Polar Bear Wonderland
My friends and I were watching “Shaun of the Dead,” a parody on the zombie apocalypse, and began asking ourselves where we would go if we actually had to escape zombies. It occurred to us that Churchill, Manitoba may be one of the best strongholds around. Why? Because the whole town is defended against polar bears. What’s a zombie or two compared to a few hundred of the largest terrestrial carnivores on earth?
Some of my video footage of bears beating the stuffing out of each other.
Churchill sits at a point geographically where the sea ice freezes first on the Hudson Bay. If a polar bear knows one thing, it’s where to find sea ice, because sea ice means seal hunting. So bears are drawn to Cape Churchill by the hundreds in advance of the freeze up, sitting with their heads on their paws staring longingly at the cold but open water beyond the shore. On the air of a swift northwest wind wafts the mysterious scents of a nearby civilization. Bacon at the Seaport Hotel, transmission fluid leaking in the shop, fresh laundry tumbling around the dryers in the residential district, donuts frying at Gypsy’s bakery. With nothing better to do, the bears get up and follow their noses.
|Napping patiently on a partially frozen pond|
Two cowboy conservation officers with the Polar Bear Alert Program see an inbound bear. They extinguish their cigarettes, hop into a big pickup with a winch rig and a spotlight on top and fishtail out of the turnout towards the bear with a shotgun loaded and pointing out the open window. Cracks and Pops explode over the bear’s head with clouds of sulfury smoke, and the bear gallops for cover. The bear recognizes the truck and the firecracker shells that are booming over him. He dodges into a spruce thicket and hunkers down. The cowboys circle him on the side roads, but can’t see him anymore. Every few minutes the bear dashes to the next ridge or the next willow thicket, trying to escape his pursuers, who have loaded their rifles with tranquilizers. The bear leaps out from a copse of rocks and is shot with a shoulder full of Telazol. Dazed and disoriented, the bear collapses onto the snowy road, and the cowboys winch him into the truck bed. They flip him onto a flatbed trailer and back him into D-20, an old military hangar known as “Polar Bear Jail.” Here he stays in his concrete reinforced cell until the sea ice freezes and the officers airlift him to the bay in a cargo net.
|polar bear airlift out of the jail. There is a "small" 400 lb bear wrapped in the cargo net|
Polar Bear Alert has saved the lives of countless bears and people since they began in the 80s, but once in a while a bear makes it past their defensive line. Generally once a week my guests come to breakfast complaining about the locals shooting fireworks at all hours of the night, when in fact it is the cowboy officers chasing polar bears down main street past the hotels. Unfortunately bears do slip through the cracks. A couple weeks ago we returned to a very different town than the one I had just left. Right from the tarmac, Churchill was very quiet and nobody would explain why. Just a few hours before we landed a bear had sent two locals on a life-flight to the Winnipeg hospital. It took shovels, guns, and a truck to get a bear to let go of a poor girl’s head.
Later that week I was sitting in the Seaport Lounge during Open-mic night. The singer, Eli, silenced everyone in the bar and asked for a moment of attention. He opened up his iPad to reveal one of the bear attack victims, head wrapped in bandages, on the other end of a Skype video call. The entire bar began singing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” over Eli’s guitar, and the iPad passed from person to person to wave hello and wish a speedy recovery. The girl is in good shape now and is back in Churchill.
|Curious, clever, and an incredibly acute sense of smell. There is a pot of soup inside that last window.|
Churchill is a big community that is fully intact for only 6 weeks each year. Lisa, one of my favorite rover drivers, spends the rest of her year on movie sets in Winnipeg. No surprise she is drawn to this town. Like a film set, Churchill is a place where hundreds of people gather to work on a common project for a short amount of time. Favors are granted, and reciprocity is not expected but it is always given. The hotel staff gives Karen a set of batteries for a dead flashlight in a pinch. She brings up a few copies of the Sunday paper from Winnipeg. Ramón puts his Parks Canada work on hold to come translate for our French guests all evening. We invite Brittany out on our rovers after her 6 weeks of nonstop catering to our travelers at the Churchill Hotel. Many street-facing doors are left unlocked in case a bear is sharing your sidewalk.
When the ice freezes, the bears disappear and this strange community evaporates until the next year. Some hardy souls stay in Churchill all year round, providing next year’s stories. “Did you hear, a polar bear stole Bill’s moose? Yeah, ripped the shed door right off the hinges and dragged away a hindquarter!”
|That bus has no idea there is a polar bear laying in the willows 20 ft away.|
On my final flight out of Churchill, another guide and I realized that we may be among the last of the polar bear guides. Our guests may be some of the last people to see polar bears in the wild. There are no roads into Churchill, and the train into town derails all the time, yet Churchill is still the most accessible place in the world to see these bears. Populations at the fringe of their species range are often the most vulnerable because they endure more hardship to survive. The Western Hudson Bay polar bears are no exception. Bears need sea ice to hunt seals. They cannot survive on anything but seals. They hunt in the winter and spring when the bay is frozen, and they fast in the summer and fall when it is not. In the last 3 decades, the window that the bay is frozen for shrank by 3 weeks, and this trend will continue.
|Bruiser bear. The scars indicate he's an older bear that's fought for his place in the breeding pool. The ear tags indicate he's probably paid a visit to the Polar Bear Jail.|
Something strange happened this season with my travelers. Nobody questioned me on climate change. Nobody tried to change the subject. Nobody was playing devil’s advocate. Wheat farmers to Shell Oil employees to vegetarian teachers to journalists. People in their eighties or thirties. From Ontario, Iowa, Montana, Texas, California, Atlanta, North Carolina, or Kansas. Already polar bear mothers are not producing as many cubs as they once did. The adult population is already down and declining. By 2050 there won’t be enough ice to make a living on, and the bears will be gone. Soon there won’t be enough bears to support this community and the travel companies that come here. Anyone who comes to Churchill leaves humbled by this reality. Seeing a polar bear in the wild is now equally euphoric and melancholic. My travelers leave carrying the responsibility to explain what is happening in the Hudson Bay to those who ignorantly dismiss climate projections and CO2 graphs in their own insulated worlds. And while we watched polar bears, the largest typhoon in recorded history was whirling across the planet.
|Polar Bear mothers used to have 3 cubs. Now they can only support 1 or 2.|
Someone asked me what a polar bear is worth. An Inuit community can sell one of their harvest tags to a sport hunter for around $40,000. But what is a Churchill polar bear worth alive? Considering the 4,000 or so travelers arriving each year, the exorbitant prices they pay, and figuring that about 300 bears wander through Cape Churchill each year, my rough estimate is that each bear generates about $46,000 per year. Considering that a bear can easily live to 20 years old, that’s around $1 million that each bear is worth over the course of its life. Food for thought.
Whether you are interested in seeing polar bears or scouting locations to survive the zombie apocalypse, I hope you all one day find your way up to this offbeat and peculiar town. For me, some rest and recovery in Vermont, then back to Jackson for the long Yellowstone winter.
|photographing the northern lights at the edge of town|