The tiny community of Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay may not have a big human population (less than 1,000 people), but its polar bear population ranks among the largest in the world. Experience why the Polar Bear Capital of the World makes such an appealing four-seasons destination through these 18 photos.
While it’s possible to fly into Churchill from Winnipeg, many travelers choose the scenic route. The Winnipeg-Churchill train – the only dry land connection to the community on the Hudson Bay – makes the 1,063-mile journey in about two days. The station in Churchill was designated a national heritage railway station and houses a small Parks Canada museum.
There’s plenty in the way of wildlife in and around Churchill, but the mighty polar bear ranks as the most popular sighting. Come autumn, polar bears leave their summer homes on the sub-arctic tundra and arrive on the shores of the Hudson Bay.
Here, they wait for the waters to freeze so they can venture out onto the ice to hunt for seals. The part of the bay near Churchill is among the first to freeze, making it one of the best places to see polar bears in the wild.
Travelers to Churchill have the chance to spot polar bears from the safety and comfort of a heated tundra vehicle. These rough and tough buggies can navigate the rocky terrain, and have an outdoor viewing platform where you can get a better view of the bears.
With so many bears around, Churchill residents have to take special efforts to keep themselves and the bears safe. When a hungry bear wanders too close to town, residents can call a 24-hour hotline to report the bear.
Conservation staff will try to scare the bear away, and if that doesn’t work, it is brought to the Polar Bear Holding Facility to be held until it can be relocated and released back into the wild. During a busy year, the hotline might receive more than 300 calls.
Most bears get released once the bay freezes over, when they can go hunt for seals instead of sniffing around town for food. When it’s time to release a bear, the animal is tranquilized and air lifted by helicopter away from town.
Another big, white mammal takes the spotlight during summers in Churchill: the beluga whale. From June to September, these white whales make their way into Hudson Bay and the Churchill River to feed and give birth. Visitors can observe these “canaries of the sea” (known for their whistles and chirps) by kayaking, standup paddle boarding or on a boat tour.
While the mammals might get the lion’s share of attention in Churchill, the area is known among birdwatchers as a bucket list destination. Some 390 species have been recorded in Manitoba, and birders can expect to see nearly 100 species in a single trip during the summer months.
Even on a polar bear expedition, it’s possible to spot willow ptarmigans and the occasional snowy owl.
If you think of the subarctic tundra as a barren wasteland, you’re wrong. More than 500 vascular plant species grow in the Churchill area. Another good reason to visit Churchill in summer? Wildflowers!
So what brought Europeans to this land of polar bears? A visit to Prince of Wales Fort gives some historical insight. The fort, built some 250 years ago on the shores of Hudson Bay, was used as a fur trading outpost for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
While the ancestors of the Inuit had lived and hunted in this region for centuries, the French company was the first to establish a permanent settlement.
Spend some time in Churchill, and you’ll likely notice a series of murals spanning the shores of the Hudson Bay. The SeaWalls CHURCHILL mural project was started as a way to educate and inspire the community and travelers to protect the oceans. Each piece takes inspiration from the natural history, community, resiliency and heritage of Churchill.
The British steamship MV Ithaka broke a rudder and ran aground in September 1960. Today, the rusted wreck attracts curious travelers and photographers. At low tide, it’s possible to hike out to the WWI-era ghost ship.
In 1979, a Curtiss C-46 freight plane, known as Miss Piggy, crashed near the Churchill airport without a single fatality. According to local lore, the crashed plane got its name due to the fact that it was overloaded at the time of its crash. American artist Pat Perry painted the plane as part of the SeaWalls CHURCHILL project.
During Churchill’s longest, darkest nights (typically January through March), the small town becomes one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights. This natural wonder, caused by solar wind colliding with the atmosphere, creates a colorful spectacle across the night sky.
Another solar optical phenomenon you might see in Churchill in winter is the sun dog. This occurs when the sun is low in the sky and its light refracts off tiny ice crystals suspended in the air, creating a prism effect. You’re most likely to see a sun dog on cold, dry days.
Like many northern communities, dogs have long played an important role in Churchill’s history. Sled teams were once the most efficient way to transport goods and mail in the winter months. During the winter, travelers to Churchill can experience the rush of mushing across the tundra and through the boreal forest.