Hey friends! I’m jumping out of my typical chronologically-based coverage to skip ahead and share my recent trip to Canada. We’ll be back to Thailand soon!
“How do human survive here?”
We’d taken off before the sunrise and watched as the view out the window turned more and more harsh and inhospitable. There were no roads snaking below, only lakes and rivers. Our destination, Churchill, could be reached only by plane or by a forty-eight hour train journey from Winnipeg.
I’d first heard of Churchill years before, at a travel-themed reading series in New York called Restless Legs. In a dark bar basement in the East Village where BlackBerrys outnumbered people, I heard a woman describe a Canadian frontier town in which, at certain times of year, bears outnumber people. I knew that someday, I had to go.
Later, when I began planning a journey of my own, I learned that the Arctic community of Churchill sits smack in the migratory path of polar bears, who flock here in the fall when the first of the Hudson Bay sea ice forms off its shores. The sea ice of the Hudson Bay is diluted by the fresh water of the Churchill River, meaning the water there is the first to freeze and bears can get out on their icy winter hunting ground sooner than anywhere else. Long ago, an entrepreneurial soul in tourism industry dreamed up a nickname for Churchill: the polar bear capital of the world.
According to the tally of the 2011 census, Churchill has 813 residents — of the human variety, anyway. First passed through thousands of years ago by migratory Dorset and Inuit peoples, the area went on to host an important fort in the fur trade, a military rocket testing zone, and a scientific research station. Today, the economy relies primarily on the boutique tourism industry as well as the Port of Churchill, Canada’s only Arctic seaport and one which provides access to the prairies for shipping grain.
Long before we landed at Churchill’s hangar-like airport, the onslaught of safety information had already begun. Like many visitors to Churchill, I was traveling on a guided expedition. Frontiers North had been my perfect fit; a socially and environmentally responsible operator that aims to inspire its guests to go home and work towards a more sustainable world. I knew I’d be happy when we were warned in pre-trip correspondence to bring our own reusable water bottles — the company had done away with dispensing single-use plastics.
Our guide, Doug, was the Canadian uncle I’d never had. Affable and warm, he at first came off as overly cautious to me about the risk of bear encounters — until I started hearing the slow trickle of stories of the rare attacks that do occur, as well as the overwhelming precautions taken by locals who leave their homes and cars unlocked should they or others ever need emergency shelter. A complex bear alert system is in place, and armed bear officers patrol areas where bear and humans often meet. Suddenly, Doug’s vigilant measures seemed wise to heed.
Which brought me back to my original question — why here? With such a small population of humans taking such extreme measures to avoid deadly encounters with one of nature’s apex predators, wouldn’t it make sense to, you know, get out their way? Surely the bears were not consulted when humans inadvertently set up camp in the middle of their migratory path. Now that we know better, wouldn’t it make sense to relocate? It was a question I found myself coming back to often in my four days in Churchill.
After all, polar bears are not in reality cute, cuddly dispensers of cola products. They are powerful and agile predators motivated by a primal hunger.
October and November are peak season for spotting bears, though as a result of climate change they now appear as early as July. Though my primary goal for a summer trip to Churchill was spotting beluga whales — and let’s face it, avoiding the winter weather in Churchill — I did quietly hope that we’d spot bears as well.
Ten minutes off the plane, as we lumbered down one of Churchill’s few roads — none of which connect to the outside world — we did.
My group cheered at whisper volume from within our van, thrilled by having spotted a bear so early in our itinerary and determined not to scare it off. No one seemed more enthusiastic than Doug and our local driver for the day, both of whom I assume were relieved to have some of the pressure of finding the first bear eased so quickly. We were perhaps overcautious in our hushed voices; the bear looked up a few times to sniff the air, stare boredly in our direction and yawn before going back to the all important task of sleeping. We vibrated with excitement at each micro-movement.
Finally, reluctantly, we continued our journey towards town.
For a town that can be traversed in twenty minutes — and that’s being generous — Churchill has an impressive number of attractions to distract visitors between wildlife spotting expeditions. On almost every visitor’s itinerary will be trips to the artifact-filled Itsanitaq Museum (formerly known as the Eskimo Museum), the Parks Canada Visitor Centre (housed pragmatically in the town train station), and the wreckages of wayward ships and planes, the latter of which you enter at your own risk due to — you guessed it — the possible presence of polar bears. Doug gently encouraged us to enjoy the wreckage of the “Miss Piggy” from the outside. The plane, allegedly overloaded with snow mobiles and sodas, went down in 1979 with no fatalities, and now serves as a reminder of the town’s remoteness.
Other stops on the way into town include a gander at the local dump — seriously — and a drive by the Polar Bear Holding Facility, also known as the “Polar Bear Jail,” where bears that repeatedly wander too close to town are taken until they can be safely air-lifted onto the ice or elsewhere. The facility is open for tours just one day a year — we arrived the day after.
Later, I took my first unaccompanied walk outside to the Community Garden, jittery as I looked over my shoulder every few moments. Upon arrival, I admired the ingenuity of whomever had repurposed the wheels of a retired tundra buddy into planters.
Winters in Churchill are predictably brutal, though summers are surprisingly lovely. A sun-loving island girl, I packed for the frozen tundra and was pleasantly surprised to find that some afternoons I didn’t need a jacket (though in certain blustery moments I was grateful for my overpacking.) Temperatures in July and August typically linger in the Fahrenheit fifties, though have been known to hit the seventies on sunny days.
One thing that stood out to me from the promotional videos I watched on loop in preparation for my departure were the endless fields of colorful flowers, vegetation being a welcome sight this far above the tree line. The reality didn’t disappoint.
Mealtimes were when I got to know my fellow travelers. Our group was a diverse one. Families from as far as Luxembourg and Argentina and as wide reaching as a three generation clan from Texas. Couples from the United Kingdom and from the state of Georgia. Two friends from New York. Women who’d arrived alone from Australia and Washington DC, and with whom I quickly bonded over our shared penchant for solo travels.
For a tiny, remote town in the far Northern reaches of Manitoba I hardly expected gourmet meals. And so I was wowed. From the beautiful creations of the Tundra Inn to the delicious bakery goods at Gypsy’s, Churchill does a lot with a little.
One evening, during our second group meal at Gypsy’s, the owner presented Tiffany, my new friend from Washington DC, with a birthday cake — and felt that by their second meeting they were certainly close enough for a face cake-smashing. It was true. Friends are made fast in Churchill.
Posters around town advertised a walking tour with a local historian and his dog named Polar, a jam night at a local pub, rifles and shotguns for sale, and an upcoming concert called Bear Fest scheduled for our final night in Churchill. I vowed to go.
At the last minute, the event was moved indoors to the Town Complex due to the threat of rain. The Town Complex is a modern multiplex home to almost every amenity in Churchill — the local school, the public library, a health center serving the residents of Churchill as well as the the communities of the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut, a day care, a swimming pool, ice hockey and curling rinks, a gym, basketball courts, an indoor playground, a cinema, a bowling alley, and for one cloudy night, a concert hall for Bear Fest. Tiffany agreed to join me, and so off we went to Churchill’s social event of the summer.
Inside, we found almost everyone we’d met in Churchill over the previous four days. Our friendly hosts, business owners and tour guides who had made us feel like we were honored guests. Some were Churchill natives, others had chosen it as their home. Four days on, I was no longer asking why. When we walked outside to watch the sun set around 10pm, there was nowhere I would have rather been.
As much as I’d come to Churchill thrilled to see wildlife, I’d also arrived curious to experience a taste of life in a far northern town, an interest piqued by my friends Dalene and Pete’s own fascinating journey (their post is a must read, if for the description of the town’s bizarre Halloween proceedings alone.) I arrived asking myself of the local population, why stay? I left understanding that for some, there is simply nowhere else they’d consider going.
On my last morning in Churchill I felt at ease enough to go for an early morning run. I ran it by the ever-cautious Doug first, and received a reluctant blessing. “Don’t forget the Churchill shuffle,” he said with a smile, mimicking running while turning in a circle every few beats. Days earlier, I’d expressed an interest in returning to Manitoba to visit Riding Mountain National Park, and that morning he had pulled out a much-loved paper map of the province and showed me his recommended route.
Headphones in, I hit the cool pavement, taking in the sharp Hudson Bay air. As I jogged I dreamed of returning to Churchill, and all the different ways I could make it happen. While my mind wandered my eyes stayed focused, scanning the horizon for tufts of white fur. I thought back to the exhilaration I’d felt coming face to face with belugas in the water, the joy of watching bears on the open tundra. The friendship I’d found in such a brief few days, and the connection I’d felt to the land crunching beneath my feet.
And I found myself asking, why leave?
Stay tuned for posts on my beluga encounters, as well as more bears!
This post was written by me and brought to you by Travel Manitoba. Many thanks for Frontiers North for hosting me.
I love this post so much, Alex! It’s written beautifully and really does capture the quirkiness of Churchill. I visited in the depths of winter (and also asked “why stay?” so many times as I bundled up against -40 temps), but would LOVE to return someday to see the bears!
I didn’t know you’d been! Off to you blog now to read about it 🙂
This was such a beautiful post, and one I’ve been looking forward to reading! That polar bear was an amazing spotting, I can’t wait to hear more about it. Hope you are having an awesome summer!!
Thanks Cate! Actually, this may have been our best polar bear spotting of the trip — and it was the first! I did see more out on the tundra and elsewhere, but I think these were my best photos.
What a gorgeous looking bear – too bad they are more deadly than cuddly. Need to get up there someday soon!
I’m already dreaming of a return. I now understand what they mean when they say Churchill captures the heart and mind of travelers!
LOOOOOOVE this post! lol Proud Canadian here.
You have a lot to be proud of 🙂
Love this post Alex !
I’m thinking of moving to Canada at the end of next year to work and travel a while. You are definitely providing some major inspo!
Nice! That sounds fun… and plenty more inspiration to come from both Churchill and my next Canadian destination of Newfoundland!
You are going to fall in love with Newfoundland. It is..special, nothing else like this in Canada. All cliffs and pines trees and the most delicious bakeapple cheesecake in the world. And the fish n chip is pretty damn good too.
Bought some bakeapple tea yesterday 🙂 Loving it so far!
It is well written indeed! You can feel the experience behind it 🙂 Your post reminded when I spent a whole winter in Saskatchewan. I was living in that tiny village and at night, under those so starry skies I saw moose and deer running in the snow. It is still a vivid memory, even after 11 years.
Wow, that does sound magical. I’ve yet to see a moose on any of my Canadian adventures!
You’ll see lots of moose in Newfoundland, Alex
So far, not a one! Feeling ripped off! 😉
I LOVE this post! Polar bears are my favorite and you saw some good ones. The pictures in this post are so beautiful and it looks like you were there all by your lonesome! Can’t wait to see some belugas. : )
Thanks Ashley! We basically did have the place to ourselves. Churchill still feels like an undiscovered gem, at least in the summer! Another huge benefit to coming outside the peak October November season, when I hear it is rammed.
I guess I’m not the only one to have noticed the improvement in your writing over the years. 🙂
Practice makes perfect and I definitely practice every single day! 🙂
Another wonderful post, Alex! Thank you so much for sharing!! Your writing is beautiful and I love getting so much background info about everywhere you go in addition to your own experiences there – it helps to create such a full picture of a location. Churchill just officially made my list!!!
Thank you so much Emily! Churchill is such a unique place, I loved learning about the town as much as I loved meeting the famous furry residents.
Hi Alex! Love, love your post. Such a well written, insightful take on our adventure in Churchill. Thanks for the gentle black-and-white portrait after our windblown day with the belugas. Enjoyed your video on FB, too. Hope our paths cross again soon!
Tiffany! So lovely to hear from you 🙂 I’ll send you that photo and more — just have to finish editing the rest. I’m slow! Hope our paths cross again, too!
I journeyed all the way to the Norwegian Arctic Circle for a week and never saw a single bear, and you found one 10 minutes off of the plane! JEALOUS. Also, Manitoba reminds me SO much of Svalbard.
Really! Visually or the way it’s described? Might have to add Svalbard to my list…
Both actually! And as a fellow diver, you should totally read some of the posts my good friend Terry shared on her six-month sailing (including dry suit diving) around Svalbard last year! Check out the orca footage.
Omg that trip! What an amazing adventure… I’ve been following Tony Wu for years… so fun to see him pop up in that!
The historian’s dog’s name is Polar?? Ha! Great post! I knew about Churchill for quite a while now as a friend of mine was living and working (at a research centre) there for a while. She loved it so much, and it definitely inspired me to go too one day!
What a cool job! I loved meeting the tour guides of all ages who are so drawn to Churchill. I can understand why, and in a funny way it reminded me of my expat community on Koh Tao!
I’m a long-time lurker and first time poster, and I gotta say I just love the way you keep inspiring me to visit places I’ve never heard of before! Churchill sounds so fascinating. I can’t get over how cute polar bears look, even though I know they could rip me limb from limb.
Ha, no kidding! Every time I saw a photo of one being playful I’d think, oh I just want to hug it. But then I’d remember they don’t really want to hug me…
Oh wow, I would love to see polar bears up close (not too close obviously!). And the bear jail sounds fun. Shame you missed it! I didn’t expect Churchill to be so colorful actually. So pretty!
Well, you know I’m drawn to pops of color wherever I go ha ha. I’m sure it’s a little more monochromatic when covered in snow 😉
I’d never heard of the place! I love hearing about these little gems in the world. And I also love that company telling you to bring your own drink bottles 🙂 nice work 🙂
Yes! It kills me when I’m on a tour where bottled water is handed out constantly.
I have often wondered why people chose to live is certain areas, areas I can’t imagine living in but then those who do live in such places often cannot imagine living anywhere else.
After spending a bit of time there, I do understand it! I have a feeling I’d be singing a different tune in the winter, however…
Ahh I’m a sucker for tiny northern towns that barely get warm in the summer, you’re making me want to find a way to move to Manitoba now! I’d always thought of course I would visit in the winter, but you’ve certainly gotten me interested in a summer visit.
I don’t think I could take the winter weather… though I may be convinced! Especially if the Northern Lights were involved…
What a great experience that must have been. How close does the group actually get tot he bears? Canada is such a huge country with so many different regions to see. Thanks for introducing us to this area. Although I have only been to the Quebec, Montreal and Toronto I have plans to go back to this gorgeous place and explore some different regions of the country!
We stayed a safe distance away and mostly viewed them from vehicles — a bus from the airport, in this case, and later from an open top tundra buggy (stay tuned for that post!) There are other tour groups that take you on walking tours to view the bears at fairly close range. I’m super curious about the logistics of those!
Wow, Churchill looks gorgeous! Fields of flowers, polar bear siting, and GORGEOUS sunsets! I keep hoping to get to the arctic myself one day, and if it happens to be in Canada, I’ll have to put Churchill on the short list. 🙂
And my favorite part… the SUNSET AT TEN PM! As a daylight lover, I am all about the crazy summer hours in Churchill.
Hi Alex, really enjoy reading your post and your photos are awesome. What a wonderful experience in Churchill, to see the polar bear (i think if i saw the bear i will jump and scream and surely i will die after that hahaha) please keep update and will never boring to read your post. cheers.
Ha, we did jump and whisper scream… we didn’t want to alarm the bear or scare it away 🙂
Another awesome post. I actually said “Awww” out loud at your polar bear pictures – particularly the sleeping one. It’s easy to forget just how dangerous they are when they look so adorable. Can’t wait to read more!
Oh believe me, I know! Especially photos of the babies… you just want to squeeze them!
Love the hat! I’d never heard of Churchill before but it looks stunning and I enjoyed reading your take on its fascinating history and the bear situation. I still haven’t managed to get to Canada yet, this has re-inspired me to go!
I wasn’t super fussed with Canada until recently. Now it’s majorly on my radar! So much to see and do!
I have been dreaming of heading to Churchill for years now. I’m Canadian, but even for me it seems to be a very harsh environment.
I want to go to see the polar bears, but especially for the Northern Lights!
You might be surprised how pleasant it is in the summer! Aside from our one really miserable morning at the fort, we had pretty lovely weather the whole trip!
Really amazing photos 🙂
The airplane wreck, really reminded me of the famous wreck we have here in Iceland.
I’d love to visit Churchill one day 🙂
I’ve seen photos of that Iceland wreck… haunting! Churchill reminded me of Iceland, in a way… maybe just because I don’t go to many cold destinations, ha ha.
Dream trip! I’d actually mapped this one out and was close to booking when I took a different job and October became my “busy season”
Thanks for sharing!
Ah, well perhaps you’ll make it for one of the summer trips, or northern light adventures?! Summer was definitely my season, but I’d love to go back anytime of year (and I rarely say that about cold destinations!)