“You’re out here on as good a day as you’ll ever get!” shouts the guide, as he throttles the engine of our inflatable Zodiac, steering it towards the mouth of the river.
Decked out in a wetsuit and snorkeling gear, I sit on the edge of the speeding vessel like a special operations frogman, riding the swells and gazing out at Hudson Bay. In the distance, clusters of white blobs break the surface and disappear beneath the dark waters. The guide slows the boat, pulls off his reflector shades, crouches down and looks me straight in the eye (and tweaking his curl-ended mustache for added emphasis).
“We’ve come across a mother lode,” he says. “There are at least 200 belugas just off starboard.”
In seconds, I’m in the frigid water holding onto a towrope and staring into the murky Leviathan depths. Pale blurs soon become visible in the distance. Then the phantom-like whales appear directly beneath me, turning sideways and gazing up with benevolent expressions of stoic curiosity. The belugas appear with remarkable clarity and approach in groups of three or four, coming as close as a few metres away. The water is filled with whale chatter: a mixture of bird-like chirping noises and bursts of sound similar to short-wave radio static. It is a surreal and moving experience.
Every summer about 3,000 belugas whales enter the Churchill River, which flows out of northern Manitoba, Canada, and into Hudson Bay. The animals travel to the relatively warm waters between June and August to feed, give birth and raise their young. I’ve come to the town of Churchill to see this wonder first-hand and to explore a place known for its eclecticism and quirkiness.
Churchill, Manitoba is Canada’s principal Arctic-area seaport, located on the western shore of Hudson Bay. This sub-Arctic hamlet, in which no road leads in or out, has a population of just 1,000 souls. It bills itself as both the beluga whale and polar bear capital of the world. If that isn’t enough, it’s also a self-described birdwatching paradise and the best place on the planet to view the aurora borealis, better known as the northern lights.
I shrugged off the easier option of flying into Churchill and opted instead to travel two days by train along the 1,700-kilometre route from Winnipeg. Sky-blanketed prairies and fields of yellow canola gave way to boggy, spruce-filled boreal forests and, later, to the balding, thawing, permafrost-laden tundra from which Churchill emerged like a northern mirage.
Churchill: Then and Now
I have a fascination with remote places. Because of that, I had always wanted to visit Churchill. I was even more determined to get there after seeing Peter Mettler’s 1994 film, Picture of Light. The National Film Board of Canada documentary, a poetic and philosophical meditation on Churchill and the northern lights, describes the town as “A meeting place of edges: ocean and land, Indian and Inuit, trees and tundra. The real north and the uncivilized south.”
The area has been home to Inuit and indigenous peoples for several thousand years, but Churchill’s roots lay in colonial Europe’s quest for empire and resources. The first foreigners arrived in the area when an ill-fated Danish expedition to find the Northwest Passage, led by Jens Muncks, wintered on the site of modern Churchill in 1619-20. Only three of the 69 expedition members, including Muncks, survived the bleak conditions and unexpectedly harsh winter. In 1717, England’s Hudson’s Bay Company built the first permanent settlement near the mouth of the Churchill River. This remote and battered outpost, manned by hardy overseas adventurers, was one of Britain’s largest fur trading stations in North America.
Today, the modern town is located across the river from those original settlements. It appears from the air like a tiny blip in a wide-open, pockmarked and elements-whipped terrain. Two cafe-restaurants, a community centre and a few bars, constitute the only gathering spots in town beyond the busy port facility. In summer, the town’s residents, half of whom have Indigenous ancestry (Inuit, Cree, Métis, Chipewyan), can be seen sauntering about on foot or on ATVs. The town exudes a haunting stillness, even during the day, owing not just to its small population, but to its ingrained demeanour of hibernation set in stone during the long winters.
After getting my bearings, I travel 20 kilometres east, along a lonely road running parallel with Hudson Bay, to a far-flung extension of the town. Situated at arm’s length from “downtown” is the Churchill Northern Studies Centre – a scientific field research station that provides sanctuary for students and academics specializing in Arctic and sub-Arctic research.
“This is one of the only properly equipped places on Earth where people can come and do field work at this latitude,” says Richard Bello, a professor of Climatology at York University in Toronto. “Subjects here range from climate change, to polar bears, to snow geese, to insects and plants. Anything and everything goes.”
It doesn’t take me long to figure out that Churchill, with its natural and cultural endowments, is far greater than the sum of its parts. It has a different face at different times of the year. And though one can’t experience all sides of Churchill without living there year-round, residents will gladly tell you all about the city in its various incarnations.
“In the winter, it’s about freezing your ass off and watching the northern lights,” says Lorne Burton, a Newfoundland native and port worker who moved to Churchill in 1984. “In spring you have the dog sled races. In summer, you get the belugas, the bugs and the wildflowers. And then in autumn, well, you get the bears.”
The Polar Bear Capital of the World
Churchill is located on the edge of one of the largest polar bear denning areas in the planet. That denning zone, in turn, is situated beside a place called “Gordon’s Point” – just east of Churchill. It’s at Gordon’s Point that winter ice on the western shore of Hudson Bay forms the earliest. From September to November, upwards of several hundred polar bears emerge from their denning areas and congregate along the bay’s shores waiting for the day when the ice can support their weight as they embark on their annual winter seal hunt.
For several weeks in autumn, gangs of tourists, photographers, journalists and nature enthusiasts descend on the town and pay top dollar to see the massive congregation of bears. Companies running fleets of giant ground vehicles with high outdoor viewing decks, called “Tundra Buggies” charge $400 per person to get up-close and personal with the bears. And a small constellation of otherwise sleepy motels with names such as Lazy Bear Lodge, Polar Bear B&B, Tundra Inn and Northern Lights Lodge come alive for the ritualistic observation.
Despite the variety of other draws and activities on offer in Churchill throughout the year, it is the polar bears that have come to define the town. This is so much the case that they’ve seeped into the collective psyche of its residents. Instead of making small talk about the weather, Churchillians chitchat about reputed bear sightings. Polar bear paraphernalia including stuffed bears, bear rugs, and bear statues and carvings punctuate the town at every juncture.
But in Churchill, the relationship between the planet’s top predators can often be an uneasy one. Beyond the spike in bear activity in the autumn, a few of the animals linger on the edges of town year-round, constituting a nuisance and, at times, even a threat. The stretch of coastline running along, and past Churchill is known as “Polar Bear Alley”. A series of signs along the waterfront warn the heedless that they be better off staying away. Conservation officers armed with guns and noise-maker projectiles called “bear-bangers” designed to scare off emboldened bears, are never far away. A so-called “polar bear jail”, located on the fringes of town, houses troublesome sub-adults during the off-winter season.
Just before my arrival, a traveller from Vancouver made the headlines after he wandered into Polar Bear Alley one morning and was chased – and nearly mauled – by an itinerant bear. Weeks later, the town was still abuzz from the rare close call. There was no lack of discussion among locals about the encounter, which they all condemned as foolish and preventable.
“Had the game wardens not shown up at the last minute, that guy would have been toast,” says Joe Stover, a port employee and musician. “The man claimed we told him he could walk there. There’s no way. Everybody here knows there’s bears out there, and that they’re hungry and looking for food.”
My curiosity is piqued. A few days later, I sign up for a hike along a stretch of Polar Bear Alley with Paul Ratson, a local nature guide and one of Churchill’s foremost polar bear security experts.
“Summer sucks for the bears,” says Ratson. “The animals are bored stupid. It’s hot, there’s no food and there’s just too many bugs.”
Ratson is a quintessential outdoorsman. He lives in semi-seclusion with his family and dogs on the edge of town, and has a rifle and pair of binoculars permanently attached to him. We go on a short walkabout of the area to see the variety and richness of tundra life at that time of year. Swarms of “bulldogs” – the local name for the large and aggressive species of biting horse flies (that can grow to the size of a person’s thumb) harangue us the moment we leave his vehicle. As we walk down to the rocky beach, ever careful to keep an eye out for bears, Ratson provides a crash-course on the countless plants, flowers and animal species that appear along our path: from Arctic daisies, to Reindeer lichen and a variety of ground-nesting birds.
Farther down the coast is a large shipwreck. The Ithaca is a British-flagged steamship that ran aground during a storm in 1960 and whose ghostly, hollow shell has been rusting in the shallows ever since. We arrive at the area at low-tide and are able to make our way to the wreck by walking through rocks and shallow pools of seawater left by the receding sea.
As we rest in the shadow of the giant freighter, I ask Ratson if he’s ever tempted to leave the tundra and start anew in another part of the Canadian wilderness.
“All other places are just too crowded for me,” he says. “I could never live anywhere else. There’s just too much freedom and space here. You can do whatever you want in Churchill with very few consequences.”
Maybe in view of a polar bear hidden somewhere behind us in the rocks, we pick up our things and start back in the direction of Churchill – that tiny community described by its denizens as “the biggest little town at the edge of the world.”
Planning Your Visit to Churchill, Manitoba:
Churchill has distinct seasons — the first thing to do when planning your trip is to figure out what you want to see or do. For example, polar bear season is generally October and November of each year, while whale season tends to take place between late June and August. There are no roads into Churchill, so your primary transportation is via air or rail. Air service to Churchill is available year-round.