In most destinations that you travel to, there's one emergency number that you should know. In the US and Canada it's 911; in Europe it's 112. But in the town of Churchill, Manitoba, there's another emergency number that all the locals have memorized – and that's the number for the Polar Bear Alert Line.
Churchill is a small town that sits on the western Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba, Canada. Its history as a town dates back to the 1700s, when the Hudson's Bay Company erected a trading post and the first permanent settlement a few kilometers upstream from the mouth of (what would soon be named) the Churchill River.
The location for the trading post was based on the river and proximity to the Hudson Bay. It was an area already used for hunting and trapping by First Nations peoples including the Inuit, the Dene, and the Swampy Cree. But what those early European settlers didn't realize at the time was that they chose to build right in the middle of a polar bear superhighway.
The southwestern part of the Hudson Bay happens to be the first part of the 475,000-square-foot bay that freezes each autumn. And this draws in the roughly 1,000 polar bears that call this part of Canada home. They gather in the Churchill area for weeks leading up to the freeze, eagerly awaiting their return to the ice.
Which means the locals in Churchill have had to learn to live with polar bears as occasional neighbors.
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Learning to live with polar bears
I'm sitting in a small conference room at a hotel in Winnipeg, listening intently as my Frontiers North guide, Duane, begins going over some general polar bear safety tips. The room is filled with a group of 20 travelers from all over the world, and we'll all be heading up to Churchill the next morning for four days of polar bear viewing.
“Don't assume that just because you don't see a bear that there isn't a bear nearby,” Duane tells us. He explains how we should walk around Churchill's streets, always taking time to look around in all directions and taking a wide line around corners, just in case there's a bear we can't see.
And if we DO encounter a bear in town? Walk – don't run – briskly to the nearest building and get inside.
There's a popular story about Churchill that suggests that people leave their cars and homes unlocked at all in times in case someone needs to seek shelter from a polar bear.
Duane, who has lived and worked in Churchill for more than a decade, tells us that this is more myth than fact.
“People DO leave things unlocked,” he says. But it's more because Churchill is a town of less than 1000 people with very little crime.
Still, though, as I'm walking around Churchill the next afternoon, you'd better believe that I'm scoping out nearby buildings and vehicles that could be used as refuge, should a bear wander my way.
Places like Churchill fascinate me. Places that, by all rights, probably shouldn't be inhabited by humans. I mean, the town is located on the sub-Arctic tundra, which experiences harsh conditions year-round. Churchill isn't connected by road to anywhere, meaning it relies on planes and trains (and sometimes boats) to bring in the essentials. And then there are those hungry polar bears…
Yet Churchill supports a population of around 900 people – and many of them are people who visited Churchill once, fell in love, and decided to never leave.
The Polar Bear Jail
Our first stop when we arrive in Churchill the next morning is at the Polar Bear Holding Facility, a large humped metal building colloquially known as “Polar Bear Jail.”
This is where the bad bears go.
Or, more correctly, this is where bears who get too close to town are sent for a little “time out” before being released back onto the tundra. Seeing as how Churchill lies right in the path of their natural migration route, the bears don't actually know that they're not supposed to be there.
Paul, a grizzled local wearing winter overalls and a big beard, drives us in an old school bus out to the “jail.” He explains that the Polar Bear Holding Facility goes along with Churchill's unique Polar Bear Alert Program, which began in the 1980s in an attempt to better manage polar bears in Churchill.
Before the program began, polar bears that wandered into Churchill were usually just shot. But as more and more bears began making their way into town each year, conservationists decided there had to be a better way to deal with them.
Now, the Churchill area is divided into three “zones.” Bears that are reported in zones 2 and 3 are most often “hazed” away by conservation officers, either by noisemakers or with rubber bullets. But bears that wander into Zone 1, where the people of Churchill live and work, are usually captured and transported to the holding facility.
Paul tells us that there used to be a “three strikes and you're out” rule, where a bear that was captured in town more than twice was euthanized. Today, though, the bears aren't shot unless they harm a human.
A bear is typically held in Polar Bear Jail for 30 days. It's given no food, only snow or water. Then it's tagged for tracking purposes and and transported out of town to be released.
All of these things are supposed to deter bears from returning to town. The problem is, though, that it doesn't seem to be much of a deterrent at all; Polar Bear Jail recidivism rate is high, folks. Most of the bears that are captured have been handled by humans before.
Someone in our group asks Paul how many bears are currently “in jail.” The facility can hold up to 28 bears, and I know I was expecting him to say that maybe 1 or 2 bears were currently sitting inside.
“I think 10,” Paul says.” There were 8 the other day, but they caught two more in town over the weekend.”
Polar bear season in Churchill
Later, as I'm walking around Churchill, I try to image what it would be like to live here; to grow up in a place where polar bear encounters aren't rare, but rather just a fact of life.
At peak polar bear season – usually around the beginning of November – the number of bears in the area can outnumber residents in Churchill. And, as bears find themselves stuck on land for longer each year due to shrinking sea ice, encounters are only rising. In 2016 (the only year I could find a concrete number for), the Polar Bear Alert team responded to 386 calls to its emergency line.
The day that perfectly sums up what it's like to live in a “polar bear town” is Halloween.
Halloween in this tundra town becomes a whole community patrolling affair. Kids in Churchill dress up just like kids in any other town do, except that here no one is allowed to wear white, and the whole town is patrolled by teams of people – some from law enforcement, some from Manitoba Conservation and Parks Canada, and some who just volunteer to do it – to make sure no bears disrupt the candy-collecting festivities.
THIS is the real reason nobody locks their houses or cars here; the people of Churchill have no choice but to be a close-knit community.
Snapping photos of murals and stopping in to little shops as I walk the length of Churchill (and, let me tell you, it doesn't take long), I start to wonder what sort of impact people like myself – tourists eager to see a real polar bear in the wild – have on a small, tight-knit community like this one.
Polar bear tourism in Churchill
Churchill is known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” – you can even stop in at the local post office to get a stamp in your passport that says so. Because the bears are so accessible here, Churchill is a major draw for people who want to see polar bears in the wild.
But polar bear tourism in Churchill looks a whole lot different today than it did when it began in the 1970s.
Today, tourists like me fly up to Churchill and go out on the tundra in custom-built vehicles to view polar bears in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. But back in the 1970s, people who wanted to see the bears in “the wild” were taken by school bus to the town dump.
Yup, the dump.
Polar bears are smart and follow their noses to food. And they worked out that the Churchill town dump was the perfect place to forage for food while they were waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze. The problem with this, of course, is that the bears began to associate garbage with food, and there have been several instances (even recently) of bears breaking into garages and businesses in Churchill when a rogue bag of garbage was left too close to a door.
Today, polar bear tourism is a much more organized (and less smelly) affair in Churchill. Groups of tourists are taken out onto the tundra in specially-built vehicles that allow them to get close to polar bears from a safe height.
As our Tundra Buggy stops one day to watch a mama bear and her twin cubs navigate curiously around the giant vehicle, I ask our guide Duane if he thinks the Churchill bears are unafraid of the tour vehicles because they're just naturally fearless (polar bears have no natural predators other than bigger polar bears), or because they've become habituated to them.
According to him, it's a mix of both.
Is polar bear tourism responsible?
Because Churchill's polar bears are so accessible (well, relatively speaking), they are one of the most-studied polar bear populations in the world. It also means that they have become fairly used to humans and the vehicles that carry them.
The Churchill bears “know” the different vehicles around town, Duane says. The mother bears “introduce” their cubs to the tundra buggies and teach them not to be afraid of them; conversely, bears have also learned to recognize the vehicles that Manitoba Conservation uses in town, and will run away from them.
Before going on my own trip, I did consider whether polar bear tourism in Churchill is responsible – both for the sake of the bears AND the people who call Churchill home.
You can't argue that the wildlife in Churchill hasn't been commercialized; polar bear tourism in the autumn (and, to a lesser extent, beluga whale tourism in the summer) is big business here, and has been for decades. It's likely to continue to grow in popularity as “extinction tourism” takes hold, and people clamor to visit places and see things that may disappear due to climate change.
Some people see this as a bad thing, both for the land and for the animals.
But I don't think it's especially productive to look at a place like Churchill and talk about how things “could be” if certain events of the past hadn't happened. If the Churchill settlement had never been founded, or if it had been founded somewhere else, outside of the route of the bears. If polar bear tours had never been started. If global warming wasn't a looming crisis.
The fact is, Churchill is where it is. For now, the bears are there. And the town and the bears have a unique relationship. The bears are not hunted or otherwise threatened, and the residents rely on the bears and other wildlife for their livelihood.
And as for the polar bear tours in Churchill being responsible? I saw plenty of evidence of that, too.
Do no harm; but also offer no help
It's around lunchtime on our second day of bear-watching out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA), and our Tundra Buggy hasn't made it very far from the Tundra Buggy Lodge because of all the bears around. We're all finishing up our meal when we start to hear some chatter over our driver's radio system. Our guide becomes interested, too, and suddenly we're all curious.
It turns out that a guest on another vehicle has “dropped” part of a sandwich off the back deck of another buggy. Our group lets out a collective gasp as this news is relayed to us.
We've all been briefed every day about the seriousness of feeding bears in Churchill. You're not supposed to take ANYthing out on the back deck of the buggy – not even a cup of hot cocoa – just in case anything gets dropped over the side. Feeding wild animals is a cardinal sin when it comes to responsible wildlife tourism, and in Churchill it carries major consequences.
“A fed bear is a dead bear,” Duane tells us. Polar bears have a very good sense of smell – and very good memories, he tells us. Feeding bears, even accidentally, can habituate them to associate vehicles or humans with food, and that could ultimately lead to a conflict of the sort that a bear won't survive.
Duane tells us that the offending tourist will be immediately taken back to Churchill, and be put on the next flight back to Winnipeg – at his/her own expense. There's also a hefty fine that goes along with feeding animals inside the Churchill Wildlife Management Area or Wapusk National Park, to the tune of $25,000 and/or 6 months in prison.
The polar bear tours that are most often offered in Churchill are the commercial kind, run in the large tundra vehicles you've seen in my photos. They all operate on protected land (usually the CWMA and Wapusk National Park), and there are a limited number of permits for these vehicles every season. There are also strict guidelines on where they can/can't drive, along with rules dictating how they can interact with wildlife. Violating any of these rules can result in fines and loss of permits.
We stick to established trails in the CWMA, and our driver often has to stop or slow down to ensure he's not encroaching on bears' space or “chasing” them. To be honest, the bears couldn't seem to care less about us.
We need to care about them, though.
And while we are collectively outraged by the thought of some dumb tourist illegally feeding bears, we are equally saddened later that same day when we're reminded that our responsibility to not get in the way of the natural order of things goes the other way, too.
We're driving along on the tundra, quite close to the edge of the Hudson Bay, when someone spots a very small bear. Duane grabs his binoculars and confirms that it's a “coy,” or “cub of the year” – meaning a bear cub that was born earlier that same year. But Duane also confirms that the cub is alone, and that it appears to be being hunted by a larger male bear.
Immediately sounds of distress emerge from our group, and people are asking if the cub can be rescued, or if someone can come to chase the larger bear away.
Duane shakes his head. That's not what they do here. Nature can be harsh, but it's not our responsibility (or our right) to interfere in this way. There's a chance that if this orphaned cub wanders into the town of Churchill that it might be captured and sent to the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, but Duane points out that this still isn't “rescuing” the cub.
If the bear is picked up and taken to a zoo, it's still removed from this population and won't pass on its genetics; as far as the Western Hudson Bay polar bear population goes, Duane says, that cub is dead either way.
Can we save Churchill's polar bears?
The following day, as we wrap up our last polar bear safari on the tundra and head back into Churchill, I try to honestly reflect on the experience I've just had. I'm still giddy with excitement over having seen so many polar bears. But there's also a lot to unpack emotionally; I've learned a lot about the plight of the polar bear and plenty of stark facts about how truly dire their prospects are.
I'm well aware that we as humans are to blame, and when I get back to Winnipeg, I go online and make an extra donation to further offset the carbon emissions I've contributed to by flying to Churchill (I visited back in 2018, when the train line to Churchill was still washed out).
There's certainly an argument to be made that by simply promoting polar bear tourism we're also contributing to their extinction.
But I also believe that humans are not conditioned to truly understand the gravity of a situation until they see it with their own eyes. It's why dark tourism and disaster tourism exist, and it's why “extinction tourism” is likely to just get more popular.
I saw the bears with my own eyes, and sat right next to the Hudson Bay as conservation experts gave presentations about the shortening sea ice season, and how female bears are coming off the ice smaller each year (meaning less likely to be able to have cubs). I watched fascinating videos of polar bears seemingly teaching themselves how to hunt beluga whales in the summer, and co-mingling with grizzly bears.
I'm not sure if polar bears can be saved, so I understand the urgency to want to see them. And I also know that if I hadn't already cared about polar bears before, I certainly would after taking a trip to Churchill.
The future of Churchill
Churchill has gone through its fair share of struggles in recent years, from bad storms that washed out the local train line (one of the town's only ties to the outside world) for more than a year, to discussions about the impact of tourism and the threat of climate change.
As we roll through town again on our way out to the small Churchill airport for our flight back to Winnipeg, I wonder what Churchill could be if it's no longer the town that lives with polar bears?
Descendants of the original Indigenous inhabitants of this region have always believed that the land and the people here are connected – and Churchill does seem to have some sort of undeniable pull on people who visit.
But Churchill's fate has also become closely intwined with people like me, who decide to spend a lot of money to come this far north to see the bears.
I can only hope that visitors can see the other incredible things that Churchill has to offer, too. From other native wildlife like beluga whales and moose and arctic foxes to the rich history you can learn about at spots like the Itsanitaq Museum to brilliant Northern Lights displays during the winter months, there's more to this place than just the bears.
It's hard to say how much longer the polar bears will be around in Churchill. But I'd like to think that tourism and the meaningful and memorable experience that go along with it will be a staple in Churchill for a long time.
For now, though, Churchill still remains the Polar Bear Capital of the World. People will still flock to the edge of the Hudson Bay each October and November in order to get a glimpse of these magnificent creatures for as long as they're around.
And that 24-hour Polar Bear Alert Line I mentioned earlier? The number for it is 204 675-2327 – or as locals know it, 675-Bear.