A male bear carries the head of a young cub he killed and ate. Like most bears, males will kill and eat cubs that are not their own but it is not clear why. They represent very little energy value and there is a great risk of injury from a mother who will fiercely defend her cubs.
Canada – Long Read

Polar bear capital of the world

Photo by Rebecca Jackrel

Canada – Long Read Polar bear capital of the world

Hello Churchill, where hundreds of hungry bears roam around when autumn arrives. Waiting for the ice on Canada’s remote Hudson Bay to freeze over, they are joined by visitors from all over the world who fly in to see them. However, climate change is shortening the hunting season, threatening their survival. How much longer can Churchill remain "The Polar Bear Capital of the World”?

Anthony Lambert
Anthony Lambert Travel Writer

“I never See such A Misserable Place in all my life.” So wrote the Hudson’s Bay Company officer Captain James Knight in 1717 about the place that came to be known as Churchill, at the south western corner of the vast bay. It’s not exactly selling copy, yet the location he chose for one of the HBC’s most isolated forts has become a magnet for anyone who loves wildlife and in particular polar bears. As the first place on Hudson Bay where ice forms in winter, attracting bears in search of seals, the town now has given itself the slightly catchier title of “Polar Bear Capital of the World”.

Churchill had cropped up years ago in conversation with a Manitoban travel agent over lunch on the Trans-Siberian railway. “You must go there,” he urged. “Besides being the best place to see polar bears, it’s one of the most unusual communities in northern Canada. And try to go by train.” It proved good advice. But before boarding in Manitoba’s capital, Winnipeg, I spend a day in the archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

I had been reading books about the region and the travels of early explorers such as Jens Munck and Samuel Hearne to get a sense of what it must have been like to arrive in such a godforsaken wilderness in the early 18th century as an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Life then was all about survival

After the ship had dropped you off, you wouldn’t see another for a year. Life then was all about survival; you couldn’t eat the furs that paid for the HBC’s remote outposts so the day journals of the 1720s revealed the preoccupation with catching anything that could be salted to see them through the winter – mostly fish and birds.

After two nights in a small but comfortable compartment, with a set of passengers who are an experience in themselves, my train draws to a halt at the head of steel in Churchill. For towns without road access, the arrival of a train is something of an occasion, especially when there are only three a week. Family and friends are reunited, and visitors pile into waiting taxis. My first stop is the impressive Parks Canada visitor centre in the large station building where I meet staff member Duane Collins.

He tells me of evening talks at the center and, in answer to a question about the weather, promises “buckets of misery coming sideways from the sky” with such a grin on his face that I can only laugh and be thankful I had packed my thermal underwear. Outside it is -20ºC without the wind chill and the snow is skin-deep. Boots on, I crunch round the town. Churchill turns out to be a small town of perhaps a dozen blocks, with a winter population of about 1,000 that welcomes ten times that number of visitors and seasonal workers for the six weeks from mid-October through November.

Rough and ready buildings line the typical Canadian grid of streets, with no pretense at architecture. It’s all about keeping out the cold. I walk into the large town center complex, which houses all the municipal functions. On a wall by the library is a fine set of black and white portrait photographs of local weather-beaten faces that exude character. Their names make the links with Scotland obvious; since the 18th century the HBC had been recruiting men from Scotland and especially the Orkney Islands as being better suited to the harsh conditions they would face in northern Canada.

One of the world’s top sites for bird watching

I learn more about the northern winter that evening when I attend a talk at Parks Canada about the fate of the first European expedition to Hudson Bay, in 1619-20 when the Danish explorer Jens Munck and his expedition of 66 men wintered near Churchill. All but Munck and two others succumbed to scurvy and suspected trichinosis caused by eating uncooked polar bear meat. Astonishingly the three men sailed a sloop back to Scandinavia.

Churchill isn’t all winter, of course. Besides furs, the Hudson’s Bay men came here for the export trade in oil rendered from whale fat, but today the white beluga whales attract numerous visitors in summer to swim and kayak among these gentle creatures, a time when Churchill changes its title to “Beluga Capital of the World” as around 57,000 whales enter its waters. The area is also one of the world’s top sites for bird watching, with over 200 species recorded from May to June, the start of a summer season that sees a succession of plants flower, turning the tundra into a mass of color.

However, with all the snow around, it was time I saw a polar bear. Next morning I join a party to spend the day on one of the Tundra Buggies that provide the only means for visitors such as me to see them out on the tundra. Bizarre white vehicles almost as tall as a house, they are based on airport fire tenders with huge tires. The purpose-built body has seats for a couple of dozen people, propane gas to provide heat for bodies and hot soup and a lavatory. The sliding windows, however, quickly vent heat when opened once we spot a bear.

Trails created by the US army during Cold War weapons testing

Also popular is an open viewing platform at the back that is high enough off the ground for passengers to be in no danger of becoming a meal for a bear on its hind legs. To preserve the delicate tundra, the buggies have to stay on trails created by the US army during Cold War weapons testing and, as soon as a guide on one spots a bear, others take advantage of the sighting and congregate even more. Still, it’s nothing compared with the fleets of vehicles that can surround wildlife on some African game reserves.

The almost flat landscape stretches away to a distant horizon beneath a grey sky. The few stunted trees have branches on one side only, the others shredded by ice crystals borne on the prevailing wind. Even short trees can be 120 years old, so compressed is the growing season. A frozen lake has an open section of water at its center, and the wind creates small waves that lap over the sheet of ice.

The rocky earth is largely bare with a few splodges of snow and ice, but there is surprising beauty to be found by just studying a small patch of ground. The rocks range from pale grey to purple, and the moss or lichen that grow on them provides splashes of yellow and pale green. Arctic cranberries are a deep red, and the kelp sometimes eaten by bears, to help digestion it is thought, is a mass of dark green.

In charge of our wandering is David Hatch, a natural scientist who has been coming to Churchill for 42 years. It is a privilege to benefit from his long experience. “The normal movements of a polar bear may look slow and deliberate, but they can move at 50km/hour,” he says. “A mother and two cubs can sit by three air holes in the ice waiting for their favorite prey, a ringed seal, to come up for a breather. The cubs will fidget and deter the seal, but the mother will sit motionless.

A bear will sink its teeth into the seal’s head and lift it out, using its strong neck and shoulder muscles. But they are picky eaters. A fit bear eats the best bits, leaving the remnants for arctic fox and weaker bears, perhaps with broken bones. They also hunt by rearing out of the water to grab a seal.”

What surprises me is the bear’s color

It does not take long before we spot a solitary male snoozing in the lee of a rock. Its head rests on a huge paw, and it yawns frequently, allowing us to see the size of his jaw. What surprises me is the bear’s color; pictures often show them looking like an advert for washing powder. All the ones I see are a rather grubby cream. I learn that a polar bear’s skin is black and their fur is made up of two insulating layers of fur, which is colorless and so varies in appearance according to lighting conditions.

This time of year, at the start of winter, it is also showing the effects of living on land for months, picking up dirt and mud, rather than rolling in snow or swimming in the sea. It is better camouflage now than their pure white winter look. However, nothing can detract from the impressive size of the world’s largest land carnivore and the thrill of seeing a bear in the wild for the first time. Its obvious latent power is striking.

The bears look as though the only thing they are killing today is time, languidly passing the hours, waiting for that moment when the tenor of their life will change again with the resumption of seal hunting. I am struck by the small ears, which minimize heat loss, and prominent Roman noses that are so sensitive they can detect seals a kilometer away. One experience I am happy to miss is being downwind of a bear’s yawn; trappers tell of steam-like blasts of foul breath. The bears sometimes come right up to the buggy, which is thrilling, but it is just as satisfying to see them at a distance in a more natural environment. Other wildlife include rare sightings of arctic fox, willow ptarmigan, and arctic hare, all hard to spot in their winter camouflage.

Visitors are virtually guaranteed polar bear sightings

Visitors to Churchill in November are virtually guaranteed polar bear sightings, because the bears know that this corner of the bay is where the ice begins to form with the onset of winter, allowing them to resume hunting. If they have spent the summer and autumn to the east of Churchill – and one of the world’s largest denning areas is about 40km south-east – they are almost bound to take a route through the town. That’s why the Polar Bear Alert was set up in 1969 to reduce the number of unnecessary encounters: a bear found his way into the Royal Canadian Legion hall one evening and a man the worse for wear woke up to find a bear licking his face.

But even local people sometimes ignore warnings not to wander near rocks along the beach or thick willows that would provide good bear cover. Only two people have ever been killed by a polar bear in Churchill, the first a teenager in 1968 who followed a bear’s tracks and then threw rocks at it, the last in 1983 when a local man stuffed meat in his pockets from the recently burned ruins of the Churchill Hotel, attracting a bear.

Climate change is said to be having an impact on the bears’ habits, as they need the ice to form on Hudson Bay before they can move out on it to hunt. Without ice to bring seals to air holes, there is no prey for the bears to eat. In recent years, the ice has been forming later and thawing earlier, making the feeding season increasingly shorter. After 120 days on shore, a polar bear starts to experience extreme weight loss but it is not uncommon now for them to spend up to 150 days on land, where food is very limited.

Dr Andrew Derocher, Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, has been studying polar bears around Churchill for more than three decades and is pessimistic about their future, having seen a decline from 1,200 in 1987 to roughly 900 today. “A loss of three weeks in the hunting season might mean eating two or three seals less and, for polar bears, it’s all about how much food they can store,” he says.

Higher temperatures are causing bears’ dens to collapse

“The bears can only go so long on land fasting and it is unlikely that polar bears will persist in the Hudson Bay system for more than a few decades into the future.” As the mother bears store up less fat, cubs are becoming smaller and have a 50 per cent survival rate in their first year, dying from malnutrition, the cold, or being killed by a male. Besides shortening hunting, higher temperatures are causing bears’ dens to collapse and, if a pregnant bear has to create a new one, the exertion may endanger the cubs. “We are already seeing a large reduction in recruitment of young bears into the population,” says Derocher, “and this means we have an aging population of bears. We could see a very rapid drop within a single year so the “decades” ahead estimate could be greatly truncated.”

Hunger is driving the bears into the outskirts of town, overcoming their usual fear of man to forage for food. The closing of the town dump in 2005 was hoped to lessen the problem but every occupant has a tale of a close encounter, from the man who answered a knock at the door one night to find a bear standing there, to the woman who chased one from her porch with a whack from a broom on its posterior.

Any that do develop a taste for hanging around town sometimes have to be sedated by dart and taken to the enclosed bear compound outside Churchill near the airport. This bear jail can hold 28 miscreants and inmates are usually penned for about 30 days before being again sedated and airlifted by helicopter up the west coast of Hudson Bay and released under supervision. They are tagged, measurements are taken and a note of their condition made to help monitor the state of the area’s bear population.

We use cracker shells in a 12-bore gun to scare them

Andrew Szklaruk and Bob Windsor from Manitoba Conservation are two of a team of six charged with keeping the streets free of bears. “We encourage them to move through town by using a truck like a sheepdog, or using cracker shells in a 12-bore gun to scare them,” they tell me. “Traps with a one-pound piece of seal meat in a burlap bag are placed around town to intercept bears. If neither of these works, we may have to dart them. The sedative takes 3-5 minutes so you have to be careful where and when you shoot them – not at dusk or near water. We haul the bear up a wood ramp with skids and strap it down. One 800 lb bear ended up in a ditch and seven of us really struggled to get him out.”

In an average year, the team has to deal with about 75 bears, though sightings hover around 200 and the slammer filled up during the 2011 season. The importance of the patrols is evident on Halloween night, when a dozen units from Manitoba Conservation, Parks Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Fire Department are out keeping the streets safe for those trick-or-treaters brave enough to face a temperature of -25ºC plus biting wind chill.

The cracker shells explode like a large fireworks in the night sky but nature puts on its own light display that puts anything man-made to shame. The eerie Northern Lights appear like an ethereal blanket, swirling green with pulses of red and orange. They can be seen here on about 300 nights of the year, though the best times are early fall (August, September) and late winter/early spring (late January through April).

The scientists who come all year round to Churchill to monitor the impact of climate change call polar bears the “canary in the coal mine”. What is happening to them is a sign of how other species, including ourselves, will be affected in the future. Life for polar bears is progressively more difficult and it is anyone’s guess how much longer Churchill will be able to justify its label of “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. The best advice is to go soon to see these remarkable animals while you still can.

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