Our little Zodiac is gliding along the Churchill River, my two kids hanging their heads over the side looking for beluga whales. The sun is shining and reflecting off the water, while sub-Arctic shrubs dance on the breeze along the shore. We were up early on a long summer day to catch the hide tide, and hopefully, some whales.
Suddenly, we see a white hump break the surface of the river and our guide slows the boat down. Six to eight little white whales surround the boat, investigating us as we check them out. Two or three whales swim aside the boat and turn their heads to look at us. Belugas are the only whales with flexible necks, their seven neck vertebrae aren’t fused, and they turn and nod at us, seemingly making eye contact.
Each summer thousands of beluga whales migrate to Churchill’s coast after wintering in the high Arctic. They give birth and nurse their babies in the relative safety of the Churchill River.
Belugas outnumber Churchill’s human population of around a thousand three to one and are one of the big tourist draws in summer.
Like the belugas, my husband Henry, two sons, and I made the trip to Churchill for a summer holiday. We wanted to see polar bears and beluga whales, of course, but also to gaze at subarctic wildflowers, learn about the history of the Hudson Bay, and play on the beach.
We started our visit with a stop at the Parks Canada Visitor Centre. Exploring the exhibits, we learned about the flora, fauna, and people that make their home here. A Ranger fascinated the boys with tales of life at the Prince of Wales Fort. They could almost imagine themselves as fur traders in the 250-year-old stone outpost. Just hearing about difficult winters made me glad we were there in summer.
From the visitor center we drove to Cape Merry where we could see the fort across the Churchill River. We lined up the canons and pretended to shoot boats coming into the river from the Hudson Bay. Orange “bird perch” lichen colored the glacially scoured boulders that we all leapt between. We ran from rock to rock until we were overlooking the Hudson Bay where beluga whales were leaving the river for the evening to hunt in the estuary.
Churchill is both the “Beluga Whale Capital of the World” and the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” and we wanted to see both. We met up with Jim, our Frontiers North Adventures Tundra Buggy® driver. The boys were so impressed with the giant wheels and high platform of the Tundra Buggy®, we wondered if anything else we saw that day would compare.
Henry and I had been on Tundra Buggies® many times during Churchill’s famous polar bear season in October and November. We didn’t think a summer tour could be as interesting. We were wrong.
The bright green willows and vibrant pink fireweed blossoms immediately grabbed our attention. Shallow ponds dotted the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Even before we saw any polar bears, we were smitten with summer on the Buggy.
Before long we saw a big polar bear walking slowly along the opposite side of a pond from the road. It stopped and relieved itself, which our boys thought was hilarious, before rambling off into the distance. After lunch in the buggy, we caught sight of another bear; this one walking toward a pond.
Everyone in the Tundra Buggy® lowered their windows and aimed their cameras at the furry, white beast. It waded out into the very shallow pond and lay down. Even though it didn’t feel especially warm to us, bears get hot in summer and the cool water chills them out. When this bear stood up, it had a muddy, gray bathtub ring around its middle.
On the way back, Jim let the kids “drive” the Tundra Buggy® over the rough road. Another highlight for kids who are a long way from driver’s licenses.
Bears, belugas, and forts are fun, but I really wanted to see wildflowers. On a walk along the coast of the Hudson Bay, I was rewarded. Bright, red bearberry berries amongst shiny, deep green leaves crawled over rocks. Anemones and grass of Parnassus filled meadows. And seemingly everywhere, the downy white tufts of Arctic avens made it look like there was a troll convention in town.
On our last day in Churchill, Henry and the kids went out to look for belugas from the boat once again. I treated myself to a snorkeling tour. We weren’t five minutes from the Port when our guide spotted a pod of beluga whales. The four of us snorkelers, donning thick wetsuits and hoods, dropped into the cold waters of the estuary where the Churchill River meets the sea in the Hudson Bay. Twenty or so whales swam around us, singing songs and living up to their nickname “sea canaries.”
Once again, the whales seemed as interested in me, as I was in them. They swam close by, emerging from the murky water like magic. A mom with her gray, slick calf swam so close I could have reached out and touched them. I sang back to them, best I could through my snorkel.
Our time in northern Manitoba was filled with awe-inspiring encounters with the great white icons, polar bears and beluga whales. It was also full of history and wildflowers. But, the thing we all took home with us was experiencing these things together. And when we talk about our summer holiday in Churchill there is more “we” than “I” to our stories. That is what you want from a family vacation; time together experiencing an amazing place.
Want to experience this? Check out the suggested itineraries here.