Churchill, an isolated town in Manitoba’s northern Hudson Bay coastline, is a magnet for outdoor adventurers and nature lovers. Experiencing Churchill’s natural wonder triumvirate –swimming with belugas, shooting the Northern Lights and seeing polar bears spar—is possible on the same trip, depending on the season. But if you don’t see all three phenomena, trust us, after one visit you’ll want to return anyway. This place has a distinct winter, spring, summer and fall.
Sight to See: Northern Lights
Best time to go: February-March
It’s 2 a.m. and -20 degrees Celsius outside. The northern sky is clear and the darkness thick. A fluorescent green swirl unfurls across the black. Suddenly, it’s as though someone flipped on the light switch, and the entire sky illuminates with ethereal sheets of emerald green. Churchill is one of the best places on earth for viewing Aurora Borealis because of its location directly under the aurora oval. Mother Nature can perform any night of the year, but midwinter has the clearest skies to maximize your chances. Choose your viewing style: get a 360-degree view under an aurora dome at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre; recline your chair in the custom-designed Aurora Pod; or view from the observation deck of a warm Tundra Buggy on the frozen Churchill River; or visit a remote Churchill Wild eco lodge far from civilization.
Wildlife to See: Birds
Best time to go: May-June
Pack your binoculars and field guide. More than 250 species of Arctic birds and ducks nest or pass over the Churchill River estuary on the coast of Hudson Bay on their annual spring migration. Guided land tours from outfitters such as Nature 1st takes birders to local haunts to catch glimpses of red-throated loons, arctic terns, eiders, sanderlings, plovers, long-tailed jaegers, snow geese and gulls. The most elusive on the list is the rare Ross’s gull. Depending on conditions, a boat tour on the water is a more adventurous way to look for birds, while dodging artful ice floes.
Wildlife to See: Beluga Whales
Best time to go: July-August
Summer in Churchill welcomes droves of a white mammal...but it’s not what you’re thinking. The western Hudson Bay population of beluga whales is estimated at 58,000, and thousands of those enter nearby the Churchill and Seal estuaries for feeding and breeding. Don a snorkel and wetsuit or drysuit, and float face down in cool sub-arctic waters. Soon distant squeaks and whistles are heard, and then out of the depths a ghostly beluga whale brushes past or slows to check you out. Or jump in a kayak to paddle out towards Hudson Bay. Gasp when you realize those whitecaps are actually a pod of belugas joining your kayak. Companies such as Sea North Tours offer beluga viewing day tours as well as snorkeling, kayaking or paddle boarding (!) with the whales. Others offer multi-day, guided packages to experience Churchill’s summer arctic safari.
Wildlife to See: Polar Bear
Best time to go: July-November
The polar bear ambles closer and your heart begins to race. Emotions run the gamut: you have the urge to flee, but you’re paralyzed in awe. Is something so serene really that vicious? Locking eyes with a polar bear in the wild will transform you, and Churchill is the most accessible place in the world to view them.
Churchill is known as the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ and the type of backdrop you wish to see polar bears against will dictate the time of year you go. If you dream of seeing polar bears in a snowy environ, head north in October to November. This is when Hudson Bay begins to freeze over and the polar bear party heats up. Dozens and dozens of bears congregate along the coastline, just outside of town limits, eager to socialize, spar with other bears, and get out on the ice to dine on seals. Wildlife enthusiasts view bears from the safety of massive tundra vehicles with companies like Frontiers North Adventures and Great White Bear Tours, while thrill-seekers can walk with bears at isolated tundra lodges
If you shun cold weather, viewing polar bears in the summer will be more your comfort level. July and August is becoming more popular among travellers to see polar bears, but typically you have to head way far out of town if you want to see polar bears in great numbers. In summer, there are fewer opportunities to do so than in the fall. Lazy Bear Lodge’s Ultimate Summer Safari is the only adventure to offer a full-day jet boat tour up the Hudson Bay coast to infamous Hubbard Point, where multiple polar bears dip in the water to cool off or roll in the pink fireweed onshore. Churchill Wild offers summer polar bear viewings at two of their wilderness eco lodges. Around town, summer bears are often solitary and low-key—you may spot them snoozing in the rocks along the coast and living off the fat reserves they accumulated in winter from hunting seals on the ice.