There is a place in the northern region of Manitoba that will make you feel as though you are on a different planet. Exploring the foreign tundra brings you face to face with this area’s most famous attraction, the mighty polar bear.
Known as the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill is located 1,100 km from Winnipeg. For years, nature lovers from Toronto to Tokyo have been flying to this remote part of Canada during the months of October and November to watch polar bears in their natural element as they prepare to launch themselves onto the Hudson Bay once it freezes over.
While the Fall is Churchill’s hallmark busy season I strongly suggest planning your trip in the summer months as there are so many more things to see and do in the region when the weather is warm (and seriously who wants to fly up to the Arctic to see snow, I get enough of that at home all winter thank you!)
On my recent trip to Churchill this past August I saw a handful of polar bears (roaming the spongy tundra, tip toeing across rocky shore and swimming off the coast of Nunavut), enjoyed up-close-and-personal adventures with thousands of friendly Beluga whales (who come here each summer to feed and birth a new generation), mush with enthusiastic sleigh dogs, jaw drop at the awe inspiring Northern Lights, drive a massive tundra buggy and comfortably adventure outdoors to explore an old shipwreck, plane crash and ancient fort.
So how do you get way up there? From Winnipeg, Manitoba’s landscape shifts from prairie, to parkland, to boreal forest to tundra if you chose to hop on Via Rail’s two and half day long train ride north. Or you can enjoy incredible aerial views of Manitoba’s coastline along the Hudson Bay on descent after a short flight with Calm Air.
Here are my Top 10 Tips on Exploring Manitoba’s Awesome Arctic in the Summer!
1) Lazy Bear Lodge
The town of Churchill has a wee population of 800. You’ll find one post office, one liquor store, one grocery store and one bank. The town “bustles” in the Summer and Fall when the population surges with tourists. There are a handful of operators in town so it’s best you do your due diligence and research online (thanks for visiting) before booking.
Two important things to remember: accommodation in Churchill is made up of humble inn’s and B&B’s, you won’t find any 5 Star digs here as there is no market for them. When you’re booking your trip remember the quality of your hotel/operator (and the food they serve) as well as the quality of their tour leaders, tundra buggy’s, kayak’s and other tour equipment are essentially what you are buying into on your vacation. Some operators have created their own unique offerings which you can’t find anywhere else (as of this writing Lazy Bear Lodge is the only operator offering boat tours of the Hudson Bay during the summer for example).
I spent 5 nights at Lazy Bear Lodge, the only accommodation in Churchill that offers guests a taste of authentic Canadian log cabin living. Lazy Bear Lodge was constructed using hand tools and trees bruised by a forest fire. Timbers garnished with hundreds of knots, burls, and furrows were, and are a type of spiritual paradigm of hardship overcome by beauty.
Wally Daudrich, Owner of The Lazy Bear recalls, “As a local Polar Bear guide who got his start here in Churchill back in the 80’s, I saw the potential of recycled timbers from two forest fires which burnt across Churchill’s tree line.” Construction started in 1995 when the temperature was hovering around -35 celsius. This allowed the logs to be hauled mostly in winter time over snow by snowmobile and trailer roughly 20 miles northwest to Churchill. Since its completion in its present form in 2005, it remains the largest handcrafted log building in Manitoba.
Each of the 33 guest rooms at Lazy Bear Lodge feature two cozy double beds, flat screen TV, spacious bathroom, work desk, WIFI and pretty views out the window which overlook the surrounding tundra. Comfy couches fill the lodge’s lounge, a popular spot to grab a hot cup of tea, read a book and warm up in front of a booming log fireplace. Past reception you’ll find a petite boutique which sells everything from Polar Bear postcards to Birch Syrup. The dining room and cafe is spacious and one of the most popular spots in town to grab a bite (so you’ll see locals enjoying a foamy latte here too).
The dinning room is decked out with polar bear pelt, stone fireplace and caribou antlers. If the weather isn’t too cool you can step through a door and enjoy a sun-splashed breakfast on screened in patio. The menu reads as a Taste of Northern Manitoba Cuisine which for curious culinary tourists offers an opportunity to sample wild bison, caribou pepper steak, dill crusted arctic char and muskox rouladen. Pub favourites such as jalapeno poppers, poutine, chicken wings, burgers and sandwiches also grace the menu. Be sure to sample through a hot slice of berry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream before bed!
2) Eskimo Museum
You can conquer Churchill in under an hour on foot. If you’re heading out on the solo be sure to make two stops: pick up a few bottles of craft beer or wine at the liquor store (your on vacation after all) and pop by the city’s petite yet fascinating Eskimo Museum.
Churchill’s Eskimo Museum features a collection of Inuit artifacts and carvings that are among the oldest in the world, ranging from approximately 1600 BC to modern times. The Pre-Dorset and Dorest peoples made the area around Churchill their home from 3,000 BC to 1,000 BC. The standouts- stuffed polar bear, musk ox, walrus, narwhal horns, caribou antlers, original seal skin covered kayaks – are immediate attention grabbers, but closer inspection reveals tiny arrowheads, sharp harpoon blades and hundreds of soap stone carvings displaying everyday life for First Nations people who call the Canadian North home.
3) Hudson Bay Coastal Boat Tour
Lazy Bear Lodge is the only operator in Churchill which offers tours of Hudson Bay by boat. I got very lucky with weather the day of our tour as the sun was shining and it was actually hot out as we hopped on the boat in bright red jumpsuits. We spotted a total of five Polar Bears during our eight our cruise: two marching along the beach just below the city’s famous fort and a family of three who paddled through the water off the coast of Nunavut. A unique experience in the summer to see Polar Bears from a safe distance on both land and water.
4) Heritage Tour of Churchill
Lazy Bear Lodge’s three hour cultural tour of Churchill starts at Cape Merry National Historic Site. Cape Merry is named after Captain John Merry, Deputy Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1712-1718, and is home to a stone battery that was constructed in 1746 to provide additional protection at the river mouth. Designed to supplement the defences of Prince of Wales Fort, the battery was constructed with six cannon emplacements. One lone cannon stands today, a stark reminder of its intent. Located at the mouth of the Churchill River, Cape Merry is also an excellent location for watching whales enter the river with the tides, observing waterfowl or migrating birds, or simply enjoying the panoramic view.
My personal favourite was our next stop, a visit to the storied Miss Piggy C-46 plane crash. She’s called Miss Piggy because the plane was able to hold a lot of freight and once did have pigs on board. On Nov 13, 1979 she was flying a cargo of 1 ski-doo and many cases of pop for the Arctic Co-op from Churchill to Chesterfield inlet. She lost oil pressure in her left engine shortly after departing Churchill. The crew of three tried to return the aircraft to the Churchill airport but clipped hydro poles with one wing and crash landed on the rocks. Today tourists can hop on the wings, slither through open window and march through the air craft’s interior.
The tour concludes at Churchill’s famous Polar Bear Jail (officially the Polar Bear Rehabilitation Centre). Naughty polar bears who get too close to town are humanely trapped and put in jail here, later released after the Hudson Bay has frozen over and they naturally head North. Period Polar Bear relocations are made via helicopter, making this particular operation one of the most expensive animal relocation programs in the world.
5) Whale Watching to the Prince of Wales Fort One of the most popular tours at Lazy Bear Lodge in the summer is their three hour beluga whale boat cruise which finishes up with a stroll through the jaw dropping Prince of Wales Fort. After hopping in a speed boat we zoomed into the mouth of the Churchill River and started bleating like a bunch of high pitched teenage girls. Moments later hundreds of friendly beluga’s danced in circles around our boat. I’ve been on plenty of whale watching tours (Canada’s West Coast in Tofino to East Coast Bay of Fundy and around the world from the chilly shores of Iceland to the tropical warmth of South Africa and Ecuador) and this was by far the most inspiring trip as the whales are out in overwhelming numbers. The experience certainly makes your heart skip a beat!
After enjoying an unforgettable Beluga dance show we docked a short stroll from The Prince of Wales Fort which, began as a log fort built in 1717 by James Knight of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was situated on the west bank of the Churchill River to protect and control the Hudson’s Bay Company’s interests in the fur trade. Beaver pelts were all the rage in Europe at the time, and evidently worth fighting for. The fort was a French design (star shaped) and had forty-two cannons mounted on the walls. In 1782, with only 39 men manning the fort, three French warships, led by Jean-François de La Pérouse, took it over without a single shot being fired. The fort’s Governor at the time, Samuel Hearne, having quickly recognised the numerical and military imbalance, surrendered immediately.
Today visitors walk across a stunning tundra landscape (filled with lichen, pink flora, soft moss and edible berry bushes) before arriving at the fort which you can easily inspect on foot. It’s incredible that without any help from modern machinery or mules, young men transferred each stone (and 800 pound canon) by hand while also fighting off swarming mosquitos, scurvy and the very real threat of roaming polar bears!
6) Kayaking with Belugas
For those who enjoyed the thrill of Beluga’s choir from a comfy seat in a motorboat the next best thing is an afternoon paddle via kayak on a warm summers day. Anyone who enjoys adventure travel and nature will rave for the experience, a very unique opportunity to get some much needed exercise while swishing to and fro with a pod of friendly whales. Beluga’s are so interactive with humans that they nibble on paddle tips and tug on kayak rutter. I witnessed one woman become the centre of affection of two whales which for a period of 10 minutes offered an entertaining show. It was impossible for her not to hysterically break out laughing.
7) Snorkel with Belugas
If kayaking a paddle away from friendly Beluga isn’t enough, daredevils can shimmy into a dry suite, hop into the Hudson Bay and snorkel with the white “canary’s of the sea” for a truly unforgettable moment. After two ropes are thrown into the water guests hold on with one arm while the captain putters in search of lively whale pods. Once they’re found it’s hard not to keep your eyes fixated below as they dance, wink and zoom below you…literally hundreds of whales swimming to and fro.
Hot Tip: If you own a waterproof camera or GoPro be sure to bring it along as you’ll capture some amazing video of life under the sea. Just look at these two Beluga’s waving hello back at me!
8) Dog Carting with Blue Sky Expeditions
Blue Sky Expeditions offers visitors to Churchill a truly unforgettable mushing experience in Manitoba’s arctic. Dog sledding played an important part of the history, culture & heritage of Northern Canada and few northern musher’s remain who still use sled dogs as their primary form of transportation.
Gerald and Jenafor Azure lovingly care for 26 sled dogs (Husky and Siberians) who in the summer take visitors on a traditional dog mushing run via four wheel sleigh. An internationally renowned musher, Gerald has operated his dogsled business in the area since 2001. After jolting across the tundra with a pack of six dogs take a break in a fur adorned tent, grab a hot mug of coffee, warm your hands by a crackling fire and nibble on locally scavenged wild cranberry flecked bannock (best enjoyed slathered with creamy butter).
9) Tundra Tour
Jolt across Churchill’s windswept tundra in Lazy Bear Lodge’s 52 foot long vehicle on a fun three hour tour. I hopped in the drivers seat and took a chance at the wheel as we drove along the coast to check out a famous shipwreck, the SS Ithaka which in 1960 got stuck in a storm and had her bottom completed ripped out when pounded into a gravel bank. She stands today as an eerie reminder of natures power over man.
We hopped out of the buggy right across from the wreck so I took the opportunity to prance across lichen covered rock, tiny pink flora and soft spongy moss. On our drive back to the lodge we happened upon a wandering polar bear, as you do ’round here.
10) Northern Lights
Thousands of camera nerds from around the world head to Churchill each year to photoshoot the Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis. The awe inspiring natural light display is predominantly seen in high latitude regions (arctic and antarctic), caused by cosmic rays, solar wind and magnetospheric plasma interacting with the upper atmosphere. Their charged particles, mainly electrons and protons, enter the atmosphere from above causing ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents, and consequent light emissions. You can spot the Northern Lights at Lazy Bear Lodge in the summer if you set your alarm in the middle of the night. On a clear eve she typically dances across the night sky between midnight and 3am.
My visit to Churchill was a press trip coordinated by Travel Manitoba. Flights, accommodation, restaurant visits and activities featured in this destination guide were complimentary.