Churchill is a remote town located on a vast peninsula jutting out into the Hudson Bay, and is one of the world’s best destinations for encountering Arctic wildlife. It is situated on the migration route of the local polar bear population, who hang around the peninsula at the start of every winter, waiting for the seawater to freeze. Bear sightings close to the town itself are not uncommon, and Churchill even has a "polar bear jail," where bears who persistently loiter in or near the town are kept before being released into the more distant wild. As well as bears, there are also fantastic opportunities for watching beluga whales, who move into the warmer waters of the Churchill River Estuary during the summer months. Between May and August birdwatchers flock to the town, sighting such sought-after species as the snowy owl, tundra swan, and gyrfalcon. Finally, the town is among the world’s most popular places for viewing the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights.
No roads connect Churchill to the rest of Canada. Visitors can drive to Thompson and cover the rest of the distance by train or plane from there. Alternatively, a train from Winnipeg takes about 36 hours, while the best, reasonably swift option is to fly from Winnipeg to Thompson and then take the train from there. VIA Rail connects with Churchill by train, while Calm Air and Kivalliq Air fly into the town.
October to November is the best time to see the Hudson Bay’s huge polar bear population, when thousands migrate from their summer home deep in the tundra and wait on the peninsula for the seawater to freeze, so they can head out onto the ice and hunt ringed seals, their favorite winter food. At this time, specially-built tundra buggies roam the area around Churchill, enabling tourists to view and encounter polar bears in safety. These buggies frequently spark the curiosity of the bears, who rise up on their hind feet to investigate the craft. There is also a wilderness lodge built on the bears’ migration route, and guided walks into specific areas inhabited by the bears. Outside of the winter months, boat tours from Churchill visit coastal polar bear sites, where they can also be seen swimming in the sea.
The spiralling cosmic light show of the aurora borealis is exceptionally vivid in Churchill, which claims to be one of the top three places on the planet to see the Northern Lights. The colours are clearer against a dark sky, so the sight is most resplendent in the depths of winter. Temperatures at this time frequently fall to minus 30, which, if endured with the proper equipment, can add to the intensity and atmosphere of the experience. A more comfortable alternative is to book a place in one of the warm, plexiglass aurora domes, specially constructed for watching the show. The lights are usually visible if less spectacular in summer, when the nights are shorter but warmer, and visitors can help build a bonfire and sit outside to watch the curtains of ethereal light robe and twist through the sky.
Built by the Hudson Bay Company in the early 1700s, the Prince of Wales is a massive star-shaped fortification used by the company as a base for their northern fur trade operations. Employees living in the fortification were divided into three categories – officers, tradesmen, and laborers – and, as their records show, they endured cold, smoky, and bug-ridden conditions. Close by the fort are two related historic sites that are also worth visiting. Cape Merry Battery is an artillery position situated on an outcrop of rock, where Company employees watched for French ships while keeping half an eye open for polar bears. Sloop Cove is a sheltered nook which provided a perfect wintering and mooring spot for sloops, wooden ships used in the fur trade. All three spots are located on an evocatively remote patch of bare headland, which is also great for beluga whale watching.
This small cafe is a warm and welcoming communal space in the heart of frozen Churchill. Established for 25 years, it supplies the townsfolk with their daily bread, and serves coffee, cake and a selection of hot meals to the tourists and travel guides who frequently drop by. The display case holds an array of glossy and colorful donuts, but be sure to take a peek at the hot food menu before stuffing yourself with the tempting sweet goodies.
This unique slice of Churchill lodging was hand-built by owner Wally Daudrich using logs from nearby boreal forests, and every room drips with local character. It has 33 comfortable bedrooms with satellite TV and super-fast wifi, and one of the town’s best restaurants located in the hotel itself (see above).
See Churchill, Manitoba, on the map: