Churchill is like no other place on Earth. It’s called the Polar Bear Capital Of The World for a reason.
Under normal circumstances Churchill, Manitoba should be a quiet little town with nothing sensational going on. For most of the year, life goes on pretty quietly and there are very few strangers in town. In fact, you can’t even get there by road!
However, come September then begins an annual event that lasts for some months and has placed this town solidly on the map: it’s the gathering of the Polar Bears.
The bears begin to swim ashore from mid-July, and their numbers increase dramatically by September every year. When that time comes, residents report seeing dozens of polar bears everyday.
So how did this gathering start and how do the residents of this quiet little town get along with these fearsome bears?
Let’s find out.
Where Is Churchill?
More commonly known as the Polar Bear Capital Of The World, Churchill is a town in Northern Manitoba, Canada. The town is located along the Western shore of the Hudson Bay, at the opening of Churchill River.
The town has just over 1,000 residents and it’s a very close knit community where everyone knows everyone else quite well. You could actually walk from one corner of Churchill to the other in just 15 minutes.
There are only two ways to get to Churchill: that is by air or rail. Air service to Churchill town is always available, it is actually the easiest and the fastest.
There are several local air charters available plying the route connecting from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
If going by train, the journey will take up to two days. The trains are run by Rail Canada and are scheduled to leave Union Station, Winnipeg to Churchill on Sundays and Tuesdays morning at 9:00 am.
Going back, the trains depart Churchill every Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Apart from seeing Polar Bears, Churchill is also a fantastic location to see beluga whales, for bird watching, dog sledding, and to see the Northern Lights.
Why Do Polar Bears Gather In Churchill?
Churchill town is famously known as the Polar Bear Capital Of The World for a reason.
These creatures can grow up to 10 feet long and often weigh over 1,000 pounds. Actually, polar bears are the largest land carnivores on Earth. The only animal close to them in size is the Kodiak Bear.
These massive predators leave the frigid, icy waters and come ashore from September/October and early November in their multitudes to wait on the peninsula till the Hudson Bay freezes once again and they can return to hunt their major food source: the ringed seals.
Residents often say they may see more than 50 different polar bears in a day during this period.
Starting in the mid-1980s, the town began to develop an ecotourism industry around the migration habits of the polar bears. Presently, tourists can safely see the bears from “tundra buggies” that are basically modified buses.
Each year at least 10,000 visitors come to Churchill to see the Polar Bears and other wildlife in the vicinity.
What Is It Like Living With Polar Bears?
The exact number of polar bears is unknown but a close estimate puts it in the range of 1,500 bears.
Obviously, living with one of the Earth’s most powerful predators means life here is pretty different from anywhere else. For instance:
- During “bear season,” residents don’t walk along the streets after dark. If they must go out, they use a vehicle.
- All parked cars must have their doors unlocked. If a polar bear shows up or chases someone, they can quickly run into the nearest unlocked car. Everyone obeys this rule.
- Halloween here is like nowhere else. Churchill residents won’t let the bears stop them from trick or treating. Blizzards are also common at this time of the year but this is the only night during bear season where the residents can come out and they do so enthusiastically. A helicopter, numerous patrol vehicles, fire trucks, ambulances and even an army reserve unit monitor the town for any polar bears in sight.
Meet The Bear Catchers:
The Polar Bear Alert Program started in the 1970s after a number of attacks and one human fatality in 1968. Local authorities maintain a holding facility (also called “polar bear jail” locally) where persistent bears are held pending release back into the wild.
There are also 4 officers on the streets and a 24-hour bear hotline to report stray bear sightings. If you’re visiting Churchill and you hear horns, find shelter and get out of the way so the “bear catchers” can do their job.
As a result of these measures, there’s been no fatal attack in Churchill since the 1980s.
The fact that there are about as many bears as humans in Churchill calls for extreme care and leaves no room for mistakes.
Conservation Issues In The Polar Bear Capital Of The World
But it’s not all smooth sailing for the bears even here.
Polar bears in Churchill town now face a population decline. Their major threat is global warming and the polar ice caps are melting – fast. Although polar bears can adapt to living on land and they also disperse over long distances, climate change could see a significant interference with their way of life.
These animals are highly dependent on sea ice: as a matter of fact, their lives revolve around it. They use the ice to travel, hunt, breed, and rest. The fact that they reproduce slowly also adds to the vulnerability of the species.
And this problem is not unique to Churchill alone. It exists everywhere polar bears depend on the Arctic environment to thrive.
For now, the bears around the Hudson Bay will continue to gather in Churchill for months without access to their favorite ringed seals. All they can do is rest and cool themselves till the waters freeze over again.