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Journey to the Polar Bear Capital of the World

Photo by Mark Cosgriff

By Kristina Breckon

On the shores of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba is a hidden gem for eco-tourists: Churchill, Manitoba. This small town of 900 permanent residents is known as the polar bear capital of the world. Approximately 300 of the up-to-1,600-pound bears pass through here each fall.

Polar bear season runs until the end of November, so book now to avoid disappointment. If you miss bear season, take heart that visitors to Churchill in late December to March are often treated to world-class views of the northern lights.

What to See & Do

Polar bear gets friendly with a Tundra Buggy. (Photo: Travel Manitoba)

Polar Bears
Churchill’s main attractions, polar bears congregate in here in the summer and fall months, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze so they can hunt seal. Get up close and personal with a Tundra Buggy tour, which travels across the ice and snow in an all-terrain “tundra buggy”, a sort of jeep-tank-bus hybrid. Looking for a different vantage point? Spot bears from above on helicopter tours (30, 60 and 90 minutes). If you’re lucky you may catch a glimpse of moose, seals and fox, too.

Dog Sledding Tours
Get a glimpse into the traditional and modern trapper lifestyle when you book a dog sledding tour with Wapsuk Adventures. Enjoy hot chocolate and bannock while waiting for your tour on the tundra with musher Dave.

Prince of Wales Fort
Once a trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the 250-year-old Prince of Wales Fort is a Canadian historical landmark. Learn about Canada’s oldest company and the fur trade.

Eskimo Museum
Learn about local Inuit culture at the small, but well-curated Eskimo Museum (242 Laverendrye Ave., 204-675-2030). Informative staff are happy to answer questions and give more information about the exhibits.

And another thing…
Keep an eye on the skies while in Churchill. Locals that spot a bear getting a little too close for comfort can call the “bear number” (appropriately enough, 675-BEAR) and offending bears are put into a holding area most commonly referred to as “polar bear jail”.  During your stay you may be lucky enough to see a bear being transported in a net suspended from a helicopter to a more northern region, away from civilization.

Where to Eat

Restaurant choices are limited and distinctly no-frills in tiny Churchill. Most tours come with a breakfast or lunch.

Basic, yet delicious fresh baked goods are the specialty at Gypsy’s Bakery and Restaurant. A local favourite, heartier meals are available at dinner time in a diner style setting. Sample local cuisine, such as arctic char at the Reef Dining Room at the Seaport Hotel. Don’t forget to pose with the giant stuffed bear in the lobby on the way out.

Where to Sleep

Be transported back to the days when the Hudson’s Bay Company was in its infancy at the Lazy Bear Lodge. These cozy, beautifully hand crafted log cabins are the perfect day to rest after a long day in the fresh air.  If you decide to add a dog sled tour to your itinerary, consider staying at the Blue Sky Bed & Sled bed-and-breakfast. Spend more time with the dogs, get to know the musher and enjoy local treats like tundra berry tea at this intimate four bedroom B&B.

Transportation

No roads lead into Churchill but inaccessibility is just part of its charm. Calm Air flies daily into Churchill. Flights are sometimes included in “polar bear experience” packages so check with your provider for details. If you’re not in a rush, you can take the train from Winnipeg, a two-day journey.

And another thing…
Check out Travel Manitoba’s handy when-to-go calendar, pinpointing the best times to see bears, the northern lights and more.

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