In August 2015, I was lucky to get a chance to visit Churchill in Summer. The following are my suggested things to do in Churchill as I took a trip to Churchill in August.
Take the Train to Churchill
Upon train arrival in Churchill, the friendly Tundra Inn van met us passengers. They hauled us and our luggage over to the inn to store for the day. I had a beluga snorkeling trip booked for later that day, but that wasn’t until late afternoon (the schedule of the beluga trips varies daily based on the tides of Hudson Bay). So, we had nearly a full day to look around town. In the summer, there could be polar bears around town so there are rules to not go walking outside the city limits.
And Now for Things to Do in Churchill:
Check out the City and Beach
Even within the city limits, it’s possible for bears to be around so there’s a hotline to call the bear patrol if they get too close to town. We spent some time walking around the small town. There was a lovely beach on the Hudson Bay.
Visit the Eskimo Museum
The local Eskimo Museum is free museum run by local volunteers. There are several stuffed animals (a baby and bull size polar bear) along with 100’s of Eskimo carvings. They have the best and most reasonably priced souvenir shop in town.
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
You can stop inside the St. Paul’s Anglican Church, and see the famous “Lady Franklin Window” stained glass window, which was named after the explorer John Franklin. This window was helicoptered in from York Factory in southern Hudson Bay in 1967.
National Park Visitor’s Center
Another good stop if you’re in town without any tours planned is the National Park Visitor’s center that is located in the train depot. There are exhibits on the Prince of Wales Fort and the history and animals of Hudson Bay. They have several videos on hand so you can ask them to play each in their small video room. The park rangers here are local kids that go off to college in the fall, but are working in the summer. They were both very friendly and had good tips.
There’s not anything else to do in town, other than tours that head out of town to do bear or beluga viewing, or dog sledding. There are a few cafes and a few souvenir shops. There’s one big blue Northern store where the locals buy all their goods, from jackets to craft supplies to groceries. It was fun to walk around in here, but the prices were outrageous. Everything has to be shipped in by train. We were glad we stocked up on extra snacks in Thompson.
Beluga Snorkeling Trip
That evening, I went out on a Beluga snorkeling trip. I love snorkeling with weird stuff and was hopeful for this tour, having seen some great pictures online of snorkeling with beluga whales. We started out by squeezing into full body wetsuits. I’m a big girl, and was given the largest women’s size. I weighed about 40 pounds more than the advised weight limit. This may not have been the best choice… we’ll get to that later.
We headed down to the port and boarded a zodiac. One guide & 5 passengers. Our guide got a message on the radio and started motoring out the river and into Hudson Bay. There we watched a Polar Bear come in from swimming…one of the greatest wildlife encounters I’ve ever seen.
After the bear got back in the water for another swim, we went off to go snorkeling. We had strict rules to hold onto a loop on two ropes that trailed from the zodiac.
I got in the water and it was cold. It was also murky and impossible to see any of the 100’s of Belugas that were feeding around us. On a good day, the water is clearer and the belugas are playful. I decided to switch loops with a woman who was lucky enough to see one of the belugas underwater but I lost hold of the rope and the swift current of the Churchill river was pushing me out to the Hudson Bay. It was scary! The boat kept on trying to pick me up but he was going thru a small rapid section. Eventually I was pulled into the boat – I had lost my strength to climb up the rope ladder myself and I could only lay on the floor of the zodiac. They unzipped the chest piece of the my wet suit and I couldn’t barely breathe. It was frustrating to see so many whales circling the boat. The other passengers stayed in the water a bit longer but no one saw anything other than a single beluga swim by closely but very quickly. I kept on trying to get a breath – the mini panic attack and tightness of the suit was still limiting my breathing. We got back to the port and walking up the small boat landing was making me breath like I had just ran up a 200+ foot high hill. I took of the suit and drank as much hot tea as I could, before we drove back to town. The bear was cool but the snorkeling was so disappointing.
Tundra Buggy Tour
The next day was our Tundra Buggy tour. We thought this would be our best chance to see polar bears in the wild and were excited to schedule the 6 hour tour. We rode a bus to the end of the nature reserve and then boarded the huge tundra buggy. This big vehicle had school bus seats on each side with a big aisle down the middle. My parents and I grabbed the front two rows on the passenger side. The huge wheels let us drive into the tundra area and we drove for over 4 hours. Unfortunately, the most exciting things we saw were sandhill cranes and snow geese. We didn’t see a single mammal – bears, foxes, or even arctic hares.
Have a Drink and Hang with the Locals at Tundra Inn
At least we had fun at the bar that night. They had cheap wings special and we had a few beers at the Tundra Inn. We chatted with a few other people who had been on our tour and as disappointed as us.
Kayak with Belugas
On day 3, in the morning, I did the kayaking with beluga whales trip. It was kind of cool to kayak with whales so close by. It was nerve-wrecking as they swam so close. We needed to stay with the pack of other kayaks as the current of the Churchill river was very swift. I didn’t really enjoy this excursion either. It was lucky I had a trip on the bigger boat later that day…
Prince of Wales Fort and Beluga Tour
Our main activity in the afternoon was a tour to the Prince of Wales Fort. The fort was built by the Hudson Bay Company in the 1700’s and was eventually overtaken by the French. The excellent national park ranger told us stories about the harsh Churchill winters at the fort.
After the fort tour, we got back on the boat and took a detour to see the cutest mother & baby polar bear.
Next we rode out to the middle of the Churchill river. Eventually we found ourselves in the middle of many beluga whales. They put a sonic detector in the river and we heard all the sounds of the whales – from low grunts to squeaks, it sounding much like farting ?.
Our Rental Truck
At dinner time that night, I ran over to the only truck rental place in town. For $90 a day, we rented an SUV for the next 2 days. They gave me a map of all the roads in the area that we were and were not allowed to drive on, there’s not more than 50 miles worth of roads in the area. The sky was purple as I drove back to the motel.
The Northern Lights
We had missed the Aurora Borealis the previous night because I fell asleep early so I decide to set my alarm for each hour overnight to make sure we didn’t miss any. Luckily, at my 9pm sky viewing, I could see the glowing sky so we all jumped into the SUV and drove up to Cape Merry, at the point where the river flows into the Bay and we watched the Northern lights for some time while making sure there were no polar bears in the area. What a treat! It was the first time other than on a plane that I’d see the Northern lights. I was amazed as the shapes kept on changing. It was a great end to a good day!
“Miss Piggy” plane wreck
On our first day with the SUV, we had a young woman from the motel join us as we drove east of the city on the road that parallels the Bay. We stopped at the “Miss Piggy” plane wreck and climbed on the wreckage.
We stopped at a very beautiful beach on the bay and then drove back and forth the road looking for polar bears.
MV Ithaca shipwreck
No polar bears had been seen all morning, nor on the tundra buggy two days before so I was beginning to think there were no bears around. We got up to a beach overlook of the MV Ithaca shipwreck and I got out of the SUV to walk to the ledge above the beach only to spy a HUGE male polar bear just walking along and minding his own business. It was clear he saw us, and since polar bears can run at 30 mph in just a few seconds, he easily could have had a human lunch that day but we were glad we could stand up the hill and take his photo as he walked along.
Eventually he disappeared behind a big bluff and we drove further to see him come out the other side in an area of long grass. Eventually he disappeared into some brush. It’s easy to see why you can’t just go walking around even though you don’t see a bear. Bears could be hiding in the grass or bushes.
Churchill Northern Studies Centre
The bear chasing took quite awhile so we didn’t get to our next stop, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, until mid afternoon. We were hoping to get lunch here but they told us we should have called ahead if we wanted lunch. They were gracious enough to give us a tour of the laboratory facilities for a $5 donation each. Different groups come here to do research if they need arctic conditions. The dorms and facilities were really nice. I wouldn’t mind volunteering here sometime.
Canadian Rocket Program
Just behind the Centre is the Canadian Rocket launching pad. Who knew Canada had a Space Program? I didn’t either. You could walk around the launch pad and hangars around here which was also fascinating.
We drove back towards town and tried a side road. We could see some animals in the background and as we approached discovered it was a couple dozen sled dogs and a single young grizzly bear. It seemed like the dogs were tormenting the bear and was very perplexing. Later in town, we discovered it was a sled dog farm. The dogs were all chained up and the bear likes to come and eat their food from time to time. The bears are smart enough to not kill the dogs – the bears’ lives depend on it.
One More Day in the Truck for Bear Searching
On our second day of renting the SUV, we drove Southwest of the town along the Churchill river. There was an overlook that viewed the local’s boat launch.
In the afternoon we drove more along the ocean road and eventually saw a large mother bear and 2-year old cub that was nearly as big as his mom. Eventually they got bored and disappeared in some trees. We tried to follow but there weren’t a lot of roads in the area.
Stay: The Tundra Inn, or the Tundra House Hostel across the street, run by the same folks
Eat: The Tundra Inn – try the elk burger
Do: Sea North Tours (fort and beluga tours by boat or zodiac, beluga kayaking or snorkeling). Rent a truck from Tamarack Rentals.
I hope you like my favorite Things to Do in Churchill. It’s especially good to visit Churchill in the Summer, or more specifically, Churchill in August. I think it’s the best time to go because you can see Belugas, and Borealis, and Bears, Oh My!
Want to learn how I got to Churchill? Click here to learn about the train ride.
If you happen to stop in Winnipeg, it’s worth checking out the “Journey to Churchill” exhibit. Click here to see the swimming bears.