No paved roads lead directly into the tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba, on the remote, southwestern shores of Hudson Bay, so you'll have to arrive by train or plane to see the area's most famous seasonal residents—polar bears. From July to November, about a thousand migrate to Churchill, earning it the nickname the "polar bear capital of the world." Here, the planet's largest land carnivores spend the summer and await winter, when the bay freezes and they can perch on the ice and hunt for ringed seals. Summertime also brings thousands of migrating beluga whales to the town's coast—another reason to visit.
"Nowhere else in the world can you have interactions with beluga whales that you can have here in Churchill," says Michael Goodyear, former executive director of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. "During the summer there's literally thousands of beluga whales in the estuary." In fact, the whales, which start migrating here after wintering in the high Arctic, outnumber Churchill's human population of around a thousand three to one. The sheer wealth of wildlife overwhelms. Says tour guide Neil Mumby, "The term 'bucket list' is used a lot here."
When to Go: Climate change has altered the seasons in Churchill and with it, the animal migrations, Goodyear says. For visitors, that means adjusting your travel plans accordingly. The most popular time to see the polar bears is from the middle of October to the end of November. On these trips, custom-built tundra vehicles shepherd visitors (safely) into the path of migrating polar bears. For this time of year, reservations are a must, as many services quickly become fully booked. Churchill's summer season begins in early July and can run into early September, during which beluga whales show up by the thousands in Churchill River estuary during long days of sunshine. Sighting of polar bears walking along the coastline or swimming in the Hudson Bay are also common in the summer.
How to Get Around: In winter, the best way to see polar bears is by tundra vehicle tours offered by operators like Frontiers North Adventures and Great White Bear Tours. In summer, travelers can snorkel with the beluga whales by arranging the activity through Sea North Tours or Lazy Bear Expeditions. The latter also offers a polar bear viewing experience by boat during the summer months. Whenever you visit, bring waterproof hiking boots. Most anywhere in town is within walking distance and, depending on the season, you're going to encounter dirt, mud, slush, ice, or snow.
Where to Stay: Churchill's hotels book up fast during polar bear season, so reserve months ahead. Accommodation is basic but centrally located, often with Wi-Fi and attached restaurants. Aurora Inn, Lazy Bear Lodge, Tundra Inn, and Seaport Hotel are some good options. If the town is too urban for you, consider Churchill Wild, which offers polar bear walks at their three remote eco lodges. Polar bear enthusiasts will also relish a stay at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, which hosts guests in two sleeper cars deep in the tundra, right in bear country. The customized 330-foot-long, elevated lodge has open decks, serves locally sourced dishes in its restaurant, and holds nightly talks by bear experts.
What to Eat or Drink: Considering Churchill's relative isolation, dining options will satisfy most visitors. Restaurants attached to Seaport Hotel and Tundra Inn serve pub fare, while Lazy Bear Lodge's menu features regional dishes, including elk and Arctic char. At Gypsy's Bakery and Restaurant, the Da Silva family has sold fresh-baked Portuguese bread rolls (papa secos), pierogies, and regional specialties like Manitoba pickerel for 25 years. Ask them to pack box meals for your adventures.
What to Buy: Beyond the obligatory polar bear and beluga whale souvenirs, Churchill also offers outstanding Inuit art gathered from top northern artists around the country. For these and other northern products, it's well worth visiting stores such as the Arctic Trading Company and Fifty Eight North.
What to Read Before You Go: The World of the Polar Bear (Firefly Books, 2010). This updated third edition of renowned nature photographer Norbert Rosing's intimate, season-by-season portrayal of Canada's iconic and endangered bear and its changing habitat combines stunning, full-page photography with personal insights.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Helpful Links: The Town of Churchill, Everything Churchill
Fun Fact: If it looks like a beluga whale is turning to look up at you from the water, you're probably right. Not only are belugas among the most vocal cetaceans (early whalers called them sea canaries), they are the only whales with a flexible neck. Unlike other whales, the beluga's seven neck vertebrae aren't fused, making it possible for a beluga to nod and turn its head.