Churchill

Overview

Introduction

Churchill has become famous as the polar bear capital of the world. This is the only easily accessible human settlement where the great bears can be seen in the wild. With their numbers now dropping (to some 900 from 1,200 just a decade ago, thanks to global warming), travelers eager to see these majestic animals are well-advised not to put off a wildlife-viewing trip of a lifetime.

Located in the far northern part of Manitoba on Hudson Bay, Churchill can be reached only by air or VIA Rail, Canada's national rail line. We suggest you fly—the train trip from Winnipeg takes about 36 hours, and the flight lasts only two to three hours. You also can drive for eight hours—longer if you stop to take in some of the northern boreal forest scenery such as picturesque Pisew Falls—to the small cities of Thompson or Gillam, where you can catch the train or a short flight to Churchill.)

In peak season (late October-early December), hundreds of polar bears pass close to the town on their way up Hudson Bay. Occasionally, bears wander into town. The bears can weigh 1,500 lb/400 kg and stand 12 ft/4 m tall; local residents routinely take quick peeks around building corners before moving along the town's streets at night.

The way most people view the bears is on one of the tundra-vehicle tours of the area. Tundra vehicles look like lunar rovers: Sitting on huge balloon tires, they carry you high above the ground so you can safely photograph the bears. They join into convoys with other vehicles (a rolling diner and bunkhouses) for extended tours of the area. Though there is a small chance of seeing the bears as early as July, late fall is the best time to visit. That's when the largest numbers of bears are found on the tundra outside town. The few hotels in the area book up to a year in advance, so plan ahead.

Bears aren't the whole story in Churchill. The area also is a nesting ground for hundreds of birds, including a variety of hawks and falcons, the harlequin duck and the rare Ross' gull. Bird Cove is an excellent spot to observe the activity. In the summer, visitors can watch some 3,000 beluga whales—the largest single concentration of these gentle giants in the world—crowd the mouth of the Churchill and Seal rivers. (There are a total of 57,000 belugas in the larger area that encompasses the western side of Hudson Bay.) Boat tours to view whales and seals are available. Some tours even let you snorkel (in a dry suit) or kayak with the animals—in 38 F/3 C water.

Churchill is a good place to see the northern lights. The best time of the year to observe them is January-March, although the phenomenon occurs September-April, too. The Churchill Northern Studies Centre gives courses on northern astronomy to teach you about the northern lights.

There is more than just natural wonders in Churchill. The Eskimo Museum contains Inuit carvings and artifacts. There also are two historic military sites: Cape Merry National Historic Site is the remains of a gun emplacement from the mid-1700s, and the Prince of Wales' Fort is a restored stone fortress begun in 1731 by the Hudson's Bay Co. (The fort's 40-ft-/12-m-thick walls took 40 years to complete.) Just a short way upstream from the fort is Sloop's Cove: Once a harbor for sloops, it's now a meadow surrounded by rocks that still have iron mooring rings in them. Find explorer Samuel Hearne's signature etched in the rock. 1,200 mi/1,930 km north of Winnipeg.

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