Beyond the Bears: What Else to See and Experience in Churchill
A version of this post originally appeared on the Manitoba Hot website.
Each year, keen explorers make the trip to Manitoba's north to tick one large mammal off their wildlife viewing bucket list: the polar bear. What they aren't expecting is to be charmed by all that the remote northern town of Churchill has to offer beyond the bears.
A cultural and historical hub
Churchill played a major role in the fur trade when the Hudson Bay Company (the oldest company in the world) began operations in northern Manitoba in 1670. Visitors to the region can wander to the reconstructed remnants of a canon battery at Cape Merry, built in 1747 as a means to protect the fur trading post known as the Prince of Wales Fort, which can be visited in the summer.
Park Canada Visitor Information Centre
This exhibit space is often the first glimpse of history that train-goers get when they step into the Churchill station, with artifacts from Prince of Wales Fort and York Factory. See pelts and learn how a York boat was constructed. Above all, gain new appreciation for how difficult life once was for the people who inhabited the North.
Itsanitaq Museum (formally known as the Eskimo Museum)
A trip to Churchill is never complete without a visit to the Itsanitaq Museum, located off the main drag in an unassuming building. The space is filled to the brim with 3,500 years’ worth of art, history, and artifacts. See delicately carved ivory and soapstone pieces that tell the tale of the North, along with pieces from the Dorset and Thule cultures — the ancestors of the modern Inuit peoples.
Spend an afternoon shopping and wander the stores that dot the town's main drag of Kelsey Boulevard. There are a variety of wares to pick up, from a stuffed polar bear to a jar of tundra berry jam made by the local greenhouse, Boreal Gardens. Don't leave without picking up a soapstone carving or a pair of handmade leather moccasins or mitts.
The ride of a lifetime
If you’re going to visit the North, you might as well travel in a traditionally northern way. Sign yourself up for a dogsled ride through the boreal forest with a local tour company. You’re guaranteed a fun ride, but you might just enjoy meeting the dogs that make up your dogsled team even more. These pups love to run in all seasons, and visitors are always astonished by how seriously they take their job.
There's no better way to see the diverse landscape of the North than from the cozy seat of a helicopter. See the landscape transition from bay to taiga to boreal forest while keeping an eye out for bears and moose.
Polar bear slide
If you're traveling with kids, be sure to take a ride (or walk) down to the Town Complex, which serves many purposes, from school to indoor playground, bowling alley to pool. Plus, there's an awesome polar bear slide for your children to enjoy.
No site left unseen
Spare time in Churchill is easily eaten up by the interesting sites the town has to offer. Start with the shipwrecked MV Ithaca, which stands stranded in the bay since it went aground in 1960. Another wreck to see is the crashed aircraft known as Miss Piggy. The C46 aircraft earned its nickname after locals believed it to be overloaded with a cargo of snowmobiles and soft drinks.
The Inukshuk on the beach has become a rite of passage when it comes to photo ops in Churchill, and it also happens to be a favourite spot for bears. When bears do wander into the area, Manitoba conservation officers intervene and take them to Polar Bear Jail, where they are held until they can be transported back into the wild.
Science and nature at your fingertips
The Northern Lights
If you want to see the aurora borealis on your trip to northern Manitoba, leave the ear plugs behind. You want to be ready to hear the knock on your door at 2:00 am that tells you that the show has begun. The ideal time to see the night sky light up with ribbons of blue, red, and green is in the depth of winter (January to February).
Yes, bears are the main attraction, but don't forget that other animals deserve some attention too. Keep your eyes peeled for Arctic and red fox, ptarmigan, Arctic hare, snowy owls and even grizzly bears.
Churchill Northern Studies Centre
If you've been craving a completely unique trip to the North, this is it. The education and research centre opens its doors to Arctic researchers, scientists, and yes, even guests for a different kind of polar bear tour. Take a learning vacation and participate in research studies. The building is eco-friendly with an aurora viewing dome.
For over 40 years, various agencies (including NASA), launched rockets from Churchill into the upper atmosphere for research purposes. Once a large tourist draw, the now defunct rocket range still draws in the curious to see the site that once launched more than 3,500 rockets.
A taste of northern hospitality
Meet the locals
The townfolk are used to welcoming visitors during the high seasons, and they love to swap stories. All you have to do is head to a local bar or eatery to hear legends and anecdotes that date back generations.
Food and drink
The flavours of the North are surprisingly fresh and tasty, given that the remote town must wait for supplies to be delivered each week. Try Arctic char and elk, and don't skip out on getting a donut from the famous Gypsy's Bakery. The Tundra Inn Pub hosts open mic nights where locals and tourists come together for a lively jam session. Enjoy fine dining at the Seaport Hotel's Reef Restaurant or the cozy Lazy Bear Cafe.