What it’s like to visit the polar bear capital of the world
Swim with curious belugas, spot majestic polar bears nursing cubs and see the Northern Lights dance across the night sky in the remote Canadian town of Churchill.
I am on a large blue mat attached to a Zodiac floating in the middle of Churchill River with my head plunged under the icy cold water when I come face to face with a smiling beluga whale. I pull my head out of the water on reflex before diving back under again to see the ghostly white silhouettes of a pod of belugas rhythmically swimming in crisscross formation underneath us. It’s called AquaGliding and it is just one of many unforgettable experiences I’m about to have in Canada’s remote northern Manitoba town of Churchill.
What to expect in Churchill
Churchill is known as the ‘polar bear capital of the world’ (you can even get your passport stamped stating as such at the post office) but the beluga whales are the star of the summer season. Over 60,000 belugas migrate to the Hudson Bay and nearby rivers throughout June to August to birth their young and dine on the plentiful supply of capelin in the Churchill River. The curious, ghostly white whales with their distinctive bulbous melons and seemingly ever-smiling grin will swim around and under your boat in the hundreds – some with slate-coloured baby belugas surfacing alongside them.
That’s not to say you won’t also see the world’s largest land predator in the summertime. The best chance you have of spotting a polar bear is from the water. If you’re patient you’ll see their perfectly camouflaged form shift in the tundra, or spot them swimming with their cubs in the icy Hudson Bay waters, and occasionally lounging lazily in the striking purple fireweed outside of town.
The Northern Lights
Polar bears and belugas are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the list of life-changing experiences to be had in Churchill. The town is also in the centre of what is called the northern hemisphere’s zone of maximum auroral activity – which means you’re highly likely to see the Aurora Borealis (aka northern lights) dance across the sky on a clear night. Lazy Bear Lodge offers a wake-up call for guests when the conditions are just right for the shimmering whitish-green light to make its appearance in the early hours of the morning (peak viewing season is late November through to March).
Churchill also has a rich history that includes the First Nation tribes of the Inuit, Cree and Dene, the Hudson Bay fur trade era and the painful displacement of the First Nations and the attempts to make amends through the treaties that have followed.
From Winnipeg to Churchill
My trip to Churchill with Lazy Bear Expeditions begins in Mantioba’s capital Winnipeg – a city that loves its food, museums and galleries almost as much as it loves its ice hockey team, the Winnipeg Jets. We spend our first night at the Inn at The Forks before taking a morning charter flight to Churchill. In the space of 2.5 hours we go from sunny, clear blue skies and sprawling green fields to the overcast, swampy-looking overhead view of Churchill’s tundra. Summer days in Churchill can look awfully similar to both a gloomy Sydney winter’s day and a sunny, warm one, but that’s what’s to be expected of summer in the Arctic.
Staying at Lazy Bear Lodge
Arriving at Lazy Bear Lodge is akin to stepping foot inside a fairy tale. The only way it could be more idyllic is if it was covered in snow. Every inch of the lodge appears to be assembled from logs of wood: the walls, ceiling, floors, doors and reception are all aglow with the rich warm brown of the wood in the reflecting light of the fire that is crackling in the communal living area. There is a world map taped to the wall with pins pushed into locations from visitors who have made their way here from all over the globe. I add mine to the one other pin stuck in Sydney.
Just past the reception is the Lazy Bear Cafe – famous for its thickshakes, coffee, burgers and daily specials that include caribou, Arctic char and elk, to name a few. The rooms are spread over two levels and are as equally charming in character as the rest of the lodge.
Dreamcatchers hang above the two double beds, a coffee pod machine is set up and stocked with pods and tea on the bench below the television, a small window looks out over Churchill’s main street, Kelsey Boulevard, and the private bathroom is heated (which I quickly come to appreciate after a long day out on the water in the wind).
Exploring the town
We layer up and head out on the first of our included activities for the afternoon: the cultural and heritage tour. With a population of somewhere between 700 to 900 people, Churchill is the very definition of a small, remote town. A charter flight or a two-day train journey from Winnipeg is the only way to reach this part of Canada. The train only became operational again in December 2018 after severe flooding washed out the tracks in 20 different places and caused the only landlink out of town to remain closed for 18 months. It became a defining moment in Churchill’s more recent history, one that almost broke it. The cost of living skyrocketed, tourism fell, businesses struggled to stay afloat and many locals were forced to relocate. But with the reopening of the railway line the struggling town is thriving once again.
The Polar Bear Holding Facility
The Polar Bear Holding Facility (or the polar bear prison as it is known to locals) is one of the first – and most controversial – stops on our tour. Every year when the sea ice breaks, polar bears are forced to retreat into the Hudson Bay shores until mid-November to late July when they can return to the sea ice again to hunt for food. The facility was built to house hungry bears who repeatedly make their way into town and threaten the safety of residents. An event that happens frequently enough for it to be common practice to keep all property unlocked in town should you encounter a stray bear and need to find shelter – quickly. These polar bears are captured by trained staff and remain in the holding facility until they can be safely released out on the ice again away from the town.
Mural spotting in Churchill
On the back of the holding facility is a mural of a sleeping polar bear painted on corrugated iron by Kal Barteski for the 2017 SeaWalls CHURCHILL project which brought 18 artists from all over the world to paint 19 murals on a mix of abandoned buildings, military ruins and bunkers along the foreshore of the Hudson Bay with one goal in mind: to highlight the importance of ocean conservation. The finished works are hauntingly beautiful. One of the most memorable murals is Emergency Transmission by Pat Perry, which features an animal and human skull lying in a bed of flowers painted on one side of Miss Piggy – a Curtis C-46 Commando cargo plane wreck.
Wildlife experiences in Churchill
After spending the better part of the morning AquaGliding with beluga whales, I can’t imagine how the other up close and personal wildlife experiences on offer at Lazy Bear Expeditions are going to stack up, but I’m about to find out.
Polar bear sightings
The Sam Hearne is a custom-made coastal boat that allows passengers to explore the shallow waters of the Hudson Bay to see polar bears and hundreds more curious belugas. Once we’re out on the water it takes the trained eye of Wally, owner and operator of Lazy Bear Expeditions, to spot the first polar bear camouflaged in the tundra. We spot the nose lifted high in the air, eagerly sniffing for food (they can sniff out a seal up to 1.6 kilometres away), then it rises from behind the rocks and lazily walks out into the open with a curious, clumsy cub following behind. We sit and watch for what feels like an age, each of us praying it decides to make its way down to the water to give us a closer look. The mum decides to nurse her cub instead, and eventually disappears from view once again.
Exploring the tundra in the safety of the Arctic Crawler renews our hope of seeing more of these gigantic beasts in the wild. The vehicle is designed to traverse the difficult terrain of the tundra. It’s not uncommon for curious bears to hang off the side of the crawler to get a better look at what’s inside. We aren’t so lucky, but our guide, Jason, is a walking encyclopedia on all things Churchill, so there isn’t a dull moment onboard.
Dog sledding in the boreal forest
In the winter dog sledding looks a little different. There’s snow for one, but in the summer it is equally enjoyable. It’s late in the afternoon when we pile into the van to head into the boreal forest to the location of Bluesky Expeditions to meet Gerald Azure and his excitable pack of dogs.
We learn about the history of dog sledding in Northern Canada and how the dogs are cared for before we take turns sitting at the back of the sled as the dogs, led by Gerald, pull us along the trails of Joe Bach’s Ridge. For the first time during the trip the sky is clear enough to see the clouds change into hues of bright pink and orange as the sun sets. It’s an exhilarating ride.
After the ride we retreat to the nearby tent for hot chocolate (with a sneaky shot of Baileys) and a slice of homemade bannock to be regaled with more tales of dog sledding adventures before heading back to the lodge for the evening.
Kayaking with belugas
It’s the final morning in Churchill and we’re headed out to the river again to get some last minute kayaking in before departing. The belugas are less curious today without the humming of the Zodiac to draw their attention.
The most curious of the pod pokes his head out of the water and pauses for a good look around – a skill that is unique to beluga whales as their neck isn’t fused together as it is in other whale species. At the same time I turn to notice a two-metre glowing white shadow underneath the back of my kayak. For a moment I wonder if anyone has ever been knocked out of the kayak by an overly excited beluga but she quickly loses interest and disappears as suddenly as she arrived.
Its peaceful out on the river. The sky is overcast, the wind is still and the quietness is frequently punctuated by the whooshing sound of the belugas forcibly exhaling air out their blowhole – often in unison – as they break the surface before diving back under once more. It’s moments like this that sum up the wild beauty of Churchill. It gets under your skin and stays with you long after you’ve returned home.
The Northern Mush: Introduction to Dog Sledding Tour starts at $100 per person and is offered year round.
Air Canada flies direct from Sydney to Vancouver with a connecting flight to Winnipeg.