by Lydia Schrandt for USA TODAY 10Best

Virtual tour: Journey to Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world

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The tiny community of Churchill, Manitoba on the shores of Hudson Bay may not have a big human population (less than 1,000 people), but its polar bear population ranks among the largest in the world.

Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

While it’s possible to fly into Churchill from Winnipeg, many travelers choose the scenic route. The Winnipeg-Churchill train – the only dry land connection to the community on the Hudson Bay – makes the 1,063-mile journey in about two days.

As winter approaches, polar bears gather on the shores of Hudson Bay to wait for the waters to freeze so they can venture out onto the ice to hunt for seals.

The part of the bay near Churchill is among the first to freeze, making it one of the best places to see polar bears in the wild.

Travelers to Churchill have the chance to spot polar bears from the safety and comfort of a heated tundra vehicle capable of navigating the rocky terrain.

Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

When a bear wanders too close to town, locals can call a 24-hour hotline. Conservation staff will try to scare the bear away, and if that doesn't work, it is brought to the Polar Bear Holding Facility.

When the bay freezes, the bears are airlifted out of town and released back into the wild.

Of course polar bears aren't the only animal residents around Churchill. While out on a polar bear safari, keep an eye out for arctic foxes, red foxes, arctic hares, moose, wolverines and wolves.

Another big, white mammal takes the spotlight during summers: beluga whales. From June to September, these white whales make their way into Hudson Bay and the Churchill River to feed and give birth.

While the mammals might get the lion’s share of attention in Churchill, the area is known among birdwatchers as a bucket list destination. Some 390 species have been recorded in Manitoba.

Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

The SeaWalls CHURCHILL mural project was started as a way to educate and inspire the community and travelers to protect the oceans.

Photo courtesy of Build Films / Travel Manitoba

The British steamship MV Ithaka broke a rudder and ran aground in September 1960. Today, the rusted wreck attracts curious travelers and photographers.

Photo courtesy of Travel Manitoba

In 1979, a Curtiss C-46 plane, known as Miss Piggy, crashed near the Churchill airport without a single fatality. According to local lore, the plane got its name due to the fact that it was overloaded.

Video courtesy of Travel Manitoba

During Churchill’s longest, darkest nights (typically January through March), the small town becomes one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights.

Dogs have long played an important role in Churchill’s history. During the winter, travelers to Churchill can experience the rush of mushing across the tundra and through the boreal forest.

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