On the banks of Hudson Bay, residents in the isolated Canadian town of Churchill live in perpetual fear of polar bear attacks, yet depend on the mighty carnivores for their livelihoods.
Every Halloween, Bob Windsor drives his truck out to the rocks that edge the steely waters of Hudson Bay and scans the shoreline for polar bears. A bandolier of shotgun cartridges is slung over the headrest of his seat.
Bob carries three guns and a range of ammunition: cracker shells to frighten bears off with noise, paintball rounds that deliver a painful sting and, for the most desperate circumstances, lead slugs the size of an AA battery. These are only accurate at short range, but one of them can stop a rampaging half-ton animal bent on taking a human life. Bob’s been in charge of Churchill’s polar bear alert programme for six years and he’s had to use them twice.
‘What’s incredible about the bears is their speed and stealth,’ he says. ‘They lay down somewhere and you just don’t see them.’
Compact and whiskered, Bob projects the alertness and physical confidence of a natural hunter, but he’s looking at something that bothers him. A man in an orange hat is hunkered down between two rocks on the beach, about 50 yards beyond the signs warning anyone from walking in the area. Bob has chased two bears out of town in the past 24 hours, both close to this point, where a traditional inukshuk, an Inuit marker, stands as a navigation aid for kayakers and hunters.
I look at the man through my binoculars. He notices me watching him and slithers out of sight into the rocks. I tell Bob that the man seems determined to become bear food. ‘That’s what I was thinking too,’ Bob says. ‘If he ends up being taken, at least we’ll find his orange toque.’
Keeping the human population of Churchill safe from bears is a year-round endeavour, but it peaks in bear season. In October and November every year, polar bears that have been forced off their seal-hunting grounds by the melting of the ice in Hudson Bay arrive in the area to await the winter freeze. As soon as the ice is strong enough to carry them, they vanish onto the bay. But during those weeks while the ice is forming, 800–900 bears are at large in the area around the town.
The critical date in Bob’s diary is 31 October, when the 200 or so children of Churchill take to the streets in Halloween costumes. ‘The big focus is the trick-or-treating – that’s what we man-up for,’ Bob says. He has 15 units on patrol: five of his own and 10 drawn from the police, emergency services and utility companies. Their task is to prevent an encounter between children hungry for candy and polar bears hungry for pretty much anything.
Just after 3:30pm, a helicopter makes a circuit of the town and pronounces it bear-free. About an hour later, the first groups of children appear on the snowy streets in small groups, some with their parents, some without. The light turns gold and fades, the temperature drops. Four-year-old Emily Robertson is a pirate, her sister Natalie is Winnie the Pooh; there is a boy dressed as Ron Weasley; a scary clown; a girl in a pumpkin costume; assorted vampires and ghouls. As darkness falls, there is a frisson in knowing that somewhere out there lurks something genuinely worthy of our fear.
Churchill has a complicated relationship with its bears. They are both an economic opportunity and an existential danger. The tiny town – population 900 – was established in the 18th century and has been variously a fur-trading post, a military base and a port. Today its economy depends on nature tours. Churchill is the self-described ‘polar bear capital of the world’. It hosts 10 times its population in tourists, who come to see its bears. Nowhere on Earth can you see polar bears so close, so reliably and in such great numbers. Until 2005, a large open-air dump drew bears to the town, and tourists could have a cheap – and dangerous – polar bear safari by renting a vehicle and driving to it (‘They were fat, garbage-fed bears,’ is Bob’s assessment). The dump has now closed and the only way to see the bears officially is to join a tour out to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, or to Wapusk National Park.
The animals can be viewed from the air by helicopter, or on specially built tundra buggies that trundle 15-odd miles out from the city into the elemental landscape of snow, rocks, stunted Arctic willow and frozen water.
During the three days I spent in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, I counted 48 separate encounters with polar bears: scratching themselves on willow bushes, sprawling comically on kelp beds, play-fighting, poking under the snow with their long black tongues, standing up on their hind legs to peer curiously inside the buggy. I saw sibling bears, mother bears travelling with grown cubs, and huge lone male bears with faces scarred from the vicious competition for mates. The strange enchantment of watching them never palled.
The animals have an incredible allure – I found them huge, charismatic, otherworldly. Cuddly and menacing, comic and melancholy, they are the Tony Soprano of mammals. Watching them for hours, as they cavorted, relaxed, munched kelp, and sparred gently with one another, I could never quite rid myself of the thought that I was looking at people wearing bear suits. There is something deeply uncanny about them: their size, idiosyncratic stiff-legged gait, huge paws, and oddly human five-toed footprints. The Inuit traditionally credited the nanuq, as they call them, with supernatural powers and, even today, Inuit hunters will avoid speaking about the polar bear, fearing its ability to overhear and understand distant human conversations.
An entire industry has grown up around Churchill’s bears. The tundra buggies in which visitors view the animals are enormous and heated, built up high on huge axles, with viewing platforms at the rear. In October and November, mobile luxury hotels are stationed out in the tundra, like a strange combination of safari lodge and lunar base.
In the luxurious isolation of the lodges, guests rub shoulders with scientists conducting research, make trips out on to the tundra, and return to dine on braised venison and Arctic char. I personally found the experience of living aboard for several days thrilling, but mildly claustrophobic. Watching the bears lope past the window of my bunk at night and in the early morning, I wondered if I were a participant on a bear safari, or the inmate of a human zoo. A massive logistical effort makes it possible for visitors to see polar bears in safety and comfort outside Churchill. Equal ingenuity is expended preventing them encountering polar bears while they’re in it.
It’s broadly true to say that the polar bear is the largest predator on Earth – but the statement demands some qualification. Orcas of course are bigger, but aquatic. And some scientists suggest that it would be more accurate to think of polar bears as marine mammals. At the northern end of their range, polar bears are conceived, born and live their entire lives on the ice.
The polar bears in the western Hudson Bay area are one of only two populations that spend their summers on land. As they are adapted to hunt from the ice, they pass the summer months in a state of ‘walking hibernation’, conserving energy, burning their stored fat, and waiting for the bay to freeze. Some might be lucky enough to find a beached seal. They can be resourceful too: helicopter pilot Erik Polzin described to me how he’d watched a bear waiting for hours on a gradually submerging rock until it managed to entice a baby beluga whale into its paws. ‘He ripped its face off and ate it like a Slim Jim,’ says Erik.
But the polar bear is not simply an object of fear. On the streets of Churchill, I bump into Vonda McPherson who was walking her dog, Chocolate – a skittish half-husky, half-wolf. Vonda tells me she had First Nations Cree ancestry on both sides of her family, and her native forebears regarded the bear with awe and respect.‘I know that in my culture the polar bear is seen as a guardian,’ she explains.
Churchill’s townsfolk are well-schooled in the dangers of living within range of these hungry predators. They don’t walk around alone at night. They avoid the cut-throughs between the low-slung prefabricated houses that make up the town. They stay well away from the beach, where the rocks and snow can easily conceal a lurking bear. The man with the orange hat was, almost certainly, a foolish – and lucky – visitor.
The town has regular polar bear patrols, polar bear traps (long raised metal tubes baited with seal meat) and a polar bear hotline that residents are instructed to call at the first sign of a bear. Bob’s teams respond to the call-outs and scare the animals out of town, chasing them on foot and firing cracker shells or paintball ammunition to keep them on the move.
Some bears require stronger deterrence. Stubborn recidivist bears get darted and taken off to polar bear jail – a gloomy, windowless hangar on the outskirts of the town. Here they’re kept in separate cells and given only water for 30 days. Once the time is up, or when the ice has formed, they’re carted out on to the bay by truck, or flown north by helicopter. On the day I met Bob, the jail – or polar bear holding centre, as it’s officially known – had 12 furry inmates. He categorically refused to let me go inside. ‘We don’t want the animals to get used to human beings, and it’s a question of liability. We had our last fatality in 1983, and that’s a record we want to stand for a long time.’
Later that Halloween night it is the adults’ turn to party. A bar called the Dark Side is full of locals in costume. People are marking the occasion with the enthusiasm you’d expect in a tiny town where not much happens. Half a dozen party-goers are dressed as Lego bricks, a very tall man has come as Death, there are several penguins, Wolverine, Indiana Jones, Storm Troopers, pirates, Waldo, the Cat in the Hat, but interestingly, no polar bears.
Erin Greene has come as the ballerina Nina Sayers from Black Swan. It is her third Halloween in Churchill. The previous year she had come as Cyndi Lauper. On the way home from the party she was attacked by a polar bear.
‘As he was running towards me, the first thought I had was, “Ah, he’s so cute!”,’ Erin tells me. Petite and elfin, Erin displays no apparent injuries and retells the events with a smile, but it was a long convalescence. ‘The bear towered over me. I knew I was screwed. This was a bear that wanted to kill. I’ve done a lot of reading about it just to understand things and it says that when a bear is trying to kill someone they’re not interested in mauling, they just want to take your head off. That’s what he was trying to do to me.’
The animal lifted Erin five feet off the ground by her head, while she swung punches at its face. Hearing her screams, a neighbour ran out of his house and fought the bear off with a shovel, sustaining serious injuries himself in the process. The bear didn’t flee until another neighbour got into his truck and charged it. Later that morning, Bob Windsor shot the animal dead.
Both Erin and Bill Ayotte, the man who saved her life, still live in Churchill. ‘I think it’s good for people to see us,’ says Erin. ‘If you love this town, and if you enjoy this town, you just have to keep going,’ she tells me. ‘The first one that I saw afterward was by the bay. I still love them, I think they’re just a kind of magical creature, you know. They’re powerful, they’re beautiful. It’s hard to put into words, but being that connected to that animal, I feel like I understand more about animals in general and what they have to go through, because I felt what it was like to be their prey and to fight for my life.’
The 2013 Halloween attack was the town’s most serious for decades. Many people in Churchill work hard to make sure that Erin’s terrifying experience is never repeated. Standing in their way are the human tendencies to be cavalier or complacent – the orange hat phenomenon – the natural instincts of the polar bear and, increasingly, climate change.
A week after my conversation with Erin, winter is palpably closer. By November 5, the wind is howling. In the tundra beyond the town, the shallow ponds have iced over and bears are testing the thickness with their huge, tray-sized paws. Along the shoreline, grease ice is forming – the slush that precedes the proper freeze – but nothing that would support the weight of a bear. It is cold, but not yet cold enough.
Out at the tundra buggy lodge, I meet the chief scientist of Polar Bears International, a man called Steven Amstrup. He’s studied in the Arctic all his life and tells me that, thanks to global warming, the bears are spending on average 30 days longer on land than they were 20 years ago. For Churchill, that may yet extend bear season beyond mid-November. It will also make Bob Windsor’s job appreciably harder. For Bob and the other residents of Churchill, the price of prosperity is constant vigilance.
This article appeared in the November 2015 edition of Lonely Planet Traveller magazine. Marcel Theroux travelled to Canada with thanks to Travel Manitoba (travelmanitoba.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.