On Travel: Exploring The Marvels of Churchill

Are you ever in for REAL treat! There are so many adventures to be had in this little town of less than 1,000 …. take in as many as you POSSIBLY CAN … you don’t wanna miss a thing.  I stayed for 5 nights and I still had things I wasn’t able to do that I wanted to … I guess that means I’ll just have to go back 😉

This is a list of the things I did while in Churchill – in no particular order. This is my list of suggestions of places to visit, and it’s definitely not inclusive. As I said, there were many more things I wanted to do. It’s amazing how much there is to do in this culture rich town.

Northern Lights

Welcome to earth’s most spectacular light show. Churchill is one of the most popular Northern Lights destinations in Canada. Along with Whitehorse, Yukon and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Churchill’s northern lights expeditions have become incredibly popular with tourists from around the world. And while the rocky coast of Churchill means that there are plenty of amazing foregrounds for the auroras, one of the best places to catch the view is by the Inukshuk on the beach in Churchill or on the Beluga.  I prefer aboard the Beluga for its height and for its safety – lest there be any wandering bears. The Inukshuk provides a great spot to take some of the best aurora photos or time lapses.  

The auroras can be seen in Churchill up to 300 nights a year. They were really strong 3/5 nights I was there and was in awe each time. I was in constant wonder of what I was seeing and how beautiful they were. Every night put on a different show. I have about 100 photos taken over 3 nights of watching the lights dance in the sky. For now I’ll post a few.

Photo Hunt for Polar Bears

If you’re going to Churchill with the specific intent of seeing the bears, you’re best to go during polar bear season which runs from October through mid November (total of about 6 weeks). 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.

That’s not to say that you will not see bears if you’re visiting during the Summer months. Tundra buggy tours still operate and some of the people I met said they saw 2-3 bears as well as other wildlife on their excursions.

I was quite fortunate. My main goal was not for the bears, but rather the belugas. If I saw a bear that was a “bonus” and boy did I get lucky. On my tour days with my B&B host, Angela Mak, we saw a 3 separate bears. I saw a momma and her cub on 2 separate days and a single bear walking solo (at different locations).

The SS Ithaca

Off the coast of Churchill, you will find the remains of the SS Ithaca cargo ship, a small freighter, originally built as the Frank A. Augsbury for the Canadian George Hall Coal & Shipping Corporation in 1922. 

She was chartered by the Clarke Steamship Company to deliver nickel concentrate from the works at Rankin Inlet. She sailed from Churchill on 10 September 1960 to collect her cargo and carried supplies to the settlement. She had delivered her first shipment of 2,700 tons of ore to Churchill and had loaded a small amount of mining equipment and building supplies for the return trip, when she encountered a storm with 130 kmh gale forced winds.

The Captain turned back toward the safety of the port, however, the weather was so bad he decided to drop anchor. The anchor chain broke, and her rudder was beaten off. Completely out of control, on 14 September, 1960, the vessel was driven into Bird Cove, a shallow gravel-bank 750 meters offshore.

The Ithaca was driven into Bird Cove, a shallow gravel bank about 750 meters offshore

Her bottom was completely ripped out when the storm pounded her on the gravel bank. The insurer, Lloyd’s of London, wrote the vessel off as a complete loss, and viewed the grounding as suspicious, therefore refusing to pay the insurance claim. All 37 crew members were rescued by the Canadian Coast Guard‘s CCGS Sir William Alexander and were taken to Winnipeg on 18 September 1960. The shallow water she grounded on meant that walking to the wreck at low tide was possible allowing for much of her navigational instruments, and cargo, consisting of two generators and some plywood panels, as well as mission supplies, were able to be salvaged. 

Today, the rusted wreck attracts curious travellers and photographers.  The ship is too dangerous to enter. Because of its position in the shallows of the Hudson, a low-tide hike to the Ithaca is possible. However, beware, polar bears are known to hang out in the wreck. If you want to attempt this hike, it’s best to hire a local guide who is experienced with both the bears and is familiar with the area.

Itsanitaq Museum 

The Itsanitaq Museum, formerly known as the Churchill Eskimo Museum is a must-visit for those who travel to town.  The museum has a collection of over 1,100 Inuit carvings and artifacts which are amongst the finest and oldest in the world dating from Pre-Dorset (1700 B.C.) through Dorset, Thule, and modern Inuit times.

The Itsanitaq Museum also houses arctic wildlife including muskox, polar bear, and walrus as well and relics of some northern explorations. 

There is no fee to visit the museum, donations are appreciated.  

The gift shop specializes in northern books, Canadian Inuit art, unique postcards, art cards, stationery, and local wild berry preserves.

Churchill Rocket Research Range

The Churchill Rocket Research Range is a former rocket launch site located about 23 km outside of town. The facility was used by both Canada and the United States for sub-orbital launches of sounding rockets to study the upper atmosphere. The site was scientifically beneficial due to it laying in the centre of a zone containing high aurora activity. Over 3,500 sub-orbital flights were launched from the site.

The complex was first built in 1954 by the Canadian Army’s Defence Research Board to study the effects of auroras on long distance communications. The program ceased operation in 1955, and the site was re-opened and greatly expanded in 1956 as part of Canada’s participation in the International Geophysical Year. Launches for the experiments started in 1957 but ceased in December 1958.

The site was one again re-opened in August 1959 by the US Army, in collaboration with the Canadian government, as part of its network of sounding rocket stations. In September 1959 it was used to test new solid fuel propellant systems with PVT-1, the vehicle that would evolve into the Black Brant. In late 1960 a fire destroyed many of the facilities. It was announced that the Black Brant test series would be continued with an additional twelve launches at NASA‘s Wallops Flight Facility during 1961-62, while the facilities at Churchill were rebuilt.

The US Army ended its involvement at Churchill in June 1970, and the site was taken over by the Canadian National Research Council to support the Canadian Upper Atmosphere Research Program. The site was used sporadically during the 1970s and 1980s and was largely deserted by 1985.

In 1994 Akjuit Aerospace, a Canadian company, signed a 30-year lease with the Canadian government for the Churchill Rocket Research Range with the goal of developing the world’s first commercial spaceport. Akjuit assembled a technical team of 21 firms led by the American aerospace contractor Raytheon to plan the development of the site into SpacePort Canada, including polar orbital launch capability. Akjuit planned to launch commercial polar-orbiting payloads using Russian rockets. Churchill’s location in the western hemisphere combined with its range-safety for firing northwards made it an ideal location, with the exception of the extremely cold weather which would limit launch seasons. 

Akjuit’s first and only rocket launch took place at 7:10 a.m. Central Time on 28 April 1998: a suborbital Black Brant IXB research rocket containing a physics payload for the Canadian Space Agency. Akjuit Aerospace ceased operations in May 1998.

Kayak With Beluga Whales

Besides polar bears, the beluga whales are one of the town’s biggest draws. And unlike the bears, you can easily get right up close to the white whales of the north. From June to end of August these social, white whales make their way into Hudson Bay and the Churchill River to feed and give birth. Visitors can observe these “canaries of the sea” (known for their whistles and chirps) by kayak, standup paddle board or on a Zodiac boat tour.  

I joined Sea North Tours for a Beluga kayak experience on the mouth of the Churchill River where it empties into Hudson Bay. Kayaking with these magnificent creatures at sunset was all but the best thing I’ve done in my life.  I loved every moment of the 2 hours I was on the water.  They came right up to my kayak and nudged it multiple times, at one time there were 3! I felt kind of like their rubber ducky in their river during playtime. At first I was scared I would tip, but once I got a better feel for my kayak, I was no longer scared, I wanted them to come right up, stick their heads out and say “hi”. They followed and swam beside it as I paddled, I got some decent footage with my iPhone, while still trying to be present and take it all in.

Miss Piggy Plane Wreck 

The cargo plane rests on a cliff edge north of the airport She was nicknamed Miss Piggy because of the size of the loads she carried from site to site in the North.

On November 13, 1979, Miss Piggy, a Curtiss C-46 freight plane, left Churchill airport when shortly into the flight her no.1 engine oil temperature rose, a drop in oil pressure forced the crew to descend and return to Churchill.  The aircraft wasn’t able to maintain altitude and force landed in rough terrain about a 1/4 mile short of the runway. Reportedly, the aircraft was overloaded.  There were 3 crewmen injured in the crash, all survived. 

Churchill Golf Balls

This obsolete building overlooking Hudson Bay was a radar station in the 1960s during the cold ware era. It was used to track launches from the nearby rocket range. Its exterior was painted in 2017 as part of the Seawall public art program. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go in and explore since I love urbexing. I definitely could have spent more time here …. the views from the top are amazing.

Cape Merry Battery -(Prince of Wales National Historic Site)

Cape Merry is a Parks Canada National Historic Site and is unsupervised. The site includes a cannon battery and some remnants of the old stone walls (partially refurbished). The site can be easily accessed from town. It was built to protect the fort across the river.

A plaque commemorates Jens Munk, the Danish explorer who first landed there in 1619. He was commission by Denmark’s King to seek a new Northwest Passage to the Orient.  In May 1619, his expedition of about 60 men sailed from Copenhagen.  They entered Hudson Bay in late August. Munk and his crew went ashore in 7 November 1619 and spent a terrible winter battling the cold and scurvy – only Munk and 2 of his men survived. They returned to Norway in July 1620.  His ill-fated wintering in Churchill is a great story for those who would underestimate the challenges of life in Canada’s north.

From the fort you can see the Prince of Wales Fort across the Churchill River as well as magnificent views of where fresh water of the river meets salt water of the arctic ocean.  Look out at the vast water views to see the belugas swimming.  

Cape Merry Cannon Battery

Inukshuks

The Inuit meaning of Inukshuk is “in the likeness of a human” … Churchill has some impressive Inukshuks.  Travellers often gravitate to and photograph them in the daytime or with dynamic northern lights over the Hudson Bay (the large one on the beach is best for that).  I counted at least 4 in my time there.  

In front of the Inukshuk at the end of Kelsey Rd.

Polar Bear Jail

As you can imagine, living in a migration path and in a place where the polar bear outnumber the human population, life can be a wee but dangerous. A stroll through town and you will uncover countless signs pointing to where you shouldn’t go lest you risk being made a snack. On occasion, a polar bear gets a little too curious close to town. Dangerous bears are tranquilized when captured and are marked with a bright paint on the neck. Closer to winter, when the ice in the Hudson Bay has set, the bears are relocated by helicopter far from the town.  Prior to establishing the facility, polar bears which were considered dangerous used to be shot. The locals are very much aware that they are in the bears territory and they respect them. Visitors aren’t allowed inside the jail.  However you can check out information signage and bear traps outside the facility.  While I was there, I learned that two bears were trapped and taken to “jail”.  

The building is officially named “House D-20”, and was a former military morgue.

The holding facility was first established in 1982. 

The front exterior was painted as part of the Seawall Project.  

Beluga Tugboat / Beach

If you visit the Churchill beach, immediately behind the Town Complex you’ll find the remains of the Beluga, a former fishing boat which has been converted to a picnic structure.  It’s understood that the Beluga was stationed there to act as a safety spot in the event of a bear encounter – you can climb up the Beluga where the bears cannot reach you.  

The Beluga is also one of the best places in town to watch the moon rise over the bay and to catch the dancing light of the auroras.  The beach is also home to the largest Inukshuk in town and seems to be placed just right for photography lovers and enthusiasts alike. Swimming is not recommended (there are posted signed to not go onto the beach area), but it’s the only place where you’re going to get close to salt water without going to British Columbia or Nova Scotia, PEI or Newfoundland.  If you choose to ignore the posted Polar Bear Alert Program signage, be safe, have someone stand watch for you and plan an escape route.  There are also a series of BBQs and fire pits on the beach to enjoy a fire with friends or family.  

On the beach, you will also find a plaque mounted stone memorial to 3 youngsters who lost their lives – let this be a reminder as tourists … “Had they known.  Lest we forget.  The tides are strong and the rocks slippery when wet”.  

Wander the Ruins of Ladoon’s Castle

The story of Brian Ladoon is a bit of Churchill legend. Brian is either loved, hated, or a little bit of both by residents of the town. You can read more about him here. 

Brian dedicated his life to the preservation of the Canadian Eskimo Dog, he owned 5 Dog Sanctuary, which often attracted polar bears to his property. He saved the dog from extinction. The Canadian Eskimo Dog (Quimmiq) is the oldest indigenous domestic dog species still existing in North America. This rare species is an important icon in the Inuit (formerly Eskimo) history.In the 1970s, the Quimmiq was close to extinction, and Ladoon dedicated his life to keep them alive, helping to breed the dogs and see that they were cared for properly. He is either loved, hated, or a little bit of both by residents of the town. It was revealed that he had (as many suspected) been feeding local polar bears to keep them from harming his dogs (caught only when a bear killed one of his dogs after a night he had not fed the bears). People also strongly felt that he should not keep his dogs tied/chained up up in the middle of a polar bear migration path — they’d have no chance if they encountered a bear.

One of his many projects was his development of a castle-style hotel in Churchill on the Hudson Bay coast. The project was never completed, and the remains of it are often on the minds of many of those who travel to Churchill. You can find Ladoon’s Castle on La Vérendrye Ave as you leave Churchill, just before the cemetery. Brian died in 2019.

The Churchill Seawalls

Spend some time in Churchill, and you’ll likely notice a series of murals spanning the shores of the Hudson Bay. The SeaWalls CHURCHILL mural project was started as a way to educate and inspire the community and travellers to protect the oceans. Each piece takes inspiration from the natural history, community, resiliency, and heritage of Churchill.

Li-Hill, painted “THE BEAR” in less than 6 hours, IN THE RAIN, exposed to both the Hudson Bay and the Churchill River winds, using mostly aerosol BBQ paint from the Home Hardware store.

Sayisi Dene Village

The few remnants of this village is about two miles southeast of Churchill. It was established by the Department of Indian Affairs for the Fort Churchill Indian Band, known today as the Sayisi Dene First Nation. Forced to relocate to Churchill in 1956, they lived in squalor at a site near the present-day cemetery.

In 1966, they were moved to this site into bungalows built by the federal government. The transition from nomadic, caribou-hunting culture to non-migratory urban life was unsuccessful and numerous people died

Many of the houses were destroyed by fire and most of the people relocated to Tadoule Lake by 1973. Within a few years, the village was completely abandoned. The concrete foundations for numerous buildings remain at a site. The commemorative monument was erected in October 1999.

The federal government formally acknowledged its role in relocating the First Nation 60 years ago and offer $33 million in compensation. The message is too late for many of the community members who were taken from their happy homes and placed into a situation of agony, poverty and hopelessness. By 1973, 117 of the more than 250 members who were originally moved had already died.

Parks CanadaVisitors Centre at the Churchill Train Station

Parks Canada attraction is in Churchill’s historic train station. It offers a variety of exhibits which highlight Wapusk National Park, Prince of Wales Fort and York Factory National Historic sites. Experience the ecology and human history of Wapusk through the “Our Land, Our Stories” exhibits. Look into a life-sized polar bear maternity den. Explore the connection between Indigenous people and the caribou.

Jockville Heritage Site

I wasn’t able to find any information online about this site, just that it’s a locality in Manitoba. What I what told is that that the province of Manitoba moved the residents from this community into town, into Manitoba Housing, apparently for safety reasons. I’m not sure if this is accurate.

From my exploration, it appears as of this settlement was established in/about 1929.  One of the buildings on site has a handmade sign on the house which states that it was called 7th Ave Jockville and was previously surveyed by the Railways and Canals.

If anyone knows something more specific on this settlement, I’d love to hear about it. Please email me via the contact link or comment below.

FLORA AND FAUNA

Flora

There are diverse landscapes surrounding Churchill, from the boreal forest at its northern edge to the expansive sub-arctic tundra. More than 400 native plant species can be found here. I was here at the end of Summer, but there were remnants of colourful, the ground cover was filled with wild berries and downy white tufts of Arctic avens. 

Most of the landscape is glacier-sculpted boulders – where the sea gives way to rolling tundra.

Fauna

The Hudson Bay lowlands are part of a rich ecosystem teeming with wildlife … polar bears, beluga whales, splethora of migratory and shorebirds, I saw only 1 seal …

Things that I wasn’t able to fit in during my 5 days in Churchill

  • Prince of Wales Fort
  • York Factory National National Historic Site
  • Sloop Cove National Historic Site
  • Hike to the Ithaca
  • Find a local to take me by boat to Nunavut

All in all no matter what it is you do in Churchill you will enjoy every moment of it. There are so many things to do. On days when I felt like taking it easy a bit more, I would take my book to the parquet on Kelsey Rd, across from my B&B, read my book and soak in the sun, after all, it is still a vacation 😉

Related Blogs to Help You Plan Your Trip to Churchill

How to Get to Churchill

Where I Stayed, Is a Must Stay

Where to Eat In Churchill

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