In the Canadian province of Manitoba, every year in October and November, all eyes turn north to Churchill. The sleepy frontier town (population: 900) along the shores of Hudson Bay swells in population, transforming into a hot spot for wildlife-seeking travellers geared up to witness the annual migration of polar bears onto the sea ice. Churchill, nicknamed “the polar bear capital of the world”, is the most accessible place on the planet to view polar bears in the wild.
While visitors can see bears any time from July through to November, it's the autumn months that are traditionally considered prime viewing. The normally solitary polar bears, who have been lazing about all summer long, start to socialize along the shoreline as the cold weather descends. They are eager for the sea ice to form so they can resume feasting on seals all winter long until the spring ice thaw in June.
There are a variety of tours for viewing polar bears in Churchill in October and November. Deciding on which one is best for you all depends on your level of adventure, your desire for exclusivity....and (let's be honest) your budget. Here's a guide to help breakdown the ways that you can join the polar bear party:
For the bucket-lister: A tundra day trip
The majority of visitors to Churchill during polar bear season are there on a multi-day, guided package experience with a local tour company. For those who prefer a bit more independence in their travels, there are a few options for the DIY traveller, but first you've got to get yourself to Churchill. Calm Air International offers daily, 2-hr flights between Winnipeg and Churchill. VIA Rail's Winnipeg-Churchill route operates twice weekly, traversing over 1,000 kilometers from the prairies to the tundra. The train offers a range of options for the 2-night journey ranging from economy seats to multi-person sleeper cabins. Those with access to a vehicle while in Manitoba will sometimes drive 8 hours north from Winnipeg to the city of Thompson, where they store their vehicle before hopping aboard VIA Rail for a shorter train journey to Churchill.
Upon arriving in Churchill, guests can sign up for one-day polar bear tours aboard a massive tundra vehicle with one of two tour companies: Frontiers North Adventures or Great White Bear Tours. These day tours generally run from sun up to sun down, 7 am to 5 pm, with a light lunch aboard the vehicle. These large vehicles are permitted to travel deeper into the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, which is further away from town. Prices are around CAD 500 per person.
A new crop of young entrepreneurs is popping in Churchill, offering wildlife expertise and local know-how with an alternative bear viewing experience. Signing up for a tour with companies like Discover Churchill, Beyond Borealis Expeditions or Nanuk Operations means you'll be travelling with a small, exclusive group and receive more personalized guide service. Their tours are not aboard massive tundra vehicles but by 4x4s that explore a network of trails leading to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. These entrepreneurs are talented photographers in their own right, and can always guarantee you'll get a great shot.
The struggle for DIY travellers arriving in Churchill during polar bear season is finding accommodation. The hotels and motels around town are pretty full with all the visitors on the large, guided package tours. Be sure to plan ahead. Some Churchill accommodations include: Aurora Inn, Churchill Hotel, Iceberg Inn and Polar Inn & Suites and nightly rates during polar bear season can be up to CAD 300 per night for a basic room. More and more locals are opening their doors as B&Bs, too, so do your research.
Or forgo overnight in Churchill, but still enjoy a day out on the tundra with polar bears by joining Heartland International Travel & Tours' Churchill Polar Bear Day Tours from Winnipeg. Prices are around $1600 and include round trip airfare between Winnipeg-Churchill flights, a seat aboard Frontiers North Adventures‘ Tundra Buggy, lunch and a knowledgeable guide.
For the soft adventurer: Churchill and tundra experience
Travellers who want more than one day on the tundra communing with polar bears, and also have time to get to explore the town of Churchill, are best suited for a multi-day, town-based experience. There are a few key tour operators in town who offer this kind of package: Frontiers North Adventures, Lazy Bear Expeditions and Great White Bear Tours. The framework of these classic polar bear tours are somewhat similar no matter the operator: guests overnight at a hotel in town and spend at minimum two days out on the tundra aboard customized vehicles viewing polar bears (sidenote: each company has its own name for the vehicle be it Tundra Buggy, Arctic Crawler or Polar Rover).
On these tours, there is normally an extra day spent in town when guides will take you around on a general tour of Churchill's natural and cultural history attractions. Often an introductory dog sledding tour at one of the town's Indigenous-owned sled dog kennels such as Wapusk Adventures is also included. It also allows you free time to visit town sites like the Itsanitaq Museum, the Parks Canada Visitor Centre at the VIA Rail station, Polar Bear International (PBI) House and the many souvenir shops along the town's main street Kelsey Boulevard. A worthy add-on to your package (at an extra cost) is a helicopter tour with either Hudson Bay Helicopters or Custom Helicopters for a birds' eye view of the magnificent barren landscapes of the tundra speckled with bears.
For a bit of a twist on the town tour, Churchill Northern Studies Centre offers learning vacations that match eager vacationers with scientists conducting active Arctic research projects. Guests stay just outside of Churchill town limits in an eco-friendly building with dorm-style accommodation and activities include polar bear viewing from one of the tundra vehicles mentioned above.
For the hardcore naturalist: An exclusive tundra lodge stay
For travellers who want to lift up the adventure level and fully experience the rawness of Mother Nature and life on the tundra, a tundra lodge stay is the best way to maximize their time viewing polar bears. Both Great White Bear Tours and Frontiers North Adventures offer their own version of a lodge stay, which is best described as a train-like dwelling of conjoined tundra vehicles parked deep on the tundra in the heart of polar bear country. The lodges are made up of a viewing car, dining car and sleeping car, and each day guests load into a mobile tundra vehicle in search of more bears. The close quarters and berth-like sleeping arrangements are conducive to bonding with your fellow adventurers who come from around the world. Together you get to sleep and dine with polar bears just out the window for multiple nights.
For the thrill seeker: The fly-in wilderness lodge adventure
Manitoba is the only place in the world where wildlife lovers can trek on the tundra, at ground-level with the mighty lords of the Arctic. Churchill Wild is a tour company that takes guests to one of three remote wilderness lodges that are a short prop plane flight from the town of Churchill. Dymond Lake Lodge, Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge (the latter two designated National Geographic's Unique Lodges of the World) are hand-built, family-run lodges located right in the middle of a polar bear migration route. Every lodge stay is slightly different, but the defining characteristic of this premium Churchill Wild experience is that guests go on daily tundra treks, led by experienced polar bear 'whisperer' guides (who are armed for safety), and view polar bears from the ground, without any barriers. The professional guides help to keep guests a safe distance from the wildlife and focus on not affecting the bears' behavior. Evenings are spent back at the lodge, swapping stories and photographs, and dining on legendary home-cooked Northern cuisine.
Further information on Manitoba and Churchill can be found at www.travelmanitoba.com.