Traveling from Winnipeg to Churchill to experience the incredible natural wonders found in the frontier town has limited options. You can, of course, fly via the small airlines and hope the weather provides a window in and out of Churchill. You cannot drive, unless you have ample time and are on a four wheeler or a dogsled…closest you can get is Thompson or a bit farther on gravel road. In fact, my favorite mode of travel is by train.
When I guided Churchill Summer beluga whale adventures for about 10 years, I would take the train one -way, as Natural Habitat does now in summer and winter both, with small groups of 12-15 travelers. The memory that stays with me the most from those days is without a doubt the interactions with thousands of beluga whales in the chilly waters of the Churchill River and Hudson Bay. I still feel the pull to return each summer as if I were the one migrating to warmer waters as the whales do from the Hudson Straits in the north.
However, the other thrill that clearly stands above many of my most treasured memories is the train journey from Churchill to Winnipeg. The anticipation for each trip would build until we boarded, in Union Station in Winnipeg at around 9:00pm at night. Traveling northwest through some prairie – land into Saskatchewan and back into Manitoba was better done at night. Once morning arrived and the group was waking in their sleeper births the landscape changed to more deciduous trees and slowly transition into boreal forest then taiga and tundra. Lakes and rivers were all over the land as we slowly rocked north and slowed even more as permafrost rested below the tracks.
All in all the trip was scheduled for 36 hours though quite often an additional four or five would put us in Churchill around noon or later. This allowed for guests to sleep in and enjoy a nice breakfast on board while Churchill slowly appeared on the horizon. What a way to ease everyone into “tundra time” as Churchillians call the calming pace of life in town. By the time we reached Churchill everyone was more able to search patiently for wildlife on land as well as enjoy the surreal interactions of beluga whales on the water.
This video filmed and produced by Natural Habitat Adventures guide Brad Josephs during a northern lights trip this season gives an inside and outside view of one of the most exciting and relaxing trips on rails you can experience! Whether the landscape or wildlife or even northern lights are your passion, chances arise throughout the journey to experience all or some of these.
The exciting news from Churchill is polar bears have been spotted out at the Tundra Lodge in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA) and they are becoming more active as the season begins here. The first Natural Habitat Adventures group at the lodge guided by Colby and Eric came quite close to a big male bear out by first tower as their group explored away from the base lodge on a rover. A few others lounged around the lodge moving about the willows.
Majestic polar bear resting in Churchill. Katie DeMeulles photo.
More exciting news from polar bear season Churchill is there are still at least 30 – 40 beluga whales still lingering around the mouth of the Churchill River and along the coast in the Hudson Bay. Some travelers took a helicopter journey and spotted the beluga pods below..what a sight for this late in the fall! I imagine there will be some more time for beluga’s here though soon they will depart for the Hudson Straits up north.
Moose on the tundra in Churchill. Madison Stevens/PBI photo.
Other sightings by our friends at Polar Bears International (PBI) included numerous black foxes- a color morph of the red fox – as well as traditional colored red foxes. A couple of Arctic fox have been spotted as well. Ptarmigan, Arctic hares and numerous bird species have also filled out the wildlife sightings for travelers over the past week. PBI travelers also were surprised by a large moose galloping along the tundra between ponds out in the CWMA!
Northern lights made an appearance on a couple of nights and were some of the best since last aurora season in February. Greens and pinks shimmered across the tundra in the darkened sky of the CWMA.
Intense northern lights in Churchill. Drew Hamilton photo.
Perhaps the most incredible sighting was also by the PBI group. They witnessed a Peregrine falcon feeding on a gull on the fringe of the willows. They observed the web of nature and the life-cycles of these hearty creatures firsthand!
Peregrine falcon feasting on prey of a gull. Madison Stevens/PBI photo.
A short video clip by National Geographic documenting springtime for beluga whales in the north. Belugas migrate south in the spring from the Hudson Straits to the estuaries of the Hudson Bay. Thousands of belugas make the trip to the warmer waters and shallow, gravelly rivers to give birth, nurture young and gorge on capelin and other plentiful marine organisms. There’s no other time like spring and summer in the Churchill region. Life is bursting from the tundra and the sea and rivers. What an amazing time to experience the northern web of life…Arctic style!
So I guess I lied about the last beluga whale photos I posted by writing they would the final shots of the season. These clear underwater shots by Douglas Kahle are some real gems. We can’t seem to get enough looks at these incredible mammals that return to the Churchill waters every year.
Google Earth map of beluga whales moving north for the winter.
Almost all of the belugas are on their journey north by now, many to the Hudson Straits area where they will overwinter. The straits have open water or polynas that allow the whales to surface for air from time to time as needed. The above map is from 10 days ago so whales are further north and traversing the Hudson Bay at this point.
Beluga underwater in Churchill. Douglas Khale photo.
Pod of belugas underwater. Douglas Kahle photo.
Curios and friendly beluga whales in Churchill. Douglas Kahle photo.
Beluga spyhopping underwater in Churchill. Douglas Kahle photo.
The Hudson Bay is packed solid with thick ice and seems to be supporting a healthy seal-feeding season for polar bears. Extreme cold and stormy weather has been pervasive throughout the region this year and should lead to a extended hunting season for bears on the ice surface. Here is the link of the most recent Hudson Bay ice chart from Environment Canada Ice Survey.
Ice accumulating on the Hudson Bay. Karen Walker photo.
Polynas up in the Hudson Straits harbor herds of beluga whales waiting for ice to break up and allow for their spring migration. These open water leads are formed either by warmer currents upwelling from below and keeping an area adjacent to the sea ice unfrozen or from currents and wind conditions that move through the region. They are vital to the survival of narwhals and beluga whales that do not migrate south in the winter.
Beluga whale on the surface. Steve Selden photo.
When the belugas arrive in early summer, almost 2,500 animals will inhabit the coastal waters near Churchill including all the rivers and inlets there. At high tide, the Churchill River becomes a calving estuary stretching nearly eight kilometers up river. These relatively warm waters will make for a calm calving process and infancy. When newborn, calves are a darker almost slate gray. This color, opposing the milky white of the adult stage, is thought to be a subtle camouflage trait for the darker water they inhabit. As they grow and become whiter, the color is camouflage as well when living up north amongst the sea ice of near color. Since adults are more alert and more adept at detecting and eluding predators. Young grey -colored whales enjoy the guardianship and protection of their mothers…swimming tightly in their slipstream.
In summer Churchill has many treasures. Guide Sandra Elvin speaks to a group. Steve Selden photo.
The summer in Churchill is a daily reveal of mystery and treasure hidden in the willows and wildflowers of the tundra and the pre- cambrian rolling boulders of the coastal barrier. Each foray into the wild can produce anything the imagination can bring to mind. A beluga whale carcass nestled in the sea grass out at Halfway Point, a polar bear wandering through the boreal forest looking for some eggs from nesting birds, or even a black wolf lumbering in and out of boggy areas near the town weir out along Goose Creek road. As the summer moves forward, polar bears can be spotted along the coast as they arrive from the ice floes in the bay. Each day, each season produces something new and unexpected. Nothing compares to Churchill in the summer….the pace slows down and time seems to come to a standstill. Of course if you like the chance seeing 40 or more polar bears in a day fall might be the time to visit as well. Natural Habitat Adventures has a wide variety of trips that fit into your travel plans.