By Marcie Ellison Outerbridge, part-owner, and GM of Sales | Group Travel, Ellison Travel & Tours
October 12, 2023
The smooth and easy five-minute walk from our seats aboard Calm Air through the tiny Churchill airport to our waiting 22 passenger van was the first indicator that our trip to Canada’s sub-arctic was going to be a different kind of experience. The second indictor was a sign in the van that said “Don’t Walk - Get a Ride”, signed, Polar Bear Patrol!
Hot off of a five-day conference in Winnipeg that filled our hearts and minds with hope and gratitude for the future of travel and our ability as student tour operators to impact our future global citizens through travel, we were keen to learn what Churchill had to offer the student and youth traveller. We were excited but it seemed like a stretch since Churchill is a destination on the bucket list of most retirees – right? Little did we know that youth were already flocking to Churchill! Many are in fact participating in the amazing STEM (Science Technology, Engineering & Math) and Social Justice- based learning programs in this town, which is 1000 km North of Winnipeg on Hudson Bay. Many youth are also returning home from their studies in Winnipeg to run their family businesses, volunteering during a gap year (at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre CNSC), guiding the beluga enthusiasts along the Churchill river and sharing their knowledge of all things climate change at the Polar Bear House. The one thing these young people all had in common seems to be enthusiasm and hope for the future.
It was easy to see where the attitude of the young folks comes from. The first-generation tourism professionals set a path starting as far back as the 80’s and the next generation is taking it up a notch. Companies like Frontiers North and Churchill Wild have been welcoming visitors since the beginning. The town of less than 1000 locals works together to keep visitors happy and safe, moving us easily between all of the many educational, immersive and adventurous experiences on offer. The CNSC provides local restaurants with fresh “Rocket Greens” and produce grown on site in their shipping container refrigerators to help keep costs down and visitors (paying big dollars) happy. The bear guards, polar bear patrol truck, ATV’s and helicopters scout out ahead of the guides and visitors to make sure the road and path ahead is clear and safe. Safety is a priority for these folks. Before each activity we were clearly briefed on the safety standards. Our young captain Remmy with Sea North Tours reminded us several times to “always keep a handful of railing” during our three-hour beluga and bear watching trip that he captained along with his trusty First Mate Lindsay. “A handful of railing” was not an easy feat when we came across several polar bears (and one cub!) within minutes of leaving the Prince of Wales Fort - with belugas swimming in the foreground, we needed both hands on our iphones and cameras to capture these majestic creatures in the wild.
Adam, a young 5th generation “Churchillian” along with a team of female zodiac operators all under the age of 30 with Sea North Tours, also watched over us closely as we enjoyed a once in a lifetime (well I plan to make it twice at least!) sunset kayak amongst literally hundreds of beluga whales on the Churchill river. This estuary offers a unique playground where the salt water of Hudson Bay meets the fresh water of the river. Within minutes of leaving our starting point, we were surrounded by these ghostly white mammals that appeared out of the dark water to swim right up and under our kayaks, even playfully following along for several minutes! Although highly unlikely, a paddle in the air meant help was needed and they assured us they could be there in seconds if we ran into any concerns.
I continued to be inspired throughout our trip by the youth that seem to have taken over this town and are keen (and NOT in a low key kind of way) to share with visitors, the important work they are doing to fight climate change. Churchill is not just a bucket list tourist destination. It plays an important role in understanding the impact of climate change on our future. Our 20 year-old volunteer guide, Mia (on a gap year from Brighton UK) and Dylan, the fresh-faced Executive Director at the CNSC facility, excitedly walked us through and around their research facility which welcomes the community and visitors to work and learn alongside the scientists taking residence there. This 80 bed dormitory facility is equipped with a safe space for viewing bears and the Northern lights (which show themselves 300 nights per year in Churchill). The “Aurora” viewing dome, common areas, cafeteria, gym and more - make this facility a perfect fit for students and adults alike. At Polar Bear International (Polar Bear House), Lauren a 3rd year Environmental Science student from the University of Calgary confidently shared her knowledge of sea ice and how it is as important to the arctic as soil is to the forest. When asked about her outlook on the future, she said she is optimistic. Adam from Sea North is also optimistic. We got talking a few days after we saw him at the kayak experience (we ran into him at the pub and the hotel, it’s a small town!) and he explained that Churchill was originally home to three Indigenous nations including the Cree, Dene and Inuit. Despite a turbulent history inflicted on them my colonization, he feels that things are improved and improving with understanding. I hope the indigenous people feel the same way.
Back to the “OG” (“original” in teen speak) folks that set up the scaffolding for tourism infrastructure in Churchill that we are privileged to enjoy today. People like Dave Daley, a proud Metis from the award-winning Indigenous enterprise, Wakusp Adventures, believes in youth and the future - he knows first-hand that you can teach an “old dog” new tricks. We experienced the summer version of his dog-sledding experience called dog-carting and witnessed this self-proclaimed “professional cheerleader” guide his team expertly around the “ididamile”. Dave’s connection to his heritage, and loyalty to each of his canine friends was nothing short of inspiring. Jon Gunter, the second generation to run Frontiers North speaks proudly of their fleet of 12 custom built tundra buggies, remote tundra buggy lounge, hotel and restaurant. They have built an experience that allows visitors to experience Churchill in the summer and the frozen winter. Driver/guides are integral to their business. Jim, who has been with Frontiers North since 2006 was our driver. He had many stories to tell of polar bear encounters, life-changing guest experiences and the inspiration he feels when sharing his passion for this landscape and terrain.
Perhaps the best part of our visit was a magical night where the town converges for the open mic night at the Tundra Pub. All of these folks in service of the guest experience appeared as their shifts ended to grab a pint and celebrate the day and season that was ending soon. Those competing for business in this remote community now raised a glass and shared a microphone to sing of southern lands like “Africa” and “Born in the USA” while they exchanged stories, reviewed the bear and wildlife sightings of the day, waiting to hear if the "lights" were on! Since the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) appear 300 nights a year, most of the time they are awarded for their hard work and dedication with a lights show like no other that astounds the young and the young at heart, alike.
Inspired by Marcie's journey and looking to book your own polar bear adventure in Chuchill? Let our advisor team help you!