Along the southwest shores of Hudson Bay lies Churchill, Manitoba, which hosts the annual migration of the planet’s biggest land predators. At the top corners of Northern Canada, Churchill stands alone as the “polar bear capital of the world,” with more than 1,000 bears in this single geographical area. Churchill boasts more polar bears than people! In this frozen tundra, you’ll come face to face in the wild with these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat to watch the males “spar,” the females tend to their young, and all graze in search of food.
I was hosted by Tourism Winnipeg, Travel Manitoba, and Heartland International Travel and Tours, but my opinions are my own.
Here are some of the things I wished I knew before embarking on this incredible journey.
1. Layer Up
The wind is fierce. Bring clothes to layer like hoodies, t-shirts, a neck warmer, and extra socks. Pack two of everything, like two hats, two pairs of gloves, and an extra scarf. When I embarked on this bucket list experience, the temperature was mild, just over 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The next week the high was only going to be 14 degrees Fahrenheit. However, add in the wind, and the outdoor temperatures can be daunting when you go outside on the viewing platform to take pictures.
Pro Tip: I suggest wearing thin gloves under your mittens so you can manipulate your camera without exposing your skin.
The temperature in the tundra buggy changes. It’s quite warm and cozy, but once the windows are opened for viewing all the action, it quickly gets colder, and you find yourself adding extra layers of clothing. A few minutes later, the buggy warms up and then you find yourself taking the extra clothing off. Just be mindful that you’ll have to do this several times throughout the day.
2. Moisturize And Stay Hydrated
Bring lip balm, and moisturizer because the cooler air does tend to make you feel dry. Wear sunglasses as well as they protect against the wind. Drink lots of water during the day to keep up your fluid intake. Don’t worry — there’s a bathroom on board.
3. Pack Chargers
Take extra battery chargers for your phone and memory cards for your cameras. The chilly air makes the batteries run down more quickly. There’s nothing worse than wanting to capture that perfect shot and then your battery goes dead.
4. Bring Binoculars
Bring binoculars so you get a better view of the action as the bears “spar” in the wilderness. Things tend to move quickly in nature and your experience will be that much richer when you’re able to catch the smaller details. Although you’ll have a chance to go outside on the viewing deck, some of the best scenes will be enjoyed through the windows of the tundra buggy, too.
5. Walk Through Churchill
Churchill is a small town but take the opportunity to experience the local culture. Make sure to see the beautiful and colorful murals. Named the “Sea Walls” project, 18 amazing artists from around the world came to Churchill and created massive murals on local buildings along the shores of Hudson Bay. The murals initially began with a focus on protecting the ocean but have been expanded to include all aspects of the environment.
6. Buy Local
Support the locals by shopping in town. Buy some soapstone sculptures, Inuit carvings, stuffed polar bears, and other locally-made goods. Moccasins always make great gifts. Try the grocery store, North Mart, for unique souvenirs and candy.
There’s also a great gift shop in the airport called Polar Bear Wear that stays open until the last charter flight departs. If you haven’t found a tee shirt or hoodie you wanted in town, this is a great chance to buy a lasting memento of your trip.
7. Learn About the Polar Bears Before You Go
Polar bears are marine mammals. They remain on the sea ice where they hunt their main prey, the ringed seal, the most abundant seal in the Arctic. They eat one of these seals every three to four days to bulk up for the winter, and usually snack on berries, mushrooms, and red kelp in between. While polar bears hunt on the ice year-round, they are forced ashore until the ice freezes in the fall.
8. The Variety Of Terrains
In addition to the magnificent wildlife, what I also found incredible about this adventure is the number of different terrains you see while riding in the tundra buggy. One minute you pass by tree-dotted landscapes, the next minute the terrain is covered in a blanket of ice and snow. A few minutes later, you see a collection of large, jagged rocks and stones that are remnants from the Ice Age.
9. Stop In Winnipeg Before Or After Your Journey
Many travelers combine a trip to Churchill with a stop in Winnipeg where indigenous culture, fascinating museums, gourmet dining, and a warm, friendly vibe are waiting for you. Located on the banks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, this delightful metropolis is the capital city of the province of Manitoba. Winnipeg is a four-season destination with each season offering exciting recreational activities. There are even a few you’ve probably never heard of like riding ice cycles and kick sleds.
Canadian Museum of Human Rights
One of the highlights of the city is the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, the only museum in the world dedicated to human rights issues. Founder Israel Asper wanted to build a family-friendly museum to educate people about the struggle for human rights around the world. Designed by architect Antoine Predock from Albuquerque, New Mexico, this unique structure opened in 2014 and serves as the icon of the city. It must be noted that the museum is located on ancestral lands, treaty one territory.
The museum offers interactive exhibits that teach about the various kinds of human rights violations from indigenous people, black Canadians, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and the Holocaust. It certainly gives one pause for thought for all marginalized people. At the top of the building, you can go out to Israel’s tower and gaze out at the magnificent Winnipeg skyline.
Forks National Historic Site
Forks National Historic Site has been a meeting place for 6,000 years. Yes, you read that right. Forks is actually where Winnipeg started with the Aboriginal groups. This gave way to the railroads in the prairies, which contributed to the city’s vast growth, and Union Station, which still operates VIA passenger rail today.
Inside Forks Market is a collection of restaurants from around the world, including Caribbean, Asian fusion, and my personal favorite, fish & chips. On the second floor, you’ll find Manitobah Mukluks filled with all kinds of indigenous goods from moccasins to boots to tapestries and more. Look for live music and other performances at the plaza.
One must-visit is Thermea — an outdoor Nordic spa just a few miles from downtown Winnipeg. Here you will find a unique relaxation and rejuvenation experience in nature using a series of hot, cold, and resting rituals. Starting at $77 for the day, this multisensory experience will help you connect to nature and creates the ultimate sense of well-being.
Pro Tip: The Travel Manitoba Visitor Information Centre is located right outside the Forks Market. Check them out for expert trip-planning services around the province.
Bonus Information On Churchill Polar Bears
The only way to get there is by plane from Winnipeg or an exceptionally long train ride. The best way to experience the polar bears is with a licensed tour company to safely lead the group.
If you long for adventure but are short on time, check out the Heartland International inspiring, one-day journey to Churchill. Departing via a chartered jet in Winnipeg (October to November), you leave early in the morning, land in Churchill, and drive to the launch pad. You’ll spend the day in a comfortable, heated tundra buggy driving around the terrain looking for polar bears, foxes, and other wildlife. Wait, is that a silver fox? Everyone gathers around and someone with a camera and a very long lens snaps a picture. Yes indeed, it is a silver fox, all curled up, taking a nap. The group runs outside to take pictures.
Pro Tip: There were people on the buggy that used crutches and had other mobility issues, but they were helped onboard and could enjoy the experience.
Our knowledgeable guide, Trevor, told us that there are three kinds of bears in North America: black bears, brown bears, and polar bears. Only in Churchill can you spot all three. We also came across a red Artic fox that stood out against the landscape. In the warmer weather, Churchill draws explorers looking to spot beluga whales, bird watching, and eagles.
Then the tundra buggy circles around to another area where two polar bears have been spotted, sparring in the snow, their way of playing. Trevor told us that only the males engage in this type of behavior, similar to roughhousing by teenage boys.
When the buggy stops after a polar bear sighting, the riders head out to an outdoor viewing area to take pictures. Sometimes a polar bear will approach the buggy, curious as to what it is. Polar bears are not good climbers, so they can’t reach the viewing deck.
As the sun sets, you enjoy dinner in Churchill, shop for a few souvenirs in town, and fly back to Winnipeg the same day. All too soon, you’re on your flight back with visions of polar bears etched forever in your mind. It’s the easiest way to encounter all of Churchill’s wonders in a short amount of time.
According to the Northern Lights Aura application, it was prime time to see the aurora borealis or Northern Lights at night. We could see them as we were flying home.
If you have more time to spend exploring, Heartland International also offers multi-day packages that include dogsledding, coastal roads/hidden trail tours, and another day in the tundra buggy.
Looking back on my grand adventure to Churchill, I am filled with wonder about the natural phenomenon I witnessed in this fragile ecosystem. I can’t wait to return.