Spot Polar Bears and The Northern Lights All In One Trip

For six weeks every year, this town in Canada has more polar bears than humans.

Look at that good stretch. | Peter Lilja/Photodisc/Getty Images
Look at that good stretch. | Peter Lilja/Photodisc/Getty Images

The town of Churchill, Manitoba is so remote you can only get there by rail or small plane — unless you’re a polar bear, in which case you’d just lumber in on foot. Known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, Churchill’s human residents (about 900) are fully stocked with tales of impromptu polar bear run-ins: Opening up their drapes only to come face to face with coal-black eyes, or flickering the flashlight on their phone to scare a beast off on the street. There’s a 24-hour hotline for sightings, 675-BEAR, which in a busy year might get used over 300 times.

Spotting a polar bear—this time, on purpose—is a bucket-list opportunity compelling nature enthusiasts to journey far up to this former 18th-century trading post, 1,000 miles north of Winnipeg, sitting on the rocky Hudson Bay. Here the dazzling bands of the northern lights are active over 300 nights a year and the wildlife includes arctic foxes, red foxes, camouflaged arctic hare, moose, wolves, and some 390 species of birds. But if you’re all about the bears, the best time to visit is October and November, when the largest land carnivores converge by the hundreds.

What you see right before an alien abduction. J/k it's the northern lights over Churchill. | Alan Dyer/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

The big event? Feeding season. “When the sea starts to freeze, ice gets pushed by the currents and the wind into that bay,” says Vanessa Desorcy, Marketing Manager of Churchill Wild wilderness lodges.  “And the bears know that the sea ice is going to form there first, and then they can head out and start hunting seals again.” 

To spot them, tour operators take visitors from Churchill to the outer tundra, where they cruise around in custom 4x4 vehicles the size of massive boosted-up school buses. They’re equipped with outdoor viewing platforms, designed to keep you safe out of reach of the bears.

Summer tourists get rewarded with a different wildlife-spotting opportunity: adorable chirping white beluga whales. From July to September, about 65,000 of them congregate in the Churchill River basin to give birth and snack on capelin and Lake Cisco fish.

“Belugas are super, super curious,” says Vanessa. “We take guests out on zodiac boats and they’ll come right out to the boat and check them out.” Other adventure outfitters use kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.

Belugas are called the "canaries of the sea" because they like to chirp chirp chirp. | Paul Souders/Stone/Getty Images

Travel to Canada from the outside world is pretty much at a halt (save for a few exceptions), but for those who are able to access them Churchill’s tours are currently operating at a lower capacity. While we wait, it’s a good time to save up pennies and plan ahead. Tours from outfitters like Lazy Bear Expeditions, Great White Bear Tours, and Frontiers North Adventures begin at $400 for one day, up to multi-day excursions for around $5,000. Book the tours as far ahead as you can—they fill up fast.

The most extraordinary encounters might happen at Churchill Wild, where you can actually walk amongst the polar bears. Each of their three luxury ecolodges—with multi-day packages beginning at $9550—require an extra plane ride to access, which allows for spectacular aerial wildlife spotting: “When you’re flying into the lodges you often see bears that are down along that coastline,” says Vanessa.  “And then in the summer you can see beluga whales.” On the property, bears sometimes come right up to your cabin (pretty wild when you’re having dinner, or are like, naked).

If you're gonna get this close with Churchill Wild, prepare some conversation starters. | Photo courtesy of Churchill Wild

Churchill Wild offers 12 different experiences, ranging from a relatively sedate polar bear photo safari, to their summer Birds, Bears and Belugas excursions, to a 14-day immersion at their ultra-remote Nanuk Lodge nestled between the Arctic coastline and the Boreal forest. Guides have prior expertise in brown bear or grizzly bear guiding and, as per government guidelines, keep the group 100 meters away. But that doesn’t mean the bears can’t wander over to you. 

“Sometimes they’re curious about us and come in a bit closer,” says Vanessa. “They want to see who we are and what we’re doing there.”

If they get too close, guides are equipped with starter pistols and other devices to make noise. But sometimes, all it takes is the human voice. “These bears are used to living in a very quiet environment so often just talking to them does the trick,” explains Vanessa. “Sometimes you just have to say ‘Hey there, that’s close enough, back up.’”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. If she ever met a polar bear she would probably just ask about its hopes and dreams.