Our electric tundra buggy quietly rocks and rolls its way over the frozen, windswept surface of the sweeping Churchill River. Like a tour bus on steroids, the wide-bodied ride is equipped with five-and-a-half-foot-tall tires and full-time four-wheel drive, mandatory for navigating northern Manitoba’s subarctic terrain of wide-open tundra, shifting snow drifts, and ever-growing ice hummocks- perfect for viewing the Northern Lights.
Bundled up in puffy parkas (it’s -28°F outside with the windchill), me and my group of 11 fellow northern lights chasers gaze out at the passing whitewashed landscape, aglow in the early-evening March light. But as enchanting as the view is, our thoughts keep jumping to what lies ahead.
After all, we’re making tracks to what must be Canada’s coolest pop-up: a sleek restaurant on wheels called Dan’s Diner, perched on a snowy riverbank along the 58th parallel north. Launched by Frontiers North Adventures in 2017, the upscale culinary experience is now part of all of the company’s winter trips. Ours is the week-long Photo Adventure: Northern Lights in Churchill tour, making tonight’s outing especially appealing—fine dining and the chance to spot the aurora borealis.
Forty minutes after leaving our base in the remote port town of Churchill (pop. 870), we happily climb aboard the custom-built mobile eatery where a long wood table and faux-polar-bear-skin-draped stools await. Candles and brass-pipe pendant lights softly brighten the warm pine-wood-lined space, while skylights and panoramic windows keep the outdoors ever present and promise a front-row seat to what the night skies might bring.
Local touches punctuate the evening, starting with the tiny cones and twigs of the hardy native tamarack tree that adorn our place settings. Taking our seats, we’re soon sipping craft beers like Farmery Estate Brewery’s Foraged Berry Lager, brewed with handpicked berries from the very tundra that surrounds us, and Manitoba Mules, a spicy-sweet concoction—vodka, ginger, maple, hibiscus, lime, and Manitoba blueberries—from Baltic Brothers Crafted Infusions in the province’s capital of Winnipeg.
We ease into tonight’s six-course chef-curated menu with a velvety smoked parsnip soup, followed by roasted carrot salad with umami glaze and smoked fish on toast. Stepping out from the compact but modern kitchen at the far end of the diner, chef Connor MacAulay introduces each serving. Next up, he says, is cheese-stuffed ravioli in elk and bison bolognese, a hearty dish that highlights the chef’s fondness for nostalgic flavors and local products. It also pairs perfectly with my glass of Orofino Beleza, a Bordeaux-style red blend and one of several B.C. wines on the drink menu.
Hailing from Canada’s East Coast, MacAulay shares that the fifth plating of the night—Jigs Dinner—holds a special place in his heart. “When I lived in Newfoundland, it was a very common thing to go to a friend’s or family’s house on Sunday and have a Jigs Dinner,” he says. Tonight’s take on the traditional corned beef and cabbage meal, he adds, also pays homage to the original diner’s first cook, Dan, who made a similar signature dish back in the day.
As we tuck into MacAulay’s creation, which also boasts peas pudding, roasted root vegetables, and mushroom gravy, our guides take us back to the 1980s when group excursions to these parts were still in their infancy. They tell us that the original Dan’s Diner was a humble unit, a retrofitted school bus with tight tables and a tiny kitchen. But that didn’t stop biologist, wildlife photographer, and camp cook Dan Guravich from serving up ample comfort fare to tourists hungry after a day of watching polar bears. Though Dan passed away in 1997, his legacy lives on, not only in his photography and conservation efforts but also in his namesake dining car where we find ourselves feasting tonight.
Dinner done, we head outside to a crackling bonfire and chiselled ice bar just steps away. The biting fresh air and silent surrounds instantly remind us of where we are, while shots of Scotch and fireside chatter carry us into the late evening. But the night is not yet over, as we return to our furry seats for a grand finale of apple tarte tatin topped with vanilla bourbon ice cream, caramel sauce, cloudberries, and apricots. “I thought serving a warm dessert that pairs well with a smoky Scotch aftertaste would be a wonderful way to walk back into the diner,” says MacAulay.
And those green-yellow shimmers glancing across the starry sky just now? A stellar way to wind down the day, but also a teaser for what still might come.
Besides, northern lights tours today are about so much more than the chase. At Winnipeg’s Manitoba Museum a couple of days earlier, we’d perused indigenous artifacts and art, strolled past life-size dioramas, and, while staring up at the planetarium’s domed ceiling, learned that the aurora borealis is the result of electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with gases in Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Flying two and a half hours yesterday north to Churchill on the coast of Hudson Bay, we’d taken a driving tour past outlying points-of-interest like the mural-painted Polar Bear Holding Facility, where problem bears are isolated before being relocated, and the Churchill Rocket Research Range National Historic Site, home to a long-closed but once internationally renowned U.S.-built upper atmosphere research facility (1957-85). In town, we’d gazed at some of the world’s oldest Inuit carvings at the Itsanitaq Museum and skimmed the latest in Ursus maritimus research at the new two-million dollar Polar Bears International House.
In between tips at a photography workshop, we’d picked up that Churchill lies below the northern hemisphere’s aurora oval, making it one of the best places in the world to spy the lights. And that the sun is approaching its next solar maximum, around 2023-2026, with aurora displays intensifying as the 11-year solar cycle peaks.
Tomorrow we’ll snowshoe past spruce trees to the rocky shoreline of Button Bay, spotting white-tailed ptarmigans against the snow and red fox tracks along the way. The day after, we’ll pair up for a thrilling one-mile guided dog-sled ride through boreal forest at Wapusk Adventures, owned and operated by Métis musher Dave Daley. But not before he captivates us with stories about his indigenous heritage and dog-racing pursuits—Daley launched the gruelling 220-mile Hudson Bay Quest in 2004.
Still, it’s the promise of the lights that has drawn us all here. And we have four chances at different locations to glimpse them. There was the cozy yurt in the woods last night and Dan’s Diner tonight, each graced with quietly fetching moments. At tomorrow’s teepee setting, the sky will light up with chartreuse swirls that linger into the night. While on our last outing, aboard the club-like Thanadelthur Lounge with 360-degree rooftop viewing deck, a show of billowing purple-tinged green curtains and wide arcs high above the Churchill River will send us home beaming.
In the end, perhaps it’s not a wonder that we see these natural luminous spectacles. Certainly, Churchill counts some 300 nights a year of aurora activity. Rather, the northern lights are a true wonder to behold, and we’ll be forever grateful for having viewed them with enlightened eyes.