Northern Lights Aurora Borealis visible against a starry sky in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Grass, a path and small building visible in the foreground.

Churchill: Home of bears, belugas and borealis

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icknamed the ‘polar bear capital of the world’, Churchill, Manitoba, is a bucket list destination that delivered on all its promises. When we decided we were going to Canada, this was the first location that was put on the ‘we must go here’ list and I meticulously worked out when would give us the best chance of seeing polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights. I decided on the last week of August and left the rest of our Canadian adventure to fall into place around it. My forethought paid off and we were treated to incredible experiences with all three! Most tourists descend on the small town to witness the polar bears migrating back out onto the ice in October and November, a time when the number of bears passing through Churchill outnumber the human population, but they sadly miss out on seeing and interacting with the playful and curious beluga whales, so I recommend planning your trip for the summer months.

The whales started coming, bumping up against our kayaks and paddles, diving beneath us, and resurfacing on the other side.

We booked guided excursions with Lazy Bear Expeditions and stayed for five nights at Lazy Bear Lodge. Staffed primarily by young seasonal workers, I can’t recommend them highly enough. Everyone we met was personable, knowledgeable, helpful and made a huge fuss of Theo! My only complaint is that management wouldn’t let us wash Theo’s nappies. This is the first and only time this has been an issue; most places have offered money off laundry as a ‘thank you for using cloth’! The staff were great though and helped us find an alternative solution. We very rarely book packaged trips or organised excursions like this, but to get the most out of your trip to Churchill, it’s somewhat necessary. Polar trips are often this way as the threats of extreme weather, difficult terrain, few conveniences aimed at tourists and deadly predators put people off doing it alone; we found Svalbard to be the same, for example.

Churchill itself is a small town but is well equipped for its 800 residents. We were surprised that the Town Centre Complex houses a cinema, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, as well as various sports facilities, health services and a school. On the main stretch, there are only a few places to eat, including Lazy Bear Lodge Restaurant, which serves good food in a cosy environment, and Gypsy’s, a bakery and cafe with a friendly atmosphere. Stop into the post office to get Churchill’s polar bear stamp added to your passport, and I recommend a trip to the Eskimo museum to browse their collection of Inuit carvings, artefacts and artwork, learn about Inuit history and culture, and pick up locally-made gifts and artwork. Outings to the Prince of Wales Fort and Cape Merry also make for interesting historical afternoons, and offer picturesque views over the Churchill River and Hudson Bay.
The Inuksuk is an Inuit navigation tool

Following flooding this spring that caused extensive damage to the Hudson Bay railway line, Churchill was left even more cut off from the rest of the world, many people lost their jobs and the community now faces steep price increases in food, fuel and vital supplies. The disaster prompted artists from around the globe to travel to Churchill for the Sea Walls Festival, a conservation event that raises awareness about the importance of protecting our oceans. You’ll notice 18 vibrant, eye-catching murals painted in and around the town. Through this artwork, the artists highlight the impact of global warming and the fragility of our relationship with our environment. One of my favourite murals was that painted by artist Pat Perry on the side of Miss Piggy, a Commando cargo aircraft that crashed in November 1979 400m/440 yards short of the runway with no fatalities. We climbed up into the aircraft to admire both the eerie remains of the plane and Perry’s artistic vision, which portrays solidarity and the coming together of people when disasters that threaten communities strike, just like the extreme weather that has hit the Churchill community so hard.

On our first day, we were taken out on a zodiac boat with only one other couple, down the Churchill River and out into Hudson Bay. The boat ride itself was fun, bouncing over the waves with the fresh northern air awakening our senses. This trip was unlike any other whale watching cruise I’d done; I was used to running from port to starboard to catch the best glimpse of humpbacks and orcas on larger boats that take you out for a full 4-5 hours. I didn’t imagine that this would be such an intimate experience. White in colour when fully grown, with a dorsal ridge instead of a dorsal fin, and a bulbous head containing the organ used for echolocation, Belugas are among the most distinctive of whales. They are known to be very sociable and usually travel in pods of approximately 10 whales, although they can also congregate in much large groups. First, one pod came, followed by a second, and within minutes we were surrounded by a super-pod of 40+ whales. Curious, playful and within touching distance, the belugas appeared to smile as they rolled in circles next to us, inviting us to interact with them.

You can also book kayaking and snorkelling as additional Beluga watching excursions. Despite our best efforts, Theo wasn’t allowed on the kayaks (due to age-related insurance restrictions) so he stayed on the zodiac support boat with a lovely member of staff while Alex and I had a paddle. He was always within waving distance and continued to point out whales to me from his slightly higher vantage point, so this was a good solution for us all to be able to enjoy the excursion. Initially, the whales were shyer than they had been during our zodiac tour, and we were feeling a little disappointed. We were advised by our guides that the whales are attracted to noise so we could try imitating the clicks and whistles that earned them the nickname ‘sea canaries’. One lady in our group took this information a little too much on board. For the full extent of our time on the water she squealed, shrieked, caw-cawed and sung out of tune. We paddled away from the group, trying to put a bit of distance between us and the incessant racket, and to instead enjoy the tranquillity of being on the water. Lo and behold, the whales started coming, bumping up against our kayaks and paddles, diving beneath us, and resurfacing on the other side. We were greeted by mums and their calves, still a youthful grey, as well as larger males. It seemed that, on this occasion, they were also put off by the piercing shrieks of our tour buddy!

The increasing temperature of our planet is melting the sea ice earlier and thus forcing polar bears onto land for longer periods each season.

We always seek to explore destinations by heading off the beaten track and, despite the necessity of booking some organised tours, Churchill was no exception. We hired a car for the day, packed a picnic and drove off on our own in search of polar bears. There are only a few roads in Churchill and every one of them is a dead end; it is impossible to get lost or stray too far! Information on bear sightings is shared throughout the town so before heading out, I recommend asking for tips on where to go. A female bear and her two cubs had been spotted making their way along the beach, and a lone male had been seen further down the coast. Over the course of the day, we found several bears, all looking sleepy and completely nonchalant about our presence. During the summer, when the ice melts and polar bears make their way to land, they conserve energy and spend their time resting during a period of what has been termed ‘walking hibernation’. The increasing temperature of our planet is melting the sea ice earlier and thus forcing polar bears onto land for longer periods each season. The formation of sea ice is vital to the survival of polar bears as it provides a platform for mating during the Spring and hunting bearded and ringed seals. Over time, polar bears are getting lighter as they spend more time away from their hunting ground, and lighter female bears means fewer cubs. Underweight polar bears struggle to have successful pregnancies; a protective mechanism that ensures only bears fit enough to withstand pregnancy, labour, nursing and 6 months in their maternity den through Winter without food will carry cubs. Those that do manage to see their pregnancy through will birth smaller and more vulnerable cubs. Unlike the huge tundra buggies that provide a viewing platform for groups of tourists, we were able observe the bears’ natural behaviour from close range without disturbing them from their vital rest.

 

Our second solo outing was less successful but makes for a good anecdote:

Off we go in a hired beaten up old 4×4. We head out towards the research centre (which is worth a quick visit for a coffee and to learn about current projects) in the hope of finding cubs. There are a few glaring faults with the car, but we persevere (apparently we just have to “hit the dash” if it fails to start! In hindsight, this should probably have raised a few more red flags!) We take one of the smaller unpaved tracks towards the beach, constantly turning our heads like owls, searching for any sign of white against the greens and browns of the tundra. We veer slightly to avoid a large flooded pothole at a breakneck speed of 20mph, but no big deal, that’s what the 4 wheel drive is for. Uh, the 4 wheel drive doesn’t work and we’re now well and truly stuck in a muddy bog. Alex gets out to push and I slip into the driver’s seat. “1, 2, 3…vroooom!” Nada. A lot of revving, we’ve not budged an inch and now Alex is covered in mud, spat at him by spinning tyres. We swap. Great, now I’m muddy too and Theo is beginning to think that this looks like a great game! We all start searching for sticks to assist in digging out the tyres, now icebergs in a sea of mud. With no trees or large plants, it’s not really surprising that there are no sticks. We resort to using our hands. Now looking like we’ve had some sort of spa treatment gone wrong, we decide that digging our way out is not going to work. Obviously there’s no service on our phones as we’re in the middle of nowhere, so calling for help isn’t possible. The only option, bar huddling together in the back of the car for the night with no food, no warm clothing and very little remaining water, is to walk back to the main road and wait for rescue. Churchill has one rule: do not walk on the rocks. Bears can be hidden from view and appear only when you quite literally stumble across them. The road is surrounded by rocks and we can either climb over these rocks to the main road, or take the long way by following the track. We sensibly choose the latter and cautiously begin our trek back down what we later learn locals refer to as ‘Polar Bear Alley’. Clutching Theo and a can of bear spray with equal vigour, and with darting eyes and escalated heart rates, we quicken our pace. If it weren’t for the constant rendition of nursery rhymes sung at an eardrum-bursting volume both to deter any bears and distract Theo from the cold, we would be obvious prey. We thankfully don’t meet any bears and make it back to the road alive, where we sit and hope that someone will be along shortly. A car rounds the bend so we start waving. They slow, wind down the window and ask with puzzled looks “where on Earth is your vehicle?!” It’s not common for people to wander this far out of town due to the risk of becoming dinner, much less with a toddler and clearly not dressed or equipped for a hike, so this was a fair question. Recounting our tale, we bundle into the car and return to the town with the researcher and his visiting girlfriend. We’re greeted with exclaims of “you walked down Polar Bear Alley?!” and met with laughter when we proudly point out that we had bear spray; “You’re in polar bear country! I don’t go anywhere without my gun!” The car was rescued too and all was well. We had a fun adventure but next time, if the car has faults, we won’t be going out looking for polar bears…or we’ll just travel prepared for a breakdown!

I was fascinated by the ‘polar bear jail’ and would love to see research supporting its safe and successful use for both bears and humans. A former aircraft storage hangar, the inside of which only official ‘prison guards’ and ‘detainees’ can enter, is a designated holding facility for polar bears that venture too close to the town of Churchill. They are captured in large, can-like traps using seal meat as bait and transported to jail, where they remain for 30 days in solitary confinement, total darkness, and without food, before being taken back to the wild and left at a safe distance from the town. My feeling was that this sounded utterly horrendous but, on being grilled thoroughly, our guide reassured me that the procedure is as humane as possible, and that the bears are kept in optimised temperatures and given water. The aim is to ensure the safety of both bears and humans and to prevent bears associating humans with food; obviously if they cross paths, injury to both species increases. As Churchill sits on the migration route, the Autumn season sees hundreds of hungry polar bears passing right through the town, making Halloween a particularly scary time of year for the people who live here. Not feeding the bears is controversial; some argue that, if the bears are on land, it is not their typical hunting season so they do not miss access to food, and that humans have a responsibility to keep interspecies engagement to a minimum by not feeding wild animals, whereas others believe that confining hungry animals without food amounts to starving them. My view is that punishing the bears for following a migration route that has existed long before Churchill became a town, cannot be the best way to keep both species safe. While the model of a ‘polar bear jail’ is supported by research on operant conditioning, psychologists understand that this approach is relatively ineffective in teaching children, so I find it hard to believe that it would be effective in encouraging other mammals to change behavioural patterns that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Certainly, I find the use of tranquilisers for this purpose unacceptable. As someone with expertise in human behaviour but little knowledge about animal behaviour, I also had a lot of questions about the impact of being in ‘jail’ on the bears’ circadian rhythms (of course, during the summer the sun shines for long hours, but they are still kept in darkness), mating patterns, and the survival rates of cubs following release. These are unfortunately questions I am still searching for the answers to.

 

Lazy Bear Lodge operates a helpful ‘Aurora Alert’ system, whereby you can request to receive a phone call to your room at any time if the Aurora Borealis is visible in Churchill. We had studied the weather predictions and arranged to take a car down to the beach with another couple on the night that we thought would offer the best chance of seeing the infamous Northern Lights. Alex and I had sat by the window for a couple of nights, allowing Theo to carry on sleeping but feeling teased by glimpses of green against the black of night, and itching to get outside and away from the artificial light of the town. Ultimately we were grateful we waited until the best day to actually drag him out of bed; it was definitely a show worth seeing, and I’m sure he’ll understand when he’s older, although he was a little perplexed at the time! We wrapped him up in warm clothes and he curiously gazed at the bouncing colours filling the sky before tiredness won over and he happily nursed back to sleep. Patterns effortlessly shimmied from one end of the sky to the other, like leaves caught in a breeze, constantly changing form, colour and shape. A shimmering, twirling circle beamed down from above, marking our spot on the planet. We were in the centre of a dancing petticoat, our attention captured by the graceful ballerina performing pique turns above us. The colours float, then dart suddenly into a new formation. Utterly bewitching, the sight of the Northern Lights is a magic like no other.

Utterly bewitching, the sight of the Northern Lights is a magic like no other.

 

 

As a final excursion, we booked a dog mushing trip with Blue Sky Expeditions. Alex and I had previously enjoyed dog sledding in Svalbard, and thought that Theo would love it. During our outings by car, we had seen large groups of dogs tied up and abandoned outside in the middle of nowhere, and were concerned that they would become easy prey for bears. Unlike some of the other companies that sadly own these abandoned dogs, we were pleased to discover that Gerald Azure and his wife, owners of Blue Sky Expeditions, care deeply about their dogs and treat them properly. We were given a lot of information about the dogs and the history of dog mushing (as well as some delicious freshly baked treats!) and had a fun short outing with the dogs. Theo was beside himself with excitement! Feeding whiskey jacks (also known as Grey Jays or Canada Jays) was another highlight of this outing for him, and a great opportunity to see and interact with Canada’s national bird!

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