When Churchill, Manitoba is name dropped, most people automatically think of icy Arctic winters and polar bears—after all, Churchill is considered the Polar Bear Capital of the World. But those in the know are aware that one of Churchill’s secrets is that it comes absolutely alive in the summer when the tundra turns a verdant green, colorful wildflowers begin to pop up everywhere, animals such as caribou and ptarmigan gather in great herds and flocks, and the quirky belugas return in droves for their summer feasting.
Churchill for most of the year is frozen, still and dark, but summertime is blessed with long days and much more friendly temperatures (expect temps in the 50s or 60s). These summertime conditions open up a wide array of Arctic activities. Here are a few of our not-to-miss favorites:
Listen to the belugas by hydrophone
Belugas are delightfully vocal whales that love to “talk” to each other—squeaking, trilling, mooing, clicking and whistling, inspiring whalers of times past to nickname them “sea canary”. The belugas use these sounds to express an ample variety of emotions within their pods and the animal is thought to possess the most advanced and diverse sonar system of all cetaceans. The Hudson Bay population can number more than 50,000 during migration season, and more than 3,000 of these amiable alabaster-white whales congregate at the mouth of the Churchill River every summer. So while their vast numbers make them easy to spot, getting the chance to listen to them by hydrophone takes the interaction to the next level. Most boat excursions don’t offer the opportunity to listen in, so make sure to choose a trip itinerary that does.
Kayak with the Pod
When the tides are right, it is possible to kayak among the belugas, giving nature lovers the very memorable chance for an up-close encounter at pretty much eye-level with them. These whales are unique in that they have seven unfused vertebrae in their neck, giving them the ability to turn their heads from side to side. They often seem to display the same level of curiosity about their human visitors as we have for them—they have even been known to interact with the kayak and paddle for fun. Kayakers often express that in their time in the water, they felt as one with the pod.
Be mesmerized by the northern lights
Churchill happens to be one of the best places on Earth to see the aurora borealis thanks to its location directly beneath the Van Allen Belt, a layer of energy-charged particles. Originating in solar flares, these particles are carried by solar wind and become trapped in Earth’s magnetic field where they then create colorful northern lights shows. Although there is auroral activity occurring over 300 nights a year in Churchill, the best time in the summer to witness this majesty is as the days shorten toward summer’s end. The dancing green and yellow ribbons of the northern lights are so bright in Churchill that they are visible during any phase of the moon.
Interact with local residents to learn more about the culture
A good place to start is at Churchill’s Itsanitaq Museum where visitors can educate themselves on the region’s Indigenous cultures with artifacts collected from many centuries. Lucky guests to Churchill may have a chance to meet elders of the First Nations, Inuit and Metis groups for insight into their cultural traditions and daily lives, offering a window into the cultures that have managed to thrive in this harsh environment for thousands of years. These storytellers are some of the last in their communities, so it is quite the honor for travelers to be able to be on the receiving end of their knowledge. Another way to connect with the regional culture is to meet a local dog sled musher and spend time with the affectionate dogs that are an intrinsic part of life on the tundra. Scientists can also give valuable insights into the Arctic environment, social issues and sustainable resource development within this extreme landscape—the Northern Studies Center is where many of them base their work.
Spot the famous polar bears on a scenic helicopter flight over the tundra and taiga forest
By helicopter is by far the best way to see some of the more isolated and roadless parts of the Arctic, and often gives passengers a chance to spot more polar bears than they otherwise could. The helicopter pilots are very careful not to disturb the polar bears—if they feel as though their presence is bothersome to the bears for any reason, they leave. But the grand majority of the time, the bears seem completely unconcerned by the air visit. Depending on conditions, the pilot may fly over the islands off Cape Merry and Prince of Wales’ Fort, or even fly over the wreck of the M/V Ithaca, located 10 miles east of Churchill on the western tip of Bird Cove. This was a nickel ore-carrying ship that ran aground in the 1960s during a storm.
Safari by Polar Rover in search of northern terrestrial wildlife
The belugas and polar bears are not the only stars of the show around these parts. For those with an interest in seeing caribou, Arctic and red fox, Arctic hare, snowy owl, ptarmigan and 200 migratory bird species, traversing the Arctic tundra on a highly specialized Polar Rover is a fun and memorable way to spot these animals. In the summer months, it is not uncommon to be able to observe mommas with their new babies in tow. The Churchill area also has plenty of walking trails that meander the border of the northern boreal forest and southern tundra edge, with ecosystems that are home to a surprisingly large variety of flora as well.
Enjoy a Zodiac excursion among the beluga whales
During July and August, the amiable beluga whales migrate from their spring breeding grounds and more than 3,000 of them gather at the mouth of the Churchill River. There’s ample food here and it’s a very safe place to birth their young. In addition, the stone bottom of the river exfoliates their skin and sloughs off old layers. They don’t just come to eat, they come to feast—eating up to 50 pounds a day of a combination of herring, flounder, salmon, shrimp, mollusks, octopus, squid, snails, crab and an array of bottom-dwelling organisms. They use their excellent echolocation skills to be able to locate prey and they can dive for up to five minutes to feed. Using a private motorized raft, small groups of no more than seven passengers per boat can have clear views and convenient photography access to these active and captivating animals.