Churchill: Manitoba’s Northern Jewel

(Story previously published in Manitoba Calling Magazine)

So you’ve heard about the polar bears… But what else is there up in Churchill, except frozen tundra and icy-cold arctic waters? You might be pleasantly surprised.

“People are amazed at how much there is to see and do here,” says David Daley, president of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a tourism paradise for all seasons. We call it the jewel of Manitoba.”

Situated north of the timber-line with approx. 1000 full-time residents, Churchill has reinvented itself many times over. From fur trade-era forts and thriving continental seaport, to military training base and rocket scientists on the range, the town’s main industry today is tourism. This is good news for the rest of the province.

“We’re right at the edge of the Manitoba map. When people come up here they have to go through other towns to get here,” explains Daley. “So the other towns benefit, too, from Winnipeg right to the end of the line. There are economic spin-offs all the way.”

If you’re thinking about driving to Churchill, forget it. The paved highway ends in Thompson, while the gravel road that continues on ends just passed Gillam, still almost 300 km away. That leaves only three ways in to this remote northern town – plane, train or watercraft.

The most common and affordable way is the Hudson Bay Railway line, almost 1700 km of track integrated into the Canadian National Railway in 1930. The round-trip journey from Winnipeg takes approx. 36 hours one-way, with brief stops in several towns. It’s a picturesque journey featuring the diversity and beauty of the provincial landscape, and worth the trip.

To save time and money, you can drive eight hours from Winnipeg on Highway 6 to Thompson, which leaves only 548 km left to go by rail. This reduces the train trip to 12 hours one-way. Of course the easiest and quickest way to get to Churchill is by air. Calm Air offers direct flights from Winnipeg, taking just under three hours to get there.

If you like doing things the hard but adventurous way, you could always paddle into town via the Churchill River and its many tributaries. A handful of tour operators offer guided trips down the Knife and Seal rivers (the latter being a Canadian Heritage River) that finish in Churchill and include tourist time.

So why go through all the fuss to get there? Because there are things in Churchill you just won’t see anywhere else. Like the species synonymous with the locale.

Polar bears live on frozen waters far from land for half the year, returning annually with the spring thaw. The world’s largest known denning area is within Wapusk National Park (Cree word for “white bear”), a vast and remote area spanning almost 11,500 square km from Churchill southeast to York Factory.

In the fall, the bears congregate near the shoreline to return to the ice-flow, which begins to freeze first near Cape Churchill. This means hundreds of bears passing close by – and often through – the town known as the “polar bear capital of the world.”

The best way to safely view the massive 300 kg to 700 kg animals is from special vehicles designed to travel on the tundra. Frontiers North Adventures sports a fleet of all-terrain vehicles likened to oversized monster trucks. Tundra buggies are capable of carrying 26 to 48 passengers at one time, who come from around the world to catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures.

But polar bears aren’t the only animals attracting tourists. The beluga capital of the world, July and August are the best months to witness the whales. Some 3000 belugas move into the area to spend time in warmer waters flowing into Hudson Bay from the Churchill River. Companies like Sea North Tours offer whale-watching boat trips using hydrophone-equipped boats that allow you to hear their strange vocalizations coming from underwater.

To get up close and personal among the mammals, the more daring can go scuba dive and snorkelling below the surface, or paddle across it. Kayak Churchill offers half and full-day trips on the Churchill River from June to August, paddling alongside snowy white beluga companions three to four meters long and weighing 400 kg. Kayaking is a great way to be among the whales, and the many seals who make the Churchill coastline their home.

Land-lovers can also find lots to covet in Churchill. It’s one of the few places in the world one can go to study the arctic, with the Churchill Northern Studies Centre offering courses and learning vacations over extended stays. For temporary the temporary tourist, several tour operators offer interpretative walking tours in and around town featuring the flora and fauna. The landscape can also be explored by helicopter, hummer, bus, van, and even by taxi.

The rugged and remote coastline is heaped with wind-swept sand stones, granite rocks and boulders, and magnificent in its desolate beauty. The tundra soil comes alive in spring and fall with more than 400 native plant species including wildflowers, shrubs, and other flora.

Outside of the town-site, the landscape slowly changes to boreal forests teeming lemming, hares, caribou, arctic fox, and other wildlife. Bird-watching enthusiasts can’t go wrong either, with 200 species of birds congregating each summer and fall. Akudlik Marsh, located 4 km south of town, is nesting ground to several rare birds, including the Ross’ Gull, Little Gull, and Rock Wren. Other interesting northern species include arctic tern, plovers, ptarmigans and snow geese.

For the fishing aficionado, Goose Creek is located about 10 km down the Churchill River. The locale is accessible by road, and offers arctic grayling, northern pike, and sea run trout. It’s also a great spot for hunting waterfowl in the fall.

Once you’ve discovered what’s on the ground and in the water, look up. Way up. The highest intensity of northern lights in the arctic occurs over the Churchill region from January to March, when dazzling displays light up the long, dark nights. And you don’t even have to stand outside and freeze in order to get the full experience.

The Aurora Domes offer viewing with all the comforts of the great indoors. Visitors sit in heated plexi-glass “bubbles” that provide clear observation of the entire night sky, and wait for the dancing bands of white, yellow, red and green to appear. And there’s a very good chance you’ll see them.

“This is the best place in the world to see the lights. I can almost guarantee if you stay for three nights when it’s clear and cold, you’ll see them,” says Pat Penwarden, who owns and operates the domes along with her husband Bob. “Only once in the ten years I’ve been doing this, has someone not seen them under the right conditions.”

The domes were constructed to observe the aurora borealis, and were used by scientists when the Churchill Research Range was operational. The government quit using them in the mid 1980’s and the Penwardens bought them in 1987, turning them into a unique and successful tourist attraction. Once again, a new use was found for something no longer needed, in a town with a tradition of re-inventing itself.

Archaeology in the area shows evidence of humans as far back as 4000 years ago, with Dené and Cree people indigenous to the area today. European history dates back to the 1700’s when a huge stone fortress was built by the Hudson’s Bay Company at the mouth of the Churchill River, to protect its interests in the fur trade.

Prince of Wales Fort took more than 40 years to build, with outer walls almost 7 m high and 11 m thick. Forty cannons were mounted, strategically placed to command every approach to the fort. Ironically, the fort was lost to French warships in 1782 without a single cannon shot being fired.

Restoration of the original fort began in the 1930s, across the Churchill River from the town. Today, you can get to this fascinating National Historic Site by boat or helicopter, with the latter being more costly but well worth it for the view from the air alone.

Interpretive historic tours of the fort are offered by Parks Canada from June to September. Initiatives like the new Parks Canada Visitor Center located in the train station help educate tourists of the history of the area. Open year-round, the center’s life-like displays reflect the historical, natural and cultural aspects, and create increased awareness of Prince of Wales Fort, Cape Merry and Sloop Cove (two other National Historic Sites).

In town, the Eskimo Museum also offers another year-round glimpse into the past and the area’s culture. Established by the Roman Catholic Diocese in 1944, the museum put together a vast collection of Inuit carvings and artifacts from the Pre-Dorset and Dorset eras.

Today, the museum pays tribute to the creativity and resourcefulness of the Inuit people, and is a prerequisite stop on just about every tour through town. Impressive displays in the museum include a seal-skin kayak, a walrus, and polar bear. The gift shop includes an extensive selection of books about Churchill, the north, historical expeditions, and wilderness adventure.

And speaking of adventure… A true northern experience is not complete without a little dose of winter in the outdoors. And what better way to experience the north than through a northern tradition like dog-sledding. It’s a true passion for David Daley, born and raised in Churchill, who not only promotes tourism but also practices it.

What started as a hobby has grown into a business. Daley’s company, Wapusk Adventures, offers full and half-day dogsled trips. Leaving from Wapusk General Store, guests travel by bus to a bush camp outside from town, and gather in a canvas tent complete with woodstove and lawn chairs. Hot tea and grilled wild game are served, while the sleds are prepared with a pack of northern huskies.

The thrilling ride takes you through the beautiful boreal backwoods, feeling alive and exhilarated as you fly along the snow-covered trails. It’s an experience that truly makes you feel part of the north, and just a great way to spend the day.

To spend the night, there are a variety of hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts to be found – but make sure you pre-book during the peak seasons when rooms go fast. If you want the convenience and comfort of home, the Aurora Inn is an apartment hotel with fully-equipped kitchens in spacious two-story suites. Owners Gavin and Louise Lawrie are friendly and helpful, and go out of their way to take care of their guests – a common practice in Churchill.

The more you get to know the people who reside in this remote northern town, the more you will see that hospitality is abundant. Combine that with everything else there is to see and do, and you’ve got a truly unique vacation destination that attracts tens of thousands and of visitors each year, from all over the world.

This “jewel of Manitoba” is definitely worth the trip.

NATIONAL HISTORIC SITES IN THE AREA:
Prince of Wales Fort
Cape Merry
Sloop Cove
York Factory

Kayak Churchill http://www.kayakchurchill.com/
Hudson Bay Helicopters http://www.hudsonbayheli.com/
Aurora Domes http://www.tundrainn.com/
International Wildlife Adventures
www.wildlifeadventures.com
Aurora Inn http://www.aurora-inn.mb.ca/
Wapusk Adventures http://www.wapuskadventures.com/
Town of Churchill http://www.churchill.ca/
Northern Soul Wilderness Adventures www.northernsoul.ca
Wilderness Spirit www.wildernessspirit.com

GETTING THERE BY TRAIN:
Via Rail Canada

AREA CONTACTS:
Frontiers North Adventures
http://www.frontiersnorth.com/

GETTING THERE BY PLANE:
Calm Air

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