Reasons to visit Churchill

  • During October and November bear sightings are almost guaranteed
  • Nowhere else can you get this close to the bears in total safety (for you and the bears)
  • Churchill sits at the edge of the inhabitable world, it's a true frontier town 
  • From January to March clear skies make Churchill one of the best places on earth to see the Northern Lights and, on average they are visible 300 days of the year
  • During the summer months of July and August, Churchill River becomes a mecca for beluga whales who congregate in their thousands; by kayak you get can come into very close proximity

Guide to Churchill

Why are there bears in Churchill?

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This is all down to a topographical quirk - if you look at a detailed map of the region you will see that Churchill is located next to a nook in the coastline. With the anti-clockwise gyre of the polar winds coming down from the north the nook becomes the first part of Hudson Bay to freeze in the winter.

It is the ice and the seals that congregate on it that the bears are so impatient to get at and that is why they congregate here in large numbers.

When to visit

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Winter

If, like most visitors, it is the bears that you are planning to see then October and November is the only time to be there. Within that window, historically, we can tell you that ten days either side of 1st November is the optimum window. At this point, there is a critical mass of bears and the temperatures have dropped sufficiently for them to be active (when it is warmer they can be a touch on the lethargic side).

Churchill is also a mecca for the Northern Lights. While it's possible to see them 300 days of the year it is best to go between January and March when skies tend to be clear and sightings most impressive.

Summer

If it is beluga you want to see then July and August is the travel window to aim for. Thousands of beluga congregate in Hudson Bay at the mouth of the Churchill River every year. They are there to calf as the ice breaks up and they can do so in shallow waters and relative safety from bears and orca.

With such a short window for optimal viewing, these dates can book up well in advance. As soon as that ice freezes up the bears are off the tundra and much harder to see.

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Swoop Says

A day bear watching from Churchill

The day starts with a reminder of youth as a school bus collects you from your lodgings early in the morning. The polar rover station is a short drive from the town and here you will board your home for the day.

With a driver and a experienced naturalist guide, this specially adapted, go-anywhere vehicle will take you into the protected conservation zones which are closely controlled with limited access for licensed vehicles only. You'll spend around 4 hours out on the tundra spotting the bears, foxes, hares and birds, learning from the expedition guide as you explore.

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What is a polar rover?

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Polar bears are apex predators and are not to be trifled with which means that safety, yours and theirs, is paramount to any trip. To achieve this the best way to view the bears is from a polar rover.

This is, in effect, an adapted school bus with some pretty unique features. For a start, they have been raised up on huge, go-anywhere, tyres. This not only allows them to explore the tundra but also raises the passengers out of reach of passing bearswho can stand at 2.7m (9ft) in height.

To the rear, you will find a viewing platform that allows you to have a clear view of the wildlife without looking through glass. Under your feet you will find a metal mesh floor so you can see bears walking beneath you too.

Other features include a forward sloping front screen which enables you to look down on anything directly in front of you. You are  going to spend a fair amount of time on board so you'll be pleased to know there is a bathroom!

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A selection of our favourite Churchill trips

What to expect and is it safe?

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Part of the excitement surrounding any wildlife trip is the unknown - will you see the animal or will it elude you? Churchill is slightly different in that polar bear sightings are all but guaranteed.

You can expect to be within 50-70 metres of bears and it is not unusual for bears to pass within a few metres of the vehicles. If you're really lucky, they will stand up to eyeball you and your fellow travellers.

What is 'bear drama'?

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It's simply the interplay of bears with one another. When you have such a large population of animals in close proximity with one another anywhere in the world, you get activity as they 'bump' into one another.

Large males move and displace younger ones and mothers are perpetually worrying about the safety of their cubs as infanticide is a real risk. It is a fascinating world with many leading characters.

What other wildlife might I see?

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It's not all about the bears, or beluga. Arctic fox and hare are likely to be seen at any time of year. During the summer months there us also plenty of birdlife from snow bunting and tundra swans to the elusive Ross's Gull. In fact, there are some 250 species that pass through Churchill during the summer.

Other activities include dog-sledding (well away from the bears!) and a chance to learn about the local cultures and customs of those who live year-round at the edge of the world.

It is also possible to take a helicopter flight over Wapusk National Park, which is otherwise completely off-limits as a favoured denning area for females and cubs in winter.

How much does it cost?

The season for visiting Churchill is fairly limited and for much of the year the town sees next to no visitors. Accommodation is limited and in high demand while getting there involves a charter flight (or the newly reopened train from Winnipeg) and it is the same for supplies. These factors all contribute to the cost of a trip to Churchill meaning that travelling in small groups a 6-day trip will cost around $6,395 per person plus charter flights from Winnipeg of around $800.

Getting to Churchill

There are two options for getting to Churchill now that the train from Winnipeg has come back into service, but it is by charter flight that the vast majority of people travel.

Flights from Winnipeg take around 2¼ hours on board small but comfortable planes. Most packages will include these flights as an add on to the base price of the trip and you land at an airport about ten minutes drive from Churchill itself.

Jon says

What is Churchill town like?

With less than 1,000 permanent inhabitants Churchill is a tiny and truly remote frontier town which sits on the confluence of three habitats: Boreal forest, tundra and the Churchill River.

Hunters and trappers still swap skins for hard cash and you really do need to look for bears before you leave a building. For any problem bears - there is a solution, they are tranquillized, put in bear jail and safely relocated 40 miles north, or released when the bay freezes over.

Facilities are limited, there's one grocery store, one liquor store and just a handful of accommodation options. The accommodation that is there is perfectly comfortable and you'll get a warm welcome but luxury is not to be expected. Getting supplies to this part of the world where temperatures reach -20C (-4F) in winter is something of a challenge.

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