Polar Bears: Living in Churchill

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Rear-viewJoAnne is in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to study polar bears. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Tundra Heartbreak.

What it is like living in the Polar Bear Capital of the World? I am sharing my ninth fall here in Churchill with the folks that call this home. The town has approximately 900 residents, which dramatically increases with as many as 12,000 guests arriving to see the polar bears every fall.

What some don’t know is Churchill is also a fabulous place to see beluga whales and is a great magnet for bird-viewing enthusiasts in the summer! Churchill is also a grain port; the train carries grain from the lower agricultural areas up to the port. The grain is stored in huge grain elevators and then poured into the cargo holds of ships when then venture out through the mouth of the Hudson Bay and on to Europe.

In my nine years, very little has changed in town. There is still only one store for supplies: The Northern. It has everything you can imagine: groceries, clothing, medicine, furniture – yep, just about everything! No last-minute shopping here; if The Northern doesn’t have what you need, you’ll need to wait until the next delivery by train! Of course, there are many shops that cater to the polar bear lover, and every souvenir is available to remind you of your adventure. One of the stores is Northern Images, a co-op run by the First Nations people filled with hand-made sculptures, paintings, and clothing.

This year the store’s clerk was a young Inuk woman from a community far north of Churchill. Inuk are Inuit, and I told her about our three San Diego Zoo bears and their names. She was very excited over the name Kalluk for a male; she said “Yes, big, so yes, thunder!” I showed her a photo of Tatqiq, and she agreed that Tatqiq was beautiful like the moon. She was not familiar with the name Chinook, except as it meant snow eater!

Churchill has a huge community complex that has everything in it from basketball courts, a library, ice rink (not a good idea to skate outside in polar bear land!), swimming pool, auditorium: everything a town could need under one roof! There are several restaurants, a tourist bar, and a locals bar. Every night at 10 the curfew alarm rings, telling all under the age of 18 to get home. The town has one newspaper: The Hudson Bay Post. A friend of mine publishes it not on any regular basis but occasionally!

The biggest change to Churchill in my nine years is how the town takes care of its trash. Churchill was once famous for its town dump where the polar bears and arctic foxes would scrounge for food. A few years ago the dump was filled over to return to the land, and all trash was stored in an indoor warehouse, and most items were recycled. Last year, a male polar bear took up residence in the cardboard recycling bin for about a week before anyone noticed he had built himself a nice bed under the cardboard!

In the fall, everyone is working with the huge numbers of polar bears walking through town to get out to the ice as it freezes. You never know when one might cross your path. Everyone in town is always prepared to run into a polar bear. It is a town commitment to keep the folks safe and the bears safe as well. No one locks their doors or cars, so if you’re walking in town and encounter a bear, you can safely go to the nearest house for safety and then you call the Polar Bear Alert team. The town hotline is run by Manitoba Conservation Natural Resource officers. They are on call 24 hours a day to do whatever it takes to keep people and bears safe. Sometimes this requires just moving a bear quickly through town, in which case we often hear cracker shells and horns honking as they herd the bears along. Sometimes they do need to catch a bear and keep it in the polar bear holding compound until the ice is ready for the bear to go out to hunt.

At one time as many as 30 bears were shot in a year; now, rarely any are killed. One of the officers told me they have now had an 11-year-old male “visit” them for the 16th time! Apparently he doesn’t mind the accommodations. The town is quite remarkable for keeping so many people and polar bears safe. Churchill is truly a wonderful place to visit, see, and experience how people and large, powerful predators can live together successfully.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.