Churchill's Wildest Seasons: When to See What
A version of this post originally appeared on the Manitoba Hot website.
Most people are drawn to northern Manitoba by virtue of three wonders of nature: beluga whales, polar bears, and the aurora borealis. Each year, outdoor enthusiasts and nature seekers make the trip north to the isolated town of Churchill for the chance to snorkel with belugas, watch polar bears spar, and gaze in awe at the iridescent Northern Lights. While it is possible to see all three of these spectacles on the same trip, each one is particularly prominent during one or two of northern Manitoba’s four distinct seasons.
Marvel at the Northern Lights
Best time to go: February to March
If you're normally not too keen on getting woken up at 2 a.m. by a knock on your door, you’ll learn to love it in Churchill. That knock indicates that the sky has decided to turn on its light show – the aurora borealis. After your tour operator wakes you up, throw on your parka and head outside to witness the fluorescent swirls that coat the sky in emerald green.
Churchill is one of the best paces on earth to view the Northern Lights, due to it location directly under the aurora oval. While the phenomenon can be caught at any time of the year, midwinter is known for being particularly great at producing incredible viewing opportunities.
Options for viewing the Northern Lights show include settling in under a 360-degree aurora dome at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, reclining your chair in the Aurora Pod, dining in the historic Prince of Wales Fort at RAW:churchill, or viewing them far from civilization at a remote eco lodge.
Swim alongside beluga whales
Best time to go: July to August
The Churchill River is the place to be in the summer months, with droves beluga whales making their way in from the Hudson Bay to feed and breed. With populations of approximately 58,000 in the Hudson Bay, thousands of belugas enter nearby the Churchill and Seal estuaries. There, visitors can strap on a snorkel and squeeze into a wetsuit (or drysuit) to enter the sub-arctic waters. It won’t be long before you start hearing squeaks, whistles, and chirps and you catch your first, ghostly glimpse of the friendly beluga whale.
Alternatively, you can hop into a kayak and paddle out toward the Hudson Bay and start to learn how to distinguish between whitecaps and the pod of beluga whales that playfully nudge your boat. There are a few options to get up close and personal with beluga whales, including Sea North Tours who have recently introduced paddle boarding with the whales.
Set out in search of polar bears
Best time to go: July to November
Curious, awed, and overwhelmed are all adjectives that might describe your emotions upon first locking eyes with a polar bear in the wild. Churchill happens to be the most accessible location in the world to do so. Known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, your ideal vision of what you want to see in the north will help you to decide when you should visit. If a snowy backdrop is more your taste, go north from October to November, when the Hudson Bay begins its steady freeze and polar bears begin to gather along the coast, eager to head out and hunt seal. Here, they socialize, spar, and wait. The rest is up to you: do you view from the comfort of a tundra vehicle with companies like Frontiers North Adventures and Great White Bear Tours, or do you take the thrill-seeking path of walking alongside bears with Churchill Wild?
Those who shy away from colder temperatures will find viewing polar bears in the summer to be right up their alley. Visiting in July and August is growing in popularity, beckoning guests further out of town and requiring a tad more effort to see the bears. Lazy Bear Expedition's Ultimate Summer Safari offers full day jet boat tours to the famous Hubbard Point, where you can see polar bears lounging at their summer homes where they roll in pink fireweed and hop in the water to cool off. Churchill Wild's experience takes you to a wilderness eco lodge, where you can get out and walk the landscape in search of bears. In general, polar bears are more low-key in the summer months and are often spotted lounging on rocks and living off the fat reserves they built up over the winter.