Find the way to Churchill’s polar bears

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Posted October 9, 2013 by Tamara Baluja in Manitoba
Polar bears

Visitors make the trek to Churchill for the rare opportunity to see polar bears in their natural habitat. (Photo courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission)

Travel Advice from Tamara Baluja
Vacay.ca Writer

CHURCHILL, MANITOBA — With the season for polar-bear viewing kicking into high gear this month, Vacay.ca is taking a look at the two ways of getting to Churchill from Winnipeg. Don’t know whether to take the train or fly? Here’s your guide to all the pros and cons of each option. Bear in mind (pun not intended) that most packages for polar-bear viewing will include the cost of transportation from Winnipeg, but this guide will help you better decide which option works for you.

Option 1: Fly to Churchill

Daily flights from Winnipeg are available year-round. There are two airlines — Calm Air and Kivalliq Air — that fly to Churchill.

Pros: If you are short on time, take the two-hour flight. It’s the fastest way to get to and from Churchill. Flying also offers you more options for departure dates with daily service and Calm Air adds more flights during the prime season, and on some days, offers as many as four flights daily.

Cons: Round-trip flights with Calm Air start at $1,284 and do not vary by season. At that price, it’s more expensive than taking the cheapest air fare.

Pro tip: For fall trips, book your travel well in advance as seats tend to fill up quickly. You’re more likely to get a cheaper fare if you book at least 10 days in advance. And let your hotel in Churchill know of your arrival and departure times and they will arrange transportation from the airport, which is about a 15-minute ride outside the town.

Travelling by train from Winnipeg is probably the most comfortable way to reach Churchill. (Tamara Baluja/Vacay.ca)

Option 2: Take the VIA train from Winnipeg to Churchill

The VIA Rail train from Winnipeg takes two-and-a-half days in one direction. Hot pre-cooked meals and beds are available (extra payment required) and the trains are equipped with decent and clean washrooms. Round-fare costs can also vary wildly, depending on the type of sleeping arrangement you choose, from $340 economy fare to approximately $1,650 for a private sleeper car for three.

Pros: If you can devote the time, even for just one direction, it’s a relaxing and carefree journey. In the summer, which is prime beluga whale season in Churchill, the train ride is spectacular and you can watch the scenery transform from city to farmland and grassland to boreal forest and finally tundra. In the fall, the views might not be as engaging, but you will still witness the landscape change. During October, prime bear season in Churchill, VIA also has a chef onboard who whips up scrumptious meals for passengers.

Cons: There is also no WiFi on the train, which might drive some riders batty. (Personally, I consider the absence of an Internet connection a pro because it makes conversations richer and relaxation easier to sink into.) At two-and-a-half days, this journey is long. This is a con only because time is often what people don’t have. There are a limited number of travel dates as the train only departs twice a week from Winnipeg and it is often delayed.

There is actually a secret Option 3, which no one seems to talk about, but should you want to cut down on the travel time, you can drive eight hours from Winnipeg to Thompson and shave off almost a good day. Then catch the train for the remainder of the journey to Churchill.

Pro tip: Fresh fruits and veggies aren’t readily available in Churchill as the northern Manitoba town is dependent on the trains to bring in food. I would recommend stocking up on food supplies in Thompson as it will be fresher than whatever you find in Churchill.

My recommendation: For the sake of variety, I would take the train to Churchill and then fly back to Winnipeg. This allows you to get the best of both worlds, but should weather prevent you from swimming with the beluga whales in the Hudson Bay or seeing the polar bears in Wapusk National Park or the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, it’s easier to change a flight given that there are more airlines than trains back to Winnipeg.

One thing is certain, Churchill is totally worth the hassle of getting there. During the fall, it is one of the few northern communities in the world with (relatively) easy access to polar bears in their natural habitat, and it offers a multitude of viewing opportunities from day trips on an arctic buggy to overnight tours at Wapusk National Park. And in the summer, you can snorkel or kayak in the Churchill estuary, which is spotted white as 3,000 playful belugas migrate from the Arctic Ocean to give birth to their calves.

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About the Author

Tamara Baluja
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