Sitting on the east bank of the Churchill River where it empties into Hudson Bay, CHURCHILL has the neglected look of many remote northern settlements, its unkempt open spaces dotted with the houses of its mixed Inuit, Cree and white population. These grim buildings are heavily fortified against the biting cold of winter and the voracious insects of summer. That said, the town has long attracted a rough-edged assortment of people with a taste for the wilderness, and tourists flock here for the wildlife – particularly the polar bears – providing the town a lifeline now that its grain-handling facilities are underused.
In 1682, the Hudson’s Bay Company established a fur-trading post at York Factory, a marshy peninsula some 240km southeast of today’s Churchill. From here the direct sea route from England was roughly 1500km shorter than the old route via the St Lawrence River, while the Hayes and Nelson rivers gave access to the region’s greatest waterways. Within a few years, a regular cycle of trade had been established, with the company’s Cree and Assiniboine go-betweens heading south in the autumn to hunt and trade for skins and returning in the spring laden with pelts to exchange for the company’s manufactured goods. The company was always keen to increase its trade, and it soon expanded its operations to Churchill, building its first fort here in 1717.
In the nineteenth century the development of faster trade routes through Minneapolis brought decline, and by the 1870s both York Factory and Churchill had become unimportant. The subsequent development of agriculture on the prairies brought a reprieve. Many of the politicians and grain farmers of this new west were determined to break the trading monopoly of Sault Ste Marie in northern Ontario and campaigned for the construction of a new port facility on Hudson Bay, connected by rail to the south through Winnipeg. In the 1920s the Canadian National Railway agreed to build the line, and it finally reached Churchill in 1929. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the railway workers in the teeth of the ferocious climate, the port has never been very successful, largely because the bay is ice-free for only about three months a year.Read More
Churchill tour operators
Churchill tour operators
Local wildlife tour operators have proliferated in Churchill, offering everything from snorkelling and kayaking with the whales to viewing polar bears from helicopters. They are all listed in the indispensable Guide to Churchill pamphlet which you can pick up at all major Manitoban tourist offices, and at the Churchill Parks Canada Visitor Centre tourist office.
Churchill Wild t 204 377 5090, t 1 866 846 9453, w churchillwild.com. Top-end tour company with wildlife tours year-round from around $8000 per week.
Frontiers North Adventures t 204 949 2051, t 1 800 663 9832, w tundrabuggy.com. An excellent option if you’ve $6500 or so to spare and can book months in advance are these week-long tours in vehicles specially designed to avoid damaging the tundra.
Great White Bear Tours t 204 675 2781, t 1 866 765 8344, w greatwhitebeartours.com. Runs day-trips ($400 per person) to find polar bears in October and November, using huge custom-built buses.
Hudson Bay Helicopters t 204 675 2576, t 1 867 873 5146, w hudsonbayheli.com. Outside the main polar bear season consider splashing out on a flight with this company, who can all but guarantee polar bear sightings, for $600/hr.
Lazy Bear Lodge Runs a number of tours including three days for around $3000 as well as eight-night wilderness kayaking expeditions ($5500).
North Star Tours Bayport Plaza, Munck St t 204 675 2356, t 1 800 665 0690. A good first stop to get a feel for what’s on offer at any time of year. The outfit is run by a jolly third-generation local who organizes an excellent minibus tour of local sites ($85; 3hr) – which includes a good look for polar bears – but they won’t hesitate to suggest, and even call, other companies for you if you have particular activities in mind.
Sea North Tours 39 Franklin St t 204 675 2195, t 1 888 348 7591, w seanorthtours.com. Offers Zodiac trips ($100; 2hr 30min) that allow you to listen in on the belugas using stereo hydrophones and visit Prince of Wales’ Fort. For the more active there are also kayak (no experience necessary; $158; 2hr 30min) and snorkelling trips ($189; 2hr 30min), when visibility in the bay is good enough. Mid-June to late Aug.
Churchill’s natural attractions
Churchill’s natural attractions
Churchill occupies a transitional zone where the stunted taiga trees (subarctic coniferous forest) meet the tundra mosses. Blanketed with snow in the winter and covered by thousands of bogs and lakes in the summer, this terrain is completely flat until it reaches the sloping Churchill River banks and the ridge around Hudson Bay, whose grey-quartzite boulders have been rubbed smooth by the action of the ice, wind and water.
This environment harbours splendid wildlife, including polar bears, which start to come ashore when the bay’s ice melts in late June. They must then wait for the ice to form again to support their weight before they can start their seal hunt; a polar bear can detect a scent from 32km away and can pick up the presence of seals under a metre of snow and ice. The best months to spot bears are September, October and early November, just before the ice re-forms completely.
In mid-June, as the ice breaks on the Churchill River, the spreading patch of open water attracts schools of white beluga whales. As many as three thousand of these intelligent, inquisitive and vocal mammals spend July and August around the mouth of the river, joining the seals, who arrive in late March for five months. The area around the town is also a major migration route for birds heading north between April and June and returning south in August or early September. Nesting and hatching take place from early June until early July. A couple of hundred species are involved, including gulls, terns, loons, Lapland longspurs, ducks and geese. The star visitor is the rare Ross’s Gull, a native of Siberia, which has nested in Churchill for some years. The Birder’s Guide to Churchill by Bonnie Chartier lists them all and is sold at the Eskimo Museum.
Churchill is also a great place to see the aurora borealis (Northern Lights), whose swirling curtains of blue, green and white are common in the skies between late August and April; occasionally it’s seen year-round but is at its best from January to March. Finally, in spring and autumn the tundra is a colourful sheet of moss, lichens, flowers and miniature shrubs and trees, including dwarf birch, spruce and cranberry.