Churchill is known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World“, but it also played a major role in Canadian history. Every polar bear tour carves out time for visitors to discover the important and impressive heritage and culture of the area.  It’s grey and blustery as our group heads out to Cape Merry National Historic Site, remnants of a cannon battery on the shore of Hudson Bay.

To Cape Merry

The battery was built in 1747 by the Hudson’s Bay Company to protect the fur trading post, Prince of Wales Fort (which you can also visit during the summer months).

Cairn on Hudson Bay

Cairn in memory of Jens Munck and his crew – the first Europeans overwinter in Churchill in 1619.

Bundled up in our moisture wicking under layers and high tech outerwear, it is almost unbelievable that the Hudson’s Bay Company had been in operation here since  1670, with the first permanent post built in 1717.

Parks Canada Interpreter Marc André

Parks Canada Interpreter Marc André

With our bear monitor Dave on the lookout, Parks Canada interpreter Marc André gives us the quick rundown on the fight for control of the fur trade between the English and the French, including the forty years it took to complete the Prince of Wales Fort and how it fell without a single shot being fired.

Cannon at Cape Merry

In 1782, the French arrived with three warships and 300 men. With 39 fur traders and labourers, the governor of the fort, Samuel Hearne, surrendered.

Parks Canada Visitor Centre

At the Parks Canada Visitor Centre, located in the same building as the train station, I marvel at the artifacts archeologists have uncovered from both the Prince of Wales Fort and York Factory, essentially a giant fur warehouse located 200 kilometres south of Churchill. Intricate belt buckles and delicate china seem unnecessary to me in this untamed wilderness. But clearly Hudson’s Bay Company knew how to run a business, as it is North America’s longest continually operated company.

Artifacts from Prince of Wales Fort

Artifacts from Prince of Wales Fort

Rhonda, the Parks Canada Interpreter here tells me that most visitors who come to see the bears are not familiar with Churchill’s role in Canada’s fur trade. “Usually they have no idea, but they are pleasantly surprised with what they learn.” And I think Rhonda hit the nail on the head: Churchill is a pleasant and surprising town. I am on my own for the rest of my town visit, as the group is back out on the buggy looking for bears.  I stop for lunch at The Lazy Bear Lodge, a cozy log-cabin café and hotel. I eavesdrop on a conversation between some tourists from Mexico while I enjoy my burger next to a crackling fire.

Lazy Bear Burger

My next stop comes highly recommended. The Eskimo Museum is located off the main drag in an unassuming building. But this bright space is filled with 3,500 years worth of history and art. I am instantly drawn in by the Inuit carvings that lined the display cases.

Inukshuk at Eskimo Museum

There are hundreds of beautiful carvings depicting life in the arctic, along with artifacts from the Dorset and Thule cultures who are the ancestors of the modern Inuit.

Artifacts from the Thule Culture

I tag along with another group as Lorraine Brandson, curator of the museum since 1986 and author of a book on the art and artifacts in the collection, tells us that the majority of the art here was collected by Catholic missionaries who wanted to document the culture and history of the Inuit.

Eskimo Museum carving

“The ivory is considered most unique,” says Lorraine, who also explains that soapstone, now a favourite for contemporary Inuit artists, was not a traditional medium. “There was no room on the sled for a heavy piece. Traditionally they did not have large, heavy stone art.” Instead, the heavy pieces served utilitarian purposes, like cooking vessels or lamps.

Eskimo Museum ivory carving

I browse the gift shop here, picking up a book about polar bears for my kids and some lovely handmade Inukshuk Christmas tree decorations. I continue my Churchill shopping trip, stopping at all the shops along Kelsey Boulevard. My only other purchase comes from an art store, Northern Images. This shop smells amazing – the burning incense warms me instantly. I would have loved to splurge on a sculpture or even some traditional hand-made moccasins or mitts. Instead I go back and forth over which stunning print I should take with me. I ultimately choose Two From The Nest by Ojibway artist Doris Cyrette, and in hindsight I wish I had bought at least one more. I take a quick swing through the Northern Store – where you can buy cereal and a snowmobile at the same place.

The Northern Store

I make my final stop at “The place to be in Churchill” – Gypsy’s Bakery.

Gypsys Bakery

I am instantly hungry when I see the incredible display case of beautiful pastries and donuts. The apple fritter came highly recommended, so that is what I order. The apples are crisp and the dough is soft and chewy. And for the second time that day I wish I had bought at least one more!

Pastries at Gypsys

I take a drive to the west end of the town, driving past the Port of Churchill, where hundreds of thousands of tonnes of grain are shipped up to Churchill by train, and then out to sea by boat. I also see the boat docking area where beluga whale adventures start during the summer months. I’ve decided that I need to come back to experience the beluga migration that happens every July and August, when up to 3,000 whales fill the Churchill River estuary. The cold and the fact that I am exploring Churchill on my own during bear season keeps me from checking out other landmarks, like the downed plane Miss Piggy or the Inukshuk near the beach. But I do get one last blast of what life in Churchill is like.

Hudson Bay Coast

As I’m driving back towards the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, I catch a glimpse of a white shape lumbering up the road. This encounter is totally different than the buggy experience: I am on my own in a regular vehicle on a main road – and there is a huge, and let me remind you, wild, polar bear a hundred yards in front of me. Talk about a heart pounding experience. By the time I calm down enough to realize I should take a picture, the bear is long gone – disappeared into the swirling snow.

Sunrise in Churchill

With this final sighting, I feel like I passed the first semester of my northern education. I can’t wait to come back to learn some more.