The Churchill Northern Studies Centre is a perfect place to see the Northern Lights — Photo courtesy of Ron Waldron
Since the train tracks flooded in 2017, the only way to get to Churchill, Manitoba has been by plane. There are no roads leading in or out of this sub-Arctic community of less than a thousand people, yet tourists continue to make the trek there because it may be the only place on Earth where you can check off serious bucket list items any time of year.
Considered the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill is also recognized as a mecca for birders, and one of the top spots for watching beluga whales and viewing the Northern Lights. If you’re really lucky, you can experience more than one of those during the same visit.
The sign at the Churchill Airport welcomes you to polar bear country — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
The best place to take it all in is the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. This active research facility (there can be a hundred projects going on at any given time) offers five- and seven-day learning vacations that put you right in the middle of the action.
I visited last March because I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights. I was wary, though, because, living in Southern California, I knew I was unprepared for the weather.
There was no need to worry because the first thing the well-prepared CNSC staff members do, after picking you up at the airport and getting you settled in your surprisingly cozy dorm room, is supply you with whatever you need – like Canada Goose jackets, snow pants, real gloves and heavy-duty boots.
These were, literally, lifesavers because I could never have stayed out in the middle of the minus 13 degrees Celsius night, basking in the lights of the aurora, without them.
My group at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
There were 14 people in our group that week from all over the world, and there was something very special about coming together over this natural phenomenon in such a unique setting. We were excited to be there, and we all jumped at the chance to start our adventure with a walk in the snow around the property. (You’re not supposed to leave the Centre alone because there’s always a chance you'll run into a polar bear – even if it’s off-season.)
We met our enthusiastic instructor, Ron Waldron of Living Skies Stargazing, who told us why Churchill is one of the premier viewing locations for the Northern Lights. I’m not going to give you the whole scientific explanation but, according to Waldron, "The aurora can be seen here 300 days of the year and almost every clear night."
That being said, he warned us there are no guarantees – which did little to dampen our optimism as we downloaded Northern Lights playlists and apps to take better aurora photos on our iPhones. Yes, this is a thing and, yes, they really worked.
And, apparently, so did the collective wishes we sent out into the universe because late that first night, swirling white lights started to appear in the sky. It was on.
Here are some of the best places for stargazing in the world
Here are some of the best places for stargazing in the world
It’s hard to describe the magical feeling of watching nature play its A-game, not to mention the deep sense of awe and appreciation it stirs up. I put away my phone, turned off the music and just stood in the quiet, taking in the majestic lights dancing across the sky.
It was breathtaking.
The Northern Lights are a breathtaking sight — Photo courtesy of Ron Waldron
We had the same experience the second night, and were starting to take this miraculous sight for granted. Of course, after that, we didn’t see the Lights again. We would huddle into the Centre’s heated glass dome to keep a lookout, and Ron promised he’d stay up until 1 a.m. and knock on our doors, yelling "It’s showtime!" if they appeared.
But, honestly, we were grateful for having seen them so clearly our first two nights. The pressure was off, and we didn’t feel like we missed out on anything.
We shared our photos – along with the stories of our lives – over home-cooked meals in the cafeteria. The food was delicious, hearty and plentiful, and the staff, which includes a team of volunteers who live at the Centre while they work, deserves major kudos.
Dog sledding in Churchill is exhilarating — Photo courtesy of Cathy Senecal
Because the Lights don’t come out until it’s completely dark, our days were filled with trips into town – visiting the Eskimo Museum and meeting local artisans – and exhilarating activities like snowmobiling, dog sledding, snowshoeing and building igloos. All bucket list items!
We toured Churchill and saw the 18 large-scale murals created to promote conservation, the iconic Inuksuit on Hudson Bay Road and the world’s only Polar Bear Holding Facility, a.k.a. Polar Bear Jail.
The Inuksuit on Harbor Bay were created by native peoples as natural landmarks — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
Back at the Centre, we also got to become citizen scientists and hear from professional ones. Let me make clear, in case you’re thinking these are boring, school-like lectures, that I am not a science person at all. Yet, I found every one of them – and the thought-provoking discussions they often led to – absolutely fascinating.
"This is not your typical vacation," laughed Evan Roberts, Program Coordinator for the CNSC. "Where else are you able to witness beluga whales or polar bears in their natural setting, then come back to a remote research station and listen to a talk by an expert who has been studying these populations for decades? Churchill is such a unique part of the world because it’s where so many different landscapes, mammals, and ecosystems interact."
Every street in Churchill is a polar bear crossing — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
Director Elijah Zimmerman agreed. "The CNSC is special in that we are a field station on the edge of the Arctic, bringing together accomplished scientists, artists, community members, and visitors to form a camaraderie of passion for the natural world," he said. "Our hope is for people to feel inspired by the intimate connection with nature here and to share this experience with their friends and family to develop an even wider web of connection to the North."
It’s impossible not to be inspired by this experience and by the devotion of the people of Churchill – and especially the CNSC – to the conservation of the wildlife with whom they share their beautiful home.
I left there determined to do my part to help care for the planet and to encourage everyone to experience this for themselves. (And to return for polar bear season.)