Our plane knifed through the dark grey clouds and plunged into a driving snowstorm. As the wheels touched down on the tarmac we could distinguish the hulking remains of previously crashed planes lining the runway. Welcome to Churchill, Manitoba – polar bear capital of the world.
Our group had met in Winnipeg the day before, where we were briefed on life in the far north by the wonderful Manitoba Museum.
In Churchill, we were lodged in a hotel converted from a mobile home. We met in the lobby, where we were warned about life in town. The restaurant that had been contracted to feed us was a long two blocks away. We were never to walk there alone, and we were to continuously look over our shoulders for bears.
The polar bears of Churchill congregate in the area during the month of October to wait for ice on Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can go out and hunt seals on the ice shelves. Meanwhile, propelled by hunger, they terrorize town inhabitants with their escapades, sometimes tearing doors or windows off their frames to get to the larder supplies they know are inside the homes.
We were there to observe the bears in their natural habitat. Every morning for the next five days, we went out in tundra buggies – high, large-tired vehicles built for this purpose – to search for them. We encountered about eight to ten of them every day. We would park the tundra buggy, place a can of sardines on the vehicle's open-air porch (enclosed by a railing), and wait for them to find us. It is said they can smell the sardines up to 30 miles away, and it didn't take long for them to come lumbering up to the buggy.
Stretched on tippy-toe, they were about one and a half feet below our reach. We could observe them either inside the buggy or outside on the porch.
The bears usually travel solo and silently across the tundra. Only the mothers and their cubs travel in company. Behind them run little arctic foxes looking for scraps of food the bears leave behind. They try to keep a safe distance so that they don't become prey. Arctic hares and ptarmigans are also spotted along the way.
The bears are a yellowish-beige color, not white. We saw them playing together (adolescents), sniffing about, sheltering from the wind and taking naps.
We happened to pick Halloween week to be in Churchill, which turned out to be quite the occasion. In order for children to trick or treat peacefully without being stalked by the bears, the townspeople ring four or five blocks downtown with their ATVs and pick-up trucks and hit their horns or any noisemakers they might have. The cacophony is dinning, and keeps the bears at bay for two hours or so for a safe Halloween. The children go store to store collecting their treats.
On the way from Churchill to the tundra, we passed the local landfill, which is in a constant state of burning to discourage the bears from gathering there to look for edible garbage. The unusually pesky ones are sedated and put in polar bear "jails" for six weeks at a time without food or water. After their sojourn in jail, they are tranquilized, put in nets, and helicoptered out into the wilderness away from town.
It is hoped that this trauma will keep them from returning soon. As for myself, I hope to return someday.