The Getaway
Bucket List Travel: Polar Bears in Churchill, Manitoba

Churchill, Manitoba, is a premier destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers. It offers the unique opportunity to witness beluga whale migrations, the Northern Lights, and polar bears in their natural habitat. The town used to be a Hudson’s Bay Trading Company hub and thrived during World War 2 when it served as a military base and supply center. Today, ecotourism and conservation efforts dominate the local agenda. Multi-day tours are the primary means of experiencing Churchill's natural and cultural offerings, but their high price tag positions Churchill as a bucket list destination. Still, this is the only place in the world where the usually solitary polar bear can be seen en masse, while the spectacular nights demand photography.

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01 Churchill: The polar bear capital

Two polar bears (Ursus maritimus) playing together on ice and snow in Churchill, Manitoba.

Churchill is famous for polar bear sightings, so if you've ever wanted to see these tall snow-white creatures up close, consider a trip to the north of Manitoba. The best times to visit for polar bear viewing are in the fall, specifically in October and November, but hundreds of polar bears begin returning to the coast in July to mate. Low sea ice due to climate change has also resulted in record numbers of bears in the area. In 2023, there were four times more polar bears than the previous year, and those figures are set to rise. Guided tours are essential for safety—there hasn't been a serious injury since 2013, thanks to enhanced safety protocols. Tours also help minimize polar bear tourism's impact on the environment.

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02 Beluga whales in the arctic summer

beluga whales in the Hudson Bay, Churchill, Canada

Between June and September, the Churchill River basin is visited by about 3,000 beluga whales, making the town the beluga whale capital of the world. These smiling white whales migrate to Hudson Bay annually, and you can get up close and personal with them on an interactive, beluga-friendly whale-watching tour. Board a vessel or kayak and learn why these animals are called the canaries of the sea and what their squishy heads contain. A beluga tour will increase your odds of seeing a polar bear because the bears hunt the whales. You'll gain a deeper understanding of the marine life in this region and the importance of protecting the environment to sustain these fascinating creatures.

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03 Aurora borealis: Nature's light show

Aurora Borealis Over A Frozen Lake

Nature really puts on a show in these parts, so if you're as interested in the skies as the seas, you're in for a rare treat. Aurora Borealis is visible for much of the year, with peak viewing times falling between January and March. Here's a quick intro to the phenomenon for those still puzzled by this shimmying light display. Aurora are visible at the magnetic poles, and the ones near the Arctic are called the Northern Lights. They are caused by activity on the sun's surface. Solar storms release electrically charged particles, which can reach Earth's magnetic field. When they do, they collide with and heat up molecules in the atmosphere to produce a captivating glow. The ribbon pattern reflects the line of force in the magnetic field, and the different colors are linked to various gases.

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04 Journey to Churchill: Adventure awaits

Churchill is only accessible via plane or train, so getting to this isolated town is the start of the fun. You can choose to fly or drive to Thompson and take public transport to Churchill from there. The Via Rail train from Thompson takes 16 hours. Or arrive in Churchill after, for example, a 2-hour flight from Winnipeg or a 48-hour rail ride across vast scenic tracts of Manitoba, more than 1,000 miles to be precise. Traveling by train is more environmentally friendly than flying. Look up updated flight costs on Calm Air and Kivalliq Air. There's also an option of traveling from Canora, Saskatchewan.

Churchill Northern Manitoba Train Station Keith Levit / Shutterstock.com

05 Where luxury meets wilderness

Too often, would-be visitors have put off wilderness trips at the thought of "roughing it," but you don't have to forgo your comforts on a trip to Churchill, at least not for very long. Luxury eco-lodges like the stylish trio under the Churchill Wild banner offer big windows, cozy sitting areas, tundra-inspired cuisine prepared by chefs, and numerous wildlife viewing opportunities on walking safaris. You're guaranteed world-class service, but it doesn't come cheap. Another more accessible option alongside Tundra Inn is Lazy Bear Lodge, a handcrafted log cabin in Churchill and one of National Geographic Traveler's top hotels.

06 Dog sledding: A thrilling arctic adventure

Manitoba Sleds (Churchill)

Dog sledding in Churchill offers an exhilarating experience that connects you directly with the history and wilderness of Manitoba. Feel the rush of cold air and the excitement of leading a team of energetic dogs through the snowy tundra and dense boreal forests. Before setting off on your adventure, spend some time in the dog yard, getting to know the friendly canines that will be your companions on the trail. Dog sledding has been an essential mode of transportation in Churchill and Manitoba's history, crucial for mail delivery and aiding fur traders during the winter months. For those visiting in warmer months, inquire about dog carting to experience the thrill of mushing without the snow.

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07 Ultimate bears and belugas adventures

Choose a tour that includes both polar bears and beluga whales in the itinerary to increase your odds of seeing both. You may also encounter other animals, such as caribou, moose, foxes, wolverines, Arctic hares, and unique birds—a testament to the region's biodiversity. Frontiers North, Great White Bear, and Lazy Bear Expeditions (of Lazy Bear Lodge) are three highly-rated service providers, but there are more.

08 Fly direct to the arctic edge

New direct flight options to Churchill make the destination more accessible to travelers. If Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Saskatoon, or Montreal are closer to you than Winnipeg, you can board a charter flight. These flights are subject to refueling stops and other delays, and companies like Frontiers North can provide more information.

light aircraft flying over isolated lodge near Churchill, Manitoba Canada, taken August 2016 Keith 316 / Shutterstock.com

09 Summer road and rail trips

Winding dirt road near Churchill, Manitoba

Tours can lean toward self-guided journeys if that's your preferred way of traveling. Driving in Churchill during the summer offers more independence and flexibility for exploring, which is appealing to some folks. Tamarack Rentals is the only car rental company in the town, which isn't great news, but the cars are in decent shape and can get the job done.

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10 One day polar bear adventure

If you're short on time, consider a condensed, one-day polar bear viewing experience. These will take you straight to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA), where the polar bear concentration is optimal for quick sightings. You'll be carried along on a Tundra Buggy while an expert guide educates you about these lords of the Arctic. Fly in and out of the region for a day trip—check out Frontiers North, Gold Star Canadian Tours, or Classic Canadian Tours for starters.

Tundra Buggies provide transportation for the safe viewing of polar bears. The animals come up to the vehicles during this adventure tour vacation. aceshot1 / Shutterstock.com

11 The all-inclusive beluga experience

In addition to the operators we've already mentioned, you may want to look into the offerings of Sea North Tours (which is 100% beluga-friendly) and Custom Churchill Tours to find the beluga tour that's best for you. All-inclusive tours include beluga whale interactions, educational components, and conservation efforts, but differ in some ways such as focus areas and duration. You may have the opportunity to kayak among the whales or ride on a Zodiac boat rather than a regular one.

12 Drive and ride to polar bears

northern Ellesmere Island/Canada-01/21/2019. photo of polar bear in Canada

Self-guided tour options allow travelers to explore at their own pace while heading to polar bear sightings. It's important to know the safety implications. On a self-guided drive, you need to understand the very real dangers of stepping out of your car and have a plan of action for if you get lost or stuck somewhere. We recommend renting a vehicle for just one day for the freedom to take photos at your leisure. Rental cars aren't allowed in certain parts of the wildlife management area that tundra buggies, etc, can access, so that's worth noting, and there's a smattering of complaints about established companies making life difficult for DIY folks in terms of access.

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13 Exploring Churchill's culture and history

Prince of Wales Fort, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

There are lots of sights to visit in between wildlife expeditions. The star-shaped Prince of Wales Fort is chief among them. This National Historic Site fell to the French in 1783 and was in a state of ruin until restoration work began in 1920. Then you have the York Factory, a hive of activity between the 17th and 19th centuries—it dealt with the fur trade and did business with the First Nations. The Eskimo Museum showcases Inuit artifacts such as animal-hide canoes and soapstone carvings. Check out Discover Churchill Tours and Wapusk Adventures for cultural itineraries.

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14 Dining delights in Churchill

Despite the limited number of restaurants, the culinary landscape in Churchill is characterized by its commitment to homemade dishes that incorporate local ingredients, offering diners a unique taste of the Arctic. From bison and Arctic char to elk and even dishes garnished with wild berries and mushrooms foraged from the surrounding landscape, the town's chefs showcase their resourcefulness and innovation with every meal. Whether you're looking for a cozy cafe to start your day, a lively pub for an evening meal, or a fine dining experience to cap off your adventure, Churchill's dining spots promise warmth, hospitality, and a chance to savor the local flavors. Remember, many of Churchill's restaurants operate seasonally, so it's wise to check their availability during your visit to ensure you don't miss out on these culinary delights.

15 Planning your Churchill adventure

Budget and time constraints will influence your choice of transport to Churchill. The trains don't depart every day, and schedules change according to the seasons. The town is remote, so goods and services are expensive because supplies aren't easy to come by. Take some food with you and pop by the Tundra Pub for fairly priced grub. The local water is potable, so you can refill your bottle. Selecting the right tour may come down to what you want to see the most. Ideally, you'd be spending about a week or more in the area, and three nights at a minimum. Remember to factor in bad weather and possible transport delays when booking.

Churchill, Manitoba, Canada - November 10, 2019 : Welcome sign for Churchill, Manitoba, Canada karenfoleyphotography / Shutterstock.com
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