If you take an adventure to Churchill in the near future there are some “must see” attractions you should take in before you leave the frontier town. Of course some are season specific while some are year round accessible.
1.- Polar Bears: Not many people are unaware that Churchill is the polar bear mecca for viewing the “king of the Arctic”. During October and November the town is filled with high numbers of travelers hoping to see these amazing creatures in the wild. Of course summer also holds the potential for sighting fewer numbers of polar bears but still the chance exists. If you come during the winter to perhaps view northern lights, you will not see any as they are hunting seals on the Hudson bay ice. So plan a trip during the optimal window and come see the polar bears of Churchill!
Polar bears sparring in the Churchill wildlife management Area. Natural Habitat Adventures photo.
2. Precambrian Shield: When in Churchill you will notice the rocky coastline and glacial polished rocks jutting out of the tundra in different areas of the surrounding area. You really will need to get out on the Precambrian shield and feel the energy that emanates from the heavy stone embedded in the Earth. The geological features are wondrous and magnificent and are some of the oldest rocks on the planet. You can easily become immersed in the natural history of the formations and see how the landscape adapts to their shape and movement.
A view across the Cape Merry barrens past the battery and to Fort prince of Wales. Natural Habitat Adventures photo.
3. Churchill Northern Studies Center and surrounding area: At the far reaches of the main road out of Churchill heading east lies the old Fort Churchill Rocket Range. These grounds are now occupied by the new and improved Churchill Northern Studies Center. The center is a bastion for Arctic researchers and travelers to live and learn from the incredible diversity of the ecosystems colliding in one place. A tour of the facility and exploring the lakes and patterned ground in the area via trails is a must for getting a feel for the true sub-Arctic biome.
Churchill Northern Studies Center. CNSC photo.
4. Northern Lights: Another fairly obvious “must see” in Churchill. Located under Van Allens belt in the magnetic field of our atmosphere, Churchill is an optimal location to take in these mystical and scintillating lights. Natural Habitat Adventures has a new option to view the aurora; an Aurora Pod. With other various viewing options available as well, this is an absolute must see in Churchill.
Natural Habitat’s Aurora Pod and an avid photographer. Alex de Vries – Magnifico photo.
5. -Cape Merry: This is probably the most beautiful and peaceful spot around Churchill. When guiding Churchill Arctic summer groups I would always bring the group there first as a relaxing orientation to the region. We would spend hours looking for flowers and studying the geology of the area. Fort Prince of Wales is just across the Churchill River (often teeming with beluga whales in summer) and the vast expanse of the Hudson Bay unveils itself as far as the eye can see.
Ammunition cache at Cape Merry for cannon protection of Fort prince of Wales. Karen Walker photo.
Churchill is a funky frontier town with some unusual characters and a town center right out of the movies. The town is self-contained with just about every activity you want located in the town complex. Northern restaurants and bars line the main drag which is Kelsey Boulevard. Polar bears even saunter into town so if one is patient one doesn’t have to head out to the Churchill Wildlife management Area in a polar rover to see them.
Here are five attractions outside of Churchill proper that are worth checking out if you happen to visit the northern village.
1. Ithaca Shipwreck: Just off the coast near Bird Cove in Churchill, this old freighter is a classic landmark of the region.
2. Cape Merry: This iconic overlook on the precambrian sheild above the Churchill River and Hudson Bay is a classic starting point for any Adventure group arriving in Churchill. One can become geographically centered here and get a feel for the immensity of the Hudson Bay.
Natural Habitat group at the Cape Merry battery. Karen Walker photo.
3. Port of Churchill: A major economic stalwart of the town, this massive grain storage and port facility facilitates the cargo train as well as enormous cargo ships transporting grain products across the oceans via waterways accessible to the the Hudson Bay.
Grain port of Churchill.Steve Selden photo.
4. Observation tower at Goose Creek: In the summer this spot is a great place to observe various marsh birds and ducks. You also can get a distant view of an annual osprey nest as well as a clear vista about eight kilometers up the Churchill River. A quiet respite with amazing sky and landscape views.
Observation tower at Goose Creek marina.
5. Anglican Church: If you like the intimate atmosphere of a quaint church service, this is the place. If you also want to see a national treasure you can do that as well. The Lady Franklin stained glass window is displayed to the right of the alter. This grand piece of art was given by Sir John Franklin’s wife, Jane, in appreciation of all the search efforts put forth to find her husband and their lost Arctic expedition of 1845.
Anglican church in Churchill rests on the edge of the Hudson Bay.
Close – up of the Lady Franklin stained glass window Photo Karen Walker
Churchill, Manitoba is the place to see polar bears. In the beautiful, temperate months of October and November the town welcomes a few thousand travelers from Natural Habitat Adventures and other wildlife tour companies on a mission to see polar bears. Almost all leave with amazing memories of the king of the Arctic…the polar bear!
Sparring bears in the CWMA. Melissa Scott photo.
However, Churchill can be deceptively inviting and even dangerous at times for those taking unnecessary risks. No, I’m not talking about the Canadian Legion on a Saturday night…although I have personally experienced that northern “wildlife”. I am talking about polar bears…hungry polar bears at that. So, if you come to Churchill to see the Arctic king, the great white bear, stay alert, be cautious and don’t wander out of town without protection.
1.– Don’t go for an early morning hike to Cape Merry or some other place outside town limits. You probably wouldn’t play Russian roulette at home….so why would you take similar risks far away in a place you don’t know so well? Chances are you could walk the few kilometers there and back without getting mauled or slain by a polar bear but then again it only takes one bear.
Polar bears on Eskimo Point. Stephanie Fernandez photo.
2.– When you leave your house or residence in the dark, look both ways. Also, try to park the driver side door facing your house door for easy access Polar bears are notorious for sneaking into the town in the wee hours of the morning when most people are sleeping and Manitoba Conservation officers are sleeping as well. Most people in Churchill leave their doors unlocked for anyone facing a surprise polar bear encounter. It’s Kind of a custom in Churchill.
A polar bear trap being removed with cargo from Churchill.
3.– No strolling along the precambrian shield on the coast of the magnificent Hudson Bay. The rolling, polished granitoid rocky coastline can provide really nice sleeping or resting spots for bears. And they really don’t take kindly to surprise wake up calls. The surprise will quickly be yours.
4.– Don’t drive a ATV along the coast road…in a thick fog. Been there, done that on the way to the annual old laboratory party out by the airport hosted by infamous researcher and professor Paul Watts. Couldn’t see three feet in front of the vehicle the whole way out along the coastal road. One of the scariest yet thrilling things I’ve done with my fleece on. Oh yeah…party was rocking too. The ATV came back in the back of a pick up truck.
Polar bear attempting to maul me in a vehicle. Steve Selden photo.
5.– If you want to be a wildlife photographer for long, keep the windows rolled up when shooting polar bears from a vehicle other than when a polar rover. In the old days in Churchill many photographers would get their money shots out at mile 5 or Brian Ladoon’s dog- yard. Myself and Brendan O’Neill, working logistics for the polar bear season many years ago, got a terrifying thrill one day when a polar bear approached our unnamed photographers van and tried to crawl through the window. One of my first bear experiences in Churchill….two underwear day!
Natural Habitat travelers beluga watching in the Churchill River.
6.– Bonus.. Stay away from swimming polar bears in the summer when you have a group of travelers in a rubber zodiac looking for beluga whales. Polar bears submerge for what seems like an eternity. They can hold their breath for up to two minutes. If you get close enough the bear could surface anywhere within 20 feet or so….not fun. It’s a similar feeling to the old video Asteroids game when you hit hyperspace and hope you don’t reappear next to a huge asteroid ready to blow up your ship.
There are many more places than these that you don’t want to encounter a polar bear. However, if you use common sense and respect their territory, all should go well and your memories will all be good.
See polar bears in the wilds of Churchill, Manitoba…go to nathab.com.
A Natural Habitat group led by guide Karen Walker experienced some diverse weather as they journeyed to Churchill, Manitoba this week. Despite the blizzard-like conditions, the group of travelers braved the wind and cold in order to do some exploring on land. “We had a storm on our Town and Area tour day, but the group trekked out to Cape Merry, across the snow-covered rocks to the Battery,” reported Karen. Many guests also got out for several photos throughout the day.
Polar bear aside the Polar rover in Churchill, MB. Karen Walker photo.
Following an exciting week of wildlife viewing and northern cultural encounters, the group experienced a beautiful afternoon on the tundra on their last day in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. The sun came out and highlighted the snow and frozen thermokarsts across the tundra. Calmer weather prevailed toward week’s end and Arctic animals were out and about all day. “We spotted an arctic hare running through the willows and a red fox on both of our drives to and from town. Several polar bears were napping and digging in the kelp, and we also had a couple bears visit our rover,” stated Karen. “On our departure day, another blizzard hit ushering in tremendous winds and blowing snow, but we made it safely out of Churchill with only a half hour delay.”
Polar bear investigating the polar rover. Karen Walker photo.
The group kept high spirits up throughout the trip while experiencing some wicked Arctic weather. Experiencing the harsh environment accentuates how animals in this region need to be opportunistic in their daily lives…every decision makes a difference.
View of the Port of Churchill grain storage building. Karen Walker photo.
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Karen Walker’s Natural Habitat travelers arrived into Churchill on a VERY mild day this past week. The temperatures have been in the 30’s, with very little wind. While making a traditional orientation stop at the Inukshuk, the smell of sea kelp was persistent without the breezes off the Hudson Bay. The group ventured up to Cape Merry and comfortably spent a half hour at the battery enjoying the panoramic views and interesting natural history from Ranger Heather.
Exploring the precambrian sheild in Churchill. Karen Walker photo.
Later, as the group headed out on the launch road, they spotted an Arctic hare tucked into some spruce branches right next to the road. “We went out to the lodge and spotted three white slivers of bears off in the willow bushes. Two of them sparred in the willows, then moved toward the lodge” stated Karen. “One big guy sat right under the lodge windows looking up at the lodge, while the other two sparred by the propane tanks. We were parked at the end of the lodge, splitting half of the rover looking into the back of the lodge and half in the front. Once the polar bears settled down in the willows, dinner was served and the polar rover headed back to launch.
Frosty white polar bear on the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.
The following day five helicopters with 15 people lifted off in search of a polar bear den. Overcast with a very light wind….the contingent flew over the fort and up the Churchill River. A couple of the helis spotted harbor seals on the rocks just below the weir a short ways up the river. “Further up river we spotted some moose. Some helicopter passengers saw sows with calves, some spotted bulls” reported Karen. The group landed at Deer River to look at an abandoned bear den. Many of the travelers went inside and snapped a photo. The surrounding tundra was spongy and covered with caribou moss (lichen), crowberries, lowbush cranberries and the fragrant Labrador tea and even some red cranberries above the den. “I love the smell of the Labrador tea as you walk across the tundra.” stated karen. The larch/tamarack trees were losing their last needles. These trees are unique in that they are one of the only coniferous trees to lose their needles in the winter.
A birds eye view from the helicopter above Churchill. Karen walker photo.
The helicopters set off again flying across the wide open space, over the ponds and wetlands across Wapusk National Park. “We spotted many more moose in the forest -moms and calves, bulls, and bulls with cows nearby.” On the return journey back to Churchill the helicopters flew along the coast to look for polar bears. “We spotted innumerable bears along the coast, walking, standing, and laying in the kelp. In one group there were seven bears right near each other, and 15 bears within our view. We also spotted a couple of moms with cubs. We flew over the CWMA and the finally the Ithaca shipwreck and into Churchill.” What a trip!
As the group landed and entered the Hudson Bay Helicopter base office, Karen spotted a Conservation officer. She sensed that something might be happening shortly out at the Polar Bear Compound and she was right. The group hurried by shuttle out to the facility to see a mom with two, two-year-old cubs lifted by net up the coast of Hudson Bay. “It was pretty exciting for the guests that had just ridden in that helicopter to see it used for the bear lift” offered Karen.
Conservation officers prepare an animal for a bear lift. Karen walker photo.
The group headed over to Kelly Turcotte’s Churchill River Mushing for an afternoon of dog mushing. Kelly provided interesting information on the dog hierarchy and expenses to feed dogs up in the north, then the guests went out to meet the dogs. It was “warm” out, so there was a lot of mud in the dog yard and many guests came back with muddy foot prints on their Natural Habitat parkas. After the bumpy and fun ride on the cart-sleds Kelly spoke about a bear that was nosing around his dog yard earlier this season. Conservation officers tranquilized the bear and took him away to the compound.
On the way back into town, the group stopped at the Dene Village monument and learned about the struggles of the Dene people through their government forced relocation. Winding along the RX Road, the travelers stopped to see the Canadian Eskimo Dogs that various owners hold in their kennel yards and then made a final stop at the Town of Churchill sign for a group photo. All in all an amazing trip so far in Churchill!