Signs warning “Polar Bear Alert – Stop, don’t walk in this area” dot the city limits of Churchill, Manitoba. Beyond them lie wide expanses of the bleak and often frozen Hudson Bay or the treeless, endlessly flat tundra. It’s this location on the threshold of two forbidding environments that makes the town the unchallenged “polar bear capital of the world”.
Local polar bears spend most of their lives roaming the platform of ice covering Hudson Bay to hunt seals. But by July the ice melt forces the bears ashore to subsist on berries, lichen, seaweed, mosses and grasses. This brings the animals close to your doorstep; indeed, during the summer Churchill’s “Polar Bear Police” typically remove over a hundred bears from the town. It’s challenging and very dangerous work: although cuddly-looking, these creatures are also the largest land carnivores in existence. They can run at 50km/h and a single whack of their foot-wide clawed paws can kill. Being unaccustomed to humans, they’ll also quickly size you up as potential prey.
It’s better to wait until later in the year, and from the relative comfort of a tundra buggy (a converted bus that rides high above the ground on giant balloon tyres), to do your bear-watching. At the beginning of October, around two hundred polar bears gather near town to wait for the bay to freeze. With temperatures beginning to drop below zero and winds gusting up to 60km/h, the prime viewing season begins.
Lean and mean from the meagre summer diet male polar bears spend the autumn sparring with one another for hours, standing on their hind legs to launch fierce swipes and rather more gentlemanly (for a polar bear, anyway) chest-punches. Females steer clear of these shenanigans, particularly when with cubs, and spotting a mother lying back on a snowbank nursing her offspring – making tenderness and brute force temporary bedfellows – is a surprisingly touching scene.