Churchill, Manitoba, might be the polar bear capital of the world, but you might want to consider going in the off-season (summer) when the hotels are half-empty and the landscape is ablaze with rare flowers, exotic birds and majestic wild animals.
The train ride alone makes the trip worthwhile. During the night you'll fall asleep to the rocking of the train and the moon in the window. Daybreak reveals a wilderness of boreal forest. By now you're beginning to recognize faces. Meals in the dining car are punctuated by introductions to travellers from around the world. Here and there the train brakes in the middle of nowhere to pick up a trapper or drop off a mail pouch. By nightfall you've crossed the line of permafrost and the train rolls like a ship at sea. At breakfast you might be only halfway through your bacon and eggs when the whistle blows for Churchill. Out the window you see a great swath of purple, the Churchill River. On a typical summer morning, those countless flecks of white rolling in the river won't be whitecaps, they will be beluga whales.
Thousands of beluga whales migrate into the estuary of the Churchill River. You might choose to watch them from a boat. Adventurous types swim with the whales in dry suits with mask and snorkel. Zooming beneath the boat, the whales greet swimmers with a chorus of cheeps, honks and twitters. Belugas and narwhals are the only two whale species that can turn their heads, and swimmers are astonished the first time a 3,000 pound wild whale dashes up to them, rolls over, cocks it head and flashes that trademark beluga smile.
Churchill's long days are an adjustment for anyone unaccustomed to broad daylight at three in the morning. More than one tourist has groggily called the front desk to inquire if it's 10 o'clock at night or 10 in the morning. But outdoor photographers appreciate the never-ending golden dusk. And you don't have to go out on the river to see extraordinary wildlife. About 200 species of birds gather in the Churchill area, more than anywhere else in Canada.
The so-called barrens explode with life in summer, with lichens of gold and green, rust and mauve, and the low bushes are spackled with flowers. If you are a history buff, check out Fort Prince of Wales, built by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1731. And don't miss the seaport, where giant freighters from around the world load up with Manitoba grain bound for Africa and other foreign shores.