Canada: the history and must see sights of Churchill, Manitoba

Kieran Meeke / 21 January 2017

Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017, Canada is a fascinating country full of history and intrigue. The ninthl installment in a series of articles, we look at Churchill, Manitoba



One of the world’s most remote towns sits on the southern edge of Canada’s Hudson Bay, attracting visitors in autumn to see polar bears and the Northern Lights, and in summer to see beluga whales. 

The “Polar Bear Capital of the World” is also a birdwatcher’s paradise and one of the best places to see the Northern Lights.

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences Find out more here.

Understand

Churchill is more than 600 miles north of Winnipeg, capital of the province of Manitoba, and reachable only by flying or by train. There are no roads in. 

The train journey from Winnipeg takes 36 hours, and Winnipeg is 40 hours from Toronto, an indication of just how remote this town is.

It sits on Hudson Bay, named for English explorer Henry Hudson who sailed into the area on his ship “Discovery” in 1610 while supposedly seeking the elusive Northwest Passage. 

Trapped by ice in November, the crew survived onshore until June, becoming the first Europeans to winter in the Canadian Arctic.

“To speak of all our trouble would be too tedious,” said one of Hudson’s men. Winter temperatures average -21°C by day and -29.2°C by night, and there is barely one and a half hours of daylight.

Hudson also gave his name to New York’s Hudson River, which he sailed up on an earlier voyage, but this 1610 voyage was his last. 

Thirteen of the crew mutinied and cast him, his son and six loyal sailors adrift in a small boat. Their fate remains unknown, but the eight mutineers who made it home to London escaped punishment.

French fur traders explored the area in the 1660s, establishing the potential for the trade. 

The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay” was set up in London in 1670 (and is now the world’s oldest commercial corporation) and granted a vast tract of land stretching into what is now the USA.

This Hudson Bay Company ran a series of trading posts (called “factories” because they were run by a factor) to buy furs from First Nations traders. Fort Churchill was built in 1717 and Fort Prince of Wales (see “Major Sights” below) in 1731. 

Forts were needed to beat off the French and even the Americans.

The decline of the fur trade in the late 18th century left Churchill in a slump until its port opened for grain shipments in 1931. 

The Hudson Bay Railroad connects Churchill to the great wheat plains of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and also their neighbouring states in the USA. However, the melting of permafrost has raised the cost of maintaining the railway line.

Despite an ice-free Northern Passage opening up, rising transport costs mean the port has struggled to survive economically in recent years. Privately run, it closed in 2016 and is currently for sale. Canada’s only Arctic port, it employed ten per cent of the town’s workers.

A similar fate befell a Cold War-era Canadian Air Force base and a US rocket testing site. Together, they employed thousands of people but had both shut by 1980. Plans to reopen the latter as Spaceport Canada in the 1990s came to nothing.

The lack of other employment options means eco-tourism will continue to grow as the lifeline for Churchill’s year-round population of only 750 people.

Getting Around

The town is easy enough to walk around but do need to keep an eye open for polar bears, particularly at night. However, only two people have ever been killed by a polar bear here. 

There are a small number of taxis and car hire is also available.

The “Tundra Buggy”, based on airport fire tenders, was developed by local man Leonard Smith to allow visitors to safely see polar bears. 

The five-foot diameter wheels tower over the wildlife, who are unable to reach the viewing platform and windows. 

The trucks have toilets and independent heaters and can tow bunkrooms for overnight stays. They are still hand built in Churchill.

Major Sights

Polar Bears

October and November are the best time to see bears when the local population of up to 1,000 begin to migrate from their summer tundra habitat back to the pack ice that forms on Hudson Bay during winter.

This ice allows them to hunt seals, whose meat is an important source of energy for mothers about to give birth.

During November or December, polar bear mothers give birth to up to three cubs, with twins the most common. 

Dens are made in snow banks or dug into the frozen earth and the family remains there until spring. During this time the mother does not eat or drink but feeds her cubs on her fat-rich milk, so building up a fat reserve is literally a matter of life and death for them all.

Polar bears can smell seals under three feet of snow and ice, and their sensitive noses can pick up prey more than 15 miles away. 

With no natural enemies, they are fearless hunters that stand up to ten feet tall. 

Must-do: Visit the “Polar Bear Jail”, officially the Polar Bear Rehabilitation Centre, where bears that come too far into town are held until Hudson Bay has frozen over.

Wapusk National Park

Wapusk is the Cree native people’s word for “white bear” and the park contains one of the world’s largest known polar bear maternity denning areas. 

February is the time to see the cubs emerge from their dens, and you might also spot other animals such as arctic foxes, arctic hares or caribou. The park can only be explored with a local tour operator. 

Must-do: Keep an eye out for an Inukshuk, a cairn-like marker in the shape of a human erected by the Inuit as to mark a significant place.

Birds

There are about 250 bird species in the Churchill area, some rarely seen elsewhere, and it is a major world-class destination for birdwatchers. May to June is the peak viewing season for migratory birds but the swarms of bugs they feed off are also a nuisance, so a bug coat and spray are a necessity. 

Must-do: Tick off the rare Ross’s gull, often seen on the Churchill River.

Northern Lights

Churchill is one of the best places to see the aurora borealis, thanks to its northern setting, long nights and lack of light pollution. 

The dancing green lights can be seen on about 300 nights of the year, with the best times being early autumn (August, September) and late winter/early spring (late January to April).

Must-do: The lights are notoriously difficult to photograph, so researching the process  beforehand is vital.

Discover more about the Northern Lights and how to see them on a cruise Find out more here.

Northern Studies Centre

This research centre is open for those wishing to learn about the Hudson Bay Lowlands Ecosystem. This free tour can also be supplemented with a guided tour of the facility for a minimal charge. A 30-minute drive outside Churchill, it is best reached by hire car. 

Must-do: Think about staying a few nights at the Centre, which also has a good café and gift shop.

Itsanitaq (Eskimo) Museum

Telling the story of the peoples who lived in this area for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, this museum has one of the world’s oldest and largest collections of Inuit artefacts and carvings. 

Its gift shop is also the place to find a book on almost any aspect of life in this Arctic region.

Must-do: Study the full-size birch bark canoe.

Beluga Whales

Thousands of beluga whales gather in Hudson Bay and the Churchill River in July and August, with the bay being home to the world’s largest population of the species. Tour operators take small boats out to see them

Must-do: Hire a wetsuit and a snorkel to swim with the whales, or paddle a kayak to stay slightly warmer.

Cruise Wildlife: the many animals you can see when on a cruise

Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site

Originally a log fort built in 1717 by the Hudson's Bay Company, this massive stone version was started in 1731 and added to for the next 40 years.

In 1782, it was captured by the French but they had to hand it back a year later after American Independence. Guides at the restored fort bring to life the bleak times of those early fur traders. 

Must-do: Take the boat ride along the river to see beluga whales on your way.

Miss Piggy

This C-46 plane belonging to a local cargo carrier was nicknamed “Miss Piggy” for the amount of cargo it could swallow. It crashed just short of Churchill’s runway in 1979 and the wreck is now a short photo opportunity. 

All three crew survived.

Must-do: Keep an eye out for polar bears if you decide to walk around the wreck.

Major Events

Aurora Winterfest

Churchill’s major festival is dedicated to winter fun including snow sculpting, igloo building, ice hockey and mutt-racing for the kids. 

There is also a film festival and First Nations drumming and dance. The event every March marks the end of the Hudson Bay Quest (see below). 

Hudson Bay Quest

This 200-mile dog sled race between Gillam and Churchill, alternating direction each year, recalls the days when fur trappers had to travel across large distances with their loads. 

No more than a dozen or so drivers finish the race, with the winning times being around 35 hours. Sleds have to carry everything they might need, from cooking stoves to emergency shelters. 

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