Churchill is the third best place in the the world to see the Northern Lights, and it offered so much more.
On our first day there, we rented a car to give us the freedom to safely explore the land. Churchill is like no other place, because the village has to adapt to the seasons and the migrations of the bears. The place is constantly being patrolled, and every night an alarm goes off at 10 o clock, which sounds a lot like the World War 2 emergency alarm. Someone told me that this alarm is only a throwback to the days of the residential schools, where it would act as a curfew for the children. Someone else told me that it was a curfew for everyone to signal when the area would stop being patrolled so heavily and it was time to stay indoors. Indoors doesn’t have to mean your own home, but most of the bear attacks happen at night, so its always a good idea to be near a vehicle or a front door of a house/pub and to only walk home if its just across the road. Apparently there’s a rule that no-one is allowed to lock anything, in case someone needs to make a run for it to the nearest truck or house.
The village has approximately 900 inhabitants and the numbers are slowly falling, but every October and November, the numbers almost quadruple with tourists and seasonal workers. This happens because the bears gather close by, waiting for the ice to form. The numbers were low during the 70’s, but in recent years there has been as many as a thousand bears close to this village which is only a 15 minute walk end-to-end. We saw a lot of guns during our visit, but they are mainly used to scare and only to harm in extreme cases. If, as a tourist, you antagonise a bear by getting too close without supervision and the bear needs to be killed, then you are held accountable to the law.
The Northern Lights
The train up to Churchill was a mixed bag, and very different from the Canadian train that runs along the bottom of Canada. There was less to do, and the journey to and from Churchill is a whopping 45 hours each way! We did get a chance to see the prairies however, which was incredibly flat and differed greatly from the endless forests in Ontario. The staff were a tight nit group that gave you impression that they would be happy to bend the rules slightly. For the first night, there were only 8 of us on the train, so we got to know each other fairly well. They were telling us about the northern lights, and I couldn’t contain my excitement when they told me just how possible it was to see them from the train. I asked them to kick me in the head if they saw any that night.
After about two hours of being glued to the window, that was my first sight of the Northern Lights. They wouldn’t grow to be much bigger than that on the first night, and they didn’t do the famous dancing across the sky, but it’s been a dream of mine to see them ever since I saw a programme on the BBC about Joanna Lumley travelling to Alaska to get a glimpse so it was enough to be amazed. I thought Iceland would be our only feasible shot of seeing them, so I was happy to have seen even a little of the lights.
By the second night, we were completely spoilt for how much of a display we were given.
The lights just grew,
I always wondered how fast the lights moved across the sky, because I was never sure whether the TV programmes sped them up or not, but they can move pretty fast! This show lasted about an hour, but moved all across the sky in that time.
Our aim in Churchill was to see the big three:
The Northern Lights, Polar Bears and Beluga Whales. I couldn’t believe that before we even got there, we could check one of those things off the list. It didn’t stop us from searching for them the day we arrived, however, as a bartender at a local pub informed us that the sky was promising another amazing display that night. There’s a website called the Aurora Service which predicts how strong the lights will be. They grade it from 1-9, with 1 being no visibility to 9 being a strong magnetic storm. You are meant to be able to see them fairly clearly from as low as 3, and that night the forecast was showing a 6. Both the website and the bartender predicted correctly.
Our camera is not equipped for photos of the night sky, so it’s focus was a little off, but I hope you get the impression of how amazing it looked. Before the sun had even set, the sky was lighting up and the next 90 minutes saw the northern lights grow and grow before the sky was filled with green light. I love how this phenomenon is yet to be completely understood and is still difficult to predict as the website changes it’s readings fairly frequently. Your best chances of seeing them is the old fashioned way of waiting for a clear night and keeping an eye out.
Another custom which I found really weird was the idea of a ‘Bear Jail’, more formally known as a ‘Bear Holding Facility’. If a bear is seen wandering around the town, they are tranquilized and taken to a holding cell for anywhere between 10 days and all season to encourage them to never come so close again. Apparently they are held without food to make the message clear! It does sound cruel, but a lot of work is put into ensuring the survival of both humans and polar bears, and it’s the most effective method they have of controlling the boundaries without shooting them.
As for us seeing them, our first day proved to be a small success. We drove up to a husky dog farm, where the bears were reported to have been trying to steal the dog food. We did see a tiny ball of white shoot across the land, but never managed to see it close enough or get a photo to prove what it was. In the pub later that night, we were told that the dogs were tied to a post, so anything being able to run that far had to have been a bear. We were happy to have seen a bear, but it was bitter sweet only knowing for sure after seeing it.
The next day we were determined. Armed with food and water, we were ready for a long steak out next to the dog farm and surrounding areas. We spent all day with our eyes peeled and barely spoke to each other so as not to distract ourselves. It wasn’t the most entertaining day and we were getting pretty fed up by around the fifth hour, and if I was a little less concerned for my safety I would have started waving my food in the air to try and attract one. We went back to Churchill and had dinner in a cafe, where the manager proceeded to make us feel worse by telling us how it must have been difficult to miss him. We decided to drive out for one more attempt to see the bear, knowing that it would probably be in vein. Finally, a distant speck of white in the horizon started to move.
He was a tiny dot in the distance, but he moved enough for us to be sure that it was a bear. You could see that he saw us and was keeping a safe distance, and we had no intention of advancing on him. It was enough to see him in his own habitat; a land that he ruled. I’m resigned to the possibility that I won’t ever see a Polar Bear again. I don’t have any strong opinions on zoo’s, but as far as polar bears are concerned, I don’t think I could go and see one in captivity now. Both me an Dan managed to get a photo of him and we’re really proud.
Apparently they are the most curious types of whales, coming right up to your kayak to see what you’re all about. Even stroking them is fine, as they have no intention of harming you. We didn’t see any, but as Meatloaf once said – two out of three ain’t bad!
A few quick facts about our stay for anyone who wants to know:
Where we rented our car: A comoany called Tamarack
Where we stayed: The Tundra Inn
How we got there: VIA Rail train from Winnipeg