embark on a northern safari to Churchill

I absolutely love this photo of a polar bear and cub taken by Ken Hoehn, whom we had the pleasure of meeting in Canmore, Alberta at his beautiful Ken Hoehn Gallery.

celebrating polar bears

Polar bears are captivating creatures, so it’s no wonder that each year, there are several days devoted to these magnificent animals. Polar bears are saluted on February 27th for International Polar Bear Day as well during the first week of November for Polar Bear Week. This year, that event will be celebrated November 3-9, 2024. 

But it’s not all good news for these Titans of the North. I recently heard a sad report on the news. Scientists are predicting that the majority of the world’s polar bear population is severely at risk due to climate change and that the polar bear population around Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada, may be gone within 80 years! There is no better time for Canadians and global citizens abroad to travel to Manitoba and make the journey to Churchill to go on a northern safari and show some love for the Great White Bear.


This incredible acrylic painting by Manitoba artist Michele Campbell is aptly called “Warmer Days.” Unfortunately, it is the warmer days of climate change that are threatening the very existence of polar bears.

I’ve had the pleasure and thrill of seeing polar bears in the wild in and around the town of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, several times over the past 25 years. If you’ve never been to Churchill–often referred to as the Polar Bear Capital of the World–treat yourself to a northern safari, where you will see polar bears, and a whole lot more.


Churchill 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.


I have made six trips to Churchill, Manitoba, and have been able to recycle my research into many stories for a wide variety of publications.

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. If you’re fortunate, you’ll get the chance to see a polar bear swimming as they try to cool off during the surprisingly warm Manitoba summers.

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.


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 the excellent Itsanitaq Museum (formerly known as the 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. 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 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. Contact Via Rail to embark on the long and very unique journey by train from Winnipeg to Churchill. It’s quite the trip!

Have you been to Churchill? If so, at what time of year, and did you enjoy it? We celebrate International Polar Bear Day every year on February 27th, as a tribute to the world’s largest land-roving mammal. But every day of the year is a good time to salute the “Ursus maritimus” or polar bear. Pray that they find a way to survive the incredible challenges before them and that polar bears will still roam the north far past 2100.


Doreen Pendgracs

Known throughout the Web as the "Wizard of Words", I've been a freelance writer since 1993. I researched and wrote Volume I of Chocolatour that won a Readers' favourite Award in 2014. Always enjoy experiencing new destinations and flavours.

70 Responses

  1. Great article Doreen. We’re just back from Churchill seeing the polar bears and visiting several of the places you mentioned. A great trip and one to put on your bucket list if you want to see and learn about polar bears. Unfortunately it was too cloudy for northern lights, but it was still a memorable trip that I would recommend to anyone.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Mark. Yes, Churchill is such an understated destination. Definitely a must for North American nature lovers and those sensitive to the issues of climate change. It might be expensive, but is SO worth the trip in a myriad of ways.

  2. Frances Petrowski says:

    Thanks Doreen for the informative post on Churchill. I didn’t know about the CNSC and the issues with the polar bears. I have been wanting to go for two years. I just read your post out loud to my husband as we were driving and he said « book it »!
    Thanks again!

  3. Janet says:

    It’s sad to hear of how fastly approaching extinction of the polar bears may be. I was quite upset when I heard the sea ice melt was escalating, which holds the nutrition for the polar bears’ breastmilk. They say there is still time to slow this down. Hopefully the world leaders wake up and start acknowledging how all of this is intertwined!

    • Hi Janet & thx for your thoughtful comment. You are right. Getting the right politicians in place is critical in getting action that can make a difference. Thank goodness for activists like Greta who are putting on the pressure.

  4. Beverly says:

    Your informative post about Churchill has made it real for your readers. Congratulations on another wonderful post.

  5. Beverly says:

    Churchill is indeed a place to visit according to your post. You have made Churchill real for your readers. I would love to see polar bears and beluga whales. Visits to the museum and Fort would be on my list of things to do.

  6. Phoenix says:

    Laws about wildlife is sure different on the west coast. I went whale-watching once and the group was told that they had to be a certain distance from the whales. If the whales approached, they had to shut off the engines until they left the vicinity of the boat. Unless folks had a zoom lens on their camera, good shots were rare. Doreen, you have the best adventures! You were made for these nature safaris!

    • Hi Esther and thanks for your comment. the rules are pretty much the same in Manitoba. You’re not supposed to approach the wildlife (be they beluga whales or polar bears.) But you can go into an area they are known to frequent, turn off your engine and wait for them to approach you. Same goes for snorkelling or diving with the belugas. They can approach you, (and they may, as they are curious!) but you’re not supposed to chase after them.

  7. The scenery and wildlife looks fantastic. Not sure that I’ll ever get there, as I live in Sydney (Australia), but it looks very tempting!

  8. Timberline Keys says:

    Hey DOREEN,
    Thanks for writing about the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
    As a little bit, I know about it that it will have good weather for astronomical observing. It is a non-profit research center one of my friends told me about it.
    I’m really excited to visit it after reading your post.

    Thanks, Doreen for writing it.

  9. You really got me fired up to get to Churchill. Again. It sounds so wonderful and a celebration of nature with the aurora borealis, the whales, let alone those wonderful Polar Bears. I’ve wanted to see them in person since a sixth grade trip to the Carnegie Natural History Museum where they have a stuffed bear standing tall. He looks pretty grand there, but I figured he would look a lot grander in person.

    • Hi RoseMary. Churchill is indeed an incredible destination. But as I say in my post, each of its attributes appear at different times of the year. So you have to plan your visit in accordance with what you’d like to see most. But please know that Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo has an incredible Polar Bear exhibit where you can stand underneath polar bears swimming over you in a glass-bottom pool. And Winnipeg is home to the Canadian Human Rights Museum (see my post on it). And Winnipeg is just an hour from where I live–in the heart of lake country. Perhaps that sounds better than a 36-hour train ride to Churchill or a 2-hour direct and 4-hour with stopover flight that will set you back $1,000. Things to ponder. 🙂
      Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…embark on a northern safari to ChurchillMy Profile

  10. This seems to be very information rich article. I didn’t know about Churchill in this detail. The news which you have given is really impressive.

  11. Ceci says:

    Reading your entertaining and informative article makes me feel like I’ve been to Churchill. I can’t IMAGINE the thrill of having a beluga whale tickle my toes!

  12. This sounds like an amazing vacation Doreen. Seeing the aurora borealis is definitely on my “bucket list”. I would love to see Beluga Whales as well. We’ve been on many whale watches before and seeing these powerful, majestic animals is always a joy. Churchill seems like a wonderful place to visit.

    • Well, Sherryl, that is great to hear! If you ever do decide to make the journey to Churchill, let me know and I can refer you to some great people up there who host travellers and do tours. And if you can add a few days on, stay and explore Winnipeg (my home town!) which is where you’d fly into before making your connection to Churchill and then come out and see me in Matlock (one hour from Winnipeg.) You could do all that in a week to 10 days. 🙂
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  13. 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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  14. 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!
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    • 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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  15. Maria says:

    Wow… that Northern Lights photo was so magnificent, nice picture of it you have taken, just beautiful…
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  16. I would love to see the Northern Lights in person. It looks amazing.
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  17. Helen says:

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

  18. 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.

    • Hi William. Yes, the pale white northern lights is what we most often see in southern Manitoba as well. But the atmospheric gases up north must be just right to produce those vibrant colours in the aurora. They really are spectacular!
      Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…Exploring TlaquepaqueMy Profile

  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. 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!

      • I’ve wanted to see polar bears since my first trip to the Carneie Museum of Natural History here in
        Pittsburgh. That was sixth grade–a long time ago. That big guy is still standing and still scary!
        I, too, pray they stick around.

        • Hi RoseMary. It would be great if you make it to Manitoba next year. Winnipeg has a terrific polar bear exhibit at the Gateway to Churchill exhibit at Assiniboine Park. And a wonderful sculpture garden. and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

  21. 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!

  22. Arnette says:

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

  23. 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. 🙂
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    • 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.

  24. 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!

  25. lenie 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

  26. Anda says:

    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…

  27. 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

  28. 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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  29. Jeri 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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  30. 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

    • Hello, Alice, and thanks so much for sharing your memories of our great time in Churchill. I spoke to Roger (Starman) this week and he hopes to return to Churchill next year for aurora season. You are SO right about that being a cold trip! I’ve never been so cold in my life. But, like you, I continue to cherish the warm memories.
      Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…embark on a northern safari to ChurchillMy Profile

  31. Ken Dowell 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.
    Ken Dowell recently posted…Dog Rescue in the USAMy Profile

    • Doreen says:

      Hi, Ken. Yes, I’ve heard that Norway is great for aurora as well. Thx to the CNSC for supplying the images for this post.

  32. Beverly says:

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

  33. 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.
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    • 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.

  34. 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.
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    • Thx for your comment, Sabrina. I can’t remember where you live, but I can’t imagine not having seen the aurora. They are truly magical if you see them in a setting such as Churchill.

  35. 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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  36. 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.
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    • 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!

  37. Linda says:

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