TRAVEL: Finding bears and belugas in Churchill, Canada

SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) -- There are plenty of popular vacation destinations in Canada, but few people know about the hidden gem, Churchill.

Travel enthusiast Dana Rebmann joined KRON4's Marty Gonzalez in studio to explain why this fairly unknown locale should be on your must-visit list.

Churchill is an unknown to most Americans. In fact, it's an unknown even to many Canadians. But that's okay. Dana says don't let that dissuade you - It's just another reason to visit!

Looking for Bears and Belugas in Churchill

In all likelihood, Bay Area travelers are going to fly to Churchill via Winnipeg, in the Canadian province of Manitoba. In the five-minute or so drive into town one of the first things you'll notice, along with the lack of traffic, is the colorful murals painted on assorted buildings.

With a population of around 900, it's what you won't find in Churchill that really ups its charm. No traffic lights. One gas station, one grocery store, four restaurants, and I think three bars.

Set along the shores of the Hudson Bay, it's picturesque, and the easily accessible arctic is there for the enjoying. This stretch of Hudson Bay and the Churchill River is home to what's said to be the world's largest population of beluga whales.

From mid-June to mid-September, thousands of whales flood these waters. You can venture out on a big boat or smaller zodiac boats, you can kayak and even paddle board. Unlike other types of whale watching trips, belugas, tend to be a more social bunch and they seem to be curious about people. They're typically not shy. Mother Nature is never a sure bet, but if you're willing to take a chilly plunge you can snorkel with the whales. Water temperatures in July in the 40's, but if you're willing to get in, you could be in for a magical experience.

"There's no guarantee," Dana says. "I tried twice and only got fleeting glimpses, but Sea North Tours had me in a fantastic wetsuit, and I would jump at the chance to do it again."

Frontiers North Adventures

Churchill is also home to what's said to be the world's only polar bear jail.
When it's a full house, it can hold a crowd of 28 bears, maybe a bit more if there are mothers and cubs involved. No visitors are allowed at the jail, so if you want to up your odds of seeing a polar bear, book a ride on a Tundra Buggy®. It's like a cross between a monster truck and a school bus. And it goes into the tundra, into the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA) on established trails, to look for polar bears keeping cool along the coast.
The drivers and tour leaders know the environment and are experts at spotting the bears. During the summer tundra tours last about six hours. "North runs program geared toward traveling families, so there were many kids on my Tundra Buggy," Dana said.
"We spotted this polar bear within an hour of getting started, so the day was made. The eagle, caribou, and Canadian geese were icing on the cake. Since we didn't have to search very hard for bears, our driver Brendan, gave the dozen plus kids on board a turn driving the Tundra Buggy," she said.
The latest count of the Western Hudson Bay population reportedly puts the polar bears at about 1000 strong, meaning the bears outnumber the humans that call Churchill home. For polar bears, Churchill is the ultimate spot to call home. Ice melts the latest in the summer, and freezes the earliest in the fall. On average there's about 80 frost free days a year here.

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