48 Hours in Churchill, Manitoba: How to make the most of your adventures in the tundra
Now that you can get there by train again, here's why you would
Once you arrive in Churchill, its location may feel quintessentially Canadian to you; gaze out to the vastness of Hudson Bay where it meets the wide mouth of the Churchill River. From June to September, the river mouth teems with 3,000 beluga whales, enjoying their summertime "hangout".
Churchill, Manitoba might be as famous for its wind chill factor as its belugas and polar bears. Full disclosure, I visited Churchill — home to the "King of the Arctic", the polar bear — at the invitation of Polar Bears International. Located more than 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, by train you'll travel 1,710 km from start to finish, winding through The Pas, Thompson and then onward north to its terminus.
Making your way there
No roads lead to Churchill; rail and air are the only ways to go (or dogsled or barge, if you're a real adventurer). Until December 2018, the railway was inaccessible for 19 long months – the track had been damaged by floods and was left unrepaired until it was purchased in a private-public partnership that got the trains running again. The flight from Winnipeg is a comfortable two hours, or a two day-train journey takes passengers through stark yet stunning Manitoba terrain.
First afternoon: Northern scenes
Whether you arrive in Churchill by plane or train, you'll be ready for some fresh air and be keen to get your bearings. Head up Bay Shore Road towards the water's edge for a close look at an Inukshuk and views of Hudson Bay.
On the same road, visit local stores like the Arctic Trading Company for locally made handicrafts and clothing items, including moccasins, mukluks and mittens.
Make a visit to the Parks Canada Visitor Centre located in the historic train station, and learn about the National Parks and historic sites in the area, as well as Indigenous culture and what life in the North is all about. Curious travellers often like to visit local grocery stores and Churchill should be no exception; it's amazing to think about the effort that goes into delivering fresh food supplies to remote communities.
First evening: Live like a local
Head to the Tundra Inn Dining Room and Pub for hearty and delicious food that rivals any big city restaurant. For local fare, try the Elk Meatloaf or Manitoba pickerel, or their very tasty Borealis vegetarian burger, made in-house. Depending on the night, you might be lucky to catch an open mic night or live music.
Don't forget to look at the night skies during the winter months. Churchill is an excellent location for seeing the Northern Lights.
Next day: Get out and explore
In July and August, you can make a trip across the mouth of the Churchill River (teeming with upwards of 3,000 beluga whales between June and September) to visit the Prince of Wales National Historic Site. It was built by the Hudson's Bay Company more than 250 years ago, and today serves as a stunning location to explore the rocky terrain.
In October and November, polar bears flock to the Churchill area, as it's the perfect home base to wait for the ice to arrive on Hudson Bay. Polar Bears basically fast throughout the summer months (the small prey they hunt are like eating snacks for sustenance) and use sea ice as a platform to find seals, the food that fuels them all winter long. There's roughly 900 polar bears in the entire Western Hudson Bay Region (the same number as people living in Churchill), and many of them will approach the shoreline in anticipation of the annual freeze up so they can feast.
On Halloween, a special patrol is put in place to let young trick or treaters roam the town with ease. If you're visiting in the late fall, a Tundra Buggy tour gives you an opportunity to see polar bears in their natural environment, in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. During Polar Bear season, you can go online and check out the Polar Bear Cam, a live view of the tundra, letting armchair travelers catch a glimpse of tundra wildlife in real time.
The tundra buggies were built specifically to navigate the snowy terrain, offering a near bird's eye view of the environment, and keeping visitors a safe height from the bears, who can reach 3 metres high on their hind legs, with paws the size of dinner plates.
Second evening: Get cozy
Back in Churchill, head to the Lazy Bear Café, located in the Lazy Bear Lodge. Local, made from scratch specialties include Arctic Char (from the waters of Hudson Bay, naturally) and Braised Peppered Elk.
Tip: Ask a local about the "polar bear jail" on the outskirts of town, or the story behind the 10 p.m. curfew siren, which is still in operation.
Final day: Time to explore town
If you're visiting in the winter, bundle up and head to Wapusk Adventures just outside of town for some dog sledding in a northern boreal forest. Dave Daley will share tales of his dog sledding adventure from Churchill to Winnipeg, then you'll have the chance to get out on a slide on their "Ididamile" trail ride.
In the summer, take a zodiac, boat, kayak or paddleboard ride on the Churchill River for a close glimpse of beluga whales. And don't forget to look up once in a while - in the spring and fall, more than 250 species of birds pass through Churchill on their annual migration.
No matter the season, Churchill's rich outdoor adventures are a rewarding way to explore this near-Arctic northern town.
Paula Worthington is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer based in Alberta, focusing on quick escapes and off the beaten path adventures. Follow her journeys @p_worthington and www.wanderswild.com.