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Churchill, Manitoba, is known as the polar bear capital of the world. It’s also famous as a beluga whale-watching hot spot. During the winter months, you even have a great chance at experiencing the Northern Lights as Churchill is situated beneath the Auroral Oval, a ring around each geomagnetic pole where auroras are likely to occur. Churchill is located at the opening of the Churchill River as it forms an estuary with the Hudson Bay on the Atlantic. Even though there’s a small population of around 800 people, most hotels and lodges are booked in advance by tour companies, so book early if you’re making your own arrangements. Since there are no actual roads to Churchill, there are only two primary modes of transportation: air and rail. The city of Winnipeg, Manitoba’s capital, is the main hub for travel to and from Churchill.
The climate in Churchill typically averages lows of -26° F in January to highs of 64° F in July, rarely reaching above 78° F, with extreme cold that has reached below -40º F. The warm season lasts from early June to mid-September, while the cold season lasts slightly longer, from mid- to late November through mid- to late March, with an average daily high that’s generally below 7° F. Churchill has a humid subarctic continental climate with very cool summers. There’s an average of 15 to 16 inches of precipitation for the entire year, mostly in the summer.
My time in Churchill was spent with Natural Habitat Adventures (www.nathab.com) on their Classic Polar Bear Photo Adventure tour. We ventured out on a Tundra Buggy for three full days of shooting. You should bring a long telephoto lens, for certain, to capture wildlife at a distance. I also bring a wide-angle lens to work with the scenic tundra or any polar bears that might lean up against the vehicle. You won’t need a tripod on the Tundra Buggy, but a beanbag or window mount will work very well. On cloudy low-light days, bump up your ISO, and don’t forget to use exposure compensation if there’s snow on the ground because so much white in a scene will fool the camera’s metering. If you’re lucky enough to see the Aurora Borealis, a fast wide-angle lens, tripod and shutter release are essential. Be careful to warm your camera in a sealed bag when coming in from a cold environment to reduce condensation. Several layers of clothing, including an insulated parka or a waterproof jacket, insulated boots, gloves, a hat and long underwear are all definitely recommended.
The best time to see polar bears is in the fall, with best viewing opportunities during the bear season in October and November. If you’re too late in the season and the ice has formed on the bay, you might miss them, but get there too early, and the highest concentration of bears won’t be there. Bears are typically seen in Churchill all year round. Travel to Churchill in the summer from late June through August to see the beluga whales, and you also can capture spectacular bird photography, with migratory species peaking in late May through June. Winter is the best time for a chance to photograph the Northern Lights.
Contact: Learn more about the Churchill area by visiting www.churchill.ca.