embark on a northern safari to Churchill

Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, is one of the best place on earth to observe the aurora borealis and is home to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) where people come from around the world to study the aurora and Churchill’s other natural wonders. Also known as the northern lights, aurora borealis are a natural phenomenon that occur in northern locations around the globe when there is a clear night, the right atmospheric gases are present, and there is a solar wind. You need undisturbed darkness to observe the aurora, so generally, they cannot be seen in densely populated areas where “city lights” mask the darkness of the night.

churchill-manitoba aurora-borealis

The aurora borealis are brilliant in the skies of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

Churchill is a great locale for sky watching due to its remoteness and long hours of winter darkness. Brilliantly coloured northern lights are visible here an average of 300 times per year. I grew up in Manitoba, so I’ve seen a lot of northern lights. But I’ve never seen anything like the northern lights of Churchill. You’ll find yourself under the spell of the aurora borealis in Churchill because of their vibrant colours, and because they often last for hours at a time. I saw aurora in shades of red and pink, green and yellow, and white. They truly are a magnificent sight and if you allow yourself to be captured, you will be whisked away to a land of pure imagination.

School programs, university courses, and learning vacations covering a wide range of topics are offered at the CNSC in cooperation with Road Scholar and the Earthwatch Institute. It really offers a unique location, as you are 23 kilometres from town and in a rather undisturbed world where nature is much more accessible than if you are staying in town. I spent a week on assignment at the CNSC one spring many years ago tagging along on an Elderhostel course focusing on Northern Astronomy and loved it! I still keep in touch with one of the wonderful ladies from Iowa that I met on that course.

churchill-northern-studies-centre in churchill-manitoba

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre is located on the former rocket test range near Churchill, Manitoba.

The CNSC generally offers aurora programming from late January through March depending on the year. Programs are booked around the time of the new moon and during months when Churchill has long clear dark nights for aurora viewing at its peak.

exploring churchill manitoba

If you don’t make it up to Churchill during peak aurora season, there are still many other reasons to visit. In fall (generally late October through to early December–depending on the weather) you have the best chance of seeing polar bears up close and personal. The bears wait along the shores of Hudson Bay for the ice to freeze so that they can begin their winter-long seal hunt. Seals make up the primary diet of the world’s largest land-roving carnivore, and until the ice freezes, the bears hang out in and near Churchill waiting for the hunt to begin. A tundra buggy or helicopter ride may give you the opportunity to spot a few bears loafing near the coast in late spring or summer. But they spend a good deal of their time sleeping once the weather gets warm and the ice has melted.

churchill-manitoba beluga-whales

It’s so invigorating to be drifting on or in the water and have the belugas approach you.

The stars of a Churchill summer are the beluga whales. Thousands of them come to Hudson Bay to have their young, and are generally in the Churchill area from June through early September. These small white whales that resemble dolphins are curious about humans, and will let you get close to them if you are in a small zodiac boat, or snorkelling or diving in a drysuit. I remember the time I had my feet dangling over the edge of the zodiac when we were up around the Seal River, and a beluga touched my toes with his nose! You may also see caribou, and Arctic hare and fox during a summer visit.

churchill-manitoba

The hiking in Churchill is amazing and can take you out on the tundra to explore the region’s unique landscape.

Churchill offers much to those with a keen interest in history. The Prince of Wales Fort, a massive stone fortress at the mouth of the Churchill River, was built on permafrost, with construction beginning in 1732 and ending 40 years later. With 40 cannons mounted on walls 40 feet (12 metres) thick, the fort’s magnitude was rivalled only by the French fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. Today, the walls of the fort are giving way, and preservation tactics are in place to save it from crumbling. During the summer months, knowledgeable Parks Canada staff will accompany you along the path to the fort, explaining how it was built to protect cargo ships belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company and their Royal Navy escorts. In 1782, during the only attack on Prince of Wales Fort, Samuel Hearne–the great explorer and fur trader, lost a battle with French invaders and surrendered the fort. At Sloop’s Cove, a short distance away, history buffs bear witness to Hearne’s signature etched in stone along the shore and dated 1767.

churchill-manitoba prince-of-wales-fort

The Prince of Wales Fort in Churchill is a fascinating place to explore.

Churchill, Manitoba, has an excellent Eskimo Museum that contains a large collection of Inuit art as well as a stuffed polar bear and musk-ox. You can learn much about life up north from the museum’s exhibits. Another spot not to miss is Gypsy’s Cafe. They offer meals, fresh-baked goods, and the best place for people-watching in town. Accommodations, for the most part, are quite basic. Don’t go to Churchill, looking for luxury five-star accommodations. But if you thrill at the sight of wildlife and natural beauty or are interested in history, it is definitely worth the trip. There are a few motels within the town, as well as several remote lodges to help you plan your own unique Churchill visit. This site tells you how.

This post shares some thoughts on the various visits I have made to Churchill.

Have you been to Churchill? If so, at what time of year, and did you enjoy it?

Doreen Pendgracs

Known throughout the Web as the "Wizard of Words", I've been a freelance writer since 1993. I'm currently researching and writing volume II of "Chocolatour: A Quest for the World's Best Chocolate". Volume I was published in September, 2013.

47 Responses

  1. Linda
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    says:

    What a wonderful place to visit. Aurora AND whales? That is an amazing capture of the AB!
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  2. Catarina says:

    Had no idea there is a place called Churchill. Am at the moment reading his writings and when I saw your headline I thought to myself that I would love to take a safari and sit down with Winston Churchill. Have an abundance of questions I would love to ask him.

    Having said that Churchill in Canada seems to be an intersting place. Pity the late PM isn’t there.
    Catarina recently posted…How do you communicate with your audience?My Profile

    • Hi Catarina. I didn’t know you were a Winston Churchill fan! So is my husband. Churchill, Manitoba, is a very bold destination that one must make a very deliberate effort to visit. It’s extremely expensive to get there as it is so far north. It costs us Manitobans about $1,100. for a return trip. We can get to Eastern Europe for about the same amount!

  3. Catarina says:

    Not a fan but he is definitely the person who has had the most positive impact on the world in the 20th Century. If it had not been for him Hitler would have won the war. Other historical personalities that I have read extensively are Julius Caesar and Cicero. Caesar was not, as is commonly believed a dictator. He was in fact benevolent. And he has also had a huge impact on the world. We, for instance, still use his julian calendar with 365 days and the month of July named after him. Sad that Brutus, who was most likely his son, and others plotted against him which paved the way for more brutal emperors.
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  4. Sabrina Quairoli
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    I would love to see aurora borealis. It’s on my bucket list. Thanks for sharing. Now I know I should schedule my trip around March or April. Great post and pictures too. Thanks for sharing.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…How To Store Clothing In Really Small SpacesMy Profile

  5. Erica says:

    I would enjoy taking the tour of the Eskimo museum. I know very little about true Eskimo culture. I would appreciate seeing the polar bears, but would much prefer seeing them from a distance. The beluga whales look cute. The only sea mammal I’ve ever gotten near are manatees.
    Erica recently posted…10 Brilliantly Fun Ways to Reclaim Your HealthMy Profile

    • Hi Erica. The aboriginal people of the Churchill area are called Dene (pronounced Dennay), but in the old days, all northern aboriginal peoples were combined under the umbrella term of ‘Eskimos.’ It is fascinating to learn about the challenges of the northern life. They lived on anything they could hunt. And that included the polar bears, seals, and the beluga whales.

  6. Beverly says:

    It sounds like I will have to include Churchill on my list of places to visit.

  7. Ken Dowell
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    says:

    That first image of the Northern Lights is spectacular. My wife just came back from a press trip in Norway in which she cruised up to the Arctic Circle and to Kirkenes. Brought back a lot of Northern Lights images.
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  8. Alice Rhoades says:

    The adventure on the train getting to Churchill added a lot to remember about the North. It was one of my favorite trips, the Bears are thrilling to see. The bear traps that they use to catch the pesty bears that come into town and need to be removed are huge. the dogs chained out in the drifting snow along the road endure.
    The STAR MAN gave us lot of info about the Aurora. I have a picture of Doreen in the small igloo, great fun playing cribbage games with the Bear Research pilots when it was such bad weather they couldn’t fly. Michelle’s scone recipe is excellent and easy. The big iron bars on the bedroom windows were concerning at first site. Crossing the ice to get to the lodge for lunch. The ice was very rough. Definitely a trip worth enjoying. I was there the end of March and it was COLD so dress warm and have fun…Alice Rhoades

  9. Jeri
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    says:

    I knew little about Churchill until reading this post and I certainly would like to see the Northern Lights one of these days in such a spectacular capacity. I’ve glimpsed them in northern Montana, but not nearly like they are pictured here.
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  10. Ramona McKean
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    says:

    Hi Doreen, I used to live in North-eastern British Columbia in a place called Dawson Creek. Compared to Churchill, it is WAY down south! However, we did see the Northern Lights. (The college there is called “Northern Lights College.”) They were not as spectacular as what you have pictured here, but still, I was in awe! Thanks for this blog and for letting me know about beluga whales in Hudson Bay. 🙂
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  11. Donna Janke
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    says:

    I don’t know if I will ever get to Churchill, but every one I know who has ever visited speaks highly of their trip. I have seen northern lights, but I know they would be so much more spectacular there. It sounds like I’d need to visit at about 3 different times in the year to see the lights, the polar bears, and the whales.
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    • Hi Donna. That’s right. The different wonders of Churchill come at different times of the year. Although you probably would see some aurora in other parts of the year, spring is best for that. But summer is fabulous, as you get to see the whales, the fort, the caribou, and hike on the tundra and along the bay. I forgot to mention the July 1st Polar Bear Dip in Hudson Bay!
      Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…embark on a northern safari to ChurchillMy Profile

  12. Ah, Doreen, if you only knew how much I wanted to see aurora borealis. We went to Alaska last year and I so hoped for it, but no luck. Maybe I should come to Manitoba…

  13. lenie
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    says:

    Doreen, here I am a Canadian and I never knew about the wonders of Churchill – my kind of place.
    We have seen the Northern Lights on several occasions from our back deck and were completely in awe even thought they didn’t compare to the brilliance in your photo.
    I love the fact of the Polar Bears lounging at water’s edge waiting for it to freeze – that must be quite the sight.
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    • Lenie, people like you are the precise reason I wrote the post(s) about Churchill. It would be GREAT if more Canadians would go up there and visit our own natural wonderland. Canadians pay thousands of dollars to go on African safaris. Yet, many of them wince at the cost of a trip to Churchill. But the trips themselves are both worthwhile and memorable–at any cost. I do think you would enjoy it.
      Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…embark on a northern safari to ChurchillMy Profile

  14. Susan Cooper
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    says:

    Hi Doreen, no I hadn’t visited Churchill, but now I sure want to. 🙂 I’ve always wanted to see aurora borealis. The polar bears and whales would be fabulous too. Would be hard to decide what time of year to go.
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    • Hi Susan. It is indeed difficult deciding what time of year to visit Churchill. That’s why I’ve been up there 6 times! Each trip was an entirely different journey and experience. I think that for you coming from a warm climate, I’d start with summer and take in the belugas and the fort. It gets quite hot in Churchill during the summer, yet can also have snow on July 1st as we witnessed when we were there!

  15. Wow, Doreen, I’ve been to Canada a dozen times coast to coast but never to Manitoba. I’ve always wanted to see the aurora borealis and absolutely love whales so I am definitely adding Churchill to my bucket list! Thank you for sharing. 🙂
    Marquita Herald recently posted…Have We Forgotten the Value of Self-Respect?My Profile

    • Hi Marty. If you’ve been coast to coast in Canada, you have definitely driven thru Manitoba. We are smack dab in the centre of the country. Saskatchewan on the west, and Ontario on the east. Churchill is about 750 miles due north of Winnipeg if I recall correctly, and is not accessible by road.

  16. Arnette
    Twitter:
    says:

    Wow!! Looks amazing! That’s a total bucket list trip….one day, one day.

  17. Doreen — thanks so much for your wonderful “travelogue.” I had friends who went to Canada to see the seals which you can only do for a couple of months as you point out. I didn’t know about the aurora borealis. Your photos are beautiful. What a treat!

  18. I always thought seeing the polar bears in Churchill would be an amazing trip. But add to that the Northern Lights and WOW!
    Had no idea about the fort, so that was great to read about. The 40 foot thick walls are something!
    RoseMary Griffith recently posted…Greenville, South Carolina – One of the Most Beautiful Downtowns in the USAMy Profile

    • Thanks for stopping by, Rose. Yes, it’s really quite amazing what you can get into in Churchill. I can see you wading into Hudson Bay for the Polar Bear Dip among the bergies (small iceberg pieces) on July 1st and having a hoot!

  19. Andy says:

    An Elderhostel course focusing on Northern Astronomy? OK, I’ll bite. Sounds like an excellent opportunity to observe Cancer, which is the faintest of the zodiac constellations and is high in the sky in the early spring. (At least that’s what I would have wanted to do.)

  20. What a great post about a great place.
    I have never seen a beluga whale, and always wanted to.
    As for the northern lights, I live in upstate NY, so I have seen them. They are usually white in color and not as dramatic as what you described.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  21. Helen
    Twitter:
    says:

    The northern lights – definitely on my bucket list. How exciting, thanks for sharing!

  22. I would love to see the Northern Lights in person. It looks amazing.
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  23. Maria says:

    Wow… that Northern Lights photo was so magnificent, nice picture of it you have taken, just beautiful…
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  24. Now that we live in Europe, I keep eyeing flights to Iceland to see the Northern Lights so my interest was definitely snagged by your beautiful picture in Churchill. It sounds like this remote area has something to offer every nature enthusiast!
    Anita recently posted…Part Two – Figuring It Out Along The Way – Life In PortugalMy Profile

    • Hi Anita and Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays to you! Churchill is indeed a really amazing place to visit. It is so unfortunate that they are predicting the polar bears will likely be extinct within a century. You can still see them if you visit Churchill in the next few years. As well as the beautiful aurora, the belugas, the fort. Depending on what tome of year you choose to visit.
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  25. Donna Janke
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    says:

    I’d love to get to Churchill some day, but it is an expensive trip even if it is the same province. There’s a couple of times I’ve seen dancing colours in the northern lights – I can’t imagine how much more spectacular they’d be farther north.

    • Hi Donna and thanks for your comment. It is indeed a shame that the trip to Churcill is so expensive, and so time consuming for us Manitobans. That train ride is 36 hours each way in optimum weather. Slower or delayed if too hot or too blustery. And you can fly overseas for less than the cost of a ticket from Winnipeg to Churchill. But it’s definitely worth the trip!
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