Churchill

For other places with the same name, see Churchill (disambiguation).

Churchill is a community North of 53 in Manitoba, best known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, and only slightly less known as the Beluga Capital of the World. For a multi-purpose capital, though, it's rather small, with a permanent population of only 813 people, who live their days on the shore of Hudson Bay, the bank of the Churchill River, and just past the treeline of the boreal forest.

Understand

Polar Deadpan

Origins

Churchill wasn't actually founded with ecotourists in mind. The earliest inhabitants of the region were the Thule people, the proto-Inuits, who arrived around 1,000 B.C.E. before moving north in search of colder pastures, leaving the territory principally to the Chipweyan and Swampy Cree aboriginal groups. The first batch of Europeans to camp out here was a Danish expedition in 1619. The cold got to them, though, and the three of 64 who survived the winter set sail back home as soon as the ice would permit. The town as we know it, though, finds its roots in the history of the Hudson Bay Company, which established a year-round trading post just north of the modern-day town across the Churchill River, joining in the fur trade in northwest America, largely through deals with the tundra-dwelling Chipweyan aboriginals.

Owing to English worries about potential French aggressors, the post was moved south in the 1730s to a massive stone star fort, Prince of Wales, which is very visible from the town, being just across the river. In 1782 the French Hudson Bay Expedition arrived and captured the badly outnumbered civilian fort garrison without a shot (the same expedition also took York Factory to the south—the capital of the Hudson Bay Company), raided the supplies, but failed in the attempt to demolish this rather well constructed fort. The Governor Samuel Hearne, one of Canada's great explorers, returned the next year, however, and set up shop once more.

Bear Patrol

If we can't just shoot them, how to keep them from moving into town? It's a legitimate question (they are, after all, godless killing machines), and not one easily answered, but the people of Churchill have become incredibly sophisticated about it. If anyone spots a bear near town—and they get spotted quick—they call 204-675-BEAR (2327), and then the bear patrol comes out. Within a minute or two, a bunch of pickups topped with big spotlights will roll up to the coast and warn off anyone from walking in the area. They quietly monitor and encourage the bears to just move through, since tranquillizing poses two problems: 1. Drugged up polar bears tend to run off out of sight and fall asleep somewhere. 2. What do you do with a drugged up sleeping polar bear? The answer to number two is the most ingenious of all: put them in jail.

Yes, polar bear jail. It's a big old aircraft hangar by the airport with an awful lot of reinforced steel and some very angry 1200 pounders banging on the walls, who just couldn't be enticed to stay out of town. When the bay freezes over, the "wardens" tranquillize the bears inside and airlift them by helicopter about three river systems north of town, which is just enormous enough of a distance to keep the bears from walking right back to town. You'll know the bears that have been captured right away—not because of the tag on their backs, but because they break into an uncharacteristic sprint at the sound of helicopters!

Over the centuries, the fur trade waned, and Churchill might have disappeared, were it not for the ambitious attempts by provincial governments to secure a northern port in central Canada (motivated by the desire to break the monopoly of the Canadian Pacific Railway on grain exports). After more than a decade of construction across the northern forests, the rail line from Winnipeg was finished in 1929, and the Port of Churchill would become the city's economic centre.

The bears

The Hudson Bay Company traders were hardy folks, and presumably didn't mind living right in the middle of a major polar bear migration route. The problem of living just north of a giant polar bear colony was always solved rather neatly by shooting any bears wandering into town with shotguns. Starting around the 1960s, non-locals started taking an interest in the bears, in studying them, photographing them, and generally admiring the intense over-sized cuteness. Locals saw opportunity, stopped shooting the bears, and began the process of converting the town from a minor industrial centre to one of the world's northernmost tourist towns. Live polar bear webcams are operated by conservation group Polar Bear International with backing from Frontier North Adventures and explore.org.

The Western Hudson Bay bear colony is home to roughly 1,000 bears, which summer in Wapusk National Park. Polar bears hunt seals on the sea ice itself, but when the ice breaks up, they are forced to return to land where they fast until the ice forms again. Prime bear season is in the month+ in October and November leading up to the ice formation, when the colony heads north from the park (and towards Churchill) to get ready for the first freeze. While they wait, they snack intermittently on whatever is around. Kelp buried in snow seems to be a favorite. Things are kind of dull when the ice isn't in, so these curious animals will wander right over to you to give you a good sniff or taste. The taste bit is not a joke—polar bears' sense of taste is so powerful that you will see them regularly licking the air to discern what tastes are out there!

The sea canary

Belugas, with their gleaming white skin, big smiles, and canary-like twitter, have every right to claim the title of world's cutest whale. The west Hudson Bay population, one of Canada's seven, comes back from its winters at the Arctic ice cap to roost, er, calf in the Churchill river bed. At this time, the river is filled with the whales and the zodiac boats are filled with tourists with expensive camera equipment! Up to 3,000 whales enter the river each summer.

 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
 
Daily highs (°C) -22.7 -20.4 -14.5 -5 3.2 11.4 17.3 16.3 8.8 1.1 -8.0 -18.8
Nightly lows (°C) -30.7 -28.9 -24.4 -14.5 -4.6 1.7 6.8 7.2 2.5 -4.5 -16.1 -26.8
Precipitation (mm) 14.8 12.1 18.2 23.1 27.3 43.0 54.6 61.7 53.3 43.7 31.4 18.3
Sunshine (hrs/day) 7:25 9:52 12:17 14:57 17:17 18:25 17:21 14:59 12:21 9:48 7:23 6:15

Climate

The Aurora Borealis is another good thing to keep tabs on:

Bears can be seen year round. But the one time of year where they really are everywhere is October–November, before the sea ice forms. At that time of year, you can feel pretty confident that you will have plenty of photography opportunities every time you go out in a tundra vehicle. At other times, you have to wonder whether you are spending a small fortune on transport to see no bears. November is the really snowy month, so expect worse weather, less sunlight, way colder temperatures, but more pretty snow-covered backdrops for bears to play around in. While the sea ice is a bit unpredictable, it's fairly safe to assume that the last week of bear season is more or less the second to last week of November. Beyond that, you could miss them (and the tundra vehicles stop running anyway).

Shore-fast ice at Cape Churchill, Wapusk National Park

The belugas arrive in mid-June and depart in mid-August. So do the bugs (especially July). As cute as the belugas are, so are the flies as demonic a plague, so bring long pants, long sleeves, bug spray with DEET, and ideally a bug jacket for the possibility that it gets especially bad.

Aurora season is officially January–March, as the nights are longest and the precipitation (ergo cloud cover) lowest. Given how bleak the deep winter months are in terms of cold and lack of animal activity, though, one might speculate that this "season," while ideal for aurora watching, is a bit manufactured to stimulate tourism in the slow months—you can see it just fine in November if you have a good night. All you need is a clear dark sky (a new moon is ideal), and good space weather—if you time your visit to coincide with the peak of an eleven year solar cycle, you'll see more intense lights more frequently.

Prepare

It's not easy to do Churchill (during bear season) without going through a tour company, simply because the tundra vehicles often book up quickly and hotels are full; the train and planes can fill up; and both the buggies and hotels generally require full payment up front with no refunds. You'll need to confirm availability of transport, lodging, and buggy at the same time and then immediately call them back to book all three. Otherwise you could find yourself stuck with a giant bill for a hotel with no way to get out on the tundra to see the bears, or a giant bill for a buggy with no lodging! Other activities (dog-sledding, car rentals, helicopter tours, etc.), are easy enough to book, even after arriving.

Once you have booked everything, it's time to buy a northern wardrobe:

Summer

Churchill area (see below for town map)

The summer poses one problem and that's bugs. Tiny no-see-ums, run-of-the-mill mosquitoes, hell-spawn big black biting flies, and everything in between. A dry summer could mean little to no bugs, but it's good to err on the side of DEET. June–August requires insect repellent with DEET. While not necessary, pre-treating some of your clothes with specialized DEET spray for clothing probably won't be something you regret. You will see tourists with bug jackets and screen hats, but that's really a little over the top. Light long pants and long-sleeved shirts are a must, though.

Winter

The cold in Churchill is spectacular.

When you are this far north, you will need some serious winter gear November–March, and potentially in October. Avoid wearing cotton, as cotton gets wet and stays wet. Layers are key, but not enough to keep you warm without a good jacket. If you forgot something, try to pick it up at the Walmart in Thompson, if you are taking the train.

Ready your cameras, polar bear photography from the back of a Tundra Buggy

You should be able to survive without going out and buying a new wardrobe full of expensive luxuries, but getting what you can of the above will make the trip more cosy.

For more on winter clothing, see Cold weather.

Other essentials

If ever there were a case for a good camera, it's a trip to Churchill! Bring/buy the best you can. Digital cameras don't stand up well to the cold, but they will still work. But bring extra batteries and film (if your camera uses it). In the winter, keep back up batteries close to your body to keep them warm, and switch them out when your active battery in your camera gets killed by the cold. If your camera breaks, Bazlik Jewellers can repair it. A long telephoto lens is generally required for wildlife photography; a good zoom lens may be enough but see Travel photography for a detailed discussion. A waterproof camera is a must if you plan to swim with the Beluga whales in the summer (a GoPro with a waterproof case can be great for video). Bring an extra memory card in case one fails (and the cold can help them fail).

Photographing the aurora requires different equipment. You will need a camera that supports manual exposure (10 to 40 seconds), a fast, wide-angle lens (aperture f/2.8 or better), fast film (800 ASA or better), or equivalent ISO setting on a digital camera, a strong tripod to hold the long exposure in potential high winds, and ideally a cable release or self-timer to trigger shots without stirring the camera. Again, you will want multiple batteries to swap as they freeze. Insulating the tripod can save your hands from freezing. Do not use any filter.

A laptop is a good idea, if only for uploading your photos, to keep your memory cards free to take more high-resolution shots!

Binoculars are great for wildlife viewing.

Especially in the winter, you will have plenty of downtime, so books and cards/games can be nice to have.

Get in

The town of Churchill

There are two ways to get to Churchill: airplane and train. The economy seats on the train make for four nights of uncomfortable sleeping, but are cheap. The expensive sleeper cars are much more stylish, and allow you to enjoy the long-distance train experience watching the ecosystemic change out the windows as you travel north. Alternately, you can catch the train into Churchill and then take a nice quick, painless flight back when you're weary of your travels.

A viable solution for those who would like to get to Churchill faster, while not spending a lot of money is flying from Winnipeg to Thompson, and then taking the train from there. Be warned that the airport in Thompson is not remotely within walking distance of the train station, but there are plenty of bored taxi drivers to help you.

By plane

There are two airlines that fly into Churchill with varying schedules,Calm Air and Kivalliq Air. Both Calm Air and Kivalliq Air fly into Churchill from Winnipeg, among other municipalities in the region. The airport is about a ten minute taxi ride from town. Expect flights to be around $1,300-2,000 round trip per person.

By train

Taking the train to Churchill is much more affordable than flying, but takes much longer. VIA Rail serves Churchill with its Hudson Bay line that begins in Winnipeg. From Winnipeg the train takes about 38-48 hours. You have the option of staying in one of several different sleeper cars, or riding in economy class (depending on how much you want to pay) and trying to find two empty seats to cram yourself into for a miserable night's sleep. Economy supersaver (non-refundable) round-trip tickets run around $310-370, while sleeper cars (which have showers, couches, and actual sleep) cost about $1200-1300.

You cannot drink your own liquor on the train, nor can you smoke. The fines are astronomical! The train will be stopping often, though, and you can hop off at the stops for a cigarette break. The big break is in Thompson, where you'll have two-five hours to get off, shop at Walmart and Safeway, and get a meal. There's even a little sightseeing to be had there, if you are creative.

Northern lights shimmering and dancing above in November

A good tip for you train boozers—if you order liquor and a mixer, the mixer is free, so if you bring some of your own mixers... free cokes! The little bottles of wine are decent too. The microwave meals, however, are not. Plan ahead and bring food. Cheese, sausage, cracker, fruit, etc. platters are great. The chances of having a chef on the train are low, as is the likelihood that they hook up a dome observation car, sadly.

By car

There is no road to Churchill; however, you can drive to Thompson and pay to park your car there (try the Days Inn lot), and continue by train or airplane. The road to Thompson is lonely and subject to closure if a snowstorm hits, though.

Get around

It's quite easy to walk within the city limits on one's own. It's also possible to rent a car in Churchill, and there are several taxi drivers who tend to hang out around the airport and train station.

Car rental isn't at all popular with tourists, even the ones who aren't on package tours, but taking out an SUV is actually a great idea. If you think there's a good chance of seeing the aurora on a given night, rent a vehicle and drive it out of town at night! You'll be away from the lights of the town, and you'll have a mobile heating device/bear escape pod to keep you safe. If you have a day's worth of downtime from your various activities, you can just drive around the passable roads and go bird-watching, find the downed plane, head down through the woods to the observation tower, up to Cape Merry, or create your own wildlife photo tour. Expect the rental to run around $100 and the gas refill before returning to run around... $100 more.

See

An inukshuk with the Port of Churchill behind, en route to Cape Merry

Beyond the wildlife and landscapes, there is actually a fair amount of interesting stuff to see up here. The historic Hudson Bay Company settlements are perhaps the most interesting, but are impossible to visit during the winter months (and York Factory is hard to reach even when it's possible). Aside from Cape Merry, that is, which along with the Eskimo Museum is an easy and highly recommended sight to see. If you have a car and a free day, head south of the city to the observation tower and east of the city to see Miss Piggy up close.

A Beluga in the Churchill River

Do

A Great White Bear Tours buggy

Activities are wildlife centric, and depend heavily on the season. During polar bear season everyone will head out in the tundra vehicles, while beluga whale season means the Churchill River will be filled with zodiacs and kayaks. Dog sledding can be done any time of the year, although the snowy months are more rewarding. Helicopter tours are pretty exciting any time of the year as well, but the aerial wildlife viewing is best late April through the end of bear season.

Tundra vehicles

The tundra vehicles are the main tour for most Churchill visitors, and also the biggest activity expense. Plan to spend two days out on the tundra during your trip during bear season (you absolutely will not regret it), and therefore $800 per traveller! Tours include a guide, and they are uniformly great (bring cash for a tip), as well as some tasty soup, sandwiches, sodas, coffee, and hot chocolate. Wear all your cold weather gear. You will want to spend some time on the outdoor deck in the back for photography, of course, but the inside is almost as cold—everyone rolls down the windows to take more pictures!

Dog sledding

Dog sledding is a good activity, and fairly inexpensive. But it needs a caveat: you will spend very little time actually on a sled, and dog sledding involves little more than standing or sitting down and letting the dogs do the work. The true art of dog sledding is principally breeding and taking care of the dogs and secondarily logistics for trips. Also, during high season, expect to spend a lot of the time waiting around for your turn, as only two people can ride at a time!

A late afternoon jaunt with some happy Canadian sled dogs

So why do the dog sledding activity at all? The biggest reason is just to learn about the practice of dog sledding, which is pretty fascinating. Your host will take you around to meet the dogs (playing with the dogs is the other big reason to do this), and give you all sorts of background on the history and current practice of dog sledding, including all the competitions in the area.

Dog sledding can be done even without snow. They will simply use a wheeled sled.

As with the buggies, there are two operations in town, run by the two co-founders of the Hudson Bay Quest, a 220 mile (330 km) race from Gillam to Churchill every March (originally it went up along the west coast of the Hudson Bay to Arviat, Nunavut, but the boreal forest makes for a less whiteout sort of run than the flat, snow-covered tundra).

Boating

There are two boating companies specializing in Beluga tours on the river, with Zodiacs and kayaks. The boat tours spend one-two hours on the water and then one more hour on the other bank to explore Prince of Wales Fort. The first is through Lazy Bear Lodge (see above for contact information), which does a three hour tour for $130 per person, but cannot be booked in advance unless you have a room with them, so a spot would not be guaranteed if staying elsewhere and setting up your trip independently. The other is Sea North:

Can I has human treats?

Snorkeling/diving

Yes, snorkelling! Most tourists are not mentally fortified to jump into a cold, cold river filled with whales, but it is certainly the most up-close way to see the Belugas. Scuba diving is permitted, but there are no guides to take you, so only experienced divers, and you must bring your own equipment to Churchill. You can fill your tanks at the hospital. For snorkellers, though, the two boating tour companies above (Sea North and Lazy Bear Lodge) will set you up with a guide and dry suit or wet suit. Sea North snorkelling in wet suits is available July–August, three hours, $195/person, two person minimum. Lazy Bear Lodge's similar three hour snorkelling tour is done in dry suits for $250 per person.

Other

Prince of Wales Fort from a helicopter

Buy

Churchill is not exactly a major shopping destination, but there are some fun gift shops, especially if you skip the ones run by the tour companies (which ply their trade mostly by dropping off captive audiences at the end of the tours). The Eskimo Museum also has a nice gift shop.

There is one central grocery/general store, which closes at 6PM, but will take care of most needs. The liquor store is in Bayport Plaza by the post office and bank.

Giant fuzzy monsters prancing silently across the waste

Eat

Most hotels will have something to eat, but the main restaurants in town are the three below. Expect high prices, but perhaps surprisingly, the food here is delicious.

The town itself, with Hudson Bay in the background

Drink

Not long on bars, Churchill really only has two, aside from the Legion: the Tundra Lounge and the Pier Beverage Room at the Seaport Hotel. The Tundra Lounge is a safe bet for a good outing any night of the week.

Sleep

While some locals are OK with more basic accommodations, spring for indoor heating if visiting in winter

Don't expect luxury in Churchill when it comes to lodgings. Everything is going to be basic, but warm and adequate, and with very helpful owners (really, everyone in this friendly town will happily go out of their way for you). The focus of any trip will be on what's outside! Rates are generally priced for two levels: a high price for bear season (Oct-Nov) and a low price for the rest of the year.

In town

Really out there, at the Tundra Lodge
  • Tundra House, 51 Franklin St,  +1 204-675-8831, toll-free: +1-800-265-8563, e-mail: . A cosy 6-bedroom property featuring a variety of bunk bed accommodations and private rooms. The property has shared kitchen and bathrooms, free Wi-Fi, cable TV, laundry, and linens. Open December–October. $32-80.

Out of town

Danger, polar bears!

Stay safe

Cold weather is theoretically a danger, but you probably won't have an opportunity to get hypothermia, since most all excursions in the winter will involve a vehicle and a fair degree of supervision. Polar bears are a real danger, though. Be careful when walking anywhere on the outskirts of town, such as Cape Merry, by the inukshuk and the big wooden boat behind the town centre, or anywhere outside of town. In such areas close to town you will notice Polar Bear Alert signs "STOP DON'T WALK IN THIS AREA", and if you do see a bear in or near town, call the Bear Patrol immediately at +1 204-675-BEAR (2327).

Because of the dangers posed by polar bears, car doors are never locked in Churchill (don't ever lock your own if renting), and the quickest way to escape danger, if going indoors is not an immediate option, is to simply hop in a car and shut yourself inside. There hasn't been a bear-related death since 1980, but injuries have happened since, and even locals can get surprised by an itinerant bear now and then—stay aware of your surroundings at all times.

Stay healthy

Because of Churchill's size and remote location, the services available at the hospital are limited. Individuals with serious medical issues may be transported to Winnipeg by air ambulance. The provincial government will cover most if not all of the cost of the evacuation for Manitoba residents, but not for other residents of Canada. Those coming from outside of Manitoba may or may not be covered by their provincial health plan or private supplementary plan. Visitors from outside of Canada should always purchase health insurance when visiting Canada unless they are coming on a visa that allows them to apply for provincial health insurance. As the cost for the flight to Winnipeg can exceed $10,000, plus the cost of a ground ambulance in Winnipeg and medical treatment in both Winnipeg and Churchill, insurance for visitors should have a high coverage ceiling.

Connect

You will have Wi-Fi wherever you stay, and nearly all hotels will have an available computer.

Go next

Don't let the door hit you on the way out, sucka!

There really isn't anywhere to go—you're stranded here! If you fancy a rare trip to remote Nunavut, it is possible to fly up there by helicopter, although this is extremely expensive. Contact Hudson Bay Heli if interested. The other option would be a custom canoeing trip (summer only, naturally) through Northern Soul Adventures. (See above.)

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Friday, March 04, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.