Everyone in Churchill has a polar bear story. In this remote, frozen town nestling on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay, having a good bear story to tell counts for a lot.
In status terms it is roughly the equivalent of a student’s drinking tales. For ‘I must have downed at least a dozen pints,’ just read, ‘The bear was no more than a dozen feet away when I looked it straight in the eye.’ You aren’t supposed to look them straight in the eye of course, but then that just adds to the story.
Some of the stories stick in your mind more than others. Like the last time someone in Churchill was killed by a bear, just a few years ago. He was only a young lad, playing on the rocks behind his school. He was jumping from one rock to the next as young lads do. Only he went rock, rock, bear. He hadn’t realised of course. That the large rock at the end was a sleeping polar bear. By the time he did it was too late.
Then there was the marshal at the tiny Churchill airport who was waving a taxiing plane towards him when the pilot started gesturing back. The marshal took no notice, thinking it was a joke. So just before he stepped onto the toes of the polar bear directly behind him, the quick-thinking pilot revved his engine to scare the beast away.
And not forgetting the children sledging off a neighbour’s roof into the huge snowdrift below, who were ushered indoors by their frantic mother when she noticed the ‘drift’ move.
I was assured the tales were true and not simply devised to ensure tourists – lured by the town’s tag as ‘the polar bear capital of the world’ – treat the largest of carnivores with the respect they deserve instead of trying to tickle them under the chin.
It is a difficult balancing act for Canada’s tourism chiefs. On the one hand they woo visitors to Churchill with tales of close encounters of the bear kind during their annual migration, but once they are there, they go to a lot of trouble to make sure they don’t get too close. Brightly coloured ‘Polar Bear Alert’ warning posters are put up around the town’s outskirts where bears have been spotted. Predictably the tourists started stealing these for souvenirs to impress the folks back home so now they are given the option of buying them for $10 instead.
The threat from bears coming into town is a very real one. Only a few years ago, a large male strolled down Main Street sending the residents darting for cover. He may only have been intent on window shopping but the authorities were taking no chances.
‘Prisoners’ are then transferred to Churchill’s notorious polar bear jail – a huge corrugated iron hut a few miles out of town. The bears are not fed, in case they come to associate a town visit with an easy meal, but as they haven’t eaten for months anyway, it’s no real hardship.
Captives are tagged and when there are enough to warrant a lift home they are tranquillised, put in a net and flown 40km north by helicopter before being released. The authorities have introduced a ‘three visits and you’re out’ policy for bad bears who venture into town. Lucky offenders are sent to a zoo, the not so lucky are put down.
The tough stance has won the approval of townsfolk who used to take pot shots at passing bears. Now anyone shooting a polar bear who is unable to prove it was in self-defence faces six months in prison and a $10,000 fine.
And so an uneasy truce has been called between man and beast. The people of Churchill are wise enough to realise that the tourists only come to see one thing, and killing the town’s premier attraction would plainly be shooting themselves in the foot.
Every October the bears congregate in Churchill,waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over so that they can continue their journey northwards, to go seal fishing for the winter. They only ever get part of the way across the huge bay before the ice begins to melt in the spring and the ice floes bring them back to land where they set out once again for Churchill.
The bears take the same route at roughly the same time every year. Word spread and one year a film crew came to witness the invasion, which lasts for just four or five weeks. Then the tourists started coming. Tours set up to take the visitors out to view the bears in ‘tundra buggies’, specially adapted military vehicles with huge wheels to negotiate the hostile terrain. Now it is near-impossible to find a spare room in the town’s few hotels during bear season.
Timing is crucial though. Three years ago the bay froze over early in November and the tourists and TV crew who arrived the next day were disappointed. The bears wait for no-one; after several months without food they have only the scent of seals in their nostrils.
The following year it was the visitors who arrived in early October who missed out. They were greeted with 120kph winds. The bears went to ground, the airport was closed and more than 200 tourists were stranded in Churchill, which didn’t have enough beds to go round. The poor souls finally left without seeing as much as a paw print.
Our tour guide Deidre had just seen the last of them off when we arrived. She looked like she could do with a stiff drink.
“There was nothing anyone could do,” she explained wearily. “When I stepped off the train at the station I was blown straight over; it was that bad. Everyone just had to stay put. Still, hopefully we’ll have better luck.”
A few nervous smiles were exchanged, the Americans muttered something about suing if it happened to them. Presumably they meant Mother Nature.
Dawn broke to reveal a thankfully still day and a grey but pleasant town, comprising of little more than a dozen streets, with a handful of restaurants and hotels and one particularly fine bakery.
With so little in the way of entertainment, it is hardly surprising that there are three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week in Churchill. Apart from the excessive drinking, the only other problem the police have to deal with is the occasional outbreak of ‘cabin-fever’ which causes even the most mild-mannered resident to slap their neighbour or best friend across the face from time to time during the long winter months.
We took a bus out to the tundra buggy base where we boarded our vehicle. It was equipped with the essentials of a heater, a loo and an outside viewing platform for keen photographers and anyone else foolhardy enough to brave temperatures of -6°C with a windchill factor making it feel twice as cold.
Everett, our intrepid buggy driver, welcomed everyone aboard and we chugged off over the tundra, the huge wheels manoeuvring us through snow, ice, frozen mud and water several feet deep. The landscape was flat and featureless as far as I could see but somehow managed to be strangely beautiful, thanks to its tranquillity and contrasting textures.
Half an hour into our journey, with us still awaiting our first bear sighting, the buggy came to an abrupt halt. Everett announced the bad news. We had a flat tyre. Deidre tried to put on a brave face. I didn’t think arguing with the AA that my membership grade did cover ‘Any other vehicle you are travelling in’ would help. But luckily, Everett knew a man who could and promptly called over his radio for assistance, while reassuring us that this had never happened before during the eight years he had been driving buggies.
Help arrived and while we kept an eye out for bears, the crew got to work. After an hour the tyre was pronounced beyond repair and we were told a new one would have to be flown in by helicopter. The Americans returned to the subject of suing.
Another hour later the timely whirr of rotor blades overhead prevented a heated debate about closer European Union from turning to violence and we were soon on our way again.
Everett and Deidre knew we were restless and would only be placated by one thing. And as if to answer their prayers, there he was on the horizon, nonchalantly lolloping towards us.
Nothing prepares you for your first bear sighting, not the photos or the documentaries or even seeing one in a zoo. This is different. This is seeing them on their territory. This is real.
The bear came nearer and nearer and as he did so his sheer size and bulk became apparent. He had a sniff and a good look and then turned to wander off in the opposite direction. He, after all, had seen the likes of us before and he wasn’t unduly impressed.
We trundled on, everyone smiling now, spotting the odd bear and Arctic fox on the way, and arrived at the tundra buggy lodge where we stopped for our packed lunch. The lodge has two sleeper cars housing up to 20 people, a lounge car, a dining car and two utility trailers with open decks between them for photographers, the main clientele.
The bears have got used to the lodge being there and tend to congregate around it, curious to see what is going on. They also worked out that if they sat under the sink drainage pipe they could get a refreshing drink of washing up water at certain times of the day. This was fine until the day a particularly thirsty bear decided he was tired of waiting and blew up the pipe. The unfortunate woman doing the washing-up at the time hadn’t expected to see a geyser so you can imagine her surprise when the water and dishes hit the ceiling with the force of the bear’s capacious lungs. That was when they built a wooden box around the pipe so the bears couldn’t get to it. Humans just aren’t any fun.
As we munched our sandwiches, one friendly bear came right up to our buggy, standing on his hind legs to get a good look in. Two other males decided to put on a sparring show for us just outside the window, sizing each other up in preparation for the breeding season when the fight would be real.
At first they were just gingerly pawing each other but gradually the playful nips became more fearsome and soon they were going at each other silently but with awesome power. The performance continued for about an hour until one of them backed off, conceding defeat, and they parted wearily.
By the time we got back to the tundra buggy base it was dark. We transferred onto the bus to take us back into town but only a few minutes later we came abruptly to a halt for the second time that day. The driver sheepishly admitted he was out of gas but Everett wasn’t about to be beaten and announced he would set off on foot across the tundra. Soon help arrived. Everett roared the engine back into life and a young voice, suitably in awe, piped up from the back, “I like that guy”.
By the next day we were becoming almost blasé about the occasional passing bear as we headed out onto the tundra again. More snow had fallen overnight and this time the two males we had seen the previous day had a crisp, white backdrop for their sparring match.
They weren’t so sporting this time though; one of them had already drawn blood when we got a call over the radio, “MC squared ahead”. The message translated as the first sighting of a mother and two cubs that season. When we caught up with them, the mother and cubs were curled up tightly against each other, sheltering from a snowstorm. But as the snow eased and they lifted their heads to find an audience, curiosity got the better of them. The chorus of ‘Aahhs’ and clicking of camera shutters only appeared to encourage the cubs who played happily in the snow, pouncing on a tourist’s lost cap in a quick game of fetch.
The collective sigh of relief that we had seen what we came for was audible. Deidre declared that our day’s viewing – which ranked among her best ever – had made up for the wrath of disappointed tourists past. Her father back in Winnipeg still thinks she should get a proper job in a nice, warm office.
But then he hasn’t seen the bears.
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