The town of Churchill, Manitoba, is attempting to answer an age-old question: how do you stay safe living in the polar bear capital of the world? Georgia Stephens travels to the edge of Arctic Canada to find out.
The polar bear doesn’t move. It’s resting its head on a smooth rock protruding from the snow, its thick fur tinged a soft gold in the light of the subarctic sunset. “Do you want to have a discussion about the most controversial place in town?”
Evan Roberts is a bear guard. As he speaks, the tassel on his woolly hat flutters in the icy wind, incongruous with the polished shotgun he’s leaning on. He points and I look back at the mural of the bear, daubed across the humped facade of the former storage hangar. “This is the polar bear holding facility,” he says, “and it’s a politicising place.”
Polarising might be a better word. In some circles, it goes by another name: the polar bear jail.Churchill's polar bear holding facility, or polar bear jail © Georgia Stephens
Inside are 28 cells constructed with steel-reinforced concrete, used to house nuisance bears that stray too close to town. Most are kept here for thirty days, and then released by helicopter to the north.
I stare up at the image of the serene polar bear, and I’m struck by the contrast: inside, what is; outside, what should be. But this is the reality of living in close proximity to the world’s largest land predator. “It’s far from a perfect system,” says Evan, turning to face it, “but I think it’s better than what they used to do – shooting the bears when they get too close.”
Clinging with frostbitten fingers to the western edge of the Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba, Churchill is a wild frontier town some 600 miles north of Winnipeg, the provincial capital. It's far removed from the rest of the country – so far that it’s not even connected by road. Beyond Kelsey Boulevard, the weather-beaten main street, the last remnants of civilisation give a feeble shiver and peter out.
I’m on the outskirts with my back to the tundra, and I crunch across the muddy gravel to follow Evan back onto the bus. I glance behind me: frozen craters, ice-pruned pines and boulders splashed with rust-coloured lichen. Nothing else. Except, maybe not nothing: the white rocks around here have been known to get up and move.
Every summer, the bears are forced to abandon the ocean as the pack ice melts, and enter a kind of walking hibernation on land while they wait for its return, living off their fat reserves in the absence of seals. The ice returns first in Churchill, so hundreds of hungry bears arrive here en masse every October and occasionally lollop into town. “There was a bear behind the bakery a couple of years ago,” Evan calls out as the bus rattles noisily to life and pulls away. He chuckles: “I guess he just wanted a doughnut.”
Evan Roberts, a polar bear guard in Churchill © Georgia Stephens
Polar bears can stand over three metres high and weigh more than 600 kilos. They’re expert ambush predators, true assassins of the Arctic. As a result, Churchill takes every ursine incursion seriously. The first line of defence is the control zone around the town, patrolled by bear guards, and the 24-hour hotline (675-BEAR) to report all sightings. An average of 300 calls are received annually. The bears are then hazed with loud noises, and if that doesn’t work they’re taken to jail.
Evan skids the bus to a halt on the gravel outside a low, white warehouse, a pretty average building save for the thick iron bars and electric fences. This is Churchill’s heavily fortified waste management facility, a formidable Alcatrash.
Bears are often found here given the abundance of food waste, so the facility is kept on lockdown. “When a bear is exposed to humans, is it desensitised? Absolutely,” says Evan, casually retrieving his shotgun from behind his seat as we hop out to take a look. “This is just another way we’re doing our best to co-exist. This is the only drive-through dump in the world.”
On the wall there’s another mural. On one side, a uniformed conservation officer is aiming his gun to shoot a cracker shell, the main tool for deterring bears; on the other, a flurry of polar bears rear, roar and swipe in the opposite direction, accompanied by a trio of Canadian Eskimo dogs. “It’s two sides of the same coin – both humans and endangered species are in a state of fight or flight,” Evan explains, reading from the artist’s statement. “The tensions are local, but the story is global.”
A warming trend has been recorded in the Arctic, resulting in a 3% loss of pack ice every decade since the 1970s. Longer ice-free seasons are testing the limits of the bears’ fat reserves – for every early week that break up occurs, they come ashore around 10kg lighter.
If our society does nothing to reduce emissions, we could lose wild polar bears by 2100.
A polar bear roams in Churchill, Manitoba © Georgia Stephens
Like the polar bears, the townspeople have been toughened by circumstance. “I think it’s all part of northern culture,” Evan explains. “You ask for help, and there are 15 people waiting in line to help you.” They were put to the test in 2017 when record flooding washed away sections of the rail line between Churchill and Winnipeg, taking with it the lifeblood of the town. Prices for fuel and groceries increased, and the town was devastated. The track was finally repaired late the following year, but there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again.
With this in mind, I ask Evan whether he thinks Churchill should be connected by road. He thinks for a moment, shifting sideways towards me in the driver’s seat. “No, definitely not. Churchill is full of charm, and it’s because it’s at the end of the rail line.”
He pauses. “But it’s still important that people come up here and have an appreciation for their impact on the world. Seeing a polar bear in the wild is a humbling experience, and that humility pushes people to be mindful. The bears are a mascot for climate change, and Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world. We need to be leading the conversation.”
Two days later, I finally have my chance to spot a bear. I’m rumbling across country in a tundra buggy – a misnomer, considering the colossal vehicle has tyres taller than I am. After several rattling hours, we spot her: a lone female resting with her back to the wind, her head on a smooth rock, fur bright against a backdrop of autumnal willows. She’s unperturbed by our presence, and I’m reminded with a jolt of the serene polar bear mural back at the holding facility. There she is: queen of the Arctic, a champion without equal, waiting for the ice that one day may never come.
Georgia Stephens flew with Air Canada and Calm Air. She was on a Lords of the Arctic learning vacation at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which includes room, board and activities for $3,415. For more information, visit Destination Canada and Travel Manitoba.