Churchill, Manitoba, Canada — We were standing in line waiting to pay for an order of poutine when the guy behind the counter at Gypsy’s turned to my teenage daughter and said, “Do me a favor.” Before she could respond, he handed her his cell phone. “When they answer, tell them their order is ready,” and without hesitation, he headed to the dining room to deliver food.
With a perplexed look on her face, she handed me the little plastic red number we were instructed to place on our table, and delivered the message as I paid for dinner.
That’s the kind of small town Churchill is. Located in the far north of Canada’s Manitoba province, where the Hudson Bay and Churchill River come together, Churchill has a population of about 900. Everyone knows everyone. And bets are, it’s a tough place to keep a secret.
Just a couple hours earlier we’d stood in front of what’s allegedly the world’s one and only polar bear jail. The colorful polar bear mural that covers its façade gives the spot a certain gee whiz factor for visitors, but bear safety is taken very seriously here. Signs for the Polar Bear Alert Program hang in just about every window in town. Bears that wander in are chased out with bear bangers, that deliver the noise of a firework, but not the fanfare. Those still not convinced to stay away, wind up in Polar Bear Jail for 30 days, before being relocated by helicopter. Boasting 100 percent percent vacancy the day of my visit, my guide and the driver both had a rifle within hand’s reach, in case of any unexpected guests.
At 58 degrees north, the town of Churchill is for all intents and purposes, the accessible arctic. Rough around the edges, it looks like it has seen better days, but in actuality, probably not. Beauty here isn’t about houses with manicured gardens, and fancy city buildings. It’s found in the sight of beluga whales bobbing gracefully in Hudson Bay or the chance of spotting a polar bear keeping cool by the coast.
During summer the weather (and the forecast) has a knack for changing. A day of temperatures well into the 80s can be followed by another that struggles to hit 50. Clouds come and go. How fast, depends on the wind. Daylight dominates the sky, with the sun rising on some days as early as 4 a.m. and lingering until half past 10 p.m. Even if you’re the type who sleeps with the window open, you’ll no doubt catch more winks if you pull the curtains.
Along with a handful of hotels, Churchill boasts four restaurants, three bars, one supermarket and one gas station. There are no roads into town. To get here, visitors have to catch a flight, typically from Winnipeg. The train used to roll into town a few days a week, but sections of the tracks were damaged by winter flooding, bringing rail service to a halt and causing a number of would-be visitors to cancel travel plans. Frontiers North Adventures, a family business operating for more than three decades, organizes family-friendly, Churchill itineraries, making a trip less daunting to the average traveler.
“It’s always polar bear season around here,” warned the driver during the seven-minute trip from the airport into town. “Don’t wander off in places you shouldn’t. Don’t take a chance.”
I awoke early the next morning to the sound of popping bear bangers not so far off in the distance. Reminder received.
On the edge of town, alongside the quiet port we boarded a zodiac headed out on the waters of the Churchill River Estuary in search of beluga whales. It was a gray day; the number of layers we had piled on, combined with bulky, glowing-orange life jackets prevented any type of agile movement. The last of a handful of boats headed out with the same purpose. We lagged behind a bit. There was no reason to rush. Calm seas made a scattered number of white whales easy to spot as they popped up here and there.
As we puttered into the estuary toward Cockles Point, the scenery started to change. More and more white overpowered gray-green brackish water. It was as if the whales were throwing a party and we’d been invited in. Feeding pods moved in unison. A mother with a calf just days old lingered close to the surface, busy helping her young one learn how to move and breathe in the water.
Deciding which way to look was a hard choice to make, but with belugas in every direction, there was no way to go wrong. In the back of the boat I watched whales playing in the wake of the enclosed propeller, until something up front caught my eye. It was my daughter standing tall with her phone up in the air, sharing the moment with friends thousands of miles away.
Modern reminders mix seamlessly with the remoteness. Cell phones, even those in visitors’ pockets boast remarkably strong signals. Wi-Fi is a given in hotels and even some restaurants. The menu at the Tundra Inn Dining Room offers area specialties including Wild Boar Bangers & Mash, Elk Meatloaf, and Summer Arctic Char. One of only four restaurants in town, Pizza Night Fridays attract a crowd of locals and visitors alike, chatting about whales and polar bears between slices and beers.
Cars in and around town are often left unlocked and can be used in the event of an unexpected polar bear encounter. Yet as the self-proclaimed “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” it is encounters with polar bears that visitors come hoping for. The Western Hudson Bay population of polar bears is estimated to be 1,000 strong, outnumbering the humans that call Churchill home. But seeing a polar is hit or miss in summer months. It often takes time, patience, and most of all, luck.
Guided activities are a must for protection and for success — the more you join in, the better the odds. Whale watching excursions sometimes spot polar bears along the coast, but after days of success our trip falls during a dry spell. Same goes for the Parks Canada interpretive walk of Fort Prince of Wales, although the bear guards were not shy about making their presence known. Polar Bear Alley was also a bust, though the beach walk with two armed men may make for good fodder someday when sitting at a bar.
On our last day we held out hope for our ride on the Tundra Buggy. A cross between a school bus and a monster truck, the bright white all-terrain vehicle rumbles across the tundra in search of polar bears and other arctic wildlife. We’d been bumping along trails in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area for about an hour, trying to get excited about herring gulls and Canada geese, when our driver and guide Brendan paused and picked up his binoculars. Our untrained eyes would have never seen it, lumbering about, but with a little direction its girth came into fuzzy focus. We stopped for a moment so folks with behemoth camera lenses could snap a shot, before crawling on in hopes of getting a closer look.
Fortunate for us, our guy’s morning agenda called for nothing more than an attempt at a nap. He slumped to a spot on the ground in between bushes. If we hadn’t known he was there, we might have rolled right by, but instead we parked on the trail. If privacy was his goal, he chose poorly. Wispy branches couldn’t block the view as he (almost playfully) rolled on his back, and stretched out his paws. We watched, mesmerized, as he batted bugs away from his muzzle. Every now and then he’d rise up, and lift his head high, looking and smelling with mouth wide open, exposing those sharp pearly whites, as if to tell us he knew we were there. But as quickly as he rose up, he’d flop back down. Every now and then he’d take a few steps.
As a caribou wandered onto the scene, we held our breath. Unaware of the fidgeting giant in the bushes, he moved closer. With both animals in frame, my gut told me to put the camera down. What came next might not be pretty. The caribou came and went, seemingly unaware of whose path he’d crossed. The polar bear, still trying to snooze in the shrubbery, stretched again in effort to get comfortable. It struck me how his moves weren’t much different than the greyhound waiting for me at home. Well, maybe a little different.