On Travel: Last Stop, Churchill – My Journey to the Far North

Churchill, Manitoba is as close to a frontier town as there is in Canada. Churchill is Manitoba’s northernmost community, and is located where the boreal forest meets the tundra, on the shores of Hudson Bay, bordering the newest Canadian territory of Nunavut.  The town sits on a narrow point of land bound by the ocean to the north and the Churchill River to the south and west. 

Second polar bear sighting

Churchill is the furthest North I’ve traveled in Canada, in fact, anywhere. Visiting this town in the far tundra north has been on my “bucket list” for ages and while I’m back here in Manitoba, renovating my house to sell, I thought “hey let’s do it … I’m here, why not?”. 

The town is known for its polar bears, beluga whales (also known as ocean canaries) and is one of the most premier places in Canada to see the Northern Lights dance in the night sky. These things and more have made Churchill the pinnacle go to place for adventure and wildlife seekers from around the globe.

In this blog series I share with you my personal experiences of life and tourism in this amazing town full of culture, flora and fauna.

Are you ready? Let’s go …….

The Basics

The town of Churchill has a year-round population of under 900. 

Churchill’s human history goes back 4,000 years, with the Inuit, Dene, and Swampy Cree all having a connection to this land and the wildlife that sustained them.

Churchill is touted as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, the Beluga Whale Capital of the World, and one of the best places to experience sub-Arctic tundra AND the Northern Lights (aurora borealis).

Polar bears come onto land every July when the Hudson Bay ice breaks up. In autumn, scores of these great white bears gather along the shores of the bay, waiting for the ice to form so they can venture back out to hunt their favourite food – ring seal. Pregnant females go inland into dens to have cubs in late November and re-emerge in mid-February, when they return to the sea ice.

The Northern Lights can be seen 300/365 days per year!

From June to September, approximately 3,000 Beluga whales visit the Churchill River basin and approximately 60,000 come into the Hudson Bay area. Not only can you go whale watching but you will also have the chance to get up close and personal to these incredibly friendly creatures.

How to Get to Churchill

Churchill is located on the edge of the Arctic. This remote Canadian town on the shores of Hudson Bay is 1,006 km north of Winnipeg.  There are no roads that lead to Churchill, you can only get there by train or plane (… planes, trains and no automobiles – insert John Candy and Steve Martin laugh here lol).

Air

Air travel to Churchill is operated by Calm Air. The small Manitoba airline has flights from Winnipeg and Thompson through Churchill and up to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. Although flights to Churchill may be more expensive than the train, they usually only take about 2.5 hours from Winnipeg. While not cost effective, it is definitely time effective.  

Train 

Many travellers opt for the scenic route, myself included.  The Winnipeg-Churchill train is the only dry land connection to the community. The 1697 km journey takes about 45 hours from Manitoba’s capital of Winnipeg (count on it being longer,  there are often delays, be flexible with your itinerary).  The train travels at low speed due to the topography the rails lay on.  

I am currently in Dauphin, Manitoba, so, I drove to Thompson, Manitoba, about a 7-hour drive.  I could have taken the train from Dauphin, but I planned on making some stops on the way back to explore and it actually takes much less time to drive than take the train. The train to Churchill, takes about 19h20 to get from Dauphin to Thompson, as is goes through parts of Saskatchewan was well. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the sleeper cabins were not available, nor was the 360˚observation dome. 

The seats are quite comfortable and recline most of the way back, there is a foot rest which goes up to level as well.  There are no assigned seats in economy class, so I was able to choose my own seat. I located quad seating with two rows facing each other (if you can’t find one already turned, you can turn them yourself) …  perfect for sleeping.

Screen Shot 2021-09-02 at 9.51.51 PM

The seats have plugs to charge your phone or laptop.  There is no available wi-fi because there isn’t any internet service along the route.  You will not have service for the trip’s entirety, until just before you arrive in Churchill.  

Each car has a filtered water fountain available at no charge. 

VIA offers some on-board services such as sandwiches, snacks, coffee (it was decent) and alcohol (a standard 12 oz can or Coors light cost me $7.00).  

It cost me $144.90 for this leg of the trip (return), I used the 33% discount offered to people of Indigenous heritage – have proof of identification when you board.  You can book your train trip to Churchill via the VIA Rail website.  

Train suggestions:

  • bring a blanket and a pillow
  • bring food – I purchased a pizza from Quiznos for the train ride up
  • bring your own drinks, if you prefer not to purchase on board
  • bring a book to read (currently reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield)
  • bring a few games – I brought a deck of cards, crossword puzzle and Yahtzee
  • download some podcasts to listen to or some audio books
  • download some Netflix shows

Welcome to Churchill

This small and quaint town hugs the western shore of Hudson Bay, the town lies directly in the path of the migratory route for the largest concentration of polar bears that come ashore to hunt for seals every Fall. As I mentioned, it’s the Polar Bear Capital of the World, and the town is built in the bears migration path.  When the sun goes down here the locals know to watch their backs. Tourists are advised to do the same. An alarm sounds at 10:00 p.m. promptly, each night.  Don’t be alarmed (no pun intended). No one warned me upon arrival, I was scared half to death it was a warning that there was a bear currently in town. The siren (long and loud) is a voluntary curfew as part of the Polar Bear Alert program.

Upon arrival in Churchill, after 17 hours on the train

** If travelling via train, you will arrive at the historic Churchill train station.  Walking straight out of the station, about 100 metres will bring you to Kelsey Rd – the town’s main drag. 

Screen Shot 2021-09-03 at 12.37.50 AM

** The airport is just outside of town – you can likely make arrangements with your hotel, Inn or B&B to retrieve you.  If not, there is a taxi in town – Churchill Taxi – (204) 675-2345.

** Car doors are never locked in case a passerby needs immediate protection from a polar bear and polar bear costumes are strictly prohibited for treat-or-treaters during Halloween.

What To Pack :

Summer is a beautiful time to visit Churchill, the flora is teeming with colourful blooms, the beluga whales are swimming into the Churchill River by the thousands, and the long Summer days offer plenty of daylight to view incredible wildlife. I went from August 26-August 31.  It’s just at the end of the Summer season – the belugas are getting ready to leave and the polar bears aren’t quite ready to hitch a ride on the ice quite yet (that starts the beginning of October and lasts about 6 weeks), BUT my adventure DID NOT DISAPPOINT!  I saw everything I came to see and more.

Although Churchill is considered a subarctic climate, you may be surprised to hear that it can get quite warm in the Summer.  The 5 days I was there it was 21˚C-22˚C with the sun out, it was hot.  

My list is for the Summer months, I’ve not included the basics you should pack (that’s up to you).

Boots, Socks and Jacket: In the Summer you can get by with a solid pair of running shoes or hiking boots. I arrived in Churchill on August 26, 2021 and it was 22˚C, it was GORGEOUS!  This is my favourite weather.  I was comfortable wearing my Adidas slides while out and about around town, for any distances I wore my hiking boots.  

In terms of coats, I brought my light down filled puffer coat (that I normally wear for hiking) and a lined lumberjacket so I could layer. I didn’t require either of them during the day, however it did get cooler at night, especially by the bay watching the auroras.  

Hat and Gloves: I brought a pair of mitts and a pair of thin knit gloves.  I also brought a Carhartt toque.  I only used these in the evenings watching the Northern Lights.  But you never know when the weather will turn so come prepared for anything.

A Good Camera: Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my decent Sony Alpha, I wasn’t expecting to be in Manitoba as long as I have been, and I thought of it too late to have it shipped out to me.  Even if I did, I still haven’t purchased a 300 mm lens.  So, I managed as best I could with my iPhone 8 Plus which has dual cameras and takes decent photos. 

Thankfully Angela at my B&B is a professional photographer and offers town tours if you stay that the B&B, for $99.00/pp for 2+ hours  …. WORTH every cent! I will discuss where I stayed in a separate blog.

I also Airdrop swapped with others.  

Binoculars: You could use a monocular if you prefer, you just need something that can help you see at a distance. I found these helpful to view birds and scope out polar bears.  Binoculars are also an ideal way to view the night sky. Even inexpensive models can give depth to craters on the moon, and enhance the colour and shape of stars and planets.  I picked mine up for under $20.00 at Walmart.  

Deterrents: When visiting Churchill, you should be aware that a polar bear may be encountered anywhere at any time of the year and while not expected, be prepared (like a good Scout!).  Before your trip, discuss possible plans of action for dealing with bears in a variety of circumstances and be sure everyone understands what to do. The actions of each individual either contribute to or detract from the safety of everyone else. For information on how to deal with a possible encounter read this pamphlet here, specifically created by the government of Manitoba to address visits to Churchill.  

You can consider an air-horn and/or pepper spray (which may freeze in cold weather). 

I brought a bear whistle and a bear bell, which I also picked up at Walmart. I don’t know why they’re so much more expensive online, I purchased mine in-store for $3.98.

Bug repellent and/or bug jacket, mosquito net hat:  I can’t stress this enough.  Depending on the time of year you come, you should give serious consideration to bringing one or all of these items.  I can’t even start to count the mosquito bites on my neck and ankles.  It’s also a good idea to bring some After Bite.  

Lip balm and moisturizer:  Churchill has a subarctic climate.  It’s also on the ocean.  It could be salt in the air, the days out walking as the wind swept or traveling in the van with the windows open but my skin and lips were constantly craving moisture.

Reusable travel mug or water bottle:  The tap water in Churchill is excellent. I mainly drink water, from the tap if I can – I prefer not to purchase single use disposable water bottles or any type of single use bottle for that matter.  It’s a good idea to bring one, I did and I used it daily.  Also, cases of water up there are super expensive.  I’ll write about food prices separately, but a case of Nestle water was $25.95 at Tamarack Foods.  Do your pocketbook and the environment a favour by bringing a reusable water bottle. 

Ok folks …. that takes care of how to get to Churchill and what to bring …. tune in for the next blog …. “Things I Did” … where I’ll go through all the things I did while in town (which is pretty much everything a tourist would want to do).  I’ll also provide you with the historical significance and/or backstory of each of the site as well as some photos.  

Related Blogs to Help You Plan Your Trip to Churchill

Exploring the Wonders of Churchill

Where to Eat In Churchill

Where I Stayed, Is a Must Stay

Ready to start planning your trip to CHURCHILL?

VIA Rail Train

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