Manitoba Travel recently released this short video in a series of promotional films highlighting the incredible features of the province. This particular clip takes us on a journey from Winnipeg to Churchill and builds the anticipation for travelers heading to Churchill this year. Polar bears, beluga whales, migratory birds and incredible landscapes await those bold enough to journey north. Enjoy!
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.
Jeff and Kathy Klofft from Boston continue their guest blog series documenting their trip to Churchill last fall with Natural Habitat Adventures. Enjoy!
Our Churchill Adventure Trip Report
Of course, our first flight was canceled…we didn’t even leave Boston before our plans were derailed! (see our blog post about our challenges getting to Canada from Boston) Go See it Travel
Luckily, we were supplied with contact numbers from both our travel agent Expeditions Trips and the Natural Habitat Adventures in Winnipeg. We called both to let them know our new arrival time- unfortunately 12:30 AM, meaning we’d miss our briefing dinner, but would be likely to make our Sunday AM charter with our group. The Expeditions Trips agent called as soon as the day started on the west coast where they were located, and we spoke to a super helpful representative at Nat Hab in Winnipeg, who assured us we would be picked up at the airport even with our late arrival and told us all of the details we need to know. The driver was there as promised, our guide, Katie, left us all the briefing information we needed for the next day, and vouchers for the dinner we missed (which we couldn’t use but appreciated!) An example of how seamless and proactive Natural Habitat was, was that our driver made a point of explaining that on our charter flight the next morning, we should take note of the changes in the ecosystems as we flew north; from the plains agricultural regions, to lakes region, to the boreal forest and icy tundra. While we had read about this in the pre – departure materials, had the shuttle driver not made a point to share that with us, we might have flown north and not thought to notice this phenomenon from the plane windows, and it turned out to be one of the many amazing experiences we had during our trip!
Upon our arrival in Churchill, our first excursion was to the Parks Canada Visitor Reception Centre, where we had the privilege of meeting park ranger, Rhonda Reid, who after taking a moment to remove her outer “non-issue” fleece, stepped into her official role as park ranger, where she regaled us with information about polar bears and stories about life living in in the north in polar bear country. The best stories were about the detention center for unruly juvenile polar bears, who like young drunk college students can sometimes act badly, and are kept a while till the ice freezes and then sent on their way out onto the frozen bay! We also saw many taxidermy specimens of other creatures we might see in the area. (All legally obtained by Parks Canada from wild life law enforcement seizures)
After our stop at the Visitors Center, we made our way by bus with our driver for the trip, Stephanie, to the Rover Launch area for Great White Bear Tours, one of two outfitters permitted to run vehicles in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.
We enjoyed some wildlife spotting from the bus on the way to the launch and on the tundra as the sun set.
We were introduced to our Rover driver for the duration of our visit to Churchill, Stu, a retired RCMP and current polar river driver for Great White Bear. Stu, not only shared insight into life in Churchill, having grown up there, but was also very knowledgeable about the animals we saw and helping guests to spot them in the distance. When the rover was stopped for meals or snacks, he quickly transitioned to waiter extraordinaire, serving amazingly gourmet meals from coolers in the rear of the rover. We were also pleasantly surprised by the level Natural Habitat went to accommodate special diets. There were few vegetarians and others with religious diet restrictions, which were accommodated cheerfully and unobtrusively.
I had heard the rovers described as school buses on big wheels, but they are much more than that! The heated extra wide vehicle with a marine style toilet in the rear, comfortable coach bus style seating, a large mesh grate floor viewing platform in the back, made for a very comfortable day in the rover!
Check in tomorrow for polar bear action in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area and polar bear photos from the phenomenal adventure the Klofft’s experienced!
Continuing our guest blog series from Jeff and Kathy Klofft from Boston, Massachusetts. The couple chronicle their travels with photographs and a blog post detailing their trip and post their stories on Go See It Travel website. This Churchill post follows yesterday’s post on their polar bear adventure in Churchill during this past polar bear season.
My tips for planning a Polar Bear Safari in Churchill
Here’s what we’ve learned.
There is no “road to Churchill”, so visitors will have to take a flight from Winnipeg, Manitoba or take the train over a couple of days to get into Churchill. Once in Churchill, you’ll need to find a hotel or guest house. The polar bear season is the top tourism season in Churchill and there are only a few hotels or guest houses available in a very small outpost town and they will book up quickly, so advance reservations are critical.
So if going it alone sounds complicated, there are several full service tour companies that offer packages that include transportation, lodging and daily activities to see bears and learn more about the culture and people of Churchill. We chose to travel with Natural Habitat Adventures (click here) They use some of the same outfitters you would use if you book your own trip, (and you might find, they’ve already booked most of the lodging for their guests) We were very happy with our Nat Hab trip because of their excellent guiding, partnership with the World Wildlife Federation, and the addition of unique opportunities to learn more about the culture and people of the north. But we mostly chose Nat Hab because they handle all the details of the trip for their guests, in an environment where “smooth” isn’t even used to describe the ice on Hudson Bay! Between the weather, food arriving only occasionally by train and a busy, short tourist season in a village with only a few services like restaurants and hotels, it was nice to have someone else handling all the details. The weather alone can cause itinerary changes almost hourly, and our Natural Habitat Guide, Katie, handled them all with her cell phone and a smile, and communicated them well to our group, while we relaxed and enjoyed the scenery!
Although it was a “group tour”; and nature people generally avoid “groups”; our group of 16 had our own polar rover, which could have easily held twice our group, so everyone had their own window seat and a seat next to them for gear. Had we gone alone, we would have shared the rover with a much larger group vying for space on the outdoor platform and at the windows. The food served was excellent, and I didn’t realize how challenging that must have been until I toured the Northern department store in Churchill and saw that the whole produce section could have fit in my carry on bag! The prices were also shocking, making me appreciate how difficult it must be for local people to fill their fridges! It was a splurge to travel with Natural Habitat, as most safaris in remote areas are, but the testament to whether it’s “worth it” was hearing from one couple in our group who was on their 5th trip to Churchill, and even though they were very familiar with the area and had planned their first couple of trips independently, they choose to return with Natural Habitat for last few because they felt the experience offered was worth the expense.
(As far as budget planning- when planning all inclusive guided safaris in the wilderness just about anywhere in the world, I have found I need to budget $500- $1000 per person per day. I will often compromise on the length of a nature trip rather than miss a peak wildlife experience by going at a cheaper time and missing the natural phenomena I came to see!)
Churchill Summer Adventures – 2016
A Field Report by Natural Habitat AdventuresExpedition Leader: Moira Le Patourel
We walked across the Churchill Airport tarmac towards the waiting plane, heading back to Winnipeg. The most incredible Churchill summer experience had played out for our little band of Natural Habitat Adventurer’s over the past five days. I have been travelling to Churchill with tour groups and enjoying the sub-Arctic wonders of this area for the past three years, but I had never had an experience quite like this one.
Our trip started off with an early morning flight from Winnipeg to Churchill in the sunshine. Over the next five days, our group enjoyed absolutely incredible encounters with belugas; in zodiacs, the Sea North II (a larger jet-drive vessel), in kayaks and even through a snorkel mask! We were able to watch belugas exhibiting playful behavior, feeding behavior, calm-day and stormy-day activities and listen in on their incredibly active social lives in the Churchill River and the Hudson’s Bay.
We were also extremely lucky to spot not one but FOUR polar bears on our five-day adventure as well! Two lone individuals, one resting on Eskimo Point and one swimming about a mile off shore in Button Bay, and one mother and cub-of-the-year onshore. I couldn’t believe our luck! The wildflowers were bursting with colour all across the landscape, with more purples and creams than I have ever seen before; it was quite a sight to behold. The bird life was also out in full force; we enjoyed sightings of Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swans, Arctic Terns, Parasitic Jaegers, Pacific Loons with young, Snow Geese and an American Golden-Plover, to name a few.
As we were headed to the airport for our departure, we were lucky enough to receive a tip from a local that the Polar Bear Holding Facility was open for tours for the next couple of hours. We only had 15 minutes to squeak in a look at the inside of the Holding Facility, but what a view it was! The Polar Bear Holding Facility has an open-house once a year, and we were just lucky enough to be there at just the right time!
As the Churchill River and the Hudson’s Bay faded out of view from the airplane windows, obscured by cloud, I looked around and could see the broad smiles on the faces of my travelling companions. This had truly been the trip of a lifetime in Churchill for all of us!