The Polar Bear Capital of the World

My trip to Churchill in October, 2001, felt a lot like a pilgrimage. It is a place, like Denali, or Kodiak Island, or Yellowstone, where everyone who has an interest in bears must go. It has a nearly magnetic draw. An inescapable pull. It is one of the few places in the world where bears and humans can interact safely with one another. It is that interaction which draws nearly ten thousand tourists each year to this small community just off the western side of Hudson Bay.

The population of bears in the Churchill area actually has a range of about 200 miles. During the long months of winter, the bears wander the frozen ice that forms on the bay. The coming of spring deposits the animals on the coast of Ontario and Southern Manitoba. Placed on the land by the melting ice, the bears head north to wait for the coming of winter to again wander out onto the ice. Their trek marks a huge migratory circle. A circle that pauses for about four weeks in Churchill.

Churchill itself is a small town, home of approximately 750 permanent residents. It was not much of a tourist town before 1980. It was and still is Canadaís only arctic seaport, a function that provided far more money than tourism did. The occasional professional photographer or media representative would arrive during the polar bear season to take pictures or do a story, but it did not bring droves of tourists. In 1980, all of that changed. A resident of the town named Len Smith created "The Tundra Buggy™."

The "buggy" itself was a converted school bus; the top was cut off and replaced with a much higher ceiling. The original wheels, suspension, and transmission were also replaced. This new arrangement held the contraption nearly 7 feet off of the ground. High enough for passengers to be safe from the advances of the bears once the vehicle had made its way out onto the tundra.

Today, in Churchill, there is a thriving tourist industry. The population of the town swells to almost 3,000 during the late weeks of October and early November. It is now the principal source of income for the town. There are hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. It is, for all purposes, an arctic resort.

It is impossible to go anywhere in town and not encounter something related to the bears. Stores and hotels have pictures and posters of the animals up everywhere. Even stores that sell items that should have nothing to do with bears, like the town grocery store, also sell T-shirts and mugs covered with bear photos. The bears are the constant topic of conversation, the main source of revenue, and are inseparable from the daily routine of the residents.

I knew all of this from book reading, but I never expected that I would get a chance to go there. It was in September of 1996 that a friend of mine and I hatched a plan that would result in our going to see the "Polar Bear Capital of the World." It was very impulsive, and I think that added a lot to the fun of it. There were quite a few steps to be completed to make our journey. We would have to: arrange transportation, lodging, trips on the tundra buggy, make certain there would be food, and make sure that we had a decent guide. Instead of taking on all of these details ourselves, since this was our first trip, we placed ourselves in the hands of TravelWild Expeditions, a Vashon Island, Washington based, exotic tours company.

The arrangements were painless, and so long as we made it to Winnipeg, Manitoba, they would take care of us from there. For a period of seven days, from Oct 30 to Nov 5, we and a small group of other tourists would be their guests. I made arrangements with a travel agent to arrive in Winnipeg on the 30th, and the trip was set. All of that was completed before the end of December, 1996. I discovered, while researching the tourism companies, that it is best to plan for a trip such as this as early as possible. There are only a limited number of seats, and they usually sell out a year or more in advance.

I waited with great anticipation for the intervening months to pass. It was amazing to me. I was finally going to be going to Churchill. Iíve made quite a hobby out of studying bears, but my experience with seeing them outside of photographs was limited to zoos. Now, I was going to be going to the frozen North to see the single largest concentration of polar bears anywhere. The place mentioned in countless books on bears, the place that National Geographic dedicated an entire hour to in their film "Polar Bear Alert". I was going there.

The first day was impressive from the temperature alone. The morning temperature, with wind chill, was fifty degrees below zero Fahrenheit. It was a relatively balmy sixty-eight degrees back home. And in Churchill it was almost one hundred degrees colder. It is still hard to picture how cold that really was. It was cold enough to form a constant ice fog out over the relatively warm Hudson Bay.

We were also treated to an introduction to the polar bear jail. It is located in the middle of a snow-covered wasteland on the outskirts of Churchill. A lengthy building made of corrugated steel. On the front were a set of double doors, and a simple orange sign, emblazoned with a polar bear, which read "POLAR BEAR COMPOUND."

The jail itself contains 20 cells, enough to hold 16 single bears and four family groups. Bears that cause trouble used to be shot, however now the bears are tranquilized and placed "in jail". These jailed bears are held here without food and water for a considerable length of time. During the fall, the bears are in a forced state of fasting, where they do not generally eat or drink for many weeks. They do not need to. Their bodies have adapted to be able to withstand the pressures of fasting until the ice freezes enough for them to head out onto the ice and once again begin hunting the seals which make up the majority of their natural diet.

The bears that have been placed in the jail are eventually relocated. In the past, the bears were held for the duration of the polar bear season. Changes in policy since 1996 now have the bears being held only for a few weeks before being released. This frees up more cells for more trouble bears and has the same effect of keeping the animals out of trouble for awhile.

The use of the jail and similar punishment methods have reduced the conflict to a point where the bears are not nearly the problem they were, they no longer wander unchecked through the town, nor do they frequent the dump with the regularity of old.

Additionally, near the jail were huge pieces of steel pipe, eight feet or so in diameter. These were attached to wheels and parts of trailer and grating. This created a sort of trap called a "culvert trap". The name comes from the construction, the traps are made from pieces of culvert pipe. These traps are used to capture bears that are in problem areas, such as the dump, or bears that are behaving in ways that endanger either themselves or people.

The group responsible for the running the jail and for the safety of the residents, is called the "Polar Bear Patrol." They are made up of both paid workers, and local volunteers. There is almost always a patrol vehicle somewhere near. Since the trip intersected with October 31, we got to see the special preparations made for Halloween. Long before the children are scheduled to go out for trick-or-treating, the patrol places large vehicles around the town. The headlamps of these vehicles are turned on full blast, facing away from the town proper and off into the tundra. The drivers keep in constant contact with each other, so that they can communicate the movements of the bears. Additionally, they are armed, so that should it become necessary, they can scare off the animal with explosive shells, or in a worst-case situation, they can shoot the animal.

We werenít going to be seeing any actual bears until our second day. During the late afternoon, though, we did get to view some of the other animals that live in and around Churchill. Our guide took us to various locales, but at one point, one of the tourists shouted for the rest of us to look out the window. We all did, and we could saw a small arctic fox, out in the snow, leaping and capering, running swiftly across the ice in the dodging fashion of foxes. Moments later, the source of his hurry danced into view: a red fox. Vulpine against vulpine, the red fox chased the arctic fox across the tundra.

We were instantly captivated. Not a one of us had really expected to see anything like this on our first day in town, but here we were, watching the drama of nature unfold in front of us. It was startling to consider just how much larger the red fox was than the arctic. The pair of them lunged around on the ice for awhile, and finally, the arctic fox managed to escape from his pursuer. It was quite a spectacle.

On the second day, we went out onto the ice in one of the buggies. We drove for about an hour before we saw our first bear. It was about a quarter mile away, and could barely be seen against the background of ice and snow. But, it was indeed a bear. It plodded along in the distance, casually ambling along in the telltale pigeon-toed fashion of theirs.

Cameras were flashing in a frenzy all around. It was fantastic. Even as distant as the animal was, it was the first time that most of us had seen a bear in the wild at all. At the front of the buggy, nearly drowned out by the chatter of the others, our guide assured us that we would be much nearer.

Our driver continued along the edge of the bay, and we kept taking pictures. I couldnít believe we were going to be closer.

It was less than five minutes before we encountered our second bear. This animal was only about ten feet away from the buggy, and he was a brute. The engines of the vehicle were silenced, and the entire group of tourists moved to the side of the buggy where the bear was located. It was amazing.

He was eating the kelp that lay heaped in great piles along the edge of the bay. He paid us almost no attention, instead focusing on his dinner. When the first of the windows went down, so that one tourist or another could take a photo, he looked up and stared for a moment, but then went immediately back to eating. We were nothing to him; a part of the landscape, nothing else.

It wasnít long before we encountered another bear, and still another.

They were everywhere. One of the curators of the Eskimo museum in town had referred to them as pests. I hadnít realized what she had meant until then. The Polar Bear Patrol did a very good job, there were no bears near the townÖ but out here, if you werenít in a buggy, you were bear chow. They were all over the place. Once you were in the thick of it, you couldnít drive fifty feet without seeing a bear.

We ate lunch at "camp." Camp is a massive, rolling hotel which sits out in the middle of the thickest collection of bears on the cape. The structure is painted white, like the rest of the landscape, although the smells of food and cooking are what probably draw the bears more than anything else. This is especially true, since all of the buggies convene here for the midday meal.

It was here that we saw our first fight. The bears do not fight for dominance or mates during this time of the year. They fight as a friendly gesture, to practice, and because it is fun. The techniques and skills acquired during these friendly combats are extremely valuable when they are faced with a real battle. The bears obviously enjoy themselves. In the instance that we watched, one would tower up on his hind legs and race towards the other, barreling into his companion at a good clip, knocking him over. Then his companion would grab him, and pull him down.

It continued like that for quite some time, before the pair collapsed in the snow in exhaustion. The bears usually do not stop playing because they are tired, usually it is because they are overheating. The layers of fat and insulating fur create a very impressive heat barrier. We saw these sorts of combat time and again while we were out on the ice.

There is a raised platform on the back of the buggy, and we each took our turns standing out on it. It made it possible to get very close to the bears. Sometimes, one of the braver animals would stand up on his hind legs, and place his forepaws on the sheet metal that protected the platform. I got within eight inches or so, nose to nose, with a big bruin this way. It made for a great photo opportunity. The closeness also afforded a chance to see how truly large the bears really are. The paws were like pie plates, and seemed to impress everyone who came out onto the platform.

The next few days out on the ice were very similar. So much so, that we all began to become somewhat jaded to the animals; accepting them as just part of daily life. It was something I hadnít expected. It wasnít until our final day in town that we saw something that made the tour group catch its breath. We happened upon a mother bear with cubs.

The cubs were very obliging, and they made some wonderful poses for us to photograph before mother discovered a large black truck parked nearby had a huge bag full of garbage in the back. She wandered over, stuck her snout in, and started to haul this mammoth sack of trash from the back and drag it across the ice. It tore into several smaller pieces, which the cubs grabbed and ran with. It was fascinating to watch, but it was teaching the bears terrible behaviors.

The town has attempted to curb those bad behaviors in other ways, though. In the 1980ís, the town dump was considered a tourist attraction because of the large number of bears that came there to feed on human waste. This was damaging to the bears. They learned to associate food with humans, and the bears quickly turned to dangerous behaviors. A lot of them had to be destroyed. Now, very few bears are seen around the dump. If a bear starts feeding there, he is stuck in "jail" and then relocated. This negative reinforcement has reduced the number of problem bears dramatically.

The tour guides are also getting involved in helping to sever the link between humans and food. The buggy driver had explained, during our orientation, that if any one of us were caught feeding the bears, the entire group would be returned to town and not allowed back out onto the ice. Compared to the situations of twenty years ago, the human impact on the bears has been greatly reduced, despite the increased contact.

The trip was a very rewarding one. There are some things that one can learn from books, but I had learned things about the bears that I wouldnít have if I hadnít gone. You can be told that they are quiet, but it isnít until you are ten feet away from one and still canít hear a sound that it really sinks in. The truly impressive aspects of nature can only be really felt when they are experienced.