Danish captain Jens Munck and his crew were the first Europeans to spend a winter by the Churchill River. They arrived in 1619 with two ships and more than sixty men. The sailors weren't prepared for the extreme conditions and unforgiving climate. The following summer, only three men, Munck and two crew were still alive. Lucky to have their lives, the trio sailed a ship back to Europe.
Seventy years later, the Hudson Bay Company sent explorer Henry Kelsey and several other company men to establish a trading post on the river. They found Churchill lacking in charms and the post ‘mysteriously' burnt down during construction. Churchill finally got its post in 1717. That year, James Knight, also a company man, settled in the port and set up a trading post which would eventually become Prince of Wales Fort, an 18th century stone behemoth.
Destroyed by the French in 1782, the stone remnants of the Fort provide a majestic backdrop for photographers and the splendour of its blackened walls give the ruins a dramatic air.
Despite its tenuous beginnings, Churchill has become a vibrant northern town. Today, approximately 20,000 tourists visit every year. They gaze at the spectacular Northern Lights ablaze in the same sky as Jens Munck and his doomed crew. They watch polar bears ambling northward along the coast and route that Henry Kelsey travelled. They spot beluga whales, the same species James Knight hoped would fuel the oil lamp trade. Instead, the gentle giants now support a thriving whale-watching industry.
Churchill is must-do Manitoba destination that features unique Arctic wildlife and birds, spectacular Northern Lights (aurora borealis) and an amazing fur-trade history. Visitors arrive by planes or trains to Manitoba's northern town, located on the coast of Hudson Bay.
By October, the great white polar bears begin to congregate in Churchill as they wait for the winter ice to form. Their low grunts and imposing presence have become a part of everyday life in Manitoba's North. As the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill has become a hot destination for travellers yearning for a truth north experience. In winter, another show also comes to town. Aurora borealis, the spectacular northern lights which dance across the night sky, peak in January and February.
Short and Sweet Summer
Blink and you might miss summer in Churchill. As one of Manitoba's most northern outposts, summer is short and sweet-about three months long provided there are no surprise blizzards in June. (It happens.)
What the season lacks in length is more than made up with once in a lifetime experiences. The short summer is a boon for nature and wildlife lovers, Night owls love it too. In Churchill, long summer days stretch well into the night.
In the summer, fata morgana is also in season. The ice castle mirages appear on the horizon of the vast, expansive Hudson Bay.
Wildflowers blossom and blanket the hills and rugged landscape. A short hike into the wilderness takes visitors from arctic tundra to a gnarled and ragged forest. History and nature buffs delight in discovering the hoof-shaped divots that scar the land, evidence from the last major caribou crossing of the Churchill River more than 50 years ago.
In June, more than 200 species of birds migrate through the Churchill area. Migration is fast, furious and dramatic, given the short, four-week season. Spot a sole pintail duck on a lake on a Monday and by Tuesday every lake within twenty miles is inhabited by the ducks in hundreds. There are countless species of migrating birds including plovers, godwits, sandpipers, terns, gulls, falcons, owls, ptarmigan, grouse, phalaropes, buntings and longspurs, among many more. A Sibley's Guide to Birds will help but identifying so many species so quickly makes it hard for even the most seasoned bird watcher to spot everything.
By the end of June or early July, migrating beluga whales arrive to frolick in warm river waters. Churchill is the beluga whale capital of the world. And for good reason. Churchill is occupied every July and August by an army of more than 3,000 beluga whales who come to feed and calve in the Churchill River Estuary.
The migrating belugas follow the tides to and from Hudson Bay to the river every few hours in the summer from early July until the end of August. Whale watchers can actually dunk their heads in the frigid waters and hear the whale's clicking and chirping to each other. Many whale-watching boats are also equipped with hydrophones making head dunking unnecessary.
Very lucky whale watchers will spot newborn calves being boosted up from the water by their mothers. The whales are no longer hunted in the Churchill River, do not fear humans and often come up to the boats for close encounters. Visitors can also snorkel with the whales. This breathtaking experience offers unearthly views as belugas cast a strange greenish glow underwater.
Curious belugas swim right below, turning and cocking their heads, and gazing up inquisitively and playfully.
Planning your Churchill expedition:
- Get the lay of the land and learn about Churchillhere.
- Learn about Churchill's rich fur trading history and the modern-day townhere.
- Many local expedition companies offer polar bear and beluga whale watching tours.
Here are a few:
The Great Canadian Travel Company
Great White Bears Tours Inc.
Lazy Bear Lodge