Photograph by Michio Hoshino/Minden Pictures/Corbis
No paved roads lead directly into the tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba, on the remote, southwestern shores of Hudson Bay, so you'll have to arrive by train or plane to see the area's most famous seasonal residents—polar bears. Each fall, about a thousand migrate to Churchill, earning it the nickname the "polar bear capital of the world." Here, the planet's largest land carnivores await winter, when the bay freezes and they can perch on the ice and hunt for ringed seals. Summertime brings thousands of migrating beluga whales to the town's coast—and a new reason to visit.
"Nowhere else in the world can you have interactions with beluga whales that you can have here in Churchill," says Michael Goodyear, executive director of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. "During the summer there's literally thousands of beluga whales in the estuary." In fact, the whales, which start migrating here after wintering in the high Arctic, outnumber Churchill's human population of around a thousand three to one. The sheer wealth of wildlife overwhelms. Says tour guide Neil Mumby, "The term 'bucket list' is used a lot here."
When to Go: Climate change has altered the seasons in Churchill and with it, the animal migrations, Goodyear says. For visitors, that means adjusting your travel plans accordingly. Polar bears that once arrived in October now generally wait for the Hudson Bay freeze in November to early December. Customized Tundra Buggies shepherd clients (safely) into the path of migrating polar bears. Reservations are a must, as many services are fully booked. Churchill's summer season now begins in late June and can run into early September, when beluga whales show up by the thousands in Churchill River estuary during long days of sunshine.
How to Get Around: In winter, the only way to see polar bears is by Tundra Buggy tours offered by operators like Frontiers North and Churchill Wild. In summer, the newest activity in town, snorkeling with the whales, can be arranged through Lazy Bear Lodge or Sea North Tours. Whenever you visit, bring waterproof hiking boots. Most anywhere in town is within walking distance and, depending on the season, you're going to encounter dirt, mud, slush, ice, or snow.
Where to Stay: Churchill's hotels book up fast during polar bear season, so reserve months ahead. Accommodation is basic but centrally located, often with Wi-Fi and attached restaurants. Aurora Inn, Lazy Bear Lodge, Tundra Inn, and Seaport Hotel are some good options. If the town is too urban for you, consider Wat'Chee Expeditions, a former navy communications base 40 miles away. Polar bear enthusiasts will relish a stay at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, which hosts guests in two sleeper cars deep in the tundra, right in bear country. The customized 330-foot-long, elevated lodge has open decks, serves locally sourced dishes in its restaurant, and holds nightly talks by bear experts.
What to Eat or Drink: Considering Churchill's relative isolation, dining options will satisfy most visitors. Restaurants attached to Seaport Hotel and Tundra Inn serve pub fare, while Lazy Bear Lodge's menu features sirloin of muskox rouladen, pan-fried Hudson Bay speckled trout, and Arctic char. At Gypsy's Bakery and Restaurant, the Da Silva family has sold fresh-baked Portuguese bread rolls (papa secos), pierogies, and regional specialties like Manitoba pickerel for 25 years. Ask them to pack box meals for your buggy and boat rides.
What to Buy: Beyond the obligatory polar bear and beluga whale souvenirs, Churchill also offers outstanding Inuit art gathered from top northern artists around the country. For these and other northern products, it's well worth visiting stores such as the Arctic Trading Company, Northern Images, and Here Be Bears.
What to Read Before You Go: The World of the Polar Bear (Firefly Books, 2010). This updated third edition of renowned nature photographer Norbert Rosing's intimate, season-by-season portrayal of Canada's iconic and endangered bear and its changing habitat combines stunning, full-page photography with personal insights.
Fun Fact: If it looks like a beluga whale is turning to look up at you from the water, you're probably right. Not only are belugas among the most vocal cetaceans (early whalers called them sea canaries), they are the only whales with a flexible neck. Unlike other whales, the beluga's seven neck vertebrae aren't fused, making it possible for a beluga to nod and turn its head.
Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.
Canada's Country Unbound: Civilization and Nature in Harmony
2015 Traveler Photo Contest
Do you have what it takes to win? Submit your best shots today and find out.