Dismiss Notice
Welcome to The Forum. Please register here, to join the conversation. It only takes a moment!

Churchill, Canada, and the Polar Bears!

Discussion in 'United States and Canada' started by R.R., Oct 22, 2016.

  1. R.R.

    R.R. Level 2 Member

    Seeing the polar bears was at the top of Spouse’s bucket list, so I secretly planned this week-long trip as a birthday surprise. Since I believed that it would be very unlikely that we would ever return to Churchill again, I decided to leave lots of time for flexibility, due to not knowing precisely how things would proceed on the way to, and once in, Churchill.

    Here’s the itinerary:

    Day 1 – Flight: Seattle to Winnipeg (via Vancouver, BC) – Aeroplan miles
    • Overnight Winnipeg Airport Marriott, annual free night
    Day 2 – Flight Winnipeg to Churchill, on First Air
    • Can use Aeroplan miles, but availability is extremely limited, and was not available during polar bear season, even 11 months ahead of time
    Day 2 – 7 – 5 nights, Bear Country Inn
    • Bear Country Inn was under renovation, so the owner John put us up at the Churchill Motel next door (which he also owns)
    • Although Bear Country Inn provides continental breakfast, none was available at Churchill Hotel, and we were promised a $10 CAN per person, per day, credit so we could get breakfast elsewhere
    Day 3 – buffer day in case of flight delays
    Day 4 – Great White Bear Tour – tundra buggy tour, reserved in advance
    Day 5 – buffer day in case Spouse wanted to go on tundra again, or do other tours
    Day 6 – buffer day -- ditto
    Day 7 – Flight Churchill to Winnipeg, on First Air
    • Overnight Winnipeg Airport Marriott, annual free night
    Day 8 – Flight Winnipeg to Seattle (via Minneapolis) – Alaska miles on Delta


    Trip costs: (in U.S. dollars), per person:

    Seattle-Winnipeg = $ 117 (miles + $52.70 + $63.70)
    Churchill flight = $ 942.84
    Health Ins = $ 22 (out-of-country)
    Bear Country Inn = $ 490 (+ 2 free Marriott nights)
    Food/Misc = $ 395.12 (including non-tundra tours, souvenirs)
    Tickets/Tours = $ 366 (Great White Polar Bear tundra buggy tour)

    Current Total: $2332.96 (not including breakfast credit [pending] and cashback redemptions)


    Trip commentary:

    This trip was more costly than usual for us, both in terms of money and time, due to the remote location of Churchill. There are no roads in, so your choice is either a daily flight or a train arrival (three days per week). The train journey can be up to 48 hours, and Spouse gets motion sick easily, so night trains were out. And when there’s a train derailment or other train emergency, everything and everyone must be shipped in by plane only, at much greater expense. So air travel it was, and because of flight times, we had to split the journey from/to Seattle into two days, with an overnight in Winnipeg each way.

    Winnipeg Marriott: The Winnipeg Airport Marriott is extremely convenient, located a 5-minute walk through the Airport parking garage to the hotel just beyond it. The Marriott Bistro had a decent menu, considering it’s your only choice – but during our initial night there, they were out of chicken. That nixed a lot of menu choices! But we were well-fed nonetheless, and I only suffered sticker shock from the price of Spouse’s wine.

    The room was nice and the bed was very comfy – especially compared to the Churchill Motel beds that were to come. Coincidentally, we stayed in the same room on both the initial stay and the return stay six days later. Did they arrange that on purpose?

    First Air: Our flights to and from Churchill apparently only operate at early and late hours (7am to Churchill, 8pm return). At the Winnipeg Airport, First Air and Calm Air share a check-in desk. I tried to check in online in advance, in order to get seat assignments, but the First Air site didn’t let me. At the check-in desk, they not only weigh your checked baggage, but they also weigh and tag your carry-on item, to ensure load balancing.

    At the appointed time, we walked through the airport gate, down the stairs, down a long hallway, and out onto the tarmac, to board the plane at some distance from the terminal. The flight was mostly full, and would continue on to Rankin Inlet after its stop in Churchill.

    Churchill Airport: Well, it’s the smallest airport I’ve ever been in. Two check-in desks, the tiniest baggage half-carousel ever, and no security apparatus visible. The check-in agents were also the gate agents and tarmac staff, too. I was dying of curiosity as to how they would operate air security on our way out of Churchill, and was surprised to learn later that there was none. Just show up, get your boarding pass by the cut-off time, and walk out to the tarmac to board the plane. No inspection of people or carry-on luggage whatsoever.


    Ground Transportation: This was a delight – in that there is none, and so the locals essentially drive you around as needed. John Jr. picked us and others up in his red van and drove us from the Churchill Airport – and did the same when we left town. Otherwise, ground transportation is your feet. The town is small enough to walk around if you don’t mind the cold (20-30 degrees Fahrenheit, but you brought your winter gear, right?), but it was so dry, and all the snow that fell was blown away by the heavy winds, so I never actually needed my ski pants or goggles.

    Bear Country Inn: This inn is apparently the oldest in Churchill, and 12 of the rooms were under renovation. The other 14 in another wing are permanently out of use, and plans for the building are undetermined. The Churchill Motel is basic, but the heater worked well against the cold outside, and had a fridge, cable TV, local phone (needed since there was no cell service, and wi-fi was spotty), and a recently renovated bathroom with plenty of hot water. They were also doing renovations on sections of the Churchill Motel, which was not the most relaxing – so if I’d known that plan ahead of time, I might have chosen a different (though likely more expensive) lodge in town.

    The Dancing Bear restaurant inside the Churchill Motel was not in operation, hence the afore-mentioned promise of a credit to get breakfast out – not as convenient in cold temperatures, but acceptable. However, the credit still hasn’t shown up on my online statement, and I’m getting no response to emails to John Jr and his sister Samantha, who handled our room charge, so I filed a dispute with my credit card company and am awaiting the results. In the meantime, the entire hotel bill charge is in suspension, so I get to hold onto my money for some extra days.

    Overall, the daily lodging rate is quite high compared to U.S. hotels in small towns, but the lodging is limited and in extremely high demand during bear season, and we could have paid a lot more at other lodgings. Thank goodness we could defray some costs with cashback from Wells Fargo activities earlier in the year! And all the charges from this trip were used to fulfill minimum spend requirements on new credit cards, so these expenses will pay themselves forward in future miles and points.

    Dining: The food was good all over town. We ate at Gypsy’s Bakery, with fresh-baked pastries and full-day menus, open 6am-10pm. We also at the Lazy Bear Lodge, the Tundra Inn, and the Tundra Pub. Everyone is friendly, and the options were varied. We also got food supplies for the room at the Northern Store, the grocery and general store just across the street from the Churchill Motel, which had a good selection even of gluten-free and organic specialty items.


    Town Amenities: There’s lots of shopping available for all kinds of souvenirs and local handicrafts. Plus, the Churchill community center and medical center is within walking distance, and you can indulge in swimming, bowling, the library (with wi-fi), a children’s play area, a cafeteria, an ice rink, a cinema, or visit the pharmacy, all conveniently under the same roof as (but separated by locked doors from) the children’s school. It’s a great place to get warm if you’re out walking, and it’s right next to the beach too.

    Overall, we were told that there are about 700 official residents, and numerous people we encountered said they were only in Churchill to work during bear season. Apparently, it’s a great way to see the bears while earning (not spending) money. Otherwise, year-round jobs center mainly on the health center, community center, school, airport, train station, and grocery store, while others are seasonal. Dentists and massage therapists come to town for brief stints, and post announcements in the community center in order to pre-book appointments. I really wanted a massage, but alas, the therapist had left town the day that we arrived. Bummer.

    Wildlife: Apparently, there are three tourist seasons in Churchill, and two are devoted to wildlife: beluga whales (summer) and polar bears (autumn). Thousands of belugas are visible in summer, and a few were even still in town when we were there between October 9-14 – though this is rare and only due to the unseasonal temps in early October.


    Polar bear season is early October to mid-November, but depending on the temperatures and ice, the polar bears can migrate to the shore late, or depart on solid ice early. If I’d known more about these fluctuations, I might have chosen a later week in October – but I instead looked for a week that had more tundra buggy availability posted.


    Access to the tundra is strictly controlled by permit, and is allowed to only two companies: Great White Polar Bear Tours and Tundra Buggy Tours. Each company is assigned its own area within the tundra, and has exclusive access to that area. Each company also operates a tundra lodge, but that was more expensive and involved than I thought we’d need – and that belief turned out to be correct. Other companies can drive on the remote local roads but can’t enter the tundra; however, bears are often seen near town, near the airport, or off the tundra, so a non-buggy tour can yield sightings too. The Northern Studies Centre tracks sightings on its lobby white board, and locals pass around news of sightings as a form of local gossip. During our week there, a mama-and-baby bear pair were on the move, but we were not among those who saw them.


    Great White Polar Bear Tour: This was a full-day tour, beginning around 7am. The mini-van circulates to all of the inns to pick up the day’s guests and drives you out to the tundra buggy station, about a half hour away. Before 9am, you’re on your way out to the tundra. Our driver had eagle eyes and good binoculars, and spotted a bear on the Coastal Road inside the tundra early on. We drove to near its location and stopped, and it sleepily woke itself up in curiosity, relieved itself, and ambled toward us. Our guide advised that this bear appeared to be a male, and due to a darker behind, we nicknamed him “Ink Spot.” He spent about an hour watching us curiously, while we stayed as quiet as possible, allowing us to get lots of good photos.


    Then he ambled off to eat kelp nearby, and we watched from a distance. For the rest of the day, we drove around the tundra, as mapped out in our Polar Bear Passports, but never found another bear up close. We did see all sorts of other great wildlife, though: numerous red foxes, an arctic fox, a hugely fat white hare, many ptarmigans, and numerous other birds. I wanted to see an arctic owl, but never did. Spouse was greatly satisfied with the bear encounter, and decided that another tundra tour wasn’t needed.


    Dog Sledding: Since we had two more buffer days in Churchill, we instead went on a dog mushing tour outside town, as Spouse is a huge fan of pups! The Blue Sky dogs were gorgeous, and they were so excited to run. Those who weren’t chosen were clearly jealous. Because there was too little ice, we used a sled on wheels, but we still definitely got the sledding experience through the outlands. (And as always, the operators picked up and dropped off everyone at their hotels – very convenient.) After the ride, the two favorite dogs joined the group inside the tent, where we all enjoyed hot drinks and cranberry bannock while sharing digital images among our cameras and phones. This tour was $110 Canadian per person, which translated to $86 U.S.


    Northern Lights: The Northern Lights are most visible in Spring (the third tourist season in Churchill), but the Northern Lights forecast website showed that visibility might be 3 out of 10, and so we tried to keep watch for them while we were awake after dark. One of John Jr’s cousins, who was in town just to help with the renovations, was feeling tired from work, and so offered to “take a break” to drive us around town to a darker vantage point from which to see the lights. Sadly, the lights did not appear during our drive, but the staff put a “Please Disturb” sign on our door to indicate that we should be awakened if the lights appeared. And luckily enough, we were awoken by a knock at 1:15am on Thursday morning. The green flourishes in the sky formed and dissolved, and I stayed outside watching them much longer than the bitter high winds indicated I should. Awesome!

    Driving Tour: Our final buffer day in town was filled with a driving tour, led by John Sr., the owner of our hotel. We drove to the Northern Studies Centre, to the east, and back through town to Cape Merry to the north, in hopes of seeing bears and belugas. But alas, it was not to be. This 4-hour afternoon tour was $60 Canadian, translated to $48 US.

    Along the way, though, we did visit several facilities (from the outside), including the Polar Bear Holding Facility, in which bears are held if they come too close to town, before being shipped out onto the ice, and several Northern Lights clear dome facilities far away from the town lights.

    Eskimo Museum: Before catching our flight out on the final day, we visited the town’s Eskimo Museum, which is run by the Catholic Church (not by native Inuit, as we learned from an Inuit Elder who was visiting our hotel), and which displays various items collected over the decades by Catholic church representatives. There is a surprising quantity of items, well-labelled, but there was also a certain sadness and resignation in the voice of the Inuit Elder who described the lower place in the social hierarchy that the Inuit people feel that they hold compared to whites. I was really glad we had the chance to talk to him, to get a good counter-point to the museum exhibit.

    All in all, Churchill is quite an adventure! Please get in touch if you have any follow-up questions that I can help answer.
     
    Last edited: Oct 22, 2016
    • Like Like x 6
    • Winner Winner x 5
    • List
  2. italdesign

    italdesign Level 2 Member

    Very nice trip. However, all photo links give "access denied".

    For the flight cost of $900+ per person, that is just from Winnipeg to Churchill RT?
     
  3. R.R.

    R.R. Level 2 Member

    Media permissions should be updated now. And yes, that's Winnipeg to Churchill RT -- and why I was super-bummed that I couldn't get any Aeroplan availability even using flexible dates.
     
  4. italdesign

    italdesign Level 2 Member

    This is an amazing bucket list-grade trip. Way to go!

    I wonder if there's any last minute award availability in peak season. I guess the only way to find out is to call since they don't show up on AC.com.

    Am I understanding right that Aeroplan can be used for BOTH First Air AND Calm Air (and both fly to YYQ)?
     
  5. R.R.

    R.R. Level 2 Member

    Yes, I had to call, since you can't book online. Sadly, I was out of luck no matter which dates I suggested within the 5-week season, but I hope future adventurers fare better.

    [Not sure. - edited per below] A year ago, Aeroplan could be used for First Air, which is what I tried to book. The flight itself was also operated by First Air, and I didn't see a way at the time to use miles on Calm Air.

    EDIT: Yes, Aeroplan works on Calm Air too: www[dot]calmair[dot]com/aeroplan.html
    And here is the similar page for First Air: firstair[dot]ca/about/aeroplan/
     
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2016
  6. thepaul500

    thepaul500 Level 2 Member

    Wow, I've so been wanting to do almost the exact same trip with the exception of taking the train from Winnepeg to Churchill instead. Going to use a few of your suggestions, thank you!
     
  7. R.R.

    R.R. Level 2 Member

    I spoke to numerous visitors who had taken the train, and most were quite happy with it. I might have been too -- though it eats up two days at both ends of your trip, and I wanted to reserve the bulk of our time to actually be in Churchill. But the main deal-breaker was Spouse' motion sickness: We had taken a night train into Florence several years ago and it ended with upset stomach contents all over the streets of Florence. Not pretty and not to be repeated. Dramamine is a must even on calm flights, but night trains are apparently a step too far.

    Not everyone took the train from Winnipeg, though. Some Canadians drove to Thompson, and took the train from there. The Churchill train station itself is cute and has a good exhibit on the local wildlife, history, and culture.

    EDIT: Most inns will also provide shuttle service to/from the train station, even though it's much closer to the main "boulevard" than the airport. I did, however, see a couple people wheeling their suitcases near the train station despite the freezing temps, though these could have been locals or seasonal workers.
     
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2016
  8. heavenlyjane

    heavenlyjane Level 2 Member

    Your writeup is extremely useful! Thanks so much.

    We're thinking that we'll sign up for the short course at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (www.churchillscience.ca/events/#e5be6f). Courses last 7 days but include lectures and daily field trips. It's pricy but cheaper than Elder Hostel or other private tours. The polar bear courses run from early October through mid November.

    Here is an old blog post inspired by my query (I'm the Leslie mentioned in the post): http://pointsaway.com/village-polar-bears-atlanta-churchill-manitoba. The date of this post is a small indication of how long we've been trying to make this trip happen.

    We now have lots and lots of Aeroplan points, which I had been hoping could be used for the Winnipeg-Churchill flight. Here are a few web sites that offer information on using Aeroplan.
    1. A Reddit conversation on using Aeroplan miles specifically for Churchill: www.reddit.com/r/Winnipeg/comments/3m4ej8/trip_to_churchil.
    2. A helpful more recent blog on booking Calm Air flights using Aeroplan miles: http://canadiankilometers.boardingarea.com/2014/06/23/aeroplan-redemptions-calm-air.
     
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2016
  9. R.R.

    R.R. Level 2 Member

    Nice post! Yes, this is a destination that takes a fair bit of pre-planning. When I first encountered lack of availability on First Air using Aeroplan, I considered delaying the trip and trying again the following year. If this hadn't been a #1 Bucket List item, that's what would have happened. But this was a unique case, and since life isn't getting any longer, seeing the delight on Spouse's face at the sight of a Polar Bear birthday card was enough to make the alternate cash/cashback strategies worthwhile.

    One more note about possible bear-sighting opportunities: The Polar Bear Holding Facility transfers bears to the ice regularly (mama-and-cubs immediately, and individual bears after 30 days in the facility), and has now begun to inform town residents when such transfers are happening. Residents and visitors can watch the transfer (though we missed the transfer during our visit because we were out on the tundra), but you can't get too close as the proceedings are supervised by one of the four local members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (I myself never saw any of these RCMP, but twice saw their vehicles parked in front of resident houses.)
     
  10. heavenlyjane

    heavenlyjane Level 2 Member

    Victory! I have been doing a little victory dance since last night when I was able to confirm my flights to Churchill on Calm Air using Aeroplan points. My reservation (single traveler) is for the prime polar bear season in November 2017.

    I had to call the Aeroplan Service Centre office. I was on hold for 45 minutes, which the CSR said was typical. Once a human came on, I was told I had to submit my preferred flights dates and then they'd contact (telegraph?) Calm Air up in Churchill to see if the dates work. I needed to call back after 24 hours to see if my itinerary was approved. Internet chatter suggested this back and forth iterates until I and Calm Air are in agreement. However when I called back yesterday, I found out my first choice of filights had been approved!

    The cost is an amazing 15K Aeroplan miles RT + CAD$30 Aeroplan fee (+ ~CAD$20 in Calm Air fees to be paid at the counter on the day of the flight). The phenomenal redemption is due to an Aeroplan policy of flights costing only 7.5K miles each way within the same province. Winnipeg and Churchill are situated at opposite ends of Manitoba. Thus an RT flight valued at $900 is costing me 15K miles and <$60. Victory!! The key is booking early and being lucky, I guess.

    I have enrolled in an 8-day course that offered in 3 sessions and has spots for 36 persons per sesson. Registrations opened last week and my session is already half filled. Course fee includes lodging, meals, sightseeing trips in Churchill, lectures with experts, daily polar bear encounters and even a low-flying helicopter ride over pack ice. Cost is $3385 CAD ($2553 USD or $365/day). For comparison's sake, a 7-day National Geographic Society tour runs $6900 USD, including Calm Air flight.

    Getting to Winnipeg from my home airport will be easy with a decent choice of routes. I have whittled this down to an amazing economical trip, thanks to points and a favorable currency exchange rate.

    If anyone wants to do this trip in the future, I strongly suggest you apply for the TD Aeroplan Visa card.
     
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2017
    • Like Like x 4
    • Winner Winner x 2
    • List
  11. thepaul500

    thepaul500 Level 2 Member

    1000X cooler than taking a shower on a plane. I am insanely jealous of you.
     
  12. R.R.

    R.R. Level 2 Member

    Woo-hoo Congrats, @heavenlyjane! I visited the Northern Studies Centre but did not stay there or take any classes, so I'll be very interested to hear your trip report. Enjoy!!
     
  13. R.R.

    R.R. Level 2 Member

    Did I get lucky??? So... we were promised a $10 CAN per person per day credit, because the daily breakfast that was promised in our Bear Country Inn booking was not available. After multiple follow-up contacts to the owner, with no response, I had filed a dispute with my credit card company, asking for a reimbursement of *just the breakfast credit.*

    The credit card company investigated the dispute, and because they too could not get a response from the Inn's owner, they credited me back the FULL stay ($980 US). That was entirely unexpected and unnecessary, and for two months now, I have been expecting the hotel charge (minus breakfast credit) to reappear on my card statement. I've been checking weekly, to minimize the surprise. But alas, no re-charge appeared, and I've heard no follow-up from the inn owner either. I feel a little guilty for the full refund, though at the same time, staying in a hotel unexpectedly under loud renovation and having to venture into freezing temps every morning for breakfast was a little more adventure than I had signed up for. I wonder how this will end up?
     
  14. heavenlyjane

    heavenlyjane Level 2 Member

    I spent a week in Churchill two months ago (November 2017)and it was awesome. Here is my mini-trip report, which focuses mostly on logistics.

    [​IMG]
    Bear gets itchy after a morning of yoga.

    PROGRAM:
    I strongly recommend the "learning vacation" program I did with the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (www.churchillscience.ca), if you can spare 7 nights.

    Lords of the Arctic: The Ecology of Hudson Bay's Polar Bears
    Participants: 36 Next year's cost: $3,415 CAD (US$2,752)

    Witness the annual migration of Churchill's polar bears. Every October and November, polar bears congregate in the Churchill area to await the return of the sea ice and access to their preferred prey – the ringed seal. Spend two full days touring the Churchill Wildlife Management Area aboard a custom-built tundra vehicle. On the first day, course participants will enjoy an excellent firsthand view of polar bears in their natural habitat. On the second day, you will assist one of our visiting researchers with behavioral observations of the bears, collecting data as part of a long-term study contributing to our knowledge of these magnificent animals. Each evening, in-depth presentations by bear biologists explore this remarkable animal and the challenges they are facing in a warming climate. And if that were not enough, this program also includes a 45 minute helitour along the rugged coastline of Hudson Bay, an afternoon of dog sledding and a tour of the community, including the world-famous Eskimo Museum and its renowned collection of historic and contemporary Inuit art and artefacts.

    This program was a veritable bargain compared to the other tours that come to Churchill, especially given that the fee is quoted in Canadian dollars. Pricing includes: 7 nights dormatory-style lodging, all meals, all on-location transportation, 2 days on the famous tundra buggies (walk-on cost of C$500/day), lectures facilitated by local and international experts, 45-minute helicopter ride over pack ice, dog-sledding, daily field trips). For comparison, National Geographic Society's program start at $7,200 for 7 nights, of which 2 are in Winnipeg.

    GETTING THERE: Airfare is tricky and requires advanced planning. Only Calm Air serves Churchill, via Winnipeg. The 2.5-hour flight costs about $1000+ RT. However Calm Air is an Aeroplan partner and there's a sweet spot redemption for short-haul domestic flights. I was able to book a round trip flight using 15,000 AeroPlan - possibly the best redemption I will ever make. I booked my tickets 9 months ahead of time. Out of my group of 36, only two of us traveled up on award tickets, so it seems that most people are unaware that it can be done.

    I used Credit Card airline credits to get to Winnipeg. If you shop around, you can find decent fares to Winnipeg. I took United both ways. Because of the Calm Air schedule, you have to arrive in Winnipeg the day before and leave the day after you arrive back. Winnipeg has a few attractions worth seeing.
     
    Last edited: Jan 9, 2018
    • Like Like x 3
    • Informative Informative x 1
    • List

Share This Page