This post originally appeared on the Travel Manitoba website.
If your idea of a holiday deviates from the typical “lazing out on the beach,” it’s time to clue into a total gem in Manitoba. The Churchill Northern Studies Centre is a working, operational research centre located 30 minutes outside of the town of Churchill. Welcoming both scientists and curious tourists into its barracks, it offers an affordable and completely unique way to experience the North.
A learning vacation up north
One can't help but feel a sense of discovery and wonder at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre — starting with its location at the former site of a rocket range that operated suborbital launches into the upper atmosphere between the 1950s and 1970s.
The Centre, which was founded in 1976 as a non-profit, is an educational facility where researchers can delve into the wide range of topics the North provides. Its ideal location at the meeting point of three major biomes; marine, northern Boreal forest, and tundra, makes it particularly worthwhile for scientific endeavors.
But you don't have to be a scientist to join in.
From birding and flora to studying the behaviors of polar bears and beluga whales, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre has lured travellers from all over the world to its learning vacations.
In March, the Centre focuses on one of the world's greatest natural wonders: the aurora borealis. Ron Waldron, one of the centre’s guides known as a Starman, brings guests up to speed on the wonders of the night sky, including constellations and of course, the Northern Lights.
Checking in to a unique experience
A stay at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre is unique for reasons beyond its scientific programming. The rooms are dormitories, containing four bunk beds, ideal for budget travellers and those looking to make friends. But there's no need to get flashbacks of hostels of your youth. The Centre is impeccably clean and comfortable, with staff and volunteers who go out of their way to make your stay as enjoyable as possible. The views from the rooms aren't so bad, either.
To add to the feeling that one is truly somewhere unique and unusual, take a short wander through the Centre to catch a glimpse at scientists and researchers conducting their work in the laboratories.
Since the purpose of a Northern Lights visit happens primarily at night, days are spent learning about the Centre and current research projects, embarking on komatik (Inuit sled) rides, snowshoeing, and checking out some experiments in the field with staff researchers (it turns out that snow is WAY more interesting than you could have ever imagined).
To add to the affordability of staying at the Centre, each and every (healthy) meal is included in your stay. Meals are homemade with care by the wonderful cooks and always concluding with some yummy dessert options (the oatmeal cookies are to die for).
When the lights are out, the lights go out
Now on to the main attraction: the Northern Lights. Each evening begins in the classroom for a lesson on aurora-friendly topics (like how to capture the show on camera), but not before navigating to the livecam on your phones to keep an eye on the sky outside. If even a glimmer of the aurora is spotted, classes close up shop and everyone gears up to see the show.
There are a number of ways to view the Northern Lights at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, including the heated dome at the top of the facility, where you can spend hours sipping wine and taking in the phenomenon as it dances in the sky above.
Photographers will love getting down onto the ground floor to capture the lights flickering above the trees, while others can to view the sky from the viewing platform attached to the main building, where warmth is a few steps away.
What makes the Churchill Northern Studies Centre one of the best places to see the Northern Lights? One word: dedication. When the lights are out, the lights go out — meaning that when the aurora makes an appearance, all lights in Centre are turned off for an all-encompassing, outright magical experience between you and the sky.