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The Polar Bears of Churchill, Manitoba

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

For the past ten years, Churchill, Manitoba in northern Canada has been on my travel bucket list. After reading an article in our local newspaper and seeing the photos of the Polar Bears, I knew someday we would have to make the trek! This was the year!

Polar Bear on the tundra near Bird Cove

Churchill is a town of almost 900 people with no access by road. The only way to get there is by train or to fly. The train is a 16-hour trip overnight departing from Thompson, which is eight hours north of Winnipeg. Our plan was to fly into Winnipeg and then drive to Thompson and then catch the train for the 16-hour ride to Churchill, however, Delta cancelled our outbound flight two times and then cancelled our return flight. Rather than taking a chance of not making it to Thompson for the train, we drove 21 hours to Thompson to catch the train to Churchill.

“Churchill is the most charming community! It has four restaurants, five to six motels, numerous bed and breakfasts and more Polar bears than people! Everyone is friendly and anyone you ask; they love living in Churchill!
Churchill train station

There are a couple of options for traveling to Churchill. We decided on the lessor expensive route by flying to Winnipeg from Chicago and then driving to Thompson to catch Via Rail Canada, https://www.viarail.ca/en. The rail tickets were $76 each round trip. A roundtrip ticket from Winnipeg to Churchill averages around $1800 per person. If you do not have the time to take a 16 hour train ride, the flight may be the only option. But beware, the flights were delayed every day we were in Churchill. The people that stayed at our Airbnb and at our hotel all experienced delayed flights. The train arrived and departed on schedule. The train doesn't travel to Churchill every day so you need to plan around the train arrivals and departures, but it is not difficult to make it work. We chose to take the Monday night train from Thompson to Churchill departing at 5:30 p.m. and arriving in Churchill at 9:30 a.m. We were out on our first guided Polar bear tour at 1:00 p.m. We departed Saturday night from Churchill to Thompson on the 7:30 p.m. train. We had all day for another Polar bear tour with plenty of time for dinner and then to board the train for an overnight trip back. The train may take 16 hours, but it is comfortable, you can spread out and recline the seats and the allows time for rest, reading, and Netflix! They also didn’t charge us for baggage! We decided traveling by rail was much less stressful than flying!


Lodging in Churchill must be booked at least 12 months in advance and if you want to stay at one of the motels, you need to book at least 18 to 24 months in advance. I started looking in January prior to our trip in October and couldn't find a motel with four consecutive nights. We had to book two different locations for two nights each. Be careful booking a bed and breakfast or an Airbnb. We had to stay in an Airbnb for two nights and then moved to the Polar Inn and Boutique for two nights. The Polar Inn and Boutique was fantastic. Super clean, large rooms, beautifully decorated, great breakfast, and the owners are present on site during the day working. The large expensive tour groups book the motel rooms up in advance and the hotels cater to them. So, my advice in going to Churchill, plan well enough in advance. The Airbnb we stayed at left A LOT to be desired. It was not what we had expected but we met some wonderful people from all over the world, so it made our two nights more tolerable. I will definitely not stay in an Airbnb again in Churchill.


Our first Polar bear tour was scheduled with SubArtic Expeditions. Sub Artic is a local owner with his entire family born and raised in Churchill. I like the local guide with the insight

and perspective of living and growing up in Churchill. Our first tour was a very cold day with at least 40 mph winds and snow. This was Churchill’s first blizzard of the season. Needless to say, even the Polar bears were hunkered down to avoid the conditions. We did see our first Polar bear that day but it was sleeping and not moving around much. But I was happy to see my first bear! Some of our housemates went out the next day with Sub Artic Expeditions and had much better sightings with more cooperative weather. They also agreed that the local guide and perspective was very valuable. We would definitely take a tour with SubArtic Expeditions again.


The second day we went out for a full day with Beyond Boreal Expeditions. We were fortunate to see several bears, a Cross Fox, and a Red Fox on our tour with one bear getting

within 20 feet of our vehicle. Beyond Boreal is a local guide that was born

and raised in Churchill, so it was interesting learning about their way of life in Churchill from a local resident. We went out for a morning tour and then back to town for lunch and then out again in the afternoon.


After going out on a second tour, we soon figured out that the tour operators all go in the same direction toward Bird Cove outside of Churchill and on the back trails of the tundra areas. When a bear is sighted, the operators all notify each other, so there will be several tour operators viewing the same bear or bears! Also, something else to note, bears are not just wandering around in numbers and easy to spot. From October 15th to approximately November 30th every year, this short window of time are when the bears are waiting for the ice to freeze over on the Hudson Bay and are wandering the tundra areas. The closer it gets to the ice freezing, there is greater potential to see more bears. The guides have to look for the bears and know the areas where they roam. It is not as simple as the photos make it appear on the Churchill or tour operator web sites. The bears are not walking the streets of Churchill waiting for you to take photos. They are out on the tundra waiting for ice to form. Once the ice forms, they are gone feeding on seals until the ice melts in June or July every year.


I think everyone has seen the images of the big tundra buggy vehicles out on the ice with a Polar bear standing up on the side of vehicle. To experience all of Churchill, we did a tundra buggy by Great White Polar Bear Tours. The tundra buggy is very expensive, about $500 per person for the day. You are with numerous other people on the buggy, but they take you into the wildlife management area where the other tour guides cannot travel. There are only a specified number of permits allowed to do tours in this wildlife management area. It was a very nice day, but you are captive to the driver and the locations they travel, the time they eat lunch, and if they move to view a bear closer or not. On our way out to the tundra, we were fortunate to see a Snowy Owl perched on an Evergreen tree. It was far in the distance but was so white it was hard to miss! With us being in the big Tundra Buggy, there was no way to maneuver over to see it closer. We were very fortunate to see three Polar bears out on a pond of ice just across from the Hudson Bay. However, once we found those bears, we didn’t move for 3 ½ hours. I thought we would be exploring additional areas out on the Tundra to view more bears. It was also crowded in the location we sat with eight other buggies watching the same bears! I would recommend doing the tundra buggy since it is part of the overall Churchill experience and they can go where the small tour operators cannot travel, but realize you are at their mercy the entire day. The bears can also be at a distance away from the buggy too so take a good zoom lens. We have all seen the advertisements of the Polar bear standing up to the window of the Tundra Buggy, but this is rare. The bears may roam near the vehicles but we didn’t personally experience that on our trip. The other tour operator that was out there at the same time we were there seemed a little more aggressive with maneuvering their vehicles closer to the bears for better viewing. Something to think about when you book a tour.

We took a Polar bear tour with North Star Tours. They operate out of the Polar Inn and Boutique and the hotel owner’s son runs the tour company. We had a great time with our guide Rhonda. We saw a fox, artic hare, and also the most beautiful Polar bear up personal. It was less than 20 yards from us. Rhonda has lived in Churchill for 30 years and is married to a man born and raised in Churchill. She was extremely knowledgeable and a lot of laughs! I would highly recommend North Star Tours!


I have been asked about safety and if the Polar bears are far away or do they come close. Polar bears are very curious animals and they will approach your vehicle if they get the opportunity. They also have a keen sense of smell. We had a couple of the bears get within

20 yards of us. In one instance we were told by our guide to get in the vehicle and not roll down the window or open the door. While they look cuddly and friendly, they are one of the most ferocious bears and if agitated would attack. The guides are required to carry weapons and in cases they carry their rifles with them when we got out of the vehicles to observe the bears. It is important to stay close to your guide and their vehicle. They always have your safety first in mind. The intent is to avoid any conflicts with the Polar Bears. Nobody wants to shoot a Polar bear or have a tourist get hurt. It is important to always know your surroundings and stay close to your guide.

If you are looking for shopping, there isn’t much shopping in Churchill, but we did find souvenirs for the grandkids. There are only four restaurants in town and if you are traveling independently, you really need to go early before the tour groups arrive at 5:30 or 6:00. It is also good to get back to your motel room fairly early as it is not safe walking around town after dark. Polar bears do wander into the community at times, and they can get startled and could attack. We enjoyed the Tundra Inn, Seaport, Dancing Bear, and the Lazy Bear for our dinners. I think I enjoyed the Lazy Bear the most! The atmosphere is very nice with the log cabin feel and the fireplace.


With Churchill being very small, you can walk anywhere during the daylight within 10 minutes, I would never recommend renting a car. There is also a taxicab driver in the city and most of the Airbnb’s and the motels have shuttles. It is also very dangerous for someone not familiar with the wildlife and the Polar bears to go out looking for them on their own. The roads are not paved roads out on the tundra. The roads are full of very large potholes and are dangerous. They get very icy quickly. I highly recommend taking tours with local guides and on the Tundra buggies to be safe. Car rental is also very expensive per day and the cars are outdated and not equipped for the rough tundra driving.


As for other sightseeing in addition to the bears, that can all be done with a bear tour. The tour groups take you along the Hudson Bay coastline looking for bears, so you see much of the rocky coastal area. The Polar Bear jail can only be seen from the outside, but it is unique and shouldn’t be missed. Bears are hauled to jail if they repeatedly roam into town or get into trouble. They are jailed for 28 days and then released. You will also see a downed cargo plane and a ship that ran aground but both are not near as spectacular as seeing a Polar Bear!


I get asked, would you go back? Was it worth the expense and long travel days? Yes, Yes, Yes! It was the experience of a lifetime and something I will cherish forever! I look forward to doing it again in the next several years. But from experience, I will book the motel at least 18 to 24 months in advance; the train is the way to travel; a four-to-five-night stay is plenty; and I think I would wait one more week and visit the first week of November when the chances of the weather being colder are better. The bears like the colder weather and a week later is that much closer to the ice freezing on the Hudson Bay. Once the ice freezes, the bears are gone until spring. They spend the entire winter out on the Hudson Bay feeding on seals. There is nothing not to enjoy and love about Churchill. Neither of us even minded the cold weather.


ITEMS TO PACK FOR CHURCHILL

While we were in Churchill the temperature hovered around 30 degrees every day and dropped to the 20's at night. It gets very windy out on the tundra. Winds most days were 30+ mph and on the day of the blizzard was 50 mph. We had one warmer day where it was close to 40 degrees but that is very unusual for the end of October. I recommend dressing in layers and packing the following items:

  • Heavy longer parka style coat with a hood.

  • Snow boots

  • Hiking Boots

  • Long underwear

  • Lined pants or leggings

  • Heat holding socks or wool socks

  • Heavy lined gloves or mittens

  • Neck Scarf

  • Sunglasses and/or ski goggles

  • Stocking or ski Cap or fur hat

  • Hot pockets for your boots and gloves

  • Wool sweater

  • Sweatshirts

  • Sweat pants

  • Extra batteries for your camera. Batteries die fast in the cold.

  • Favorite snacks, pop, water, protein bars, etc. There is one grocery store and it is expensive. The train will allow you to carry anything on or check anything in your checked bag. We were happy to have some of our own snacks.


TIPS TO TRAVEL ECONOMICALLY AND GET THE MOST FOR YOUR TIME AND MONEY

I also get asked many times, "How do you travel so often and keep it affordable?" A few tips are below:

  • For me, planning and researching is part of the excitement of the trip! Visioning is so much fun!!!

  • I plan all of my own trips and research, research, research on the internet. I utilize TripAdvisor, Frommer's, and blogs from other travelers to find the information I need for my trip. I do ALOT of reading and researching. It takes patience to plan a good affordable trip!

  • I have a budget in mind for each trip and challenge myself to stay in the budget. Depending on the location, I typically start planning and booking hotels, cars, etc., approximately 9 months out. For Churchill motels and better Airbnb's, you need to book at least 18 to 24 months out. Hotel prices usually get more expensive the closer to the trip unless you are willing to do a last minute internet deal. Car rental and airline prices also go up the closer it is to your trip. Occasionally you can get a last minute deal but something else may be more expensive and you are really not saving. I like to plan!

  • For hotels, I use Booking.com, or Priceline.com. I look for hotels with good reviews, pay when you stay, and free cancellation in advance.

  • We have done all-inclusive in a couple of tropical locations years and years ago but found that we do not eat and drink enough to make it worth the extra expense. We like to go off site from the hotel and experience the local cuisine and traditions. We have not done all-inclusive in the last 15 years. However, all-inclusive is wonderful if you want to stay at the resort for all meals, not rent a car, and have the hotel shuttle you to your destinations. That has worked for us in Jamaica and it was very relaxing! But I would not drive in Jamaica so all-inclusive was the smartest option! If you enjoy all-inclusive, the earlier you book the trip the lower the price. Unless you are game and are not a planner, and are willing to travel where the last minute deal is advertised. Then you could get a great all-inclusive deal!

  • If we are flying, I use the Skyscanner app to check airfare prices and I try not to buy until about 60 to 75 days out. There are times where I will by earlier if the price is super reasonable. I usually do not book on Skyscanner. It will tell me the site that is the most affordable to purchase the tickets and if it is a more well known trust site, I go directly to the site to purchase the tickets. Many times Skyscanner will take you right to the airline website. Skyscanner will search all airlines and will sort by price, times, shortest trip, etc.

  • Have a credit card that gives you miles or hotel points. We will use points for many of our trips. We are American Advantage members and have an Advantage credit card. We try to fly American as often as we can to earn points and then use those points for future airline tickets. Our credit card is tied to our Advantage numbers and awards points as well.

  • We drive if the location is in the United States and we can drive and sightsee along the way. If we need to rent a car, we reserve online using Booking.com, Orbitz.com, or Priceline.com. They are usually the most reasonable. I watch for specials and never book a luxury vehicle! We also have a credit card with a low limit that we use for vehicle rentals that provides insurance as a credit card benefit. We always decline the insurance when we are in the United States. If we are traveling out of the United States, we check with the credit card if the insurance is valid internationally. We have found it is valid in Europe, Canada, U.S. Virgin Islands, but in other locations, we are forced to purchase the liability insurance from the rental car company.

  • While there are free maps online for most destinations, I always go onto Amazon and buy a map of my destination, especially if it is international. I do not buy maps for tropical Caribbean islands. I just get one when we arrive. But for countries like Costa Rica, Panama, Belize, England, Canada, Germany, France, etc., I always purchase a good map. As you do you research, you can use the map to highlight the places you want to visit and the sites you want to see. I have it as a reference later for putting my memories and photos into a photobook!


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