Best known as the self-proclaimed polar bear capital of the world, Churchill is a long way from anywhere. Still, thousands of wildlife enthusiasts visit each summer to watch up to 2,000 beluga whales gathering around the mouth of the Churchill River and, in fall, to see polar bears from specially developed "bear buggies."
East of town, the Churchill Wildlife Management Area and Wapusk National Park combine to protect one of the world's largest polar bear denning sites. Visit early October to mid-November to see these awesome creatures as they congregate along the shore of Hudson Bay, waiting for sea ice to form before heading out for the winter to hunt seals. In summer, beluga whales frolic in the mouth of the Churchill River. You can often see the whales from the shore, but a number of tour operators offer whale-watching cruises, some with unique options such as snorkeling with the whales. The tundra and boreal forest around Churchill is also vital habitat for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds. More than 200 species, including the rare Ross Gull, nest or pass through on their annual migration, and you can often sight seals and caribou along the coast.
The only ways to reach Churchill are by plane or train. VIA Rail's Hudson Bay train makes the 1,700km (1,056-mile) trip between Winnipeg and Churchill twice weekly. (You can also drive 764km/465 miles north from Winnipeg to Thompson and take the train from there.) Passing through a remote region covered with lakes, forests, and frozen tundra, the one-way trip takes over 40 hours. The train leaves Winnipeg every Tuesday and Sunday at 12:05pm. Prices vary considerably depending on time of year and the type of seat or cabin booked. If you don't mind sleeping in reclining seats or a multi-berth cabin, the trip can cost as little as C$330 each way, 7-day advance purchase, in economy class any time of year. A single cabin costs around C$780 one way and a cabin that sleeps two (on bunk beds) is C$1,200. For more information, contact VIA Rail (tel. 888/VIA-RAIL or 800/561-8630; www.viarail.ca). You can also fly into Churchill on Calm Air (tel. 800/839-2256; www.calmair.com), with fares costing around C$1,100 roundtrip from Winnipeg.
The Churchill Visitor Centre, at 211 Kelsey Blvd. (tel. 888/389-2327 or 204/675-2022), is open from July to late November Monday to Saturday 11am to 3pm. Another source of information is the Town of Churchill website (www.townofchurchill.ca). For information on Wapusk National Park, contact Parks Canada (tel. 888/773-8888 or 204/675-8863; www.pc.gc.ca).
Exploring the Area
Although the vast majority of visitors who travel this far north do so for wildlife viewing, there are a few other sights in and around town. From an industrial perspective, most impressive are the towering grain terminals along the waterfront. Grain is transported by train from the prairies to Churchill, where it is loaded onto ships bound for European markets. You can watch the grain being unloaded from grain cars onto ships -- 25 million bushels of wheat and barley clear the port in only 12 to 14 weeks of frantic nonstop operation through summer. Also in town, the Eskimo Museum (242 Laverendrye St.; tel. 204/675-2030) has a collection of fine Inuit carvings and artifacts. In the summer (June to mid-Nov), it's open Monday from 1 to 5pm and Tuesday through Saturday from 9am to noon and 1 to 5pm, and in winter (mid-Nov to May), the hours are Monday through Saturday from 1 to 4:30pm. Admission is by donation. Within walking distance from town is Cape Merry, at the mouth of the Churchill River. This is an excellent vantage point for getting a layout of the town and surrounding wilderness, as well as for viewing beluga whales and seabirds.
You can also take a boat ride to the Prince of Wales Fort (tel. 204/675-8863; www.pc.gc.ca). Construction of this partially restored, large stone fort was started in 1730 by the Hudson's Bay Company and took 40 years to complete. Yet after all that effort, Governor Samuel Hearne and 39 clerks and tradesmen surrendered the fort to the French without resistance in 1782, when faced with a possible attack by three French ships. July to October, the fort is open daily 1 to 5pm and 6 to 9pm. Admission to the grounds is free, though there is a C$8 per person charge for a guided tour. Access is by boat from Churchill and is usually combined with a whale-watching tour.
From Churchill, a number of outfitters offer polar bear tours (Oct and Nov) and whale-watching boat tours (July and Aug), most of which combine accommodations and airfares from Winnipeg. The polar bear tours take place east of town in specially designed "buggies" (one company calls them "Polar Rovers"), with large wheels and outdoor viewing decks to take you out onto the tundra to safely watch and photograph these magnificent creatures. You may also see other tundra wildlife such as foxes, caribou, and snowy owls.
A week-long tour, beginning and ending in Winnipeg and inclusive of lodging and airfare, costs between C$5,500 and C$10,000 per person, depending on the types of activities and accommodation. One local Churchill outfitter with an excellent reputation, and one of the few to offer polar-bear-viewing day trips, is Great White Bear Tours (tel. 866/765-8344 or 204/675-2781; www.greatwhitebeartours.com). This company charges C$350 per person, including motel pickups in Churchill, although availability is often limited as most seats are booked by tour companies. Great White Bear Tours works with Natural Habitat Adventures (tel. 800/543-8917; www.nathab.com) to provide packages that include airfares from Winnipeg. Accommodations on these tours are at downtown motels or at Great White Bear's Tundra Lodge, comprising mobile platforms parked within the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Bathrooms here are shared and beds are bunk-style, but the opportunity to stay overnight out amongst polar bears is unequalled. Away from city lights, this is also a great place to view the northern lights. The lodge has a dedicated dining car, a lounge car, and satellite Internet access.
Frontiers North (tel. 800/663-9832 or 204/949-2050; www.tundrabuggy.com) also offer the option of motel- or lodge-based tours. For those with limited time, this company operates a 3-night, 2-day tour for C$2,500 per person, inclusive of airfares from Winnipeg. Lazy Bear Lodge (tel. 866/687-2327 or 204/663-9377; www.lazybearlodge.com) offers its own package tours, charging from C$3,700 per person for airfare from Winnipeg, 3 nights' accommodation, and meals, with 2 days spent out on the tundra viewing the bears.
While polar bears get most of the attention in Churchill, in the last decade, during July and August, the beluga whales that congregate around the mouth of the Churchill River have become a major attraction for nature-loving visitors. During summer, daily boat tours offered by Sea North Tours (tel. 888/348-7591 or 204/675-2195; www.seanorthtours.com) focus on these magnificent white whales. The cost is C$96 per person for a 2 1/2-hour tour. For a truly unique experience, Sea North supplies wetsuits for those looking to try snorkeling with beluga whales (C$175 per person), with up to an hour spent in the water.
Where to Stay
The majority of visitors to Churchill, especially during the polar-bear-viewing season, arrive in town as part of package put together by local tour companies or accommodations.
The Aurora Inn (24 Bernier St.; tel. 888/840-1344 or 204/675-2071; www.aurora-inn.mb.ca) is one of Churchill's newest hotels, featuring 19 spacious, split-level loft suites with fully equipped kitchens, plus three smaller standard rooms. Doubles go for C$235 during peak polar-bear-viewing season (Oct and Nov), and C$155 or C$125 in shoulder or off seasons, respectively. The Polar Inn & Suites (153 Kelsey Blvd.; tel. 877/765-2733 or 204/675-8878; www.polarinn.com) offers standard rooms, plus one-bedroom apartments and kitchenette suites with fridges and coffeemakers for C$135 to C$245.
Lazy Bear Lodge (313 Kelsey Blvd.; tel. 866/687-2327 or 204/663-9377; www.lazybearlodge.com) is a log cabin-type hotel with 33 rooms, each with an en suite bathroom and cable TV. The in-house restaurant has a distinctive northern-rustic ambience, with a menu of game to match. Rates range from C$150 to C$280, although in polar-bear-viewing season, most guests are staying as part of a package (C$3,700 per person, including airfare from Winnipeg, 3 nights' accommodation, meals, and 2-day tours). In summer, a 2-night package, inclusive of airfares and a boat tour, is a reasonable C$1,485 per person.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.