Churchill, Manitoba is known the world over as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, and for good reason. Every fall, a robust population of the great white bears gathers near the community. But it’s worth looking to the other seasons for an equally awe-inspiring visit. In the height of summer, when it feels like the sun will never set, this northern town promises birds, blooms and perhaps the friendliest creatures on the planet: beluga whales.
Start your summer adventure to the shores of Hudson Bay with a drive to the city of Thompson, then board the overnight VIA train to Churchill. Rested and relaxed, you’ll arrive in Churchill ready to meet the belugas. Did you know that beluga whales outnumber Churchill’s human residents 3,000 to one in the summer?
There are plenty of ways to get up close and personal with these friendly mammals as they spend time in the Churchill River feeding and taking care of their young. Sea North Tours offers rides in inflatable boats that bring you close to belugas as they surface and splash. They’ll also drop a hydrophone into the water so you can hear the belugas’ chirping and songs. You’ll quickly understand why they are called the canaries of the sea.
Lazy Bear Expeditions offers Beluga AquaGliding™, where they send you out—fully equipped in a wetsuit—on a floating mat tethered to a boat and let the whales come to you! A gentle bump on your paddle board from a curious beluga whale will make your heart skip a beat; SUP North offers two hours of fun on the board with your new friends. You’ll often see paddlers just floating on their boards, having meaningful conversations with the whales.
For a deep dive into the world of the beluga, Frontiers North Adventures offers Conservation Journey: Beluga Whales, a tour that combines field education with adventure, led by a renowned beluga whale researcher and marine mammal scientist.
Churchill Wild offers its Birds, Bears and Belugas tour at remote Seal River Heritage Lodge in the height of summer when beluga whales congregate by the thousands near the mouth of the Seal River estuary.
Guests also get to see pristine white polar bears against the backdrop of brilliant, fuchsia-coloured fireweed in bloom. Birders will be thrilled to check a few elusive species off their life lists too, including the Ross’s Gull.
Right in the town of Churchill, it’s common to see the glowing white bodies of the belugas right up against the Hudson Bay shoreline as you take in the SeaWalls Churchill mural collection, which tells the story of why this community is so special. International artists chose unique locations for this outdoor gallery spanning kilometres of coastline. You’ll spot murals on an abandoned radar station, the town’s polar bear holding facility and bustling apartment blocks.
Churchill has plenty to offer beyond belugas as well. Run your fingers over the ancient signature of Samuel Hearne, a northern explorer who left his mark on the rocks of Sloop Cove in the late 1700s. A trip to this national historic site, just over three kilometres from Prince of Wales Fort by boat on the Churchill River, lets you walk in the footsteps of history while exploring the archeological site, spotting rare shorebirds and seabirds and photographing the unique tundra wildflowers of the north.
Let the wind blow your hair back with a dog carting ride at Wapusk Adventures. This summer version of dogsledding puts visitors in a wheeled wagon pulled by Rea, Comet, Raven and the rest of the enthusiastic bunch. Big dog Dave Daley shares his Métis heritage and love of the land, his family and his dogs on every visit.
On your boat ride over to Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site, try to wrap your head around the fact that it took 40 winters to build this Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade fortress, beginning in 1731. Inside the massive fort, run your hands along the original cannons, which were never fired, and look for the Masonic compass and square insignia carved into the stone walls, a signature of the builders.
Grab your camera and head out with Discover Churchill for a town tour where you’ll meet Miss Piggy (we’re not giving it away), then lace up for a low tide hike to the shipwreck of the massive MV Ithaca just outside town. Shortly after leaving port in 1960, the steamship bound for Rankin Inlet lost its rudder in a gale and ran aground. Along the way, the vibrant and unique blooms of tundra species will beckon to be photographed.
And, while summer is not high season for polar bears, there is a chance of seeing these Arctic giants lumbering across a wide-open shoreline —perhaps a mother with a pair of cubs in tow. Chances are even better at one of the remote lodges where the bears lounge in the blooming fireweed, soaking up the summer vibes.
Note: Churchill rests on the shores of Hudson Bay, about 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg. There are no roads into the town, so you’ll need to come by air or train.
This article is sponsored by Travel Manitoba. Visit travelmanitoba.com to start planning your trip.