Your adventure begins in Churchill, Canada’s northernmost seaport. Perhaps nowhere else on Earth offers a better chance of seeing the world’s largest land predator—the polar bear—in its natural habitat.
Polar bear trips near Churchill not only provide ample opportunities to see the majestic bears in their natural tundra habitat. They also thrill visitors with other unique natural wonders—whales, birds, the northern lights, the tundra landscape and more.
Board a tundra buggy for an up-close look at the Arctic’s unique wildlife and scenery. Resembling a modified school bus, the tundra buggy has enormous tires that put you safely out of bear’s reach. View the ice bears along with other Arctic wildlife—caribou, arctic hare, silver and red fox and diverse species of Arctic birds—from the warmth of your buggy’s interior. Small group size means you’re guaranteed a window seat. Venture outside to the buggy’s observation deck for an even closer encounter.
Another option is to stay at the Tundra Lodge, a one-of-a-kind rolling hotel placed in the tundra itself for optimal polar bear viewing. As the sun sets, you’ll stay in the polar bears’ backyard in this comfortable “train” of sleeping quarters and dining and lounge areas.
At certain times of the year, you’ll be delighted at nightfall by the dancing colors of the famous aurora borealis, or northern lights. Your best chances of seeing this natural phenomenon are in late August and from December to late April.
July and August are the most likely months to see thousands of beluga whales as they move to the warmer waters of the Churchill River to calve. You might have the option to observe this spectacle up close from a kayak or zodiac inflatable boat. If birding is your passion—and even if it’s not!—you’ll marvel at the sight of snow owls, American golden plovers, tundra swans, parasitic jaegers, stilt sandpipers and nearly 250 other species recorded within a 25 mile radius of Churchill. The best birding season is from late May until August.
All these wonders make a Churchill polar bear trip high on many a seasoned traveler’s bucket list.
The first inhabitants of what is now Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, were nomadic Arctic people living and hunting in the region as early as 1700 B.C. Archaeological excavations have uncovered artifacts like tent rings and kayak stands from these nomads. Other early peoples included Inuit, Dene, Chipewyan and Cree natives. Europeans didn’t arrive until 1619, when a Danish expedition led by Jens Munk wintered there. Only three of the 64 expedition members survived the harsh tundra winter and made it back to Denmark.
After one unsuccessful attempt, the Hudson Bay Company (the oldest commercial corporation in North America) built the first permanent settlement in 1717—The Churchill River Post. This was a log fort just upstream from the mouth of the Churchill River, built to facilitate fur trading in the area. The trading post and river were named after John Churchill, the first duke of Marlborough and ancestor of Winston Churchill. John Churchill was the first governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 1600s.
The Churchill River Post later burned and was replaced by Fort Prince of Wales in 1731, a stone fortress built by the English to maintain a presence in the area. From this settlement, explorer Samuel Hearne set off on what was eventually the first overland expedition to reach the Arctic Ocean. Minimally staffed by non-military men, Hearne among them, the Fort Price of Wales was surrendered to the French in 1782 without a single shot fired. The following year it was returned to the Hudson Bay Company, but by this time the fort had been partially destroyed and the fur trade was already dwindling. Ruins of the fort can be seen by visitors today.
After World War I, Churchill became a seaport—and today remains Canada’s northernmost port and only Arctic port. It was linked by rail in 1929 after years of slow progress northward by the Hudson Bay Railway. To this day, no roads link Churchill to the rest of Canada.
As part of Canadian-American atmospheric research efforts, the Churchill Rocket Research Range was established in the 1950s. The range launched over 3500 sounding rockets carrying experimental payloads before it closed in 1985. Currently the site is home to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a facility for Arctic research.
Today Churchill remains an important seaport and railway terminus linking parts of the Arctic as well as connecting Canada to Europe for grain transport. The town (pop. 925) has a health center, hotels, tour operators, restaurants, and shops. Favorite souvenirs include local crafts such as moccasins, mukluks, parkas, stone cut prints and soapstone sculptures.
Churchill has taken on a new life in recent years as a destination for ecotourism. Visitors from all over the world journey to Churchill to witness the area’s spectacular natural wonders. Polar bear tours give visitors an up-close view of the mighty ice bears, which migrate to the frozen waters of Hudson Bay to hunt ringed seals. Thousands of beluga whales draw crowds in July and August as they move into the warmer waters of the Churchill River to calve. Birders come to view more than 270 species of birds that live in or migrate through Churchill (more than 100 nest here). And the aurora borealis, the northern lights, thrill all who are lucky enough to see them with dancing curtains of color.