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. DSC01379 by R.R. posted Oct 22, 2016 at 4:34 PM 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. DSC01589 by R.R. posted Oct 22, 2016 at 5:00 PM 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. DSC01460 by R.R. posted Oct 22, 2016 at 4:34 PM 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. DSC01449 by R.R. posted Oct 22, 2016 at 4:34 PM 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. DSC01551 by R.R. posted Oct 22, 2016 at 4:34 PM 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. DSC01471 by R.R. posted Oct 22, 2016 at 4:34 PM 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. DSC01494 by R.R. posted Oct 22, 2016 at 4:34 PM 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. DSC01546 by R.R. posted Oct 22, 2016 at 4:34 PM 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.