This summer I had the opportunity to travel to the mecca of arctic adventures. Churchill, Manitoba – home of the polar bears, the belugas, tundra buggy’s, zodiac adventures, and some of the friendliest Canadians you’ll come to meet. In this small town of less than 1000 people, travellers from all over the world board VIA Rail in Winnipeg and take the 2 day northbound journey to the edge of the Hudson Bay to find out what goes on this far north. Little did I know I’d be aching to return. These are the 8 reasons I can’t get Churchill off my mind!
1. The Local People
On the northbound train from Winnipeg to Churchill, you’ll hear stories. People warn you to be careful up there. While you should be careful wherever you go, and avoid confrontation with everyone you meet while traveling, those warnings were completely blown out of the water after the first day in Churchill. Between the friendly staff, the locals walking by on the street, and yes, even the beer drinkers at the pub, I didn’t have a single run in with anyone I couldn’t shoot the poop with. The people of Churchill are a friendly bunch and happy to talk travel, wildlife, and adventures. With such a beautiful landscape surrounding the region, locals of every colour, culture, and creed tend to have something good to say about Churchill.
2. The Danger
There’s something exciting, knowing that every time you step foot outside of a house or building, you have to be aware of your surroundings. Traipsing around without a care in the world, could lead you to be a tasty dinner for a full grown polar bear. While it’d be crazy for everyone to carry a gun wherever they went, the people of Churchill have devised a much simpler solution. They don’t lock their doors. Should you come across a big hungry polar bear, run to the nearest house and you’re almost guaranteed to be able to walk right in, and stay until the bear is dealt with. Tour companies like the Tundra Buggy Tours deal with this danger by using custom built giant bus’s tall enough to keep standing polar bears at bay.
3. The Wildlife
While there are no doubt some dangers when you visit a small town that is more or less surrounded by Polar Bears, fact is, they’re what bring most people up north. I’ll never forget, as I was on a zodiac in the middle of the Churchill River, less than a couple Miles from the Hudson Bay, seeing a Polar Bear enjoying a meal he’d caught at the edge of the water. While Polar Bears are the celebrities up here, the Belugas are a close second in the fame game. Since beluga’s were more friendly to me snapping photos, they win this reason! Be sure to have a good zoom lens if you plan on taking any photos of wildlife – or at the very least a decent set of binoculars. You’ll thank me later!
4. The Adventures
If seeing wildlife from afar isn’t enough, the folks at Sea North Adventure Tours can get you closer than anyone to the belugas & polar bears. Between their Kayak Adventures, their Zodiac Tours, & their boat tours, they also offer snorkelling with Belugas, where you get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures. In the small town of Churchill, there is no shortage of adventures to find yourself on. Go off-roading in the Tundra Buggy’s, custom built giant rovers that cruise over land and water in search of Polar Bears. Churchill isn’t just somewhere you can stop over for a day and say you saw it. In order to experience every bit of it, you need to get out of town and see what this place is really all about.
5. The Travellers
I’m not sure what it is. Maybe the cold air, the difficulty in getting this far north, or just the spirit of adventure that Churchill inspires within people, but the travellers / tourists that find themselves up here. They’re cut from a different cloth. They’re here for unique reasons. During my brief stay in Churchill I met multiple German backpackers, exploring all that Canada has to offer, I had beers with two women from Minnesota who spent over 2 months kayaking to Churchill, I met a French Canadian student protester who explained to me in his point of view what the big fuss was all about, and a korean student who came up to Churchill on a whim to find work. Those who find themselves up here tend be of the inspirational & interesting variety.
6. The History
The Dorset, The Thule, The Dene, The Chipewyan and the Cree Natives had all inhabited this region. Their history, art, and culture can be absorbed at the Churchill Eskimo Museum, home to some knowledgeable staff, and a variety of carvings, and historical findings from the area. They say that it was the Dorset & Thule people who encountered the Vikings in the 11th century. Their people recount how large and strong the vikings were, but how easily they were scared off. If first nations history isn’t your cup, Churchill Fort is a must. Suspected to be built by the stone masons, and home to some incredible british and french colonialism history.
7. The Food
Despite the fact that food is difficult to get up north, which in turn makes fresh goods tough to come by, the local Churchill restaurants do surprisingly well. Grab a hearty breakfast at the Seaport Hotel, then work up an apetite for lunch. Gypsy’s Bakery & Restaurant pump out high quality food that keeps everyone coming back. After getting a healthy dose of outdoors and wildlife, stop by The Tundra Inn Pub. This isn’t your average pub grub. Between the quality salads, the massive burgers, the superb pizzas, and their sushi Friday’s, they’ve got plenty to choose from. Hang around after for some live music, billiards, and some good old fashion drinking. A night or two at The Tundra Inn Pub will guarantee you at least a couple of stories to take home.
8. The Tundra House Hostel
While there are several great hotel deals in the area, I can’t say enough about my stay at the Tundra House Hostel. It’s really more of a house than a hostel, but I think I can speak for many, in saying that when you’re travelling, the revolving door of the “big chain hostels” can sometimes make it hard to meet people. The great thing about Tundra House Hostel is not only how cozy it is, but how easy it is to meet people. After all, the train is only in town a couple of times per week, so you’re guaranteed a few days with other travellers, which is plenty of time to make friendships that can last a lifetime. The beds are outstanding and clean, the kitchen, dining room, and living room are exactly what you’d expect to find in any ordinary house. After a long day of taking in Churchill, unwind in the living room and decompress to the sound of the ticking clock.
Churchill has a way of keeping people. You’ll meet countless locals with the same story. One visit, followed by a second, then they never really left, or at least keep finding themselves back in this unique part of Canada. It reminds me a lot of Dawson City in the Yukon. Slightly closed off from the rest of the world. While accessible to most, the difficulty of getting up there keeps the box stores and the chain restaurants away. The locals seem truly grateful for each tourist or traveller they meet in their own slice of the tundra. It’s a beautiful thing to see a small town thrive.