Your flight began like any other. You departed from Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba. You flew over the city, smaller communities, and the vast prairie. Then you reached the tundra. The endless, barren tundra. You shivered from high above. You worried when the descent started. Finally, a few buildings and then a small town came into view. Welcome to the middle of nowhere.
Churchill is a remote town in Canada. It’s on the western shore of Hudson Bay. There are no roads into Churchill; trains, airplanes, and—depending on the time of year—boats are the only way in and out. The waterfront is lined with terminals filled with prairie grain bound for Europe. So why would you ever want to visit Churchill? Because it’s also considered the polar bear capital of the world.
The massive, whitish bears live on the tundra and hunt for ringed seals that live in Hudson Bay. Wapusk National Park, southeast of Churchill, was created to protect the declining population. The bears are playful, fearless, and completely unpredictable. This is not an area to explore on your own. This is a place where locals leave their cars unlocked, just in case. Instead, join a tundra buggy tour. The big, weather-proof vehicles let you safely watch—and photograph—the bears up close. That’s right, up close. Your heart pounds when the first polar bear presses his nose against the glass. It beats even faster when another joins it.
Polar bears might be the purpose and the most exciting part of your visit, but they aren’t the only animals to see. If you can take your eyes off them for a second on the tundra buggy, you might see caribou, a fox, and even a Snowy Owl in the distance. Beluga whales gather at the mouth of the Churchill River to calve in warmer months. You can snorkel with them, if you don’t mind very chilly water. And rare Ross’s Gulls, Gyrfalcons, and Tundra Swans make this an exciting area even for people who don’t consider themselves birders.
Combine a whale-watching trip with a tour of the Prince of Wales Fort. The British built the star-shaped fort in the early 18th century. They surrendered to the advancing French in the late 18th century. And it now has an amazing view over the bay, the town, and the tundra. Visit the Eskimo Museum to see Inuit carvings, a stuffed muskox, and big harpoon blades. See the lone cannon still standing on Cape Merry. Try local cuisine—Arctic char and Manitoba pickerel—at Gypsy’s Bakery & Restaurant. And make plans to ride the tundra buggy again before you leave. You may never have the chance to see polar bears up close like this again.