Air, bear, stare

 Churchill, Manitoba

It’s not easy getting to this town of ~700 people, and yet so many people do it. Like in Nunavut, a stone’s throw away, there are no roads to Churchill. However, there’s a train… and it plods. Moving at a snail’s pace, it’s 45 hours from Winnipeg, or “just” 18 hours from Thompson (itself only a 6 hour drive from Winnipeg).

We met people from far and wide who took this option, both domestic and international travellers. Even an elderly Chinese couple from Calgary, for instance, driving 15 hours (sleeping two nights in their car) to Thompson, a city with a notoriously sketchy reputation, and taking the train up. Nobody had any good things to say about the ride, beyond the money they saved. For us though? Again, like Nunavut: airline points. Two hours in an otherwise extremely overpriced flight from Winnipeg. Between 2017 and 2019, that was actually the only option, when floods wrecked the train tracks and repairs were delayed.

It’s really a wonder how this community survives. Of course, there’s one big draw: polar bears.

Dubbing itself the “polar bear capital of the world”, this marketing seems to have reached far more foreigners than Canadians, who despite covid were almost certainly outnumbered, and because of covid still a little overrepresented compared to the average year! Crowds peak in October and November, as just before the Hudson Bay freezes up, the bears migrate, passing through many areas close to town to the sea ice in order to hunt seals until the next melt.

Sure enough, 20 minutes after we landed, we witnessed a relatively common occurrence: a polar bear airlift. Near the airport is the so-called polar bear jail, where bears that wander too close to town are captured, detained for up to a month in order to deter them from returning, then tranquilized and airlifted up to 100km away wherever there’s a better chance for them to find appropriate food. The pilot waits until they wake up, then leaves them. Sounds like the plot of a survival reality show. I can’t imagine falling asleep one moment and waking up in the middle of nowhere the next!

In hopes of seeing wild bears up close, we joined two day tours. Unfortunately for both us and the bears… it’s been an awfully warm October. Last week, it was +15°C and sunny. We instead had 3°C with mostly rain and wind, and a season that hadn’t even had frost yet. What’s normal for this time of year? -10°C with snow.

So we spent the entire first day tour in a 4×4, bouncing around the dirt roads surrounding the town, rocked to unconsciousness as we strained our eyes and saw no signs of life through raindrop-covered windows and foggy landscapes. Credit to our driver, Norman, for trying though.

I mean, at least we saw the Miss Piggy plane wreck, a supply plane crash from 1979 with thankfully no fatalities. If a polar bear came out from around the corner, like it did when a few others visited the day before, I’d have thought we were living a less-tropical version of the show Lost.

We also drove past some abandoned structures, including the Golf Balls, a radar station used to track launches from back when Churchill was used by the US military as a rocket range until the 1970s. The old research centre nearby, first used to study auroras before changing to rockets, is now a Northern Studies centre.

 

Driving west of town, we had a glimpse of the old Prince of Wales Fort across from Cape Merry. Constructed in 1717 as a trading post by the British for the Hudson’s Bay Company, it was later fortified and armed with cannons but no soldiers who knew how to use them. Soooo… the competing French snuck in directly from the Caribbean all the way to the Arctic Ocean, negotiated an immediate surrender with their military numbers advantage, then destroyed a quarter of the fort using all that gunpowder reserved for the cannons. Heh.

On the way to Cape Merry is the port, Churchill’s one “skyscraper”. So prior to all this polar bear tourism, Churchill has served a bunch of important purposes in Canadian history. In more recent times (well, since the 1930s), it’s been developed as a port to ship out grain from the prairies, having been chosen only after the harbour of Port Nelson much further to the south never worked out and the town was abandoned. It’s the primary reason why there’s the train. Even then though, with the Hudson frozen for much of the year, the port handles maybe 3 grain shipments annually, along with some cargo, between July and November.

No bears, but at least some education! And we were consoled and encouraged by the many other guests in our hostel, some of whom had plenty of sightings in the days before we arrived. Despite a bit of jealousy, after two years of pandemic, it’s just nice to have the hostel environment again, along with the mix of languages. We spent one night chatting for so long that we barely paid attention to the aurora that came and went.

And hey, the locals seem cool too, though only about 300 stick around all year while others stay for summer and polar bear migration season. (Given the number of houses and playgrounds around, as well as the size of their school and recreation complex, 300 seems like a surprisingly small number.) Some just enjoy the quiet, the tight-knit (and surprisingly artistic) community, and the lack of crowds, despite brutal amounts of snow, -50°C windchill, only one single restaurant open in the off-season, relentless flies and mosquitoes in the summer… But at least there are belugas and polar bears, I guess! Our hostel’s owner, Taylor, moved to Churchill full time four years ago from a city of 10 million in China. All it took to convince him were a few visits between his studies in Winnipeg to see the animals, and a desire to get away from the big city. He doesn’t seem to mind shovelling snow off his roof every day for half the year, or needing to pick up odd jobs as a mechanic in the off season.

It’s an expensive place to live though, being train and plane access only. Similar to Nunavut, groceries are absurdly expensive, as are rent, a poor-quality internet connection, and utilities. Getting either yourself or cargo (like if you buy a vehicle) in and out is either time-consuming or expensive or both, and prone to reliability issues. However, the seasonal work, both at the port and with tourism, more than pay the bills. For a sense of how much money’s coming in… Churchill, population 3-700, contributes 70% of Manitoba’s annual tax revenue!

So what’s going to become to Churchill once climate change progresses to the point that polar bear migration season no longer exists? One local speculated that it could become reality in the next 15 years. Sure, there are belugas and northern lights, but there are far cheaper and accessible places within Canada to see those. So no more tourists, no more livelihood… but on the other hand, no sea ice. It’s unfortunate, but perhaps that increases the port operations and shipping season? As long as the train tracks don’t get wrecked in another flood? Who knows where this town will go: hopefully not the way of Port Nelson and York Factory.

And what about the bears? Less sea ice means less chances to feed on seals, the main component of their diet. Without seals, they’ll eat anything else. Not only does that wreak havoc on the ecosystem with downstream effects on other species, but the bears themselves might still not survive, without enough nutrients to make up for the seals, and in more frequent conflict with humans in inhabited areas.


With the people in our hostel all having bad experiences on the tundra buggy, calling it the “most expensive sleep” of their lives, our own expectations were in the gutter. (And hey, it’s not the buggy. It’s just too early in the season, on a warm season clearly starting late.) But we had already booked one months ago as our second day tour.

Well, at least the chairs were more comfortable than the 4×4. And there was some delicious soup served on board. I did indeed have a long expensive nap, as did most of the other 30 or so passengers who had come to Churchill from around the world. We were briefly woken up by a teeny speck of a polar bear sighting in the far distance, undetectable to the naked eye, and again for a few ptarmigans hanging around.

But after six hours, just when we gave up all hope…

This big guy came ambling up. Perhaps it was the bear from earlier in the distance. Guy? Girl? All the tundra buggies were lined up to see it, and two guides couldn’t agree. To split the difference between them, we’ll just call him Anne the teenage polar bear.

Surrounded by buggies who had all stopped their engines, Anne decided… to walk towards us! Oh boy, he really likes us. Like, really. I reflexively moved myself inside from the window when he clamoured directly beneath mine and stared straight at me. Despite the tundra buggy being at a safe height, it was a heart stopping moment.

And Daniele had one of his own on the balcony of the buggy: Anne moved from my window to underneath the metal grate which people were standing on and aiming their cameras through. Clearly intrigued by the smells of our shoes, Anne breathed on Daniele’s hand!

Yup. Yup. The expense, the almost two days of monotony, everything… just built up to this moment. It seems almost silly to go through all this trouble to see an animal you could see at a zoo, but there’s something so visceral about seeing a polar bear in the wild, surviving in this day and age, up close and personal and doing its own business, while knowing it could tear you apart in a second.

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