Nestled on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay, a part of the Arctic Ocean that completely freezes shore-to-shore for over half the year, the town of Churchill, Manitoba is separated from the provincial capital of Winnipeg by over 600 miles of boreal forest and sub-arctic tundra. Churchill is not reachable by road; the only way in or out is by overnight train or a two-hour flight from Winnipeg. Several of the Arctic’s nomadic communities including the Dene, Thule and Cree people have inhabited this region for millennia. It’s here that, against all odds (brutal winters, remoteness, French competitors), the Hudson’s Bay Company built a fur trading post in the early 18th century.
For reasons scientists don’t fully understand, a sizable, reliable population of polar bears gathers in the area surrounding Churchill each autumn as they await the freezing-over of the Hudson Bay. Unbelievably cold winters are spent on the ice, hunting for prey; while summers are spent on land, reproducing, fasting and play-fighting with peers. When autumn rolls around, hungry polar bears congregate along the coast in anticipation of fishing season out on the ice.
Here, polar bears aren’t an abstract concept—Churchill residents literally leave all doors to houses and cars unlocked, in the event that a bear ventures into town and a neighbor needs to take shelter immediately. There’s even a “polar bear jail” on the outskirts of town, where delinquent polar bears who enter town are taken and held until they can be safely relocated onto the frozen bay.
For these reasons, Churchill has stuck around long after the demise of the fur trade, and long after the military built and subsequently decommissioned several bases here in the 1940s and ’50s. As “The Polar Bear Capital of the World” and the best place to go on “polar bear safari,” a sizable eco-tourism industry has flourished in Churchill. And while tourism languished during the early lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year has marked a distinct upturn. For a frozen little town on the edge of the world, things have never been hotter. Here are some of the timeliest, most essential activities for when you decide to visit the Arctic’s most majestic mammals.
There are a handful of operators in Churchill that offer single-day and multi-day tours that get you out in the bush with polar bears, but Frontiers North is the superior option for two reasons: it is the only operator with access to Polar Bears International researchers (who will often tag along for your excursion and be on hand to illuminate your viewing experience) and it is the only polar bear tour operator that is also a Certified B-corp. All polar bear tours in Churchill offer rides in their own version of Frontiers North’s Tundra Buggy—a vehicle that’s between a school bus, an army tank and a Defender. Frontiers North recently debuted its first electric, zero-emission Tundra Buggy, and has also promised to convert its entire fleet to electric vehicles in the next 10 years.
The worst-kept secret about Churchill is that in addition to polar bear viewing, this is also an excellent place to witness the Hudson Bay’s population of beluga whales. Lazy Bear Expeditions currently offers an AquaGliding excursion where guests don a thick wetsuit, lie down with a snorkel on a giant floating mat, and come literally face-to-face with curious belugas. In summer 2022, the company will launch a glass-bottomed boat tour so you can get almost as close and not get wet.
Try your hand at the ancient art of dog sledding with the indigenous-owned and operated Wapusk Adventures, where founder Dave Daley (or his son Wyatt) begins your program with a brief talk about Métis and Cree culture before taking you out for a thrilling sled ride through the boreal forest. Sign up for a ride after nightfall and there’s a a good chance you’ll be cruising through the woods under the lights of the aurora borealis.
Polar Bears International House
Donations from Canada Goose as a company and its CEO Dani Reiss personally were instrumental in the construction of Polar Bears International House, a state-of-the-art interpretive center where all visitors to Churchill can warm up, learn about arctic ecosystems and watch live footage of polar bears in the wild. Having opened during the pandemic, the facility is Churchill’s most recent example of how even here at world’s end, even during the most difficult of times, people can come together to celebrate nature and build something beautiful. The close relationship between Canada Goose and the world’s leading polar bear conservation organization, Polar Bears International, is a very tangible thing in Churchill. Since 2007, Canada Goose has offered a subsidiary collection of PBI-branded apparel, as well—the sale of which has generated some $3.5 million and counting for the organization’s research and conservation efforts. After all, expedition-grade gear is a necessity up here, and tourists and researchers alike walk around town in their Canada Goose parkas and boots.
Another new offering is operator Churchill Wild’s Cloud Wolves of the Kaska Coast “safari,” an eight-night package where you’ll fly from Churchill to an even more remote bush lodge in the heart of the Hudson Bay’s Kaska Coast, an uninhabited wilderness 10 times the size of Yellowstone. Here, the packs of wolves are so undisturbed by human interaction that they have no fear of people, which makes for once-in-a-lifetime encounters and remarkable opportunities for photography.
Hero image by Jenny Wong