Churchill is known as “The Polar Bear Capital of the World,” so it is no surprise that viewing polar bears is first on the mind for most visitors to this northern Manitoba town in Canada. But on my recent visit I found out that’s not the only reason you should add a summer visit to your bucket list.
I traveled to Churchill in collaboration with Travel Manitoba and Travel Mindset. I am being compensated for sharing this post but opinions and all images are my own unless stated below. Thank you for supporting the partners of this blog!
How to Get to Churchill
We flew into Winnipeg on a commercial flight and from there flew to Churchill on Calm Air. Lazy Bear Expeditions, our tour operator for this trip, organized this. Right now, flying is the only way to get to the town that was once served by a railroad line, which has since been washed out. (Stay tuned for news on that as it is a developing situation, which may see rail service to the town restored in the future.) There are commercial flights to Churchill on Calm Air and their social media accounts announce sale fares.
What You Should Know about Photography in Churchill
Most importantly for me in regards to visiting Churchill, I thought I knew what to prepare for since I’ve photographed animals in the wild before and I’d seen so many photographs of polar bears in this part of Manitoba. In the long days of summer, when wildflowers blanket the ground and berries fill the leafy bushes that lay low to the ground, the bears are lazy and prone to napping far from people. 400mm and up lenses are what I’d recommend if you are visiting in summer for the purposes of photography. I had only a 70-200mm lens and this was not a long enough lens because of how far we were from the polar bears, which we saw via a boat ride on Hudson Bay.
You could also simply enjoy wildlife viewing and not stress out over wildlife photography! If you want to see the bears when they’re really active, the best time of year to visit is — surprisingly — in the fall during October or November.
It’s similar with the beluga whales that come to visit Hudson Bay and the Churchill River. It is SO MAGICAL to see them from a boat. They’re incredibly friendly creatures that will actually come right up to a boat, drawn by the bubbles or the sounds of people talking and singing. But a dSLR & underwater housing are what you should pack to get the best photos of the whales while placing your camera underwater. A GoPro probably won’t cut it — at least it wasn’t enough for me. If you have neither, you should still visit! Just be prepared for your photographs to look something like this:
And not this:
Above photos copyright of, and courtesy, of Travel Manitoba.
No matter what equipment you do or do not have, summer is such a special season with all the colors and the long hours of daylight. Lazy Bear Expeditions has come up with so many ways to explore that ensure your safety and the safety of the animals, while still providing incredible opportunities to appreciate the diversity of the Churchill area. It’s a place where you’ll be reminded that nothing man can create is as wondrous as what nature has given us.
Where to Stay in Churchill
We stayed at Lazy Bear Lodge on the town’s main street of Kelsey Boulevard. Manitoba-born Wally Daudrich began dreaming of a lodge in the 1980s while working as a Polar Bear guide in Churchill and realized his dream when he began building the lodge in 1995. It was completed in 2005. Wally, Dawn and their kids have poured their heart and soul into it, sometimes with only hand tools. The timber was reclaimed from a fire in the boreal forest. The windows were recycled from an 1800s Hudson’s Bay trading post and the floor is recycled Douglas Fir from a Canadian National Railway warehouse built in the early 1920s! Two greenhouses are now part of the business, ensuring the lodge’s kitchen doesn’t have to depend only on what can be flown in.
I enjoyed staying at the lodge because it felt like grown-up summer camp, so similar in vibe to where I went in Michigan’s U.P. every summer as a kid. I loved that camp so much, I returned to be a counselor when I was too old to be a camper. And, just like the summer camp of my childhood, I met people who return to Lazy Bear every year over and over. I think one of the appeals is that it’s right in town and, thus, a stay provides both the town and the wildlife experience in one.
Shopping in Churchill
…is great! I didn’t expect a town that is in some ways so far off the beaten path to have good shops. But it does! Plan ahead to enjoy buying presents for friends and family, made locally or made elsewhere in Manitoba. This was the first place I’ve been to in a long time where most of the souvenirs were not “Made in China,” and I wished I’d had a lot more money to spend when this trip took place so that I could have supported all the local artisans.
What to Expect for Tours in Churchill
Tides can vary greatly in Churchill and so much of what you will do is dependent on the tides. As a result, you won’t get an exact itinerary with specified times in advance of your trip. Instead, you’ll arrive knowing what activities you will do over the course of your stay, but you won’t know exactly when until closer to the time you depart. At Lazy Bear Lodge, we usually found out every morning via a whiteboard. I didn’t mind that and liked the fact that every day was a surprise.
Polar Bears and Beluga Whales Aren’t The Only Animals To See
My favorite animal encounter in Churchill was actually with sled dogs at Blue Sky Expeditions. We met Gerald at Lazy Bear Lodge / Lazy Bear Expeditions. He’s originally from a Métis community called Cormorant and now lives amongst the lakes outside the town of Churchill, with Jenafor, where they also have a B&B. She makes a bannock with wild blueberries that is DIVINE. We enjoyed a few slices before leaving and also tasted her homemade wild berry tea.
Visiting their home and meeting dogs such as Sony (as in the camera I use!), Isobel and Thunder was such a treat for me!! Sled dogs are my favorite type of dog and, while we’re not in a place to have one in our home now, Danté and I talk about it on the regular for that time in our lives that it will make sense. They LOVE to run and they’ll make a lot of noise when they know they’re going to get the opportunity to do just that! Their enthusiasm is contagious. You can’t be upset when you’re around sled dogs!
Gerald & Jenafor have a no-cull policy and are always looking for the right homes for their adoptable dogs. Is that you? If not you can still visit and love on these dogs like we did!
You can also see caribou around Churchill. On two different days driving around the area, we spotted a young male and an older male with a very impressive rack!
Additional Experiences to Have in Churchill
The Itsanitaq Museum has an extensive collection of Inuit carvings and artifacts that are among the finest and oldest in the world, dating from Pre-Dorset (1700 B.C.) through modern Inuit times. I loved viewing these artifacts because, with enough time, they can truly help you understand the history of this part of Canada before it became the country it is today. I also loved the gift shop with its northern books, Canadian Inuit art, postcards, jewelry and wild berry preserves.
And, I enjoyed hearing from Florence [Sayisi Dene] and Antonina [Cree] at the Parks Canada interpretive center in Churchill’s former Railroad station. Hearing about their experience growing up in Indigenous communities, and later living in Churchill, was so important to me in understanding more fully the story of Northern Manitoba.
Later I thought back to that experience when I began to learn about the town’s mural installations organized by Seawalls, Pangeaseed and local artist Kal Barteski. There are almost a dozen total as of right now with more planned for 2019. Information can be found online via the hashtag #SeaWallsChurchill.
This mural is on the ground floor exterior walls of the former rocket research station, installed to detect attacks during the Cold War. It references Camp 10, or what became known as “Dene Village,” and the Sayisi Dene who once lived in harmony with caribou. (Please look up the story because it’s so relevant to what is happening still in North America today.) It was painted by artist ‘Robotkin’ and features a quote from Elder Betsy Anderson. “There was a time when all the people and all the animals understood each other and spoke the same language.” If only this was still the case.
‘Miss Piggy’ is a plane crash just outside the town of Churchill and it was also painted as part of the Sea Walls project. It’s a beautiful spot that the plane sits in with views out to the water and possible sightings of polar bears always an option. For that reason, we did not ever visit without a “polar bear guard.”
From the coast roughly 10-12 miles outside of the town of Churchill, you will find the wreck of the Ithaca. There are conflicting reports online about this ship — from it being Greek to British to having three names to having six over its lifetime. One thing everyone seems to agree on: it ran aground during a storm in September of 1960 because of an 80-mile-an-hour gale that caused the rudder to break. Attempts to drop anchor and wait out the storm failed, then the ship ran aground where it rests to this day in Bird Cove. During high tide, Ithaca appears to still sail as it once did but during low tide you can walk to it and see just how completely it is falling apart, especially in its mid-section which is almost gone by now.
Much more information can be found via the Lazy Bear Expeditions and Travel Manitoba Instagram accounts. I hope I’ve shared enough to make you want to visit in summer! As for me, I now want to return in fall and winter where Northern Lights are an almost guarantee and polar bears begin their migration from land back out to sea for the hunt!