Travel

A hands-on education in Churchill, Manitoba

Tundra Buggy pioneer Frontiers North invites adventurous families to northern Manitoba for a bucket list summer vacation

  • Aug 31, 2023
  • 1,590 words
  • 7 minutes
Low tide at the shipwreck. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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An American couple stands on the smooth rocks that greet Hudson Bay. Their five-year-old is part of a gaggle of young boys tossing pebbles into the sea. A captivated 10-year-old is interviewing an armed bear guard, taking notes for his school project.  Dozens of beluga whales appear offshore like giant marshmallows breaching the surf.  As a sinking orange sun burns through the clouds, a stiff northwesterly breeze combs through our hair. More whales show up, attracted perhaps by the whooping kids, the plopping stones, or the crackle of firewood on the shore. Tonight, the aurora borealis will glimmer, but the little ones will be sound asleep, exhausted from another long day of educational adventure. It’s mid-August in Churchill, and the polar bear and beluga capital of the world is putting on a masterclass.

Looking for bears from Prince of Wales Fort. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Frontier North Adventures are pioneers of a tourism boom in this unlikely and remote town in northern Manitoba. In the fall, visitors arrive from around the world to ride their custom-built Tundra Buggies, encountering hundreds of polar bears as they migrate through Churchill to Hudson Bay. In winter, they offer northern lights packages, and in summer, guests meet and greet pods of beluga whales that congregate in the bay. A new package, billed as a Family Learning Adventure, is designed to showcase the wonders of three diverse biomes – the taiga, the tundra and the bay – attracting curious families in search of something a little different. Churchill is literally the end of the railway line, and as one might expect, this is no cheap holiday.

“I could take the dollars and go to Australia, so it’s definitely a choice to come here,” says Samson Palkar, a computer engineer visiting with this family from Ontario. “With climate change, I’m convinced my grandkids will not be able to see places like this. These are places you only see on TV.”

With a permanent population of just 870 people, there’s only so much summer traffic Churchill can handle. There are a limited number of hotels, a few restaurants, and one Northern Store where you can buy everything from diapers to snowmobiles. Joining me on the week’s all-inclusive family package is my seven-year-old son, along with several families from the U.S. and Canada. We’ll have our hands full with seven kids ranging in age from five to 10. It doesn’t take long for both kids and parents to gel, relieved that we all share a curiosity for wildlife, history and geography. “We tend to attract a certain type of clientele,” explains our friendly guide, Jen Diment. They’re just usually a little older.

Looking for bears on the Tundra Buggy. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Fresh off the Calm Air flight from Winnipeg, we hop on a bus and drive straight to a striking shipwreck, rusting on the rocky seabed at low tide. An armed bear guard accompanies us to ensure we don’t have any surprises from polar bears, who are visiting the town in record numbers this summer. Conservation officer Chantal Maclean tells us there have already been 76 calls reporting bears around town, up from 18 at the same time last year. It suggests a bumper polar bear season ahead, although I’m struck when she mentions there are an estimated 616 bears living in the region. When I visited Churchill in the fall of 2012, there were more than 900 bears. 

As the Arctic warms, it is taking longer for the ice to freeze on Hudson Bay. Without ice, polar bears cannot head onto the frozen bay to hunt ring seals and break their summer fast. Unable to adjust their biological clocks to the accelerating rate of climate change, the world’s most southerly population of polar bears has become the most threatened, starving to death or even eating juveniles in desperation. We’ll learn more about the polar bears later, but for now, the decomposing shipwreck immediately announces that we have left civilization and landed somewhere intrinsically remote and outrageously exotic as if we’d awoken from a dream to find ourselves in a Canadian Geographic story. In a narrative trick, I suppose we have.

Class in session at Parks Canada Centre. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Prince of Wales Fort. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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After dinner in the Tundra Inn – where staff exhibit an impressive level of patience with our overtired, overstimulated kids – we head to Churchill’s sprawling community centre to meet local artist Sandra Cook. Having gathered rocks during our visit to the shipwreck, Sandra invites us to paint scenes of flag trees and sunsets, whales, wolves and oceans. Ensuring our suitcases get heavier with homemade souvenirs, I’m not sure who has more fun, the kids or the parents.

Belugas at the zodiac. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Between bears and whales, the tumultuous history of Churchill is a story less told. The following morning, we hop on board Sea North Tours’ whale-friendly jet boat to visit the Prince of Wales Fort, a National Historic Site under the direction of Parks Canada. Here we discover the history of the Dorset, Thule, Inuit, Dene and Cree, and how a remarkable Cree woman named Thanadelthur brokered a truce between warring factions. We learn how the English and French arrived, tussling over the fur trade, and introduced their weapons and germs, which ultimately devastated the Indigenous population. Such history can be a difficult subject for young kids, so they turned their attention toward a curious red fox skulking about the fort. We have our first beluga encounter on the boat ride back to town, a small warm-up for what’s to come.

There are numerous ways for visitors to interact with the whales that reliably gather in the bay to feast on abundant capelin. Kids over eight years old can kayak with their parents. Adults can stand-up paddleboard, while younger kids like my seven-year-old get a zodiac ride. Either way, curious belugas are all but guaranteed to show up for the whale-watching excursion of a lifetime. Heading out the harbour into unusually calm open water, pods are immediately drawn to our zodiac as if we’re a magnet. With our protected props spinning at their lowest speed, the whales seem to relish the bubbles and low vibration. Adults and babies breach all about us, close enough for us to stare into their eyeballs. After an hour of this magic, we gently putter back towards the Churchill River estuary to catch the kayakers and paddle-boarders buzzing from their own beluga encounters in the tea-coloured water. 

Kayaker and belugas. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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After a dinner of bison burgers and arctic char at the Seaport Restaurant, we head over to the Museum of Polar Bears International to learn about Churchill’s more famous wildlife rockstar. Here, operations Manager Kieran McIver explains the life cycle, habits, territory and impact of climate change on the polar bears. Tundra Buggy One is parked outside, and after a tour of this innovative research station built and donated by Frontiers North, the kids are buzzing to get on a passenger buggy and head into the wild.

Despite the unseasonably high number of polar bear sightings around town, there’s no guarantee we’ll see much in the summer tundra. The bears are laying low, conserving energy for the long, hungry days ahead until the ice arrives. Still, the tall buggy offers long views over the tundra, steered by a veteran driver named Jim Baldwin, who commands instant respect from the kids. It’s a bumpy ride, and at times it feels like we’re floating across lakes as opposed to driving on the rugged tracks first established by the military in the 1950s.

Meeting new friends at the Wapusk Dog Yard. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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We see eagles and cranes, various birds and a lone caribou grazing on the low bushes.  There’s also no shortage of red herring in the form of rocks that resemble bears. Fortunately, Jim spots a bear that looks like a rock instead. He manoeuvres the buggy closer until we see a large male, splayed on the ground in an effort to stay cool, resembling nothing less than a carnivorous rug. The polar bear turbocharges the kids, or maybe they’re just responding to the chocolate chip cookies.

That evening, having blown off some steam in the community centre bowling alley, we gather for sunset s’mores at the beach. The kids throw their rocks, and the parents have a genuine wow moment. The northern lights show up again that evening, although Churchill’s 10 p.m. curfew alarm is a loud reminder that we should stay indoors and avoid wondering about. There’s one more adventure before we head to the airport: dog-carting with Dave Daley and his friendly companions at Wapusk Dog Yard.   Following a fun couple of runs on a track, Dave explains the proud history of his Metis people, fielding questions about dogsledding and emphasizing that nobody goes anywhere without strong leadership and committed teamwork.

The American kids were missing a week of school to be on this trip, but after a busy week, nobody had any doubt about the quantity or quality of their schooling in Churchill.  It’s been an unforgettable field trip to learn about exotic wildlife and the impact of climate change in the area, as well as geography, history, art, and Indigenous culture. We learned about the clever engineering behind Tundra Buggies and Jetboats and how communities can thrive in challenging environments. Making new friends, the kids absorbed the positive social impact that accompanies any bucket list experience. We have all learned so much, including the fact that one should never let school get in the way of a good education.  

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