Image courtesy CTC
Churchill’s polar bears can come out to play in July and August, as Nikki Bayley discovered
If you’ve heard of the tiny town of Churchill in Manitoba it’s probably because it’s known as the polar bear capital of the world. Visit during prime polar bear season – October and November – and you’re pretty much guaranteed to experience the best polar bear-viewing around.
However, the town is booked solid during this time and rooms and tours are at a premium. There’s a lot to be said for visiting during the off-peak season between July and August: not least lower prices, fewer visitors and the all-too-rare chance to see the northern lights dressed in a jumper instead of an Arctic parka.
The trio of birds, bears and belugas is the theme for July and August in Churchill. However, if clients’ hearts are set on seeing as many polar bears as possible then off-season may not be for them. Otherwise, the advantage of the summer is that you’re likely to encounter a far wider range of wildlife under sunnier skies.
Bears & birds
It’s perfectly possible to see polar bears around Churchill in summer – they’ve even been spotted five minutes away from the airport at the side of the road. For the best chance, either book a tundra vehicle tour to the unspoilt wilderness where they sleep and feed, or a boat trip into Hudson Bay to the isolated Hubbard Point on the cusp of the border with Nunavut, Canada’s most northern territory.
Dressed up against the chill in a survival suit, if you’re very lucky, you might see bears swimming in the sea alongside the boat. If not, you’ll almost certainly see them lazing on the beach with their cubs. Unlike the belugas, it’s not advisable to swim with them. Your guide will go ahead on land, armed with ‘bear banger’ firecrackers and a gun. Stay close, and you’ll be rewarded with plenty of bears-on-a-beach photos.
You can also ask to be taken out to the Bear Jail, where ‘naughty’ bears are sent for the summer if they persist in wandering through the town, before being released when Hudson Bay freezes over. You can’t go inside but you can get a great photo of yourself in a large tin can-like bear trap.
Birder watchers will be delighted by the immense variety on offer too, thanks to some 270 different species flying through on migration patterns including bald eagles, golden eagles, ospreys and northern harriers.
Snow white beluga whales head to the waters of Hudson Bay – and the Churchill River, which feeds into it – in their thousands over the summer to calve their glossy grey babies. They are so plentiful that you can see them sparkling in the water from the beach but they look even more beautiful the closer you get.
Take a boat trip out to view them or get up close and personal on a sunset kayak. Adventurous souls can don a dry suit and go snorkelling with belugas for a fully immersive experience.
Belugas are known as the canaries of the sea – they ‘sing’ to each other, and can be attracted by the sound of singing. Visitors can showcase their best karaoke through a snorkel and try to summon the white whales; there’s nothing to beat that moment when a whale swims below you and you make eye contact.
The belugas are completely harmless and one of the smallest whales around, so as far as adventure travel goes this happily ticks the ‘maximum boasting’ and ‘minimum risk’ boxes.
Churchill is a small community: there are fewer than 8,000 residents, and although the town nowadays is turning its full focus to tourism, life is fairly basic. The main attraction is the wildlife, however, there are other things to keep you entertained.
The Itsanitaq or Eskimo Museum focuses on Inuit art and carvings, and the ruined 18th century Fort Prince of Wales marks a key period in Canada’s history of battles between the French and English and the importance of the fur trade in the creation of Canada.
With no snow dog mushing isn’t possible, but you can go out to visit the dogs and try carting instead, where the dogs pull a wheeled two-seat wagon. Blue Sky Mush runs a great programme, the dogs are happy and well cared for and its aboriginal Métis co-owner, Gerald Azure, also offers a fascinating cultural talk in his cosy yurt.
Nightlife options are limited to the live music night at the Tundra Lounge or the no-frills charms of the Beverage Room at the Seaport Hotel. Or you can try your luck watching for the northern lights, which crackle and shimmer across the sky even in the summer.
Journey to Churchill
Churchill is so isolated you can only get there by train or aircraft. Calm Air flies from Winnipeg to Churchill and the flight takes about two hours. Via Rail offers a cross-tundra service from Winnipeg, which takes about 48 hours.
This means clients will end up with time to spend in Winnipeg. Alongside the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Manitoba Museum and the Royal Canadian Mint, there’s a polar bear-themed attraction at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, which opened this summer.
Journey to Churchill is a state-of-the-art 10-acre exhibit giving visitors the chance to experience Arctic terrain and the animals that live there, including Arctic fox, caribou, muskoxen, wolves, snowy owls and polar bears. It’s home to the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, where orphaned cubs are prepared for release into the wild.
A 360-degree dome even gives clients the chance to see a version of the northern lights, plus a presentation about the culture of the First Nations and Inuit people of the area.
Tried & tested:
Lazy Bear Lodge
The log walls, animal skins and roaring stone fireplaces of the Lazy Bear make for a cozy atmosphere after a day spent out in the wild. In a town where a 24-hour telephone is still seen as an amenity worth listing, the Lazy Bear is the most luxurious option. The en suite rooms are basic but spotlessly clean, and there is free Wi-Fi throughout. The Lodge’s cafe and dining room serves traditional dishes such as caribou, elk and Arctic char and it boasts the town’s only espresso machine in the cafe.
1st Class Holidays offers a six-day Belugas, Bears and Blooms package from £2,699 including two nights in Winnipeg, three nights’ full-board in Churchill, return flights from Winnipeg, a guide, two beluga-spotting boat rides, dog carting, tundra buggy polar bear tour and visits to the Itsanitaq Museum and Fort Prince of Wales.
Premier Holidays offers a Belugas, Bears and Blooms holiday from £3,895 including return flights from London to Winnipeg, return flights to Churchill, two nights in Winnipeg and three in Churchill on a full-board basis, city tours in both, admission to the Itsanitaq Museum, two beluga-spotting boat trips, a six-hour Tundra Buggy Adventure excursion, tour of Prince Wales Fort National Historic Site and dog cart activity.
Prestige Holidays offers a seven-day Arctic Summer Adventure tour departing on August 10, starting from £3,810. The trip includes flights between Winnipeg and Churchill, two nights in Winnipeg and four nights at the Lazy Bear Lodge in Churchill, all with breakfast, polar bear excursion, beluga whale-viewing boat trip, visit to the Prince of Wales Fort and a tour of Churchill.
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