Way beyond the snaggle of office buildings and hi-rise condos, which are braided together with honking traffic, big construction projects, and crowds, a different sort of beating heart endures—a bold and more contemplative one. In the far reaches of Canada’s northern Manitoba, on the biting shores of Hudson Bay, the chill of the air sustains life for all those who make the bold trek.
Churchill, a community built without roads that lead in or out, has a boreal forest on the northern edge sewn to a rolling sub-arctic tundra with glacier-sculpted boulders. Known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”, a moniker well-earned due to the padded wanderings of the planet’s most powerful predators, it’s here that arctic adventures begin.
The Ice Bear on the Arctic Basin
While silhouettes of polar bears on the horizon are the most evocative symbol of the arctic landscape, where the subsoil is permanently frozen, diverse flora and fauna somehow survives in this exceptionally unforgiving environment as well due to the confluence of three major biomes: marine, northern boreal forest, and tundra.
Hundreds of native plant species such as mosses, grasses, lichens, and shrubs hug the ground here, including an eruption of multi-hued wildflowers in the warmer months and bearberries, yellow willows, and mountain avens in the fall. Ptarmigans, beluga whales, arctic foxes, caribou, muskrats, snowy owls, snowshoe and arctic hares, and seals can also be seen here.
Polar bears, the kings of the arctic, come ashore in the summer months, when the ice breaks up and thaws, and then they roam along the coast or the riverbanks as they wait for the ice to reform on the Hudson Bay sometime in November. Bears return to their preferred hunting grounds where ringed seals are plentiful. Loss of sea ice, rising sea levels, and the melting of permafrost are vicissitudes that are affecting this area on the fringe of the arctic.
No Roads In or Out: A Tiny Town Survives
With a year-round population of under 1,000 residents (the peak was around 5,000 denizens during the cold war when the town hosted a military base), Churchill remains a wild frontier with an active Polar Bear Alert Program that protects citizens from bears that wander into town. There are signs around town with a hotline for alerting authorities of bear sightings; conservation officers use cracker shells and vehicles to motivate bears to leave; and, in some cases, a Polar Bear Holding Facility is used, where bears are kept until they can be transferred back onto safe terrain via helicopter.
Bear season, during the months of October and November, brings upwards of 10,000 visitors to the range, kept safe in window-filled bespoke Polar Rovers that wander the tundra high above the ground in search of wildlife. Caution must always be taken when outside of these vehicles, even when exploring the downtown.
Beautiful, imaginative large-scale murals, featuring the village’s polar bears, beluga whales, wolves, moose, migratory birds, and aurora borealis, can be found throughout the destination, from the Port of Churchill to the Churchill Northern Studies Center via The SeaWalls: Artists for Oceans project. Working in collaboration with the PangeaSeed Foundation, an international nonprofit which focuses on ocean conservation through the lens of art and activism, SeaWalls features the work of 18 artists on 18 murals.
What began as a sea preservation program morphed into something much bigger when a massive blizzard buried the entire town, resulting in a flooding disaster that destroyed the railway connecting Churchill to Winnipeg (the only way in or out apart from expensive air travel). The owners of the track decided not to rebuild, effectively isolating and abandoning Churchill. First Nations communities, the heroes of this story, stuck together and, with industry help, purchased the rail track and port 18 months later. The murals, a gift to the residents, have inspired and bonded the community by showcasing their spirit and strength as a town that won’t be left behind.
Discovering the Tundra and Taiga with Expert Naturalist Guides
Situated beneath the auroral oval, resulting in over 300 nights of northern lights activity, Churchill is a magical place to visit. For a small-group journey, led by knowledgeable naturalist guides, arrange for a visit with Natural Habitat Adventures where all of the logistics will be taken care from point A to point B.
Arrive in Winnipeg, where you can visit the impressive Canadian Museum for Human Rights as well as the Manitoba Museum before filling your belly with burgers and maple-flavored beer at The Forks. You’ll spend one night at the landmark Fort Garry Hotel, built in 1913, before boarding a charter flight to Churchill.
Choose to stay either in the town of Churchill or, for a more exclusive and unique option, the Great White Bear Tundra Lodge, which is built on mobile platforms located on the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. The Tundra Lodge includes two sleeping cars, one lounge car, and one dining car (plus a car for staff). The outdoor platforms will be your only access to the outdoors and you won’t be able to set foot on solid ground until your wilderness stay is over due to bear danger—it’s all a part of the thrill.
Each day of your adventure, you’ll safely board a Polar Rover and go on a bumpy tundra safari, looking for bears, foxes, hares, and more. Your itinerary also includes an outing to a sled dog facility, like the inimitable Wapusk Adventures, where you’ll learn about indigenous cultural traditions from a professional musher.
Touring with Natural Habitat Adventures means you’ll have special access to the whole Churchill Wildlife Management Area, increasing your odds of seeing polar bears in their natural habitat—well beyond Halfway Point, where other vehicles have to turn around. The heated tundra buggies are comfortable, complete with bathrooms, large windows and an outdoor viewing platform. Group sizes are kept small, ensuring that you’ll have plenty of space to spread out in the Polar Rover. What’s more, your naturalist guide will be onboard, providing valuable context and insight into the ecosystem you’re traveling through. No matter which itinerary you book—Tundra Lodge Adventure, Tundra Lodge & Town Adventure, Ultimate Churchill Adventure, or Canada’s Premier Polar Bear Adventure, you can trust that you’ll be well taken care of.
The Gateway to the North: Conservation through Exploration
Natural Habitat Adventures partners with the World Wildlife Fund, which promotes sustainable travel by supporting local communities and protecting nature and wildlife through conservation efforts. WWF is the world’s foremost environmental conservation organization and they work assiduously toward increasing the survival rates of vulnerable polar bears by addressing climate change, monitoring populations, reducing conflicts, and safeguarding critical habitat.
Natural Habitat Adventures’ mission is “conservation through exploration”, an ethos that is bolstered by inspiring travelers to move more thoughtfully through wild spaces. An interconnectedness exists between all living things and the vast tundra biome. If you care about polar bears, for example, you’ll be more likely to want to protect them for future generations.