Visiting Churchill in the autumn of 2016 was easily a life-changing experience. My partner-in-crime and I spent a week in the small community of 900 residents, which swells close to twice that size in the most popular months to visit (October, November).
What brings people to this remote part of Canada? Polar bears.
Seeing the world's largest land predator up-close is a majestic moment. These animals are technically considered marine mammals due to the fact that they can literally spend days swimming at sea, and hunting on the sea ice for their main source of sustenance - the ringed seal. But their presence on land does not go unnoticed.
Conservation officers in Churchill use a tactic known as hazing, whereby they will make loud noises (from bear-bangers; cracker shells; car horns) to scare the bear away from town. If this doesn't work, and the bear becomes a regular visitor, it's off to polar bear jail!
No, I'm not joking. The town has a polar bear holding facility in which troublesome bears are kept for a few weeks at a time before being tranquillised and helicoptered far away, often further north along Hudson Bay.
Churchill was unlike many places I had visited. Due to its remote location (it can only be accessed by plane or train), it has an other-worldly feel to it. The town is located on the west bank of Hudson Bay, 1,000km from the provincial capital, Winnipeg, and is situated almost as far north as Stockholm, Sweden. Its born-and-bred residents are proud to be from Churchill, and the nightlife in the town certainly reflects this; bars are piled high with young residents, looking to socialise and jam. But like any isolated town, the presence of drugs and alcohol were apparent.
One resident we met, who coincidentally was working on the construction project at our hotel, left us what he would consider a gift in our room - two small ecstasy tablets and a hand-written note. Suffice to say the pills were flushed down the toilet.
Although we went on two separate tours out on the tundra in the huge, specialised vehicles that stand close to 14ft tall with wheels almost 6ft high, we also decided to rent a truck and do some of our own exploration. The roads are far from extensive, but there was enough pavement and gravel to allow us the opportunity for bear-spotting.
Oddly enough, we found more success in finding bears amongst rocks and along the beaches than we did out on the tundra, where the expensive tours operate.
On our self-guided tour we came across one of the town's more controversial residents, who "owns" a block of land just outside of town. Here he keeps Eskimo dogs tethered to chains in an attempt to save the species from extinction.
The result of keeping and feeding these animals is that polar bears are attracted to the chunks of frozen meat that are thrown to the dogs, therefore creating something of a tourist attraction that the owner certainly takes advantage of.
For a rather hefty fee (around $80 CAD per person), he allows you to enter his property and get up close and personal with the bears. Although the photo opportunities are spectacular, I would not encourage supporting his mission.
Several of his older, injured and weaker dogs were freed from their chains, left to walk the tundra and ultimately starve or succumb to the jaws of a hungry bear. This cruel fate definitely reflected the harsh climate of Churchill.
Churchill also affords the almost year-round opportunity to witness the Aurora Borealis. These dancing charged particles light up the night sky in fascinating rhythms, and have the unfortunate side effect of an incredibly sore neck the next day.
We also spent a day out with Wapusk Adventures. This locally owned and operated business allows visitors the chance to meet Dave Daley and his sled dogs. Daley is clearly passionate about the sport of dog sledding, and his 20+ animals are well-cared for and love their job.
Locking-eyes with a wild animal such as a polar bear is an incredible and unforgettable experience, and although it is a costly venture getting to Churchill, it is certainly worthwhile.