The ABCs of my family summer vacation in Churchill

Posted August 26, 2015 | Author Alexis McEwen

Thinking of putting Churchill on the list for your next family summer vacation? I say do it! We took our two boys and had a blast. From A to Z, here’s what you need to know about a family summer vacation in Churchill.

A is for Arctic adventure

Well, subarctic adventure to be precise. My family’s adventure had all the elements of a great adventure: trains, planes, and boats, plus wildlife, history, and time to do our own exploring.

B is for beluga whale

They are star of the show during the summer months. Thousands of whales head into the Churchill River estuary during the summer months to calf, feed and splash about with their babies. Aboard the one-of-a-kind whale watching vessel operated by Sea North Tours, our captain Remi pointed out the whales popping out left, right and centre.

And not only do you get to see the whales, you can hear them too, as a hydrophone, a special underwater microphone, broadcasts the clicks and chirps these whales are known for. On a boat that included my family, two other families and a troupe of girl guides from Dauphin, you can imagine the fits of giggles when we all heard very loudly and very clearly, “ptttbbb”, or as my kid pointed out, “The whales are farting!”

All the kids on board took turns climbing up the ladder to help Remi captain the boat. Plus, the kids enjoyed the freedom of moving to and from the front and back decks getting great views from all directions.

C is for choo choo

The classic sound of the train whistle is a sound we heard quite often as we made our way from Winnipeg to Churchill with VIA Rail. The kids were pumped for their first train ride, but I have to admit I was more scared than excited. A 45 hour train ride with two small kids? But our rail tickets included a cabin and meals, which made it a logistically easy way to travel and we packed lots of new games, toys, books, and movies. Plus, thankfully kids have no real sense of time (the kid who said, “Ten minutes to lunch – that’s too long!” also said “Two nights on the train – that’s not long!”).

We turned the lounge car into a jungle gym and attempted to count the trees from the observation car, or “the bubble car” as we called it. The stripes on the carpet became a race track and we made friends with our fellow passengers. A bunk bed magically appeared from the wall, causing much excitement, and then disappointment when it was put away for the day. With only brief stops in Dauphin and Thompson to stretch our legs, the kids still slept soundly, likely thanks to the gentle rocking of the cars.

D is for dogs

As in sled dogs who greeted us with enthusiastic barking. These animals love to run all year round, so even without snow they are hooked up to a cart on wheels for a thrilling ride through the boreal forest. Dave Daley of Wapusk Adventures, an accomplished dog musher, gave us the inside scoop on what it takes to lead a kennel of sled dogs. He talked about encouragement, discipline, understanding and respect. As my two year old flopped around and generally distracted everyone I kept thinking I need to apply some of his dog mushing techniques in my parenting!

After we met Goldie, it was our turn to ride, the kids settling in on my lap, cheering on the dogs who pulled us along on this hot summer day.

After the dogs cooled off with a drink, Dave surprised us with another ride, this time on his ATV Ranger, going deeper into the forest following the old military trails. He stopped to let my little one pick me a flower (aww!), showed us Labrador weed, known by the locals as loco weed (I’m sure you can guess why), and picked us cloud berries – a bright red berry that looks and tastes a little like a raspberry.

E is for eating and enjoying northern hospitality

All our meals were included on the train, with a chef preparing us some tasty meals. The kids declared the chocolate milk on the train “tastes gooder than ours” and we enjoyed almost every offering on the menu, from a mouth watering pot roast smothered in a rich gravy to a generous chef salad topped with a house made (train made?) citrus vinaigrette.

I think we may have visited every restaurant in Churchill. The Lazy Bear Café won the kids over with its log cabin décor (“Even the chairs are made of wood! Even the lamp is made of wood! Even the toilet paper holder is made of wood!”). The Tundra Inn Pub won me over with its famously awesome Borealis Burger, a vegetarian burger featured on the Food Network Show “You Gotta Eat Here”.

F is for Fort

The Prince of Wales Fort, a National Historic Site, was the heart of the fur trade. This massive stone fort took 40 years to build, even with the stones quarried locally. Our Parks Canada interpreter Andrea pointed out the marks on the stones where labourers bored holes to dump in and light gunpowder – a duty no one was eager to do, so the lucky guy was rewarded with an extra ration of rum.

We toured the fort, headed up to the parapet where the kids climbed all over the cannons – there are 40 of them – and we got some great views of the setting sun over the Churchill River. Andrea said kids as young as 11 were sent to the Fort to be apprentices and as we wrangled our two crazy kids on top of nearly 300 year old fort, wishing we had an extra ration of rum, I wondered if anyone still took child apprentices.

G is for garden

Plants thrive in the abundance of summer sun in the north. We passed by a community garden in town, the massive wheels of retired tundra vehicles for polar bear viewing repurposed into colourful planters. During our tour of the town, we also drove by the Boreal Gardens, the resident greenhouse that successfully grows tomatoes, carrots and other produce available for sale in town.

H is for Hudson Bay

It can be easy to forget that Manitoba is a coastal province, but this massive body of water is the reason why Churchill was, and still is, such an important trade route and why it boasts such a wealth of wildlife.

We made our way to the beach at the north end of town, rolled up our pants and waded into the (cold!) water of the bay. I felt a little silly complaining because there were some local kids in bathing suits splashing away.

My own kids ran around the beach, playing in the tide pools on the rocks. The little one slipped right in, casually remarking, “I soaking wet. It happens,” which explains this post’s featured image. We picked a few rocks for our collection at home and checked out “Charlie’s Boat”, which appears to be in the middle of a facelift (not all railings are intact, so watch the kids closely!).

I is for Inukshuk

This one on the beach is a popular spot for photographs, but also for polar bears.

As we were about to snap a few pictures, a Conservation Officer drove up to let us know the white dot bobbing up and down way out in the bay was a bear. He assured us we were quite safe, but just be alert. The bear swam off and we never heard from him again.

J is for jail

The polar bear jail is where bears who don’t swim off and wander into town are taken. For the safety of the people and the bears, Conservation Officers intervene quickly when bears enter or approach the town. We visited the jail on part of our bus tour of the town with Dwight Allen, our guide as well as the owner of our hotel, the Polar Inn. The jail has 27 cells and the bears are eventually transported north, back into the wild.

K is for kayak

This is an incredible way to get up close with belugas. Now our kids were too young (and too rambunctious) to take kayaking, but I’ve put this adventure on my checklist for the next time I get up to Churchill (a girl can dream, can’t she?).

L is for landscape

We watched the landscape change through smudgy handprints on the train’s window. Heading west through Manitoba’s heartland we passed fields of wheat and canola, then rolling pastureland as we veered further north. We saw dark clouds spilling rain on the rise of the Manitoba Escarpment and woke up to dense boreal forest and the occasional lake and rocky outcropping. And then the landscape changed once again, as the trees became smaller, and lichen-covered rocks and small plants sprung up between the shallow tundra ponds.

M is for Miss Piggy

Before we headed out to see Miss Piggy as part of our bus tour with Dwight, we wondered how this crashed C46 airplane got its name – my son suggested a much better name would be Crashed Airplane. But Dwight told us the nick name likely came from the reason why the plane crashed – locals believe the plane, heading north carrying snowmobiles and soft drinks, was overloaded.

N is for northern lights

Churchill is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights, or aurora borealis, which is caused by the interaction of charged particles from the sun with atoms in the upper atmosphere. Days are long in the summer months, and seem even longer when you’re on vacation with your kids, so I’ll come clean – I did not get out of bed to see if the sky filled with these glowing curtains of colour. But my husband said he peeked out the window after a middle-of-the-night wake up and caught a glimpse of the show. A better idea would be to actually go outside. But we’ll add that to the list for next time, too.

O is for out your window

As in, “Look out your window, there’s a caribou!” We had the pleasure of seeing a caribou running next to the train while we had breakfast the morning before we arrived in Churchill. I did not have a camera or my phone with me, so let this be a lesson, you’ll never know when you’ll see a caribou, a bear, a tundra swan, the northern lights or something else awesome, so always be ready!

P is for polar bears

Churchill is known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World. During the summer tour operators offer bear tours, taking you to see the bears on the rocky shore or hanging out on the tundra. Our only real “encounter” with a bear was the one we saw swimming, but that didn’t keep the kids from getting close to a few other bears we spotted around town.

Q is for qiviut

This is an Inuktitut word for the wool from the muskox. We saw the shaggy coat on a muskox at the Eskimo Museum, dedicated to the history and culture of the peoples of the north. We also saw a walrus, wolf and baby polar bear (awww!). While my oldest one was pumped at the giant trilobite fossil, I got pulled in by the incredible ivory and soap stone carvings.

Photo by BC Robyn

R is for rocket range

For decades various agencies launched sounding rockets into the upper atmosphere for research purposes just outside Churchill. Both NASA and the National Research Council used these facilities and while no more rockets are being launched today, you can actually stay next door at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (like I did last winter), which carries on the legacy of research in Manitoba’s north.

S is for snow

Thankfully, we did not see any during our summer stay!

T is for Town Complex

This is the recreation centre/hospital/school that serves the community. That being said it is also a great place for visitors with kids. The indoor play structures, with an incredible view of the bay, gave the boys (of all sizes) a sheltered place to blow off steam. They loved the awesome polar bear slide and we visited it more than once. Since we were not hardy enough to go swimming in the bay, we took advantage of the public swim in the salt water pool, complete with a (very fast!) waterslide.

U is for unpredictable weather

One day it was 30 degrees, sunny with zero wind, while the next it was 15 degrees cooler, cloudy and windy. When you’re travelling north, especially with kids, make sure you’re prepared with the right kind of outerwear, bug spray and sunscreen.

V is for Parks Canada Visitor Centre

Located inside the Churchill railway station, the kids touched the pelts of various animals, inspected the teeth and claws of a polar bear, and once again awwwed at cute baby polar bears, this time shown curled up in a den just as they do in Wapusk National Park. We watched a video on the making of a York Boat and talked about how a cannon worked. You can also buy Parks Canada Churchill souvenirs here (my husband got a tuque) and I saw a poster for an amazing hike along the coast at Sloop Cove that I’ll do next time I come back!

W is for whiskey jacks

This is the name the locals have given to the grey jays that live near the Wapusk Adventures dog kennel. I’m not sure what my son expected when Dave put a few pieces of dog kibble and told him to hold out his hand, but he was thrilled when a whiskey jack landed right on him and scooped up the treat he was offering.

We all took turns offering food to the birds, and as they snatched it up Dave told us the birds were storing it, and not eating it all at once. This approach was not taken with the bag of gummy candies I bought for the kids at the Northern Store.

X is for xanthoria

This bright orange lichen grows in the arctic. After explaining what lichen was to the kids, they pointed it out on rocks and even on the walls of the Prince of Wales Fort. Now I’ll be honest, the only reason I have an “x” (and well a “q” too) in this list is because of a book I bought the boys from the little gift shop at the Polar Inn. Arctic A to Z by Wayne Lynch not only increased our knowledge about the special place we visited, it served as inspiration for this post!

Y is for YYQ

Otherwise known as the Churchill Airport. We had one final adventure before reaching home: our kids’ first plane ride. We watched as three other planes touched down and took off before we walked out on the tarmac to board our Calm Air flight home. “How high are we now?” the older one asked me several times, craning his neck to see out the window, while the little one fell asleep before we even passed through the clouds.

Z is for Zzzz

Home at last. Until next time, Churchill!

About The Author

I'm Alexis, Communications Manager for Travel Manitoba. I write about all kinds of awesome things that happen in Manitoba. And when I'm not writing about awesome things, I do my best to get out and experience them with my husband and two young sons.

Communications Manager