There’s something in the air in Churchill that makes you feel alive—maybe it’s the remoteness of being so far north, the thrill of being right on the Hudson Bay, or that it’s considered the Polar Bear Capital of the world—and rightfully so, as it lies right in their migration path and is home to one biggest polar bear denning areas on Earth. But during summer, the bears aren’t the main event—it’s something else soft, white, adorable and much friendlier.
The sun is shining through a slightly overcast sky and the air is crisp as I layer my kayaking gear: gloves, a fleece top and waterproof pants, all underneath a sturdy dry suit. It’s 10 C today in this isolated part of northern Manitoba, which is considered warm for this part of the world (it’s been known to get down to -45.4 C here in Churchill). But the wind is brisk and the average water temperature in Hudson Bay sits at around 8 C in August. I’m feeling like a Michelin Man and slightly immobile in all the layers, but if my kayak gets tipped, it’s going to be quite the shock without them, so I oblige.
As I zip up my drysuit, grab my paddle and head towards the beach to launch my kayak into the mouth of the Churchill River, I mention to my guide, Heino, it must be windy out there on the water since there are so many white caps breaking in every direction. He laughs and responds, “Those aren’t white caps, they’re belugas.” I know then we’re in for something special—there must have been two dozen belugas surfacing not very far in the distance. Each summer, 57,000 belugas make their way to the Hudson Bay to feed and birth. Four thousand of them enter the Churchill River Estuary.
We paddle out, maybe 30 metres from the shore, and spot our first beluga from the water. At first, they’re shy and a bit hard to spot in the water, but as we paddle out further, the curious, almost fluorescent white, creatures become more interested and follow the bubbles created by our kayak rudders. They like the feeling of the air bubbles on their face, Heino explains.
After a while they are so comfortable with us being in the water that they nestle their white bodies right next to the kayaks, bumping the sides, swimming underneath. They’re so close I can hear their mesmerizing songs and chirps from my boat and feel the salty sprays of their breath on my cheeks. I’m slightly nervous they could flip my kayak, but thankfully I’m dressed for the occasion. Their adorable white faces peeking out of the murky brown water next to me as they come up to breathe feels as if they are grinning and saying hello. We sing back to them a little, and they respond with more song. I’ve never had a wildlife interaction quite like this, in actual communication and interaction with a marine mammal in the wild—they are so playful and expressive.
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Later that day there’s another chance to see the belugas from a motorized boat we take further up the Hudson Bay to where thousands of them spend their summers feeding on crustaceans, molting by rubbing their bodies against rocks and sand at the bottom of the river and giving birth to their calves. After about an hour’s ride north, we’re surrounded by them. It’s impossible to look in any direction and not see them. There must be hundreds of the pearly white adults and small grey babies here.
Our guides drop the hydrophone in the water as the belugas seemingly put on a show for us. Now we can really hear them singing, chirping and communicating with each other. My squeals of delight are on par with the belugas. I was taken back to a moment in time, in preschool, lying on the red shag carpet floor of my Montessori classroom for relaxation time while my teacher, Mrs. Hoen, put on Raffi’s Baby Beluga which filled the room—if you haven’t heard the song, it starts with the sounds of the waves and a beluga’s song through a hydrophone. I was living that moment of childlike wonder but in real life. This is, by far, one of the most magical wildlife experiences on Earth—to see the belugas and to know they’re also seeing you and telling you something is like no other interaction. Beluga echolocation can extend over 120kHz, and they are known for being extraordinarily vocal—dubbed the canaries of the sea. They use the blowholes on the top of their head to make clicks, chirps, and other sounds to communicate with one another and as well as to identify food and danger.
The boat we’re on has engines designed to be quiet—there’s been research in the Arctic about the effect that sound has on belugas and it’s something this operator says they’re conscious of. Another unique way to hang with the belugas is by going Beluga AquaGliding™ with Lazy Bear Expeditions (getting on a floating mat tethered to a zodiac while laying on your stomach, face in the Churchill River with a snorkel and mask on).
I’m staying at the Lazy Bear Lodge. The idea for it came about in the 80s, and it was completed in 2005 by owners Wally and Dawn Daudrich. The lodge itself was built over 10 years, using hand tools with the help of local craftspeople, 90 percent recycled logs and salvaged wood. Nowadays it’s a warm and cozy haven in the Arctic wilderness. About a mile from the lodge, 40 acres of boreal forest is also host to northern Manitoba’s most northerly farm, on which you’ll also find one of the owner’s sons heading up The Boral Garden’s Experimental Greenhouse. Which, remarkably, has a 10-month growing season even way up here in the Arctic.
They use the greenhouse to grow organic produce served at the lodge (alongside Indigenous foods such as braised peppered elk, arctic char and Manitoba bison) instead of shipping it in from other parts of the province. It’s powered by an 800-amp power and switching station, utilizing hydro-generated electricity. They also rely on solar power and double core plastic insulation to reduce energy costs and impact on the environment.
“The soil in Churchill, and up north in general, is very difficult to grow things in,” says Daudrich. Instead of shipping it from down south, we thought it would be better to find a way to get it up here, locally and more sustainably, so we thought we’d make our soil, which we did using sediment from the pond, peat moss, seaweed and clay.”
It took a while to get the soil formula right for growing, but it’s completely local. They also pride themselves on being 100 percent organic and don’t use fertilizer or pesticides in the soil, just food from the lodge that’s composted with seaweed.
They grow over 1,000 tomatoes per season, as well as potatoes, carrots, peas, beans, peppers, lettuce, herbs and rhubarb. There are even fruit trees: apple trees, plum trees and pear trees which are the first fruit trees grown at this northern latitude. You absolutely must try the homemade rhubarb pie back at the Lazy Bear Lodge, where the chefs also use freshly picked produce from the greenhouse to decide their daily special.
If you want to venture any further than town by foot, you’ll need an armed guide because after all, this is the polar bear capital of the world. That said, even with the threat of a polar bear run in, it’s possible to get outside for a walk or hike safely. In the summertime, the tundra is filled with moss, orange, and red lichen, and fields full of purple fireweed.
We take an easy walk around the gravel road and glacier-sculped boulders around Cape Merry where there are breathtaking views of the Hudson Bay and the Prince of Wales Fort. By now I know it’s not just hundreds of whitecaps I can see breaking in the ocean. Having a guide with you to explain the history and region’s role in the Prince of Wales Fort is makes it worthwhile.
Wandering around the fort—an early 18th century Hudson's Bay Company fur trade fortress— feels like going back in time, seeing remnants of the fort, an old cannon and historic names carved into the rock.
We do spot one polar bear during our summer adventure in Churchill, and he was magnificent, but if you’re hoping to see bears, the peak season is during the fall and winter months of October and November. It’s worth a visit to Churchill for the belugas alone—their song and seemingly smiling faces will stay with you always, and you’ll literally be able to say you spent a few hours chatting with the friendly locals at sea.
Disclaimer: Travel writer and adventurer Alicia-Rae Light’s visit to Churchill was kindly hosted by Tourism Manitoba. All opinions are her own and the trip was not sponsored by Explore.