(BPT) - If you’re a die-hard wildlife enthusiast but have never taken an Arctic safari, perhaps it’s time you headed north instead of south this summer.
A favorite destination for such adventurers? The remote and highly unique town of Churchill, Manitoba, accessible these days only by plane. Known by many as the polar bear capital of the world, the Canadian frontier town (population: around 800) draws thousands of travelers each fall from across the world seeking to realize their bucket-list dreams of meeting the magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.
But the bears are far from the only attraction at the gateway to the Arctic; in July and August, visitors can also pursue once-in-a-lifetime activities such as kayaking or swimming among beluga whales, experiencing the local indigenous culture and tearing through the wilderness on canine-powered carts. Lovers of flora and fauna may also seek out the area’s 250 bird species (look for gray jays, falcons, hawks, tundra swans, snowy owls and the rare Ross's gulls and harlequin ducks) while hoping for glimpses of moose, wolves, caribou, Arctic foxes and Arctic hares.
More details about some of the area’s best attractions:
* Polar bear lair: Scientists place the world’s current polar bear population at a much-reduced 20,000 — 1,000 of which live in the western Hudson Bay area encompassing Churchill. The region is one of few settlements where people regularly encounter the massive-but-speedy “Lords of the Arctic," which move to shore each July when ice melts on Hudson Bay, then go back out after the November freeze. Specialty tour guide company Frontiers North Adventures offers a number of area bear-watching excursions using massive tundra-hardy vehicles that allow guests ultra-close views from open-air terraces just feet away. Meanwhile, fellow operator Churchill Wild flies visitors to wilderness lodges then takes them through the tundra on foot, letting them view the bears at ground level under the instruction of experienced wildlife guides. And Lazy Bear Expeditions is known for its custom-built boat the Sam Hearne, which transports guests to a remote coastal area for close-ups of the great beasts.
Behold the beluga:
Some 3,000 beluga whales grace the warmer waters of the Churchill River each summer, and guide company Sea North Tours allows adventurers the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of boating, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding or snorkeling directly with the friendly creatures. Enthusiasts can also interpret the creatures’ high-pitched vocalizations through listening devices known as hydrophones. Those wishing to see the magnificent mammals out in Hudson Bay might sign up for Lazy Bear Expeditions' Ultimate Summer Arctic Safari package.
Highly unique landscape:
Churchill is proud of its often-pristine wilderness featuring the merging of three distinct ecosystems: the vast marine life native to Hudson Bay, the conifer-covered boreal forest and the Arctic tundra characterized by permafrost, rock outcroppings and low-growing vegetation. The differences between the three make the area a prime migratory route for many species of animals, allowing for excellent summertime viewing opportunities.
Churchill’s cultural jewels include the indigenous-themed Itsanitaq Museum and the Prince of Wales Fort established in 1717 to protect fur-trading employees of the Hudson's Bay Co. A summertime visit to Churchill must include a guided cultural town and area tour, which is offered by a few different tour companies including North Star Tours and Lazy Bear Expeditions. The excursions introduce visitors to local culture and landmarks such as the historic Cape Merry site and the polar bear “jail” housing wayward Ursus maritimus.
Canada's North has a long, proud history of optimizing dogsleds for transportation, and in summer Churchill's sled dogs train by pulling wheeled carts. Visitors can sign up for tours at Wapusk Adventures or Bluesky Expeditions to meet and greet the energetic and hardworking canines before embarking on an exhilarating ride through the boreal forest.
Light shows extraordinaire:
The Churchill area is considered one of the top three vantage points worldwide for viewing the Aurora Borealis or northern lights, a natural phenomenon of moving color caused by atmospheric atoms mixing with charged particles from the sun. While the lights can be more elusive in the summertime (the optimal time for viewing is in winter), visitors enjoying their campfires at night can often catch a glimpse of their incredible beauty during clear nights.
For more information about the wonders you may encounter on your summer safari to Churchill, visit travelmanitoba.com.