Trip the Light Fantastic
There's more to Churchill than Bears and Belugas. On the shores of Hudson's Bay, you can learn how to pull back the celestial curtain and see what makes the midnight magic.
By Stephen A. Nelson
I feel like I'm living the Canadian dream... I'm standing outside my igloo, under the Northern Lights, having just spent the better part of a day learning how to dog-sled across the tundra. I'm wearing my red Canada Goose parka and my blue Travel Manitoba tuque; but I have to admit that I forgot my snowshoes and Hudson's Bay blanket.
No, I'm not filming a new episode of Arctic Air or another documentary on the mystery of the Franklin Expedition. I'm on a learning vacation at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CSNC), on the western edge of Hudson's Bay. More than a must-do for bucket-list thrill seekers, it's an amazing adventure and authentic experience for travellers who want a taste of the the True North. And for me, it's a dream come true.
Aurora Borealis – Dawn of the North
Every Canadian knows that Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world. Every autumn, visitors from all over the globe gather here to get a glimpse of the Great White Bears. In summer, white-whale watchers migrate to this northern port to paddle to the sea with the Belugas.
But – as I am quick to tell anyone who asks – Churchill is probably the best place on the planet to watch the Aurora Borealis. Astronomers, physicists and photographers from the four corners of the earth come to the CNSC to see the Heavenly Dancers trip the light fantastic and learn what makes them step lightly.
As if moving to an unseen drummer, the photographers join the dance – spinning, bobbing, crouching like stars on ice as they follow God's laser light show and scramble to catch lightning in a bottle.
That's because the Churchill region – with its clear, cold and dark winter skies – sits right under the heavenly halo that forms the Northern Lights. And the CNSC – on the site of the abandoned Churchill rocket range – provides an ideal location away from the city lights and right under the aurora oval.
Shamans and Scientists
Here, there is more than one way of looking at things.
Storytellers and shamans will tell you that the green, blue and red lights are the spirits of the departed – perhaps inviting you to join the dance, perhaps playing soccer with the skull of a walrus. In fact, the Inuit name for the lights means “the trail of those playing soccer.” These are the people who will tell you they have heard the Northern Lights sing.
Scientists here will tell you that the aurorae are caused by the solar flares that send radioactive particles towards the earth, carried along by the solar winds. Sci-fi fans can think of it as an angry alien bombarding our little starship with radiation. But the Earth's magnetic field acts as a deflector shield. And instead of scorching our tiny craft, the particles cascade onto the Earth's atmosphere at the magnetic poles – setting the night sky on fire as they collide. These are the people who will tell you they have heard nothing.
As we watch the fireworks, an excited fellow traveller turns to me and asks, “Which story do you think is true? Which story do you prefer?”
Without missing a beat, I reply: “The first one… because it’s a better story.”
Churchill Northern Studies Centre
In addition to its winter program on northern lights and astronomy, the CNSC offers programs on birding, beluga whales, wildflowers, subarctic ecology and, of course, polar bears.
Each five to seven day course is led by professional scientists and expert guides.
All meals, airport/train shuttle, local tours, wildlife viewing opportunities and presentations are included in the course price. Accommodations are basic, but comfortable, with dormitory-style rooms (each sleeping up to 4 people during peak season) and shared washrooms with private showers.
For more on Learning Vacations and the Northern Lights, check out the CNSC website:
More on Churchill - The town website: http://www.churchill.ca/
Travel Manitoba: http://www.travelmanitoba.com/
How to get there
The City of Winnipeg is the main hub for travel to Churchill. You have two choices: air or rail
Calm Air International
has daily direct flights from Winnipeg. The trip takes about two hours.
has trains departing twice a week from Union Station in Winnipeg. The trip goes via scenic route and takes about two days.
Tel: 1 888 VIA-RAIL (1 888 842-7245) - http://www.viarail.ca/
Great can be found at: http://www.viarail.ca/en/deals
Winnipeg: Gateway to Churchill
When you go to Churchill, you'll probably go through Winnipeg. So why not enhance your journey by taking an extra day the provincial capital? Here are three must dos:
Creation & Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art
Winnipeg Art Gallery: On till April 14
The WAG is the oldest civic art gallery in Canada; it also has the world's largest collection of Inuit art.
So to celebrate the gallery's centennial, the WAG is putting on an amazing exhibition of 115 works that showcase the breadth and depth of northern native art. It's absolutely engaging and “half and hour” quickly turns into half a day. If you're going to Churchill, this will inspire and add to your adventure. And if you're not going to Churchill, this will make you want to.
Address: 300 Memorial Boulevard - Winnipeg, Manitoba - R3C 1V1
Journey to Churchill.
Assiniboine Park Zoo
When it opens in 2014, the zoo's Journey to Churchill will be about the most authentic northern experience you can get – short of actually going up to Churchill. And you'll get to see more northern animals – muskoxen, caribou, polar bears et al – than most people will see in a lifetime.
But why wait till next year? Right now you can visit the interactive Polar Bear Conservation Centre and learn more about these kings of the north. And you can drop in on Hudson – the zoo's new bear – in his bachelor pad while he waits patiently to move into his new digs.
2595 Roblin Boulevard - Winnipeg, Manitoba - R3P 2N7
Tel: 204 927 6000
Rational Treasure: Hermetic Code Tours
Forget National Treasure! Forget The Da Vinci Code! The Manitoba Legislature is where the real Masonic secrets are hidden. And Frank Albo is the one man who can help you unlock them. Part historian, part architect and part artist, Albo spent years delving into the mysteries of the Manitoba Mason. What he uncovered - hidden hieroglyphic inscriptions, numerological codes, and Freemasonic symbols will blow your mind.
Ever wonder why so many lieutenant governors were masons?
Or why their are sphinxes on the roof of the legislature? Or what gives with the Golden Boy anyway? Then this is the tour to take.
Hermetic Code Tours /Heartland Travel at 204-989-9630
Tel: 1-855-PEG-CITY (734-2489)
Call of The Wild What could be more Canadian than dog-sledding across the Great White North? With Blue Sky Expeditions, you'll not only hang on for the ride, you'll actually learn to drive the sled yourself. Blue Sky's hospitality – as well as their compassionate treatment of their dogs are why they are considered among the best in the business.