Updated: Nov 13, 2022
Churchill is not one of the best travel destinations, but could be a very unique experience for watching aurora.
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According to Wikipedia, "Churchill is located on Hudson Bay, at the mouth of the Churchill River on the 58th parallel north, far above most Canadian populated areas."
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Part 1: Understand.
Churchill is a community North of 53 in Manitoba, best known as the polar bear capital of the world, and only slightly less known as the beluga capital of the world. For a multi-purpose capital, though, it's very small, with a permanent population of only 899 people (as of the 2016 census), who live on the shore of Hudson Bay, the bank of the Churchill River, and just past the treeline of the boreal forest.
It's not easy to visit Churchill (during bear season) without going through a tour company, simply because the tundra vehicles often book up quickly and hotels are full; the train and planes can fill up; and both the buggies and hotels generally require full payment up front with no refunds. You must confirm availability of transport, lodging, and buggy at the same time and then immediately call them back to book all three. Otherwise you could find yourself stuck with a giant bill for a hotel with no way to get out on the tundra to see the bears, or a giant bill for a buggy with no lodging! Other activities (dog-sledding, car rentals, helicopter tours, etc.), are easy enough to book, even after arriving.
If ever there were a case for a good camera, it's a trip to Churchill! Bring/buy the best you can. Digital cameras don't stand up well to the cold, but they will still work. But bring extra batteries and film (if your camera uses it). In the winter, keep back up batteries close to your body to keep them warm, and switch them out when your active battery in your camera gets killed by the cold. If your camera breaks, Bazlik Jewellers can repair it. A long telephoto lens is generally required for wildlife photography; a good zoom lens may be enough but see Travel photography for a detailed discussion. A waterproof camera is a must if you plan to swim with the Beluga whales in the summer (a GoPro with a waterproof case can be great for video). Bring an extra memory card in case one fails (and the cold can help them fail).
Photographing the aurora requires different equipment. You will need a camera that supports manual exposure (10 to 40 seconds), a fast, wide-angle lens (aperture f/2.8 or better), fast film (800 ASA or better), or equivalent ISO setting on a digital camera, a strong tripod to hold the long exposure in potential high winds, and ideally a cable release or self-timer to trigger shots without stirring the camera. Again, you will want multiple batteries to swap as they freeze. Insulating the tripod can save your hands from freezing. Do not use any filter.
A laptop is a good idea, if only for uploading your photos, to keep your memory cards free to take more high-resolution shots!
Binoculars are great for wildlife viewing.
The cold in Churchill is spectacular.
When you are this far north, you will need some serious winter gear November–March, and potentially in October. Avoid wearing cotton, as cotton gets wet and stays wet. Layers are key, but not enough to keep you warm without a good jacket. If you forgot something, try to pick it up at the Walmart in Thompson, if you are taking the train.
Warm wool (or other warm non-cotton) cap, which fits tightly against your skull
Parka/very well insulated jacket with hood (lined hood ideal)
Protective ski goggles will be especially good for dog sledding, snowmobiling, snow shoeing, or just days with really heavy winds
Waterproof boots, ideally rated for -40°C (-40°F) or lower. The ratings are often flat out lies, so make sure to consult with a sales person, and let them know just how cold it is where you are going. Avoid boots with rubber toes, as that rubber will freeze, making and keeping your toes very cold. Anything lined with animal skin or fur will be warmest and most comfortable, albeit very expensive.
Long underwear. When in doubt, err on the side of more (merino-) wool.
Wool/fleece pants & sweaters; non-cotton shirts. Moisture wicking gear is good. An outer layer of ski pants is nice for breaking the wind.
Insulated layer underneath your jacket, which will often come with a ski jacket or good parka.
Insulated gloves (i.e., ski gloves)
Neck protector, especially balaclavas.
Part 2: Get Around
It's quite easy to walk within the city limits on your own. It takes about 10 minutes to walk from one end of town to the other. It's also possible to rent a car in Churchill, and there are several taxi drivers who tend to hang out around the airport and train station.
Car rental isn't at all popular with tourists, even the ones who aren't on package tours, but taking out an SUV is actually a great idea. If you think there's a good chance of seeing the aurora on a given night, rent a vehicle and drive it out of town at night! You'll be away from the lights of the town, and you'll have a mobile heating device/bear escape pod to keep you safe. If you have a day's worth of downtime from your various activities, you can just drive around the passable roads and go bird-watching, find the downed plane, head down through the woods to the observation tower, up to Cape Merry, or create your own wildlife photo tour. Expect the rental to run around $100 and the gas refill before returning to run around... $100 more.
Part 3: Itinerary
Beyond the wildlife and landscapes, there is actually a fair amount of interesting stuff to see there. The historic Hudson's Bay Company settlements are perhaps the most interesting, but are impossible to visit during the winter months (and York Factory is hard to reach even when it's possible). Aside from Cape Merry, that is, which along with the Itsanitaq Museum is an easy and highly recommended sight to see. If you have a car and a free day, head south of the city to the observation tower and east of the city to see Miss Piggy up close.
Cape Merry (The northern tip of Churchill, past the port). An old cannon battery was set up in 1747 to protect the Hudson Bay Company's business on the Churchill River, rather stupidly, as the cannons there could be captured by an enemy and used to fire upon Prince of Wales Fort across the river. Nonetheless, it is a great scenic spot to look out on the bay and river and fort, with a genuine tundra ecosystem. The battery has been reconstructed with original stones found on location, with a single cannon left as a reminder of the site's history. Keep an eye out in bear season, as polar bears frequent the area when heading out onto the sea ice. It's not safe to walk from town, because of the bears, so take a taxi, get someone to give you a ride, or rent a car.
Itsanitaq Museum, 242 LaVerendrye Ave, ☏ +1 204-675-2030. Jul-Oct: M 1PM-5PM, Tu-Sa 9AM-noon and 1PM-5PM; Nov-Jun M-Sa 1PM-4:30PM. Formerly known as the Eskimo Museum, it has one of Canada's oldest collections of Inuit artifacts despite its small size (opened in 1944 by Catholic missionaries and still operated by the Diocese of Churchill-Baie d'Hudson), this museum has well detailed exhibits of all sorts of weird and interesting Inuit archaeological finds and sculptures. You will want well over an hour for the exhibits, and then some for the gift shop. Suggested donation $2.
Goose Creek Observation Tower (South of the city following the right turn off the main road). It's only really worthwhile to come down this way if you rent a car, but it is a nice spot for a picnic in the summer. The observation tower looks out over Goose Creek towards the Churchill River, and is a good spot for birdwatching (it's also popular with aurora watchers).
Inukshuk (At the bottom of Bernier St on the Hudson Bay shore). Inukshuk roughly translates to "representing a person" in Inuktitut, and is a predominant symbol of the Canadian North, in the form of a humanlike stone-cairn. While there are a few inukshuit in the area, this one is by far the most popular for its striking location on the shore of Hudson Bay, and is especially popular for aurora photography.
Miss Piggy (Bay shore road east of town). Filled with Coca-Cola and a snowmobile, this cargo plane crashed in 1979 (the crew survived), and has now become a tourist attraction. The odd name came from the rotund shape of the plane and the curious rumour that it did once transport a cargo of pigs. You will need a car to get you here. You're not really supposed to, but you can even go inside!
MV Ithaca (Northeast of the road leading to the abandoned radio station building with the "big golf balls" on top). Another wreck, this time a big 260-ft steamship that ran aground in this tidal flat in 1960 with 3000 tons of ore in its hold (the crew all survived this wreck too). Locals took advantage of the ore bounty, stripping the ship down! It is possible to hike out to the wreck in the summer in low tide, but seek local advice first to make sure you will be safe. You get a great view from the helicopter.
Prince of Wales Fort, across the Churchill River from town (accessible by boat or helicopter), ☏ +1 204 675-8863, firstname.lastname@example.org. July–August (Beluga whale season), tours by request. Built by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1717, Prince of Wales Fort is the most northerly stone fort in Canadian history, and is in good shape structurally, following a couple of restoration efforts in the 20th century. The restoration continues today, and if you time your visit right, you can watch stonemasons working on the structure using traditional 18th century methods. It was a complete flop of a fort, though, falling to the French in 1782 without so much as a defensive shot being fired, its small non-military force surrendering immediately to the vastly superior French force. Admission fee changes annually, and the Parks Canada's website admits not to knowing what it is!.
Wapusk National Park (South of Cape Churchill on Hudson Bay), ☏ +1 204-675-8863. This huge national park is difficult to visit, owing to its remoteness, and the fact that it houses a polar bear colony! (Wapusk means white bear in Cree.) Other animals include the usual suspects in this area: foxes white and red, arctic hare, snowy owls, and a few grizzlies that have been moving into the southern reaches as the temperature warms. The visitor center is in Churchill's train station. There are only three reasonable ways to get out here: a helicopter tour through Hudson Bay Helicopters, or a tour through Frontiers North or Wat'chee Expeditions.
York Factory (At the mouth of the Hayes River on Hudson Bay, south of Wapusk National Park), ☏ +1 204-675-8863. mid-July–30 Aug. Possibly the most important historic site in Northern Canada is this extraordinarily remote, decommissioned factory/office building, which was the headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company. As its central base of operations, this white building was for over 100 years essentially the capital of Rupert's Land, which comprised the majority of present-day Canada! The initial settlement established in 1670 was at the mouth of the Nelson River just west, and moved to the present and extant site in 1684. Up until 1957 York Factory remained a northern trading post. Getting out there is not a simple affair, but can be done from Churchill as a day trip through Hudson Bay Helicopters, for a rather steep price!
Northern lights shimmering and dancing above in November.