada Day–a truly spectacular event takes place in Churchill. In teams of four, town’s people and visitors alike don crazy costumes and celebrate the coming of summer with the ‘Bay dip’ into the frigid waters of Hudson Bay. Anyone can enter. Canada Day celebrations also include a parade, baseball tournament, puppet show and an evening dance followed by fireworks.
Canada’s annual Parks Day, held each July 16th is a special event during which national parks and historic sites put on historically themed skits highlighting the rich heritage of each region. Details change each year. Check with Parks Canada for further details.
Churchill is a place of extremes. There’s lots of snow that stays around up to 10 months of the year, with July and August being the only time you’re pretty much safe from the white stuff. Temperatures in this frozen land can be deadly–even during what’s considered spring in most parts of the world. An insulated parka or jacket with hood, thermal snow boots, thick mitts or heavy gloves, a wool hat or toque, long underwear, and a balaclava or thermal shield to completely cover your face and neck are essential for visits anytime from late October until April.
Travelers can rent most of these items from various merchants in town, including the Polar Inn
1-877-765-2733, (204) 675-8878. During July and August, temperatures can soar above 30 C (90 F), so it’s best to arrive prepared with layers of clothing suitable for spring through fall weather. Bring a hat, shades, shorts-and plenty of bug repellent. Hiking boots and sunglasses are recommended anytime of year, as Churchill is sunny whether the outside temperature is 60 below zero or 60 above. For current weather conditions and forecasts: Environment Canada
GETTING THERE There are only three ways to get to Churchill–by air, by train or by boat. No roads lead to Churchill, and if you wanted to go driving around it, you would have a short trip–the roads end just outside town. Unless you come by boat, Winnipeg–the capital city of Manitoba–will be your transfer point for travel to Churchill from both North American and global destinations.
If arriving by air, it’s a two and a half-hour flight from Winnipeg to Churchill. It’s a 20 to 30 minute drive from the airport to town, depending on the weather. Most tour operators and facilities will pick you up at the airport. Air travel is via Calm Air, a regional partner of Canadian Airlines. Average fare is $900-1000 CDN round-trip from Winnipeg, with 14-day advance booking.
Call toll-free within Canada: 1-800-665-1177
From the U.S.: 1-800-426-7000; (204) 675-2913.
If your destination is the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, it’s a 20-30 minute drive in the opposite direction from the town site. In winter, the road often gets blown over with snowdrifts and travel may be impossible until the weather clears or the road has been plowed.
Many accommodations offer pickup from the airport or train depot. A cab to/from the airport runs $20 CDN round-trip plus tax, and $10 CDN round-trip plus tax to/from the train station.
It’s a 36-hour train ride from Winnipeg to Churchill. This northerly stretch of VIA rail stops at many small communities along the way as it navigates carefully through the bog. Many travelers enjoy the leisurely pace as an opportunity to interact with northern residents.
The train station is right in town, so in pleasant weather, it’s an easy walk down the street to many of the in-town accommodations. However, you should expect the train to be late! Scheduled to arrive at 8:30 am, it often drifts into town around 11 am or even 2-3 pm. A one-day trip by train is no longer recommended; if you are traveling by train schedule at least two or three days in town.
Call VIA Rail toll-free at: 1-888-VIARAIL or direct to Churchill at (204) 675-2149
Web site: viarail.ca
Travelers from the U.S. can book through Amtrak. Average fare is $300 CDN round-trip from Winnipeg. Roomettes or bedrooms can run $700-800. If you want to drive, the best option is to travel to Thompson, Manitoba. Store your vehicle at McCreedy Campground, which is secure. You can also park at the town hall, but vehicles there have been vandalized. Then travel overnight from Thompson to Churchill by train. Average economy fare is $120 roundtrip.
(Thanks to Debbie Wappula of Minnesota for tips on safe parking in Thompson. She says her friends who parked at the town hall returned to “an RV with broken windows, a flat tire, and spray paint,” and she added the lady at McCreedy Campground “put the ‘friend’ in ‘friendly Manitoba’!!”)
While there are several whale-watching boats in town, there is only one cruise ship currently serving Churchill during the summer. CruiseNorth makes a stop to load/offload around the last week of July.
There is no public transportation and no airport car rentals, however, there are two local taxi companies, Churchill Taxi (675-2345) and Kookum’s Taxi. Both provide local transportation and area tours on demand.
Pickup trucks can be rented in town from Tamarack Rentals–for the truly adventurous. It’s a good way to get out of town, but there is only about 30 kilometers of road system, some of which is only accessible in the summer. Fortunately, most hotels, lodges, tour operators and other facilities will pick you up, and most things in town are within walking distance.
There are two local tour companies offering day trips of the Churchill area. North Star Tours (204) 675-2356, and Nature First Tours (204) 675-2147. North Star focuses more on cultural and historical tours while Nature First mixes hiking and driving.
There is one bank in Churchill, the Royal Bank. Its hours are 11 am – 4 pm Monday through Friday. It is centrally located in the BayPort Plaza, between the Seaport Hotel and the post office. There is an ATM available in the BayPort Plaza, it is open from 10 am – 9 pm daily throughout the peak tourist season. The Plaza is closed on Sundays from November through May. Individual ATMs are also available at the Seaport Hotel, Royal Canadian Legion, Northern Store and Nanuk Entertainment in the Town Centre complex.
There are no cybercafes in town, but there are several computer terminals at the public library available for public use. Check the Town Centre complex for library hours.
The Seaport Hotel offers free internet use in the lobby, primarily for guests but you could probably sneak in. Several local hotels will also provide internet access upon request.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
The Churchill Regional Health Authority is a 31-bed hospital located in the Town Centre complex. It is not equipped to perform any surgeries, so patients are assessed on site, and then if it cannot be handled locally, they are flown to the city of Winnipeg, (2.5 hours by air.) The Churchill Regional Health Authority has an on-site pharmacy, as well as a dental and medical clinic. The hospital welcomes calls from anyone intending on visiting Churchill who may have specific questions about their health or medical requirements.
Churchill Regional Health Authority Patient Services
(204) 675-8319 It’s a good idea to bring a full supply of any medication you may require during your visit–and remember to pack it in your carry-on luggage. Checked baggage may be bumped on its way to Churchill, depending on the aircraft used for your specific flight.
toll-free 800-665-0040 (extension ABO)
(204) 945-3777, ext. ABO
Town of Churchill
Churchill Chamber of Commerce
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