Northernmost town accessible by train and sea: Churchill, Manitoba

Alternative title: help, help; here come the bears!

While the train journey from Churchill south to Winnipeg clocked in at more than 46 hours, it didn’t feel too much like an endurance test. Be sure, though, to snag a sleeper berth or cabin for a lie-flat sleep and at least a little personal space as the ride encompasses two overnights; it’s well worth the splurge.

Train at Churchill VIA Rail station

Train at Churchill VIA Rail station

Swaying and rattling along the rails, averaging less than 20 miles an hour, allows time to contemplate Churchill’s geographic and socio-economic positions today. Passing wheat fields that stretch forever into the distance, albeit blanketed in snow, explains the continued export role Churchill plays. As Canada’s northernmost port town, Churchill is perfectly positioned to export a million tonnes of grain annually, arriving by rail from Manitoba and Saskatchewan, to Europe. Passing tiny villages and hamlets that cling to the railway line highlights the significance of Churchill as a medical center for the northern Manitoba region, and also to the Nanavut communities further north. The airport, too, is essential in the onward distribution of goods, services and medical outreach to these communities.

And, over the past few days, I saw for myself how important tourism is to Churchill’s modern-day economy. Each year thousands of tourists take the long train ride to see polar bears, Beluga Whales, the Northern Lights and vast tundra landscapes, for another tick on their bucket-list.

A Polar Bear near Churchill

A Polar Bear near Churchill

Around 800 residents live year-round in Churchill enduring long harsh winters working in these industries but also maintaining a strong sense of community that is seldom found elsewhere. Ask Jenafor, who runs Bluesky Bed & Sled with her husband Gerald, and she’ll explain passionately how she made the move from Vancouver to Churchill and how she cherishes the rural setting, working with their sled dogs and welcoming visitors. Or ask any of the tour guides I met who delight in showing off their home town to intrepid tourists talking fervently about their day-to-day lives. It might seem like an extreme lifestyle to me, heralding from London and New York, but for locals, minus 31°C was hardly even worth a mention over their morning coffee.

The lodging options in Churchill are limited and modest. A handful of motel-quality inns line the town streets with their rooms often reserved only for large affluent tour companies bringing in large affluent tourists. Opt, instead, for a more homey bed and breakfast like I did – – staying two nights at Bluesky Bed & Sled. Here I found an incredibly warm welcome, fantastic help and advice planning my daily itineraries, and a bunch of friendly like-minded travelers. The Scottish-English couple, Viv and Andy, even got engaged on their first day in Churchill! Then there were Jenafor’s delicious breakfasts of fresh cranberry and granola yogurts, home-made blueberry pancakes and fresh-baked bread. On arrival at 9am on my first day, I was promptly made welcome and seated to an unexpected breakfast treat before heading out to explore the town. Both evenings, all nine guests would congregate in the living room glued to our laptop computers and cameras, making use of the wi-fi, comparing our polar bear photos in front of the roaring log stove!

That same Churchill welcome is extended to all visitors except, perhaps, Martha Stewart. She was quite the talk of the town following her recent visit. “Do you know who I am?” may very well have prompted: “I’ve no idea, Miss Stewart!” as she attempted to enter the polar bear jail, off limits for people as it’s where over-eager bears are kept when they venture into town until they can be released onto the ice.

Newly-formed ice stretching out across Hudson Bay

Newly-formed ice stretching out across Hudson Bay

Some of my favorite experiences during the trip were simply observing Mother Nature in action: as Hudson Bay – the vast salt-water body – started to freeze, waves of salty slush splashed ashore. By the second day, the ice-line was stretching almost 100 feet out and intrepid bears started to test the surface once the morning blizzard subsided. On the third morning, despite temperatures of minus 31°C, the bright sunshine was causing a stirring sea-mist to rise up against the blue sky; and I couldn’t even see where the bay’s ice coat now met the water way out in the distance.

As I prepared to leave Churchill, locals chatting it up at Gypsy’s Bakery were guessing that just a few more days of consistently chilling weather would sure up the ice over the bay enough for the bears to leave town on their migration north for winter. Sadly I wouldn’t be there for the mass exodus!

After three days in Churchill, I have new friends, many new travel tips, hundreds of polar bear photos, and an authentic understanding of life in near-Arctic conditions.

Here is a travel experience that is unarguably unique. Perhaps the only opportunity to see polar bears up close in their natural habitat, and in a location where arctic tundra, boreal forest and maritime zones come together. To see the vast Hudson Bay freeze in just a matter of days once the temperature plummeted was an amazing sight. Being constantly alert for polar bears in town is not something I fear in New York but, as my neighbor on the train attested, they do roam the streets of Churchill.

A Polar Bear near Churchill

A Polar Bear near Churchill

You can do this
Should you choose to plunge to arctic extremes, planning an independent vacation to Churchill is relatively easy once you get your head around the logistics. It is, however, discouraged by the tour companies who prefer that you pay five times the cost for the same experiences. But don’t be put off…

The toughest part is co-ordinating the booking of a Tundra Buggy day tour with accommodation as both are in very high demand in October and November. I was taking a slight risk by traveling in mid November (I arrived in Churchill by plane on November 16th) as an early freeze could have inspired the bears to make an earlier move north. My Tundra Buggy tour (on November 17th) was the penultimate of the season. My advice is to be very persuasive with the Tundra Buggy companies when you call them, insisting that you really do need the tour on certain dates, and perhaps tell them that you’re in town visiting friends and you therefore cannot book an entire vacation package with them.

While making accommodation and day tour arrangements, keep half an eye on the availability of flights or train schedules, especially as the VIA Rail service only runs twice a week. I chose to fly into Churchill as the train service is notoriously often late (sometimes as much as 10 to 20 hours late), which would write off an entire first day of potential exploration.

There are a couple of useful websites to help with planning a trip:

Polar Bear Alley is an excellent blog, updated during the polar bear season, giving a feel for what’s going on in Churchill: www.polarbearalley.com

Everything Churchill is quite the definitive source for local information, links and contacts: www.everythingchurchill.com

Book a Tundra Buggy tour – – with one of two companies who have places for independent travelers. Tundra Buggy Tours (parent company is Frontiers North Adventures): www.frontiersnorth.com or Great White Bear Tours: www.greatwhitebeartours.com.

Book a town tour which takes you on a five-hour tour of Churchill and surrounding area (we actually saw just as many polar bears on this tour as the Tundra Buggy tour) – – again, there are two companies offering these tours at around $125: North Star Tours (tel. 204-675-2356) and Nature First Tours (tel. 204-675-2147).

A street in Churchill

A street in Churchill

About Paul Chibeba

Paul Chibeba now lives in London and works for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew after having spent nine years living and working in New York City.
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