Day 1: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Our Churchill family adventure begins in Manitoba's capital of Winnipeg. On the eastern edge of Canada's tallgrass prairie, the city's historic fort and modern glass skyscrapers intersect where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet. As Canada's "Gateway to the West," Winnipeg has long been a transportation and commercial center--initially as a fur trading post and later as a hub for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Its cultural riches range from well-preserved archaeological sites to world-class museums and a resident ballet company. Upon arrival, transfer to the stately Fort Garry Hotel, built in 1913 as one of Canada's grand railway hotels and an elegant landmark of hospitality still today. This evening, meet your Expedition Leader for a casual welcome dinner and an orientation designed to inspire enthusiasm for the rugged North in explorers young and old.
Day 2: Winnipeg / Churchill--Dog Sledding
The landscape transforms from grassy prairie to snowy tundra as we fly north to Churchill by private chartered plane this morning. This storied frontier town sits at the convergence of a polar bear migration path, nearby Wapusk National Park, and a long human tradition of Arctic subsistence. Once the site of a Hudson's Bay Company fur-trading post, this hospitable coastal outpost has evolved into an important seasonal grain port and a portal for Inuit communities farther north. Inaccessible by road, Churchill is surrounded by a wilderness of spruce forest, tundra and winter ice that forms on Hudson Bay--a remote and intriguing home base for our Arctic family adventure. Keep your eyes peeled for polar bears from the moment we land. Depending on when the ice forms, there may be a chance to see them from our Polar Rover, our bus or from the air.
This afternoon, we follow local tradition and head into the boreal forest by dog sled. Churchill is the terminus of the famous Hudson Bay Quest, a grueling 220-mile dog sled race that traces the history of the fur trade. We'll spend some time getting to know the sled dogs, some of whom may have run the Quest, and listen to the stories of expert mushers before bundling up for a brisk dog-powered ride over the ice and snow. Riding low on the landscape with the dogs, listen for the sled's smooth slither and the excited howls that encourage mushers to keep moving. Running is truly in the sled dogs' nature, and there's nothing like feeling the whoosh of Arctic air as you're pulled behind their eager paws.
Once night falls, look toward the stars whenever clear skies prevail. Though the Arctic night sky is often cloudy over Churchill at this time of year, it lies directly under the auroral oval, meaning we might witness the magic glow of the northern lights swirling through the sky when conditions are just right.
Day 3: Tundra Wildlife Watching by Polar Rover
The Churchill area is home to Canada's largest concentration of polar bears, and our Arctic Family Adventure is scheduled at the tail end of the polar bear season. Depending on when the ice on the Hudson Bay forms, the bears may have departed the area on their journey northward, in which case we may see them with binoculars or scopes from our Rovers, or perhaps only from the air during our helicopter journey. It should be noted, though, that in some seasons this time may also be some of the best viewing of the year. But this stark landscape is home to other wildlife, too. While wild creatures are often elusive, tundra explorers should keep an eye peeled for Arctic hare, Arctic and red fox, moose, caribou, gray wolf, wolverine, mink, marten, lynx, snowy owl, ptarmigan and lemmings. When snow covers the terrain, make a game of finding animals wearing coats of white camouflage--though the polar bear, with its cream-colored fur, tends to stand out. Late November's winds and frigid weather can create intricate ice crystals and snowy drifts, burying the red kelp beds and orange lichen-covered boulders along the shoreline beneath a blanket of white.
We spend an entire day out on the tundra on Nat Hab's unique Polar Rover--our warm, monster-truck-sized transport designed for overland tundra travel in search of Arctic wildlife. Built to accommodate up to 35 passengers, we take a maximum of approximately 15 guests aboard one vehicle, ensuring a window seat for all. Plus, there's ample room on the outside observation deck where a steel mesh floor allows polar bears to visibly wander under your feet. As our trip falls late in the season, bears may already have moved out onto the pack ice, if enough freezing has occurred, but we'll set out in search of bears that may still linger along the shore--we can never predict the weather conditions that dictate the bears' movement. As we cruise over the tundra and take in the stark beauty along the edge of Hudson Bay, our knowledgeable Expedition Leader explains this delicate changing ecosystem and the myriad wildlife that inhabits it, including details of polar bear behavior and how the bears thrive in such a harsh and austere environment.
Day 4: Tundra Helicopter Flight / Exploring Churchill's History & Culture
As we share family time in these Arctic environs, there's nothing like a flight for an incomparable aerial perspective--and memories to stoke us for a lifetime. What could be more thrilling than taking to the sky in a helicopter that can fly low, linger and soar over open tundra, frozen lakes and sea ice as we look for wildlife below? We'll hope to spot roving polar bears from the air, perhaps observing a mother lumbering over the snow with her cubs or a lone male roaming the ice in search of a seal breakfast. From our awe-inspiring vantage point, we may also have a chance to track migrating caribou as we survey the immensity of the stark and fragile Arctic landscape.
On the ground, we spend time exploring the town of Churchill, where the Hudson's Bay Company established a fort in 1717 as part of its fur trade across the Canadian North. The massive stone Prince of Wales Fort stands at the windswept point across the river, offering a glimpse into the life of a Canadian fur trader some 250 years ago. But indigenous people were here first, and they still live in Churchill and points farther north. Interacting with the locals, we have opportunities to learn firsthand about the culture and heritage of Inuit, Metis and Dene people, including a visit to the Eskimo Museum. As we soak up lessons about regional ecology from resident naturalists and a local dog musher, these entertaining "science lessons" may just inspire the next young Arctic explorer.
Day 5: Churchill / Winnipeg
Our chartered flight is scheduled to depart mid-afternoon, and this morning offers one last chance for an excursion in search of wildlife on the edge of town. Enjoy a farewell lunch in Churchill before transferring to the airport for our flight back to Winnipeg. This evening, we wind up our Arctic adventure with a family-friendly celebration.
Day 6: Winnipeg / Depart
After breakfast, transfer to the airport for flights home.
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