What life is like in the ‘polar bear capital of the world’
A polar bear seeks shelter from a lurking blizzard outside the town of Churchill, Manitoba.
There are no roads leading to the tiny Canadian town of Churchill, located near the northeastern tip of Manitoba.
But that doesn’t stop thousands of tourists from taking a train or plane and visiting each fall.
That’s because in this area, near the shores of Hudson Bay, you can go sightseeing and get a glimpse of the world’s largest carnivore: the polar bear.
The Churchill region is one of the southernmost places where you’ll find polar bears. These bears spend most of the year on the Hudson Bay ice, hunting for seals. But when the ice melts in the summer, they have to come ashore for several months.
Sometimes, the bears roam near town.
“During bear season, (locals) say it is quite common,” said the photographer Carlos Osorio, who visited Churchill earlier this month. “I also ask people this question a lot because I am very interested: ‘Hey, how common are bears in the city?’ I asked the taxi driver who took me from the airport to my hotel and he said, ‘Oh, we just had a bear in town last night. He was like right around the corner. ‘ ”
In Churchill, there is always the possibility of a polar bear encounter; it really comes with territory.
But the town has taken steps to reduce the risk.
There is a “bear patrol” with officers monitoring the area. There is a 24/7 hotline people can call to report sightings: 675-BEAR. The town has also begun testing a new radar system, or “beards”, to warn of approaching bears.
Attacks were very rare. The last was in 2013, according to Reuters news agency, and there have been no fatal attacks since the early 1980s.
Wind-swept spruce trees illuminated by car lights during a blizzard in Churchill.
This aerial photo shows some of the ice around Churchill. However, Hudson Bay is not yet frozen.
Only about 900 people live in Churchill, but those who know are always aware and prepared. There is also the custom of leaving the car doors unlocked, in case someone is outside and needs to quickly seek protection from a bear.
“You just have to be careful,” Osorio said. “You can’t be anywhere alone. You must have a vehicle or someone with you or some means to scare away a bear.
“Some people carry handguns and shoot whatever guns they have into the air. But if you don’t have a gun license, then you can just shoot ‘bear blasters’, which are basically guns with extra large caps with a little flare on them. That’s how you scare away the bear if you’re in such a predicament.”
Afraid of the bear is first tactic which the bear patrol would use if they saw a bear approaching town. If not, they will use rubber bullets or paintball guns to convince the bear to continue.
If the bear persists, they will try to trap the bear with live bait or shoot it with a tranquilizer gun. It then moves on to a “bear prison,” or Polar Bear Detention Facility.
There, inside an old hangar, the bear was screened and monitored before finally being released back into the wild.
Bear season peaks in October and November, just before the Hudson Bay freezes over. This is when bears begin to migrate north and congregate near shore. That’s also when tourists have the best chance of seeing the bears.
But in recent decades, bear season has grown longer because of climate change. The ice melts earlier and freezes later, keeping the bears on land for many more weeks.
Osorio noticed during his travels this month that “all the businesses, all the gift shops, everything started to close because tech bear season was over. But because the ice hasn’t frozen yet, the bears are still there.”
A longer bear season means a shorter hunting season – while on land, the bears subsist on their fat reserves – and that has significant effect on bear populations over the years.
According to conservation group Polar Bears International, the hunting season for local bear populations is three to five weeks shorter than in the early 1980s, and the population has shrunk by 30 percent. There is also research showing that the bears are smaller than they used to be.
While in Churchill, Osorio hired a tour guide to drive him around the area and find polar bears to photograph.
They were about 20 minutes out of town when they came across two bears fighting, or playing a game of fighting, with each other.
Osorio, who spent hours watching the two bears fight each other before the wind started blowing, reminded me of my dog and it was amazing. When Osorio left, the bears decided to lie on the ground, cowering and waiting for an oncoming storm.
Osorio said he enjoyed his trip to Churchill despite enduring a blizzard and wind chill temperatures down to minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit).
He encourages everyone to visit – and not just during bear season.
“There is more to Churchill than just seeing polar bears,” he said. “The people are very friendly, everyone in town is super nice. But then there are also beluga whales that congregate in the bay. It’s one of the best places to code. You can see the Northern Lights like most nights of the year.
“There’s a lot of wilderness, and different times of the year offer different things to different people.”