While reading an article on the best places to see the Northern Lights, we stumbled upon Churchill, Manitoba…the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World.’ Churchill, Manitoba is the first place for ice to freeze on the Hudson Bay. Thus, every October/November season, polar bears congregate on the shores and lazily await the ice to begin seal hunting. A chance to come within feet of a polar bear sounds like our type of trip!
How to Get There
Getting to Churchill takes commitment. Basically, there are two options 1) A very expensive flight on Calm Air from Winnipeg (approximately $1500 CAD) or 2) a long train journey on VIA Rail Canada. The train is significantly cheaper at around $500 CAD but it’s a 2 day train journey from Winnipeg. No roads exist to drive to Churchill. Our grand plan was to travel by car from Winnipeg to Thompson, Manitoba and then take the train making it only an overnight on a train versus those 2 long days (with no internet) ….costing around $150 CAD for the rental and $150 CAD for the train. We were derailed (train pun) when consecutive blizzards shut the tracks down for a couple years for repairs which became a nightmare for the residents of Churchill which you can read about here: Via Rail Hudson Bay Railway suspended, our wonderfully crafted itinerary crumbled and we forked over the cash for Calm Air.
When you arrive to Churchill, you are greeted by this sign. It’s enthralling as the bears are the reason for the lengthy trek…though it instills a justified trepidation. Our B&B host at Berg’s Bed and Breakfast picked us up and showed us around town. With a population around 900, it’s a quick tour. We could easily explore the small town of Churchill via foot though it’s unnerving knowing you could spy a polar bear around the next corner. Lodging here is quite basic. Expect no frills but great hospitality and you must book early. We planned our trip pretty late in the game (read: about 8 months in advance), but Churchill easily fills a year out. We were pretty lucky to secure a room. We stayed at Berg’s Bed and Breakfast which has 3 rentable rooms.
Note It appears that this accommodation has closed, so here’s link to other possible accommodations in Churchill, MB. The Tundra Inn and Iceberg Inn are always popular though fill quickly and we were also intrigued by Blue Sky Bed and Breakfast which is a little outside of town and also offers dogsledding.
The Tundra Buggy
Lodging really wasn’t of importance to us…you’re enduring the brisk temperatures and lack of amenities for polar bears…in their natural environment. Does it get any cooler than that? We chose Great White Bear Tours for our excursion on a tundra buggy. For those unfamiliar, this is a supersized vehicle with enormous tires equipped with a viewing platform on the back. The advantage of using a tour operator is that very few are allowed in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area which can increase your odds of seeing a bear.
After an hour of slowly maneuvering the buggy through slush, our tour guide spied a plodding shape in the distance…a ‘potato chip in the snow’ as they nickname the sighting. Admittedly, I had tried to manage expectations. We’ve done many a whale tour to see a small flash of gray on the water’s surface allegedly representing a whale. Slowly the shape came closer and most decidedly was a polar bear loping toward the buggy. Words will fail to adequately describe this beautiful bear and how small you feel as you can feel his exhalation and look directly into his eyes. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Self Tour in A Rental
Another way to experience the polar bear is via rental car. No one has informed the bears they must stay in the Wildlife Management Area…so they can be anywhere and you might get lucky (as we did) and spot a few. Or…become obsessed with driving back and forth over the same roads monotonously as there were rumors of a mom and 2 cubs roaming (no luck). This is another area where booking early is needed as there are maybe a handful of cars to rent in this remote area. We used Tamarack Rentals. Expect to pay ~ $125 CAD daily and a fistful of cash for refueling. Also, do not expect a luxury type rental in great working order…we used a screwdriver to push the automatic window button on the driver’s side to operate the window, listening to the one CD we could find on repeat as obviously there was no radio!
We learned of Churchill via an article to see the Northern Lights. It snowed…and snowed during our entire trip. We didn’t once see the sun or have a clear night so no Northern Lights for us. Six polar bears though surely were a good consolation!
The tundra buggy. Yes, you can rent a car, but this buggy (think a monster sized monster truck) lets you get within inches of the bears and it’s fitted with an outdoor viewing platform so you aren’t observing them through a window. It’s not cheap (~ $475 CAD for a day trip including lunch) but definitely splurge-worthy. Funnily enough, our fellow tourists had these cannon sized cameras. But…the bears came so close that they had to abandon their tripods and scramble for an iPhone to snap a photo!
A Halloween visit. Children at night smack dab in the midst of a polar bear migration path could be disastrous. This holiday is the day for the children of Churchill to roam the streets! On this holiday, a perimeter is formed around the town with fire/police/ambulance to safeguard the very small town and helicopters survey overhead so the children can go trick or treating without fear of stumbling upon a hungry polar bear. Of interest, car doors are kept unlocked in case they are needed for a quick escape and there’s no dressing like a ghost so you aren’t mistaken for a bear!
- The train really does seem like quite an adventure. It’s rumored to have beautiful scenery and a days long train journey seems unique compared to the often cattle call of air travel.
- Private tour guides often meet their customers for the day at Gypsy’s Cafe. One little trick would be to follow their tour in your rental car. They often radio the best spots to each other