The Ultimate Guide to Polar Bear Tours and Things to do in Churchill Manitoba

Situated on the remote western shore of Hudson Bay in Canada’s subarctic, is Churchill, population 900, give or take.

It’s a quiet town in the province of Manitoba, surrounded by hundreds of miles of rugged wilderness. The only way to get there is from Winnipeg by plane or endure a 40-hour train ride.

Why should you care about this remote hole-in-the-wall hamlet? Because it’s home to a trio of extraordinary natural events: The polar bear migration, the beluga whale migration, and the inimitable Northern Lights! Not to mention rugged coastal and tundra landscapes, a dense boreal forest, and in the summer, fields of colorful wildflowers. And while the bears and belugas get most of the attention, they are from the only impressive wildlife to be found. Moose, caribou, wolves, red and arctic foxes, are just a few worth mentioning as are the numerous species of birds driving birders wild.

The New York Times named Churchill one of its “52 Places to Go in 2020.”

Not bad for a blip on the radar. 

The Best Way to Experience Churchill 

The easiest way to experience Churchill is to work with a single tour operator offering multi-day tours where expert expedition leaders, naturalists, activities, accommodations, transportation, and logistics are included. It’s not a destination where you can easily wing it.

A view down Kelsey Blvd in Churchill, Manitoba
A look down Kelsey Boulevard, Churchill’s main street. | Photo: Travel Manitoba

Tour guests have priority when numbers are limited. However, if you must to do it all yourself, some companies provide activities a la carte. But book far in advance, otherwise, you’ll be out of luck. 

For all the cool things you can do in Churchill, see below for a guide to the major tour operators (comparing and contrasting) who’ll make all your subarctic dreams come true.

But first, a little context.

A (very) Brief History

In the 1700s, Churchill was a hub for the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company at a time when the fur trade was big business. In the early 1900s, it became a prairie port, resulting in the construction of the Hudson Bay Railroad and the city’s international harbor.  

Churchill became a United States military base (very little of it remains) in 1942 as part of an overseas operation to Europe in WWll, catapulting the population to nearly 7,000. When it closed in1980, it was a Canadian / United States sponsored training and test center.  

Today, nature-based tourism and government positions are the town’s primary enterprises. 



What to do in Churchill 

Below is an overview of the area’s cornerstone pursuits. In the following section entitled Tour Operators, I go over their options and highlight how they differ.

Churchill’s Polar Bear Viewing  

(Season: July – Nov: )

Churchill is one of the best destinations in the world for the Ursus maritimus––a.k.a. polar bears––viewing for good reason; it’s smack dab in the middle of their migration route. Hence the reason the city is often referred to as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.”

The simplest explanation for why the polar bear population has bequeathed this favored status upon the region is simple, the brackish water where the Churchill River feeds into the bay freezes first. The ice floe makes it possible for the bears to hunt seals, and after months of fasting on land, the sooner they eat, the better. Other contributors have to do with counterclockwise currents, the surrounding topography, and icebergs floating down from the North, but essentially, it comes down to early Arctic ice.

A polar bear nurses a cub near Churchill Manitoba
A momma bear nurses a cub. Taken from the Sam Hearne while on Lazy Bear Expedition’s “Coastal Tour”

From June through August, the bears are inland and more challenging to see. They are most visible in October and November when they march toward the coast and is peak season.

Remember, though I state the obvious, please be careful. Male polar bears can weigh up to 1300 lbs and stand 10 feet tall (female polar bears are smaller but still huge compared to a human), and they have no problem attacking humans without warning––they are stealthy predators. They’re also fast. Really fast. Can outrun you fast. Under no circumstances should you try to locate bears on your own. 

Beluga Whale Migration

(June – September) 

In June, over 60,000 belugas swim south from the Arctic Ocean to western Hudson Bay with nearly 3000 venturings into the Churchill River to feed and give birth. From shore, you can see the curved white backs of the belugas against the water in almost every direction. 

(Check out this GoPro video I took while AquaGliding with belugas in full song. It also gives you an idea of just how close they come.)

Belugas are exceptionally curious and they approach vessels, not the other way around, sometimes within inches of the hull. They swim toward you like bright white torpedos. It’s crazy! And not just one or two, we’re talking 5, 6, 10, 20!

They don’t stay long––it’s more a slow drive-by, but they come in waves (pun intended). Now and then, they’ll hang out for a while. 

No matter when you see them, keep your ears open. Belugas aren’t called the “Canaries of the Sea” for nothing. Tours drop in hydrophones to help with the concert but as often as not you can hear it without one. Get ready for whistles, pops, clicks, monkey noises, and other sounds I can’t begin to describe. 

The Northern Lights 

(High Season February Through March)

Northern Lights | Insatiable Traveler Year -end review 2017-Seal River Heritage Lodge-Manitoba -832702

The ethereal beauty of the Northern Lights is an unforgettable experience. Churchill lies beneath the Auroral Oval, meaning the lights are year-round (approximately 300 days a year), though, in spring and summer, long, bright days in the subarctic make them harder to see. But it’s the elusive nature of the phenomenon that makes it so special–right? February and March are the ideal months to see the Aurora. In winter, it’s darker sooner, increasing the chance of a sighting. 

Birding

(Mid June – Mid July) 

Bird Nerds will appreciate Churchill’s over 250 species of birds that fly through or nest year-round. The Hudson Bay lowlands are ripe with bugs in summer, attracting birds of all kinds. Male eider ducks, mergansers, and northern pintails sport mating plumages. Other birds include falcons, tundra swans, bald eagles, Ross’s Gull, Northern Hawk Owl, Smith’s Longspur, Spruce Grouse, Three-Toed Woodpecker, Yellow Rail, and Harris’s Sparrow.

Zodiac / Boat / Kayaking Tours

(Mid June – August/beginning of Sept )

Boating for boating’s sake is always fun, here they’re mainly used to observe migrating belugas or as a means of transport to historical sites across the river.

Getting the Kayaks ready in Churchill

Dogsledding /Dogcarting

(October – November)/ (June – September) respectively

Dog carting in July with BlueSky Expeditions
Dog carting in July with BlueSky Expeditions during a Lazy Bear Adventure

Just what you’d imagine, gliding through the snow with a team of beautiful huskies leading the way. The Churchill region is dog-mushing nirvana. Trained guides are the pilots while guests are warm and snug in the sled. In months without snow, a customized sleigh has wheels. 

Helicopter Flight-seeing

(June – November)

Frontier's North Heli-tour looking down at beluga whales in the Churchill River
Photo: Wandering Wagars

What’s the next best thing to seeing polar bears from the ground? Observing them from the air. Helicopter flight-seeing tours make it easy to cover large distances to locate those pesky white fuzzballs who haven’t made their way to the coast. Of course, you may also see wolves, foxes, moose, beluga whales (depending on when you go), as well. Plus, nothing beats a birds-eye view of the landscape below. 

Shop the Arctic Trading Company 

(Year-Round)

Mukluks at the Arctic Trading Post
Photo: Travel Manitoba

Be prepared to spend a nice chunk of time in this store. Even if you don’t buy anything, there are so many things to see. Besides the souvenirs you might expect, like printed t-shirts and hoodies, there’s cold-weather gear, and an eclectic mix of merchandise bound to keep you entertained. You’ll find jewelry, body products, knickknacks, and Eskimo carvings, to name a few. Their specialty is traditionally handmade moccasins and mukluks. They also host dreamcatcher and beading workshops. 

Visit Miss Piggy 

(Year-Round) 

No, not the lovable Muppet. I’m talking a Curtiss C-46 Commando cargo aircraft that crash-landed atop a hill of grey-wacky. 

Shortly after take-off on November 3, 1979, the ill-fated plane experienced a drop in oil pressure forcing the pilot to turn around and head back to the airport. They made it within 1/4 mile of the runway before it went down. The crew of three was injured but survived. 

Miss Piggy plane crash in Churchill, Manitoba
Miss Piggy

Named Miss Piggy because of the enormous loads she used to carry, she’s still intact (mostly). How she didn’t blow up or completely break apart after hitting the rocks is beyond me. 

Today, the C-46 has become a bit of an art project with murals and graffiti covering most of the fuselage. It’s fascinating to walk in and around the wreck, though be careful of sharp edges and check the stability of the area you want to examine before stepping — especially the wings. I’m not exactly sure why a plane crash is a tourist attraction, but I admit, it’s kind of cool. 

Explore the Itsanitaq Museum 

 (Year-Round. Limited hours during the Winter)

This one-room museum is small but packed with interesting artifacts from the indigenous people (Pre Dorset, Dorset, Thule, and Inuit) who lived in the region from 3000 through 1000 BC to the present. You’ll also find class-encased taxidermied animals: a 1500 pound walrus, an 800-pound polar bear, a 1200-pound Muskox, and an arctic fox. If you’re looking for books on the area or wildlife, there’s a great book section.

Stuffed polar bear inside the Itsanitaq Museum  in Churchell
Inside the Itsanitaq Museum

You’ll also find, fossils, a 1200-year-old bone, sewing needles, sacred carved totems, authentic handmade kayaks, ancient weapons, a very cool narwhal tusk, even a chair from the Ronald Amundsen, the first vessel to sail the Northwest Passage in both directions at the turn of the 20th century. 

Visit the New PBI House

Opened in October 2019 for its first season, PBI House is Polar Bears International’s new interpretive center.

Visitors learn about polar bears, ongoing research, and the effects of climate change and what needs to be done to combat it. It also hosts visiting scientists and has the technology to provide broadcast venues for media.

It’s open to the public and tours are available. (On the website, check out the Northern Lights Live Cam and the organization’s cool bear tracker). You’ll also find out how to support PBI and the various ways you can “adopt” a polar bear.

Check out the Parks Canada Visitor Center

(Year-Round)

Housed within the rail station, the visitor center focuses on the history of the area from both a human and ecological (flora and fauna) perspective with a presentation entitled “Our Land, Our Stories,” along with other interactive and interpretive exhibits. Don’t miss the life-sized diorama with a stuffed mother polar bear and her cubs nestled in their den. 

Parks Canada Visitors Center in Churchill
Parks Canada Visitors Center

The visitor’s center also has programs led by First Nations interpreters ( fifty percent of the local community consists of Cree, Dené, and Inuit) who discuss the unique heritage of the region’s indigenous cultures. 

Polar Bear Holding Facility (A.K.A. The Polar Bear Jail)

(Year-Round ) 

As you might expect, Churchill is on the lookout for bears 24/7, but the locals are particularly vigil August through November during the migration. Enter the Polar Bear Alert Program, according to a sign in town it’s “The only known program in existence developed to protect both human life and property, and the lives and welfare of polar bears.” 

When a bear is spotted, the first response is to try and scare the bears away using noisemakers, but for tenacious souls who keep returning, they are humanely trapped and taken to the holding facility, or as the locals call it, polar bear jail. Inside are five air-conditioned cells, and a single, heated cell for orphaned cubs. 

View of the Polar Bear Holding Facility in Churchill
Polar Bear Holding Facility

The inmates stay for 30 days or so––just enough time for them to become so desperately bored they reconsider returning. At the end of their incarceration, they are released miles away by truck and freed. Sometimes, if necessary, they’re airlifted out by helicopter. 

You can’t see inside the jail, but on the exterior is a giant mural painted by the renowned artist Kal Barteski. On the perimeter of the facility, are some of the traps they use to capture ill-mannered visitors. 

Tour the Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site

(July – August) 

On the far side of the Churchill River, built on a desolate patch of Tundra, are the restored remains of the 18th century Prince of Wales Fort, a multi-level, fur trade fortress built by the Hudson Bay Company between 1731 – 1771. Remnants of the old barracks, courtyard, cobblestone paving, and some internal structures are present in addition to the stone parapets and many of the original cannons.

Prince of Whales Fort in Churchill
Prince of Wales Fort

In 1782, the French seized the fort, destroying most of it; however, Parks Canada has lovingly reconstructed it to its current state. Fort guides provide an interpretation of the structure’s days of old.

MV Ithaca Hike

(June – August)

In September of 1960, the oil freighter Ithaca ran aground n Bird Cove 12 miles east of Churchill. During 80 mph winds, the ship’s rudder cracked, the engine lost power, and when the anchor didn’t hold it ran aground. Today the Ithaca, rusted and abandoned, remains. For those who love such things (as I do) you can check it out at low tide.

Town Center Complex 

(Year-Round)

A gymnasium at the Town Center in Churchill Manitoba
The gymnasium at the Town Center | Photo: Travel Manitoba

In the cavernous town center, there’s an assortment of activities and services under one roof. Visitors can access the facility as a walk-in as well as participate in a variety of scheduled programming. The complex includes a “Health center, high school, swimming pool, indoor playground, curling rink, hockey arena, gymnasium, and fitness center. “

Stop at the Post Office 

(Year-Round)

I know the post office isn’t typically a vacation stop, but if you’d like to get your passport stamped with an unofficial Churchill polar bear logo, that’s where it’ll be.  

Look for the Alert Program’s Weekly Activity Report hanging on the wall. Details on subjects such as bear occurrences for the week, to date, polar bears flown out directly, the number of bears in jail, and so on is noteworthy. 


Tour Operators 

The three leading outfitters providing multi-day tours are

Lazy Bear Expeditions is a family-owned business based in Churchill, Frontiers North Adventures, also family-owned is headquartered in Winnipeg with an office in Churchill. Natural Habitat Adventures is in Boulder.

All three have excellent reputations, and while they all offer many of the same excursions listed above, they each have their own take and sensibility. Only you know what is the best fit for your budget and vision.

Lazy Bear and Frontieres North, also offer limited day tours.

(Note: My only firsthand experience is with Lazy Bear Expeditions as an invited guest on the “Ultimate Arctic Summer Adventure.”)

Features They All Share

Tundra Vehicles and Viewing

All three companies use customized Tundra vehicles for daytime bear and wildlife viewing. They each call them different names (Tundra Buggy for Frontiers North, Lazy Bear’s Arctic Crawler and the Polar Rover Nat Habi uses in partnership with the local outfitter Great White Bear Tours). 

Fundamentally, they are all heavy-duty, wide, bus-like vehicles with an attached deck outside. They have enormous monster tires for the terrain and offer viewing opportunities both inside and out. 

Naturalists and Expedition Leaders

Trained naturalists and expedition leaders are with guests throughout the trip, except for some Frontiers North’s itineraries that don’t provide a 24/7 escort on excursions.

On the more cerebral side: Frontiers North and Nat Hab programs invite experts from Polar Bears International for guest lectures.

Culture and Heritage Integration

Churchill’s culture and heritage are woven into every program in some manner. Most include a town tour to multiple sites such as Miss Piggy and the Polar Bear Jail which don’t have a lot of activity but are worth a few moments and interpretation.

The degree to which the town sites, indigenous history, and heritage are included depends on the tour.

Dog Sledding / Carting

As with the other activities, and depending on the season, each company provides dog sledding in the winter or carting in the summer via local mushing companies, depending on the itinerary.

Heli-tours

There are two local companies used by the operators. A couple of itineraries include flightseeing, others offer it as an add-on for an additional fee.


Please Read

So as not to be overly repetitive when describing the tours offered, I’m cherry-picking highlights and attributes that make the itinerary stand out. I don’t want to regurgitate everything here. If the title of the package or aspects I call out spark some interest, please click through to review the entire information.


Lazy Bear Expeditions 

There are three itineraries on Lazy Bear’s roster.

Where You Stay

All of Lazy Bear Expeditions tours use the Lazy Bear Lodge as a home base. The 33-room rustic lodge was built by hand using reclaimed wood from the boreal forest and recycled glass from the 19th-century Hudson Bay Trading Post. 

The cafe of the same name is at one end and features an enormous 20,000 pound stone fireplace. It’s is one of the most popular haunts for travelers and locals alike. (Note: they don’t serve alcohol but do serve local game.)

A small gift shop sells fleeces and other cold-weather clothing as well as souvenir-type trinkets. 

The lodge also provides free wi-fi and high-speed internet.

Two women eating inside the Lazy Bear Cafe
The Lazy Bear Cafe

Highlights and Differences

AquaGliding (3 hours) 

This is an add-on activity which costs extra. It’s available as early as June as a complement to a multi-day package or by itself.

Lazy Bear AguaGliding
Me AquaGliding | Photo: Jason Ransom

Snorkeling with whales is now illegal in Canada, so Lazy Bear owner Wally Daudich came up with Aquagliding. Guests wearing dry or wet suits (your choice) and full-face snorkels, sit or lay (2-3 at a time) on a thick sponge mat while being slowly towed by a zodiac. When the belugas appear, and they will, the snorkel enables you to put your face in the water and view them clearly. They come so close you could touch them, but don’t, that’s against the rules. My story Don’t Miss Churchill’s Astonishing Beluga Whale Migration details my experience with photos and video. In short, it was one of the most exciting afternoons of my life. 

Coastal Tour  

Lazy Bear’s the Sam Hearne Coastal Tour

A half-day voyage on the Sam Hearne, the company’s custom vessel, named after the governor of the Prince of Wales Fort in the 1700s. The Coastal Tour is a combo cruising slash beluga observation slash wildlife scouting slash hiking excursion (weather permitting). The Sam Hearne is the only boat certified to take tourists into Hudson Bay where bears and other animals are often spotted along the coastline.

In case you’re wondering, yep it’s very chilly on the water, Lazy Bear, however, provides Arctic survival jumpsuits that zip over your clothes.

Tours

Ultimate Arctic Summer Adventure

(6 Nights; July – August )

A little bit of everything from wildlife viewing and beluga observation, tundra tour, Sam Hearne Coastal Tour, to dog mushing, and cultural highlights.

Colors and Lights Arctic Adventure

(5 Nights; August – November)

This too has a little bit of everything from wildlife viewing, tundra tour, and dog mushing, to cultural highlights. A heli-tour is included in this departure.

Ultimate Polar Bear Adventure

(5-Nights; October – November)

Exploring for polar bears and other wildlife aboard the Arctic Crawler on two days as well as dog mushing and cultural highlights. If the skies are clear you’ll likely see the Aurora too.

Beluga Whale Dream Tour

(2-Nights, June)

A quick trip with a Heritage Tour, a boat ride to see the beluga migration, and a visit to the Prince of Wales Fort.


Things you should know

  • Kayaking and Aquagliding are extra
  • Shuttle service to and from the airport in Churchill
  • First and last night are in Winnipeg 
  • Tour dates are fixed and based on double occupancy
  • Rates are in Canadian dollars  
  • Packages include round trip flights from Winnipeg to Churchill (could be commercial or charter)
  • If you’re a solo traveler you’ll have to pay a single supplement
  • A few meals are included
  • Flights to and from Winnipeg, are not included.
  • Tips are not included.

Frontiers North Adventures

Polar Bears playing in front of Frontiers North's Tundra Buggy Lodge
Frontiers North Tundra Buggy Lodge | Photo: Simon Gee

Frontiers North has 16 Churchill itineraries to choose from. 

Where You Stay

Frontiers North works with one of Churchill’s local hotels, or in winter, guests may stay in the company’s “Tundra Buggy Lodge” or a combination of the two.

Frontiers-North-Adventures Tundra Buggy Lodge Berths
The sleeping births inside the Tundra Buggy Lodge | Photo: Eric Lindberg

The Tundra Buggy Lodge is a wide, train-like accommodation that holds 40 passengers, and set in the wilderness away from the city. It features shared sleeping berths, a lounge, dining hall, and staff quarters. A rooftop observation deck is ideal for gazing at the Northern Lights.

Highlights and Differences

Dan’s Diner Remote Culinary Adventure 

(February 28 – March 8, 2020) 

A couple of years ago, Frontiers North introduced Dan’s Diner touted as a “Remote culinary adventure like no other,” and from the description, it sounds like they’re right. After a Tundra Buggy ride across the frozen river, you’ll find a secluded, glass-enclosed pop-up restaurant within the Thanadelthur Lounge. Inside, a private chef serves a multi-course dinner while the Northern Lights (assuming the clouds play nice) dance overhead. 

Frontiers-North-Adventures
Photo: Abby Metheson

You can indulge in this subarctic foodie fairy tale as a stand-alone (no flights or accommodations included); as part of a “Getaway” package (includes round-trip flights between Winnipeg and Churchill, one night at a Churchill hotel), and as part of the Northern Lights and Winter Nights Enthusiast tour (see below.)  

Wapusk National Park

(November) 

Offered once a year, “Polar Bears at Legendary Cape Churchill ” takes place in neighboring Wapusk National Park where Frontiers North is the only company licensed to host visitors. 

Thanadelthur Lounge 

A heated viewing station far away from city lights with skylights and panoramic windows framing the Aurora Borealis above. 

Frontiers-North-Adventures Thanadelthur Lounge
Thanadelthur Lounge  | Photo: Mike Gere

An Exclusive Relationship with Polar Bears International (PBI) to Provide Experts in the Field

“Certain itineraries are joined by a PBI Ambassador, species expert or scientist at some stage of the tour.” The Tundra Buggy Lodge is used by PBI as a field office meaning guests staying there have access to the researchers while in the field.

Frontiers North also created Tundra Buggy One––a mobile broadcast and research center––created for PBI’s use. It’s used by scientists to study bears and broadcast life video and webcasts called Tundra Connections which are free to the public and made possible by Frontiers North and Explore.org.

They are the only company able to offer access to PBI staff in the field.

Photography

Specific departures cater to the needs of the photography enthusiast. Typically led by a well-known photographer.

Paddleboarding

In addition to boats and kayaks, Frontiers North adds paddleboarding to your choices for Beluga encounters. 

Snowshoe Trekking

Frontiers North Snowshoeing
Photo: Jessica Burtnick

The classic winter sport escorted by an interpretive guide. (Not all departures)

Train

A couple of trips listed as “VIA Rail” add two days winding through Saskatchewan and Manitoba before arriving in Churchill.

Riding Mountain National Park

This departure adds Riding Mountain National Park to the schedule before heading to Churchill.

Tours

Frontiers North photo of a polar bear on the coast of the Churchill River
Photo: Zhang-Yongpeng

Adventure(r) vs Enthusiast

Packages listed as “Adventure(r)” are the most economical options. Groups are larger (40 max) and activities are unescorted by an interpretive guide. “Enthusiast” tours are smaller (22 max) and include an interpretive guide to accompany guests throughout their stay. 

Summer Family Adventure  |Autumn Family Adventure 

(Jul-Aug: 5 days) | (Oct: 5 days)

This program includes family-friendly activities with programming geared towards children 12 and under, as well as adults. The week incorporates contributions from Parks Canada and Canadian Junior Rangers, plus opportunities for citizen science with help from Polar Bears International. 

Frontiers North Beluga whale watching
Photo: Zhang Yongpeng

Belugas, Bears, and Blooms Adventurer or Enthusiast

(July-Aug; 6 days)

Tundra buggy ride, beluga watching, cultural highlights, colorful tundra, and the possibility of seeing bears.

Churchill Town and Tundra Adventurer or Enthusiast

(Oct; 6-days)

More free time to explore the town paired with two full days on the Tundra Buggy searching for bears and other wildlife.

Churchill Town and Tundra VIA Rail Enthusiast 

(Oct – Nov; 8-days) 

This adventure adds a two-night train journey through the wilds of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Northern Lights and Winter Nights Enthusiast and VIA Rail

(Feb-March; 8-days) 

Frontiers North Adventures
Photo: Mike Gere

A mixed activity agenda with town exploration and an evening at Dan’s Diner. The trip focuses on the Northern Lights with one night at the Thanadelthur Lounge. In Winnipeg, a special presentation of “Inuit: People of the North” at the Manitoba Planetarium will keep you entertained. There’s also an introductory workshop on photographing the Aurora Borealis. 

Tundra Buggy Lodge Enthusiast 

(Oct – Nov; 7-Day)

Days spent on the Tundra Buggy, nights in the Tundra Buggy Lodge in the wild, dog sledding and cultural highlights.

Tundra Buggy Lodge Specialist 

(Oct – Nov; 8-days)

Same as above, but emphasizing photography with extended tundra stays and “plenty of photo opportunities.” 

Conservation Journey: Beluga Whales

(July-Aug; 6-days) 

Experience the Churchill River with whale researcher and ocean scientist, Valeria Vergara.

Beluga Whale underwater

“See firsthand the work that is being done and learn how you, too, can help protect the whales and our oceans for generations to come.” A portion of your fee will support Ocean Wise. 

Conservation Journey: Polar Bears 

(Oct-Nov; 7-day)

Three nights at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Buggy One “a mobile broadcast and research station.” Presentations by Polar Bears International’s Chief Scientist Dr. Steven Amstrup on climate change and its impact on the polar bears and what the organization is doing to help. 

Frontiers North Big Five Safaris 

(July-Aug; 6-days)

Frontiers North - Moose in the woods
Photo: Handcraft Creative

From Winnipeg, guests journey over-land to Riding Mountain National Park, home to a dense boreal forest, lakes, meadows, and the Manitoba escarpment. There you may see moose, black bears, and a captive bison herd. Upon reaching Churchill, you’ll commune with the belugas, and if you’re lucky, observe a few polar bears. 

Polar Bears at Legendary Cape Churchill

(Nov; 12-day)

Ultimate viewing in Wapusk, Lodge, speaker presentations, Photography Expedition, top polar bear experts   

The company refers to it as the “Ultimate Polar Bear Viewing and Photography Expedition.” The staff includes expert photography guidance and interpretive guides. By day you are roaming the countryside in a Tundra Buggy, while at night, you’ll sleep in the lodge. 

Things You Should Know

  • First and last night are in Winnipeg at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel at the airport. 
  • Tour dates are fixed and based on double occupancy.
  • Rates are in Canadian dollars.  
  • Tour includes a round trip flight from Winnipeg to Churchill could be commercial or charter.
  • If you travel solo you’ll have to pay a single supplement 
  • The number of meals included in the fee varies depending on the program
  • Flights to and from Winnipeg, are not included.
  • Tips are not included

Natural Habitat Adventures 

Nat Hab Adventure's Tundra Lodge
Photo: Alek Komarnitsky

Nat Hab has eight different packages to choose from.

Where You Stay

Guests stay either in a Churchill hotel or depending on the itinerary, the 32- room Tundra Lodge set in the wild for premium viewing.

In the lodge, guests stay in private windowed cabins and shared toilets and showers. The lounge, dining car and outside platforms provide ample space and opportunity to observe and photograph the Aurora Borealis, polar bears, and other arctic species. 

(Natural Habitat Adventures works in partnership with Great White Bear Tours and Sea North Tours)

Highlights and Differences

Group Size

Groups max out at 16 travelers (some smaller); the smallest of the three providers.

Rovers can transport up to 35 passengers, but with a maximum of 16 people, everyone has plenty of space and their own window. 

Four Different Locations for Aurora Gazing

For those who have dreamed of gazing at the Aurora Borealis, Natural Habitat Adventures takes its Northern Lights guests to four fun locations.

Natural Habitat Adventures - Mushers' camp  with teepee
Photo: Natural Habitat Adventures

Exclusive to the company, the Aurora Pod is a heated structure with glass windows and skylights providing a 360-degree view of the night sky. Heated plexiglass domes, a secluded woodstove-heated cabin, and a mushers camp replete with a teepee and campfire round out the other spots.

Photography

Specific photo departures are available on four of the tours. All are led by an expert naturalist/photographer who provides real-time coaching in the field for wildlife, landscapes, and Northern Lights. Photography lectures take place in the evening.

Igloo building

Learn the ancient art of Igloo building (not all tours).

Tours

Classic Polar Bear Itinerary  

(Oct; 6 or 7 days) 

Polar bears are the focus of this expedition with adventures on the Polar Rover, once at night. There’s dog sledding through the boreal forest, the chance of the Aurora Borealis, and time to check out the town.

  • Photo departures available on this trip
A polar bear checks out the Natural Habitat Adventure's Polar Rover
Photo: Brad Josephs

Belugas, Bears, & Summer Wildlife of Churchill 

(July; 7 days)

Beluga watching by zodiac and kayak, a trip to Prince of Wales Fort, a cookout in the boreal forest. exploring the tundra on the Polar Rover.

  • Photo departures available on this trip

Ultimate Churchill Adventure  

(October & November; 7 days)

A scenic helicopter ride over the tundra is one of this itinerary’s highlights. A wilderness landing will enable you to climb inside an unoccupied den. Plus, a trip to the heated plexiglass Aurora Domes should the weather be in your favor. 

Churchill Arctic Family Adventure

Excursions are tailored to engage and excite young people, while guides are specifically chosen for their rapport with kids. The family will also enjoy a helicopter flightseeing tour on this trip.

Polar Bear looking up through the grate of a Poler Rover
Photo: Henry H. Holdsworth

Tundra Lodge and Town Adventure 

(October & November; 7 days)

Just what it sounds like, a combination of polar bear viewing and other activities along with and a comprehensive tour of the town, as well as two nights in the Tundra Lodge. 

Tundra Lodge Adventure 

(October & November; 6 – 7 days)

Spend three nights immersed 24/7 in the wilderness by overnighting in the Tundra Lodge and exploring in Polar Rovers by day.

  • Photo departures available on this trip
Natural Habitat Adventures - Aurora Pod
Photo: Alexander de Vries

Northern Lights and Arctic Exploration 

(October & November / 7-days – limited to 14 travelers) 

The Glass Aurora Pod and plexiglass Aurora domes, a mushing camp teepee, and an isolated cabin are used for nightly Northern Lights observation.

  • Photo departures available on this trip

Things You Should Know

  • For all tours, your first night in Winnipeg kicks off the week with a hosted dinner at the Fort Garry Hotel. 
  • The company’s lodge and rovers are used in partnership with Great White Bear Tours.
  • The carbon emissions from your trip are 100% offset by the company, which has been carbon neutral since 2007. 
  • Natural Habitat Adventures is the World Wildlife Fund’s official conservation travel partner. 
  • Tour dates are fixed and based on double occupancy.
  • Rates are in Canadian dollars.  
  • Tour includes a round trip chartered flight between Winnipeg and Churchill to maximize your time in the wild.
  • The number of meals covered in the fee varies depending on the program.
  • Flights to and from Winnipeg, are not included.
  • Tips are not included.

Operators for Day and Half-Day Tours

Day tours or shorter that can be booked separately from any multi-day schedule.

Polar Bear walking in the snow

Lazy Bear Expeditions

Kayaking (3 hrs) and AquaGliding (3 hrs)


Frontiers North Adventures

Summer TundraBuggy Day Tours (6 hrs)

Autumn Tundra Buggy Day Tours (8 hrs)


Sea North Tours 

A family-run business opens through the summer months (June – August) offering beluga whale watching, kayaking, paddleboarding, hikes, and a floe ice tour.


North Star Tours 

A spin-off of Sea North Tours providing a wide variety of polar bears, beluga, northern lights, town tours, MVIthaca hike, as well as private guiding services.


Nature 1st Tours 

Half and full-day tours including Roads and Trails, Birding and Polar Bear Tours


Hudson Bay Heli tours

Specializes in 60 and 90-minute heli-tours. During the migration season, they offer a moneyback guarantee.

Custom Helicopters

Tours with large, high-visibility windows. Afterward, celebrate with a champagne and hor’s d’oeuvres’ post-flight.


An Inukshuk on the edge of Churchill, Manitoba
An Inukshuk, a traditional means of communication among the Inuit culture

Answers to Questions You May Have

How to Travel to Churchill

It’s simple really, there are only two ways to get to Churchill, by plane (2hrs) or by train (2 trains per week approx 40 hours) from Winnipeg. There are no roads.

Calm Air is the domestic carrier most companies use.

When is the Best Time to Visit Churchill?

That’s up to you really, depending on what you fancy. Polar Bears are best in October and November. The Beluga Migration is at its peak in July and August. Northern Lights are the best in February and March when the sun sets earlier.

Am I Guaranteed to See the Polar Bears and Belugas

Wildlife, in general, is never something that can be guaranteed. The guides are well trained. They will do their best to put you in the right place at the right time to see polar bears, but if you need guarantees, don’t go. Not seeing polar bears is a possibility, and you have to be ok with that. Remember there are other fun things to see and do.

That said, belugas during the migration are hard to miss.

What is the Weather in Churchill?

Volatile. Warm to cold and back again. You’re in the subarctic next to the water which leads to all kinds of interesting possibilities. In October and November, make sure you have plenty of layers because it gets cold. Seriously cold. For recommendations check out my post: “Use this Winter Packing List and you’ll Never Be Cold Again” In summer it can get warm but nights are still chilly. You’ll still need layers but not what you would bring in the winter.

Is it Safe in Town From Polar Bears?

I think the best word is “safer.” The Polar Bear Alert Program is very good at keeping bears out of the city but they do get in. It’s just a fact. Doors to homes and cars are never locked so people can step inside for safety if necessary. If you hear firecracker shells, it means the team is actively hazing or moving a bear from town. Do not gawk or seek out the confrontation to watch.

Always pay attention to your guides. They know what to do in an emergency.

Another thing, if you come across a bear and it sees you, back away slowly keeping your eyes on it at all times. Do Not Run. It will only incite the animal to charge. If you have a bag, drop it while you’re backing up, the bear may stop to sniff it and give you extra time to make your escape.

Do I Need Travel Insurance?

Yes. Most tour operators will require it but if you go on your own, I still say absolutely.

I always recommend travel insurance, not only to safeguard your hard-earned money but, more important, for medical coverage. Churchill is in the middle of nowhere and anything could happen and I’m not talking about being attacked by an animal. I’m talking about slipping and breaking your leg. Something that benign and you’re going to want to make sure you’re able to get the best help possible which may require an evac. Please don’t assume your credit card has it covered.

What are the Bugs Like?

There can be a lot in summer, no lie. On the positive side, it draws more birds, on the negative, well, you know the negative. Repellent with DEET is the best; I love Bug X towelettes. They are lightweight and easy to pack. Some people have used face nets but when I was there it wasn’t necessary. I recommend calling closer to your departure to see what Mother Nature has conjured up.


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2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Polar Bear Tours and Things to do in Churchill Manitoba

  1. Keith says:

    Now we are spoilt for choice! Love the polar bears and all the other wonderful wildlife. While the price tags are huge, it certainly qualifies for any bucket list 🙂

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