Along the southwestern shores of Hudson Bay lies Churchill, Manitoba, home to the annual migration of the planet’s largest land predators. In the top corners of Canada’s North, Churchill stands alone as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” with more than 1,000 bears in this single geographic area. Churchill boasts more polar bears than people! In this frozen tundra, you will come face-to-face in the wild with these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat to watch males ‘sow’, females tend to their young and all forage for food.
I was hosted by Tourism Winnipeg, Travel Manitoba and Heartland International Travel and Tours, but my opinions are my own.
Here are some of the things I wish I had known before embarking on this incredible journey.
1. Layer up
The wind is strong. Bring clothing such as sweatshirts, t-shirts, a neck warmer and extra socks. Pack two of everything, including two hats, two pairs of gloves, and an extra scarf. When I started this bucket list experience, the temperature was mild, just over 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Next week the high would only be 14 degrees Fahrenheit. However, add the wind and the outside temperatures can be terrifying when you step out onto the viewing platform to take photos.
Pro tip: I suggest wearing thin gloves under your gloves so you can handle your camera without exposing your skin.
The temperature in the tundra buggy changes. It’s quite warm and comfortable, but once the windows are opened to see all the action, it quickly gets colder and you find yourself adding extra layers of clothing. A few minutes later, the buggy warms up and then you find yourself shedding the extra clothes. Just keep in mind that you will have to do this several times throughout the day.
2. Moisturize and stay hydrated
Bring lip balm and moisturizer because the cooler air tends to make you feel dry. Wear sunglasses as well as wind protection. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to maintain fluid intake. Don’t worry – there is a bathroom on board.
3. Pack chargers
Take extra battery chargers for your phone and memory cards for your cameras. Cold air causes batteries to drain faster. There’s nothing worse than wanting to take that perfect shot and then having your battery die.
4. Bring binoculars
Bring binoculars to get a better view of the action as the bears roam the desert. Things tend to move quickly in nature, and your experience will be much richer when you can catch the smallest details. Although you will have the opportunity to step outside onto the viewing deck, some of the best scenes will also be enjoyed through the windows of the tundra carriage.
5. Walk Through Churchill
Churchill is a small town, but take the opportunity to experience the local culture. Be sure to check out the beautiful and colorful murals. Dubbed the ‘Sea Walls’ project, 18 amazing artists from around the world came to Churchill and created massive murals on local buildings along the shores of Hudson Bay. The murals originally began with an emphasis on protecting the ocean, but have expanded to include all aspects of the environment.
6. Shop Local
Support the locals by shopping in town. Shop for some soapstone sculptures, Inuit carvings, stuffed polar bears and other local products. Moccasins always make great gifts. Try the grocery store, North Mart, for unique souvenirs and sweets.
There is also a great gift shop at the airport called Polar Bear Wear that stays open until the last charter flight leaves. If you haven’t found a t-shirt or hoodie in town, this is a great opportunity to buy a lasting memento of your trip.
7. Learn about polar bears before you go
Polar bears are marine mammals. They remain on the sea ice where they hunt their main prey, the ringed seal, the most abundant seal in the Arctic. They eat one of these seals every three to four days to stock up on winter and usually snack on berries, mushrooms and red algae in between. While polar bears hunt on the ice year-round, they are forced onto land until the ice freezes in the fall.
8. The Variety Of Terrains
Besides the wonderful wildlife, what I also found incredible about this adventure is the number of different terrains you see while riding the tundra buggy. One minute you’re passing trees dotting the landscape, the next minute the ground is covered in a blanket of ice and snow. A few minutes later, you see a collection of large, jagged rocks and stones that are remnants of the Ice Age.
9. Stop in Winnipeg before or after your trip
Many travelers combine a trip to Churchill with a stop in Winnipeg where indigenous culture, fascinating museums, gourmet food and a warm, friendly atmosphere await. Situated on the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, this magnificent metropolis is the provincial capital of Manitoba. Winnipeg is a four-season destination with each season offering exciting recreational activities. There are even some you’ve probably never heard of, like ice bike riding and kick sledding.
Canadian Museum of Human Rights
One of the highlights of the city is the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, the only museum in the world dedicated to human rights. Founder Israel Asper wanted to build a family museum to educate people about the struggle for human rights around the world. Designed by architect Antoine Predock from Albuquerque, New Mexico, this unique structure opened in 2014 and serves as the symbol of the city. It should be noted that the museum is located on ancestral lands, Treaty 1 area.
The museum offers interactive exhibits that teach about the different types of human rights violations by Indigenous peoples, black Canadians, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and the Holocaust. It certainly gives pause for thought for all marginalized people. At the top of the building, you can climb the Israel Tower and gaze at the magnificent Winnipeg skyline.
Forks National Historic Site
Forks National Historic Site has been a meeting place for 6,000 years. Yes, you read that right. The Forks is actually where Winnipeg started with the Aboriginal groups. This gave way to the prairie railroads, which contributed to the city’s enormous growth, and Union Station, which still operates today with the VIA passenger railroad.
Inside Forks Market is a collection of restaurants from around the world, including Caribbean, Asian fusion, and my personal favorite, fish & chips. On the second floor, you’ll find Manitobah Mukluks filled with all kinds of native goods from moccasins to boots to tapestries and more. Look for live music and other performances in the square.
You must visit Thermea — an outdoor Nordic spa just a few miles from downtown Winnipeg. Here you will find a unique experience of relaxation and rejuvenation in nature using a range of hot, cold and rest rituals. Starting at $77 per day, this multi-sensory experience will help you connect with nature and create the ultimate sense of well-being.
Pro tip: The Travel Manitoba Visitor Information Center is located just outside the Forks Market. Check them out for expert travel planning services across the province.
For more information on visiting Churchill, go to Travel Manitoba’s All About Churchill page or Tourism Winnipeg.
Bonus information about Churchill’s polar bears
The only way to get there is by plane from Winnipeg or an extremely long train ride. The best way to experience polar bears is with a licensed tour company to safely lead the group.
If you’re craving adventure but short on time, check out Heartland International’s inspiring day trip to Churchill. Departing via chartered plane in Winnipeg (October to November), depart early in the morning, land in Churchill and drive to the launch pad. You’ll spend the day in a comfortable, heated tundra buggy, driving around the terrain in search of polar bears, foxes and other wildlife. Wait, are they silver foxes? Everyone gathers and someone with a camera and a very long lens takes a picture. Yes, indeed, it is a silver fox, all curled up, taking a nap. The group runs outside to take pictures.
Pro tip: There were people in the buggy who used crutches and had other mobility issues, but they were helped on board and were able to enjoy the experience.
Our experienced guide, Trevor, told us that there are three kinds of bears in North America: black bears, brown bears, and polar bears. Only in Churchill can you find all three. We also encountered a red fox Artichoke that stood out in the landscape. In warmer weather, Churchill attracts explorers looking to spot beluga whales, birdwatching and eagles.
The tundra buggy then circles another area where two polar bears have been spotted, struggling in the snow, their way of playing. Trevor told us that only males engage in this type of behavior, similar to roughhousing by teenage boys.
When the trolley stops after spotting a polar bear, riders go to an outdoor viewing area to take photos. Sometimes a polar bear approaches the buggy, curious as to what it is. Polar bears are not good climbers, so they cannot reach the observation deck.
As the sun sets, enjoy dinner in Churchill, shop for some souvenirs in town and fly back to Winnipeg the same day. Before long, you’re on the return flight with visions of polar bears etched forever in your mind. It is the easiest way to meet all the wonders of Churchill in a short time.
According to the Northern Lights Aura app, it was the first time to see the Northern Lights or Northern Lights at night. We could see them as we flew home.
If you have more time to spend exploring, Heartland International also offers multi-day packages that include sledding, coastal road/hidden trail tours, and another day on the tundra buggy.
Looking back on my great adventure in Churchill, I am filled with wonder at the natural phenomenon I witnessed in this fragile ecosystem. I can’t wait to come back.