When I first received the invite from Travel Manitoba and Frontiers North Adventures to join a weeklong trip to the Canadian sub-arctic, I nearly turned it down. Not because of the timing or the frigid temperatures or because I wasn't interested. But simply because the tour I was invited to join — Frontier North's weeklong “Northern Lights, Winter Nights” tour — normally carries a hefty pricetag of nearly $4,000 USD, plus the cost of getting to Winnipeg.
I don't necessarily ever pigeon-hole myself strictly into a “budget travel” or “backpacker” category with this blog. But I certainly am not a luxury traveler, either; I am a grad student who travels on a limited budget most of the time. How could I accept a trip worth $4,000+ and relate the experience back to my readers?
But then I read more about the trip. The tour included two huge bucket list items of mine (dogsledding and seeing the Northern Lights), as well as some time in the fascinating town of Churchill, Manitoba. This tiny town on Hudson Bay is all at once known as “The Polar Bear Capital of the World,” “The Beluga Capital of the World,” and one of the top 3 places in the world to view the Northern Lights.
When it came down to it, I simply couldn't pass up the opportunity.
So I accepted to trip, pledging to myself that, while I was there, I would do my best to research ways that average, adventurous travelers like me could make a similar trip to Churchill a reality.
But why visit Churchill?
As I mentioned above, Churchill is a pretty unique location. It's basically in the middle of nowhere on the sub-Arctic tundra, but has some seriously (namely 3) unique draws that make it absolutely worth the money and hassle to visit.
Swim with belugas
During the months of July and August each year, the Churchill River becomes the prime congregation spot for pods of playful and curious beluga whales traversing in from Hudson Bay. Thousands of these gentle giants can be spotted in the waters around Churchill during the summer months, and visitors can interact with them via zodiak tours, kayaking, and even snorkeling/swimming.
View polar bears in the wild
Churchill is also known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, because, in the fall (October-November), there are actually more polar bears in and around Churchill than regular residents. During the cold winter months, the big white bears are out on the Arctic sea ice. But, once the ice begins to melt in the spring and summer, they return to the mainland in the far north of Canada. In the autumn, it just so happens that the ice on Hudson Bay near Churchill is some of the first ice to begin freezing, thereby being the target for the region's polar bears so they can get back on the ice to hunt as soon as possible. For 6-8 weeks in the fall, then, Churchill becomes one of the only human settlements in the world from which people can observe polar bears in the wild.
Watch the Northern Lights dance
Lastly, Churchill claims to be one of the best places on earth to view the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. South of the Arctic Circle, Churchill is positioned perfectly beneath the auroral oval, where the dancing green lights are most active and able to be seen. Thanks to cold, crisp, and long winter nights and very little light pollution in the surrounding tundra landscape, going to Churchill in the off-season guarantees you a very good chance (75% or better) of seeing the Lights.
As you can see, the “why visit Churchill?” question is incredibly easy to answer. No matter what time of year you want to visit, there's some unique and once-in-a-lifetime-type experience to have in Churchill.
Churchill on a budget
So now that you totally want to go to Churchill, too, I'm sure you're wondering how to do it without having to book a tour that costs thousands of dollars, right?
Well, the bad news is that, in some instances, these expensive tours actually ARE the best and cheapest way to experience Churchill. In polar bear season, for example, the population in Churchill increases by roughly tenfold, and you won't find ANY cheap options. Seeing polar bears in the wild is the sort of once-in-a-lifetime experience that people WILL pay money for, and there's simply no way to avoid that.
If, however, you'd prefer to visit Churchill during beluga season or during the winter to see the Northern Lights, there ARE some ways to save a little bit of money:
Take the train
There are no roads leading to Churchill, meaning that driving up to this part of the Great White North is not an option. You can drive as far north as Thompson and then catch a flight or the train to Churchill from there. You can also fly from Winnipeg, but as there are only a handful of flights to/from Churchill each day on tiny little planes, you can bet that you'll pay a premium for such a flight (like, we're talking at least $1,000 roundtrip).
The most adventurous option would be to take the train all the way from Winnipeg on Via Rail Canada, which is a 2-day journey that can cost as little as $300-$400 roundtrip — for an economy coach seat, which you will have to sleep in for two nights. There are also sleeper cabins on the train, though they obviously are pricier.
Stay in the hostel
Churchill actually does have ONE hostel in town, run by the same couple that runs the Tundra Inn hotel. The hostel — called the Tundra House — is located in a cozy house that's been renovated to serve the hosteling crowd. The hostel is an HI and YHA recognized property, and offers small dorms as well as private rooms. The dorms start at $32 per night if you're an HI or YHA member, and private rooms run around $75 per night. All the expected amenities — linens, wifi, cable TV — are available, and an Australian couple I ran into in Churchill said that the Tundra House was one of the most “homey” hostels they've ever stayed in.
The only downside is that the hostel is NOT open during polar bear season.
Book a shorter package
If you can't afford the list price for a Frontiers North or similar adventure in Churchill, there are shorter and cheaper packages you can book — many of them through the Tundra Inn. For example, a 2-night beluga package (with accommodation and tours included) starts at $693 per person, and a 2-night Northern Lights package (similar to the tour I experienced, but just shorter) starts at $630 per person.
There sadly are no cheap/shorter polar bear packages available… if you want that experience, I'm afraid you'll just have to pay for it!
Or just give in and shell out
When it comes down to it, Churchill just isn't an especially budget-friendly destination. It's remote, it's small, and it's incredible — all factors that contribute to it being on the pricier side.
But it is SO WORTH IT.
Booking a packaged tour like the one I took with Frontiers North Adventures might seem shockingly expensive, but it's actually not terrible when you think about it. The tour I took, for example, included ALL food, transport, accommodation, and activities for an entire week, along with a fantastic local guide to take care of all the logistics for us. When you consider that the flight alone between Winnipeg and Churchill is upwards of $1,000, you start to realize that it's not really that outrageous.
If a trip to swim with belugas, view wild polar bears, or watch the Northern Lights is on your bucket list, then I think saving up for a packaged tour like this would be well worth the effort.
Which of the 3 reasons listed above would be the most likely to draw YOU to Churchill?
*Note: I was a guest of Travel Manitoba and Frontiers North Adventures on this trip. But, as always, all opinions are my own. And, I should note that I HAVE saved up for tours nearly as expensive as this one before in the past (I spent 3 years in high school saving up for a Lord of the Rings tour around New Zealand while working at a movie theater only on weekends), so I know it CAN be done!