When polar bears show up for Halloween

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The town of Churchill in Northern Manitoba, Canada, with its population of just 900 souls, is known as the “world’s polar bear capital.” As the days grow shorter and the first snow appears, Hudson Bay on the Arctic Ocean is anything but un-BEAR-able.  

Local firefighter E. J. MacCuaig sits in his red truck at the entrance to the village of Churchill, Manitoba. It´s warm and cozy in his truck’s cab while the snow is ankle-deep underneath his wheels. It´s October 31. The temperature is 70 degrees inside but only 21 degrees outside. Behind him lies the vast expanse of the Arctic Ocean, before him the town with its 900 inhabitants in Canada’s far North. The few remaining streaks of light in the sky are fading fast and dusk brings out some dark figures flitting from door to door down the road under the firefighter’s watchful eye. It´s Halloween, which is the safest night in town all year. That’s because E. J. and 20 other members of the fire department, the police and the nature conservancy are posted at all strategically important points or are running patrols to protect their children. But the residents of Churchill are not afraid of human predators such as pedophiles or other criminals. The last murder happened more than six years ago. It´s polar bears whom they fear as much as many Americans might fear gang violence.  

The polar bears are the talk of the town in Churchill and omnipresent: depicted in murals, painted on fences, as small decorative figurines in living rooms and very much alive and at large in the streets. People up here share their daily lives with the species. Polar bears are safety hazard number one but at the same time they are the most important revenue source for the local tourism industry. Every year, Churchill attracts many visitors as it is known as the “world’s polar bear capital.”

“No, I´m not afraid,” says 10-year-old Ella. She is the youngest yet tallest of a group of girls dressed in spooky costumes and going from house to house. “The patrols take good care of us.“ Ella and her friends give each other the “high five” over two big bags full of candy  when a black pickup slowly approaches and stops in front of the group. The window opens, a hand extends out and is welcomed by excited shrieks:  “The bear patrol,“ Next thing, they are skidding toward the vehicle, shouting: “Trick or treat!” The woman at the wheel laughs and happily hands out candy to the girls. Like firefighter E. J., all the guards tonight seem relaxed and clearly enjoying themselves handing out treats to witches, ghosts and zombies.

One of the children´s greatest concerns in the last days was the question of how they can fit their ski suits underneath their costumes to be safe from the cold. “That´s why I´m the Grim Reaper tonight,” Ella says and pats her hand over her black cape. “Wearing a cloak was easiest.” Nevertheless, Churchill´s youngest learn from an early age that one concern is greater than all other worries. Always. The polar bear. Every child knows the emergency hotline number in their sleep, and where kids across the globe may learn to look both ways before crossing the street, kids in Churchill learn to “look both ways before leaving the house.” – “Our students participate in safety trainings,” elementary school teacher Lisa Manning explains. For any newcomers, either visitors or future residents, the town provides a code of conduct on its website. The rule of thumb is to avoid any personal contact with the animals. Nobody in town really thinks they need a genuine “bear hug.” And this is for the sake of humans as well as for the polar bears. Churchill residents keep pointing out that “we only kill them in an extreme emergency, only if one is actually attacking us. Generally, we prefer to chase them out of town.“  

Firefighter E. J., who moved here eight years ago: “You´re getting used to the lifestyle. I´m not afraid, not even for my son. All my family members are vigilant at all times on the streets. That´s automatic and not a burden anymore.“ For example, E. J. wouldn’t walk the dog after dark right now as it’s peak season for the bears. The reasons: First, it’s harder to see the furry invaders in the dark. Secondly, the bears venture into town, especially in the evening and at night as the streets are empty.   

Two days later, we visit Churchill’s small police station at the end of the main road. According to Officer Rob, Halloween was fairly “uneventful” and today he is about as busy as a hibernating bear. As there is not that much to talk about, the interview is over in less than five minutes. “Uneventful” is also a good term to describe what´s going on in the Community Center this Saturday morning. Absolutely nothing. Residents usually come here for the elementary school, the hospital, the cafeteria, the movie theater, the library and the playground. Except for some remote noise from a construction site, it is dead quiet. In the empty atrium of the complex, we meet security guard Andrew, who sits behind his desk. Tall and strong as a bear but nowhere near as gruff, he puts on a friendly smile and gets ready to share his “best of” bear stories. “A female came by with her cub on the beach this morning before sunrise.” Andrew points to the glass front behind him – wide enough for 10 polar bears side by side though nowhere near strong enough to withstand such an attack. “Those guys are able to walk through walls,“ he says calmly enough as if such a thing was pretty normal. “Typically, they wouldn´t though.“ If a bear did try to break in, it would be Andrew´s job to defend the place. “I know how to handle a gun and I know where it´s kept.“ But time has shown that polar bears run when they hear noise. “The bear patrol this morning just fired some blanks to chase off the mother and her cub.“

The furries are long gone and the beach is as vacant as the Community Center. Snow is falling silently on rocks while the ocean is dissolving in the mist. Like most Churchillians, Andrew could go on telling bear stories for hours. Currently, he says, he is helping friends install a jail bar security door. The guard shows pictures on his phone which reveal a brand-new aluminum gate in front of a white entry door. “Here in downtown people don´t need this but those who are living in the countryside may want it.” Born and raised in the Canadian Rockies, the redhead says he grew up with the polar bears’ Southern relatives – grizzly bears: “They´re less friendly. The guys up here are playful and curious – my car is covered in scratches as they´re checking it out quite often.”

Still – nobody in town wants to meet a bear without protection or a safe distance. Everybody keeps scanning the horizon while walking in the streets. At the same time, people avoid dark spots and side roads, since this is where the animals often seek shelter from the weather. Polar bears usually become a danger for two reasons: being frightened for themselves or their cubs when they feel cornered. In this case, they are most likely to attack a person. But they also attack when they are hungry and smell food. No Churchill resident would ever leave home with a bag lunch unless he or she is in a car. When a man broke that rule in 1983 by carrying a box of burgers, he was mauled by a bear and died. In this case, the rangers shot the predator – not as an act of revenge but because a bear that had human contact loses its fear. The risk of it mounting another attack becomes greater.

After listening to such stories, many a tourist feels a shiver running down his spine while walking down one of Churchill’s 15 streets. But while they are afraid of these creatures, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, they still want to catch a glimpse of them. It´s common knowledge that most houses and cars remain unlocked and the key is in the ignition – a convenient escape option if a bear pops around the corner after all.  

However, the risk of that happening is low, thanks to the ever-watchful bear patrol in their pickup trucks and the regular helicopter watch in the area. It´s most unlikely anyway that a bear would show up in the middle of the day. It is for this reason that visitors usually book tundra buggy tours. Out there, chances for a bear sighting are pretty good. And so a couple of thousand tourists arrive every year and willingly undergo the hassle of a very long trip: It takes two days by train from Winnipeg to cover the more than 600 miles. There is no road all the way to Churchill and only one airline connects Manitoba´s capital with the polar bear capital. Passengers usually pay about $800 for the two-hour flight. A day trip around the tundra costs $400, and hotel rates right before and after Halloween start around $200.

But ultimately you don’t have to bear a heavy cross here in order to cross a heavy bear: If you ask around, you can find cheaper tours for about $100. These probably won’t take you as far as the whole-day tour, but they still get you there. One of these providers is John senior whose son, John junior, is running the Bear Country Inn hotel in town. The 60-year-old departs town in an old white school bus every day around noon. Today, people from across the globe sit behind him – tourists from North America, Europe and Asia, armed with smaller or larger camera gear.  

It´s warm on the bus, coats are unzipped and everyone keeps their eyes trained on the landscape with intense focus. Everyone is hoping to take home some nice shots to show friends and family. Photos of cute cubs climbing on their mother’s back or frolicking in the snow – seemingly up close and personal.

The bus is traveling through the snow-covered plains with some occasional gentle hills. Twenty minutes later, the passengers catch sight of the Arctic Ocean again, bright blue in the sunshine and looking rather warm and inviting instead of its near-freezing temperature. But the freeze is what both man and bear are longingly waiting for, because everybody knows: When the Arctic Ocean is turning into a wide open space of seemingly infinite ice again, the bears will go out seal hunting and the locals can breathe more easily. And the bears know that they can finally find food again after a long summer of starvation.

But right now – late October to early November – the animals wander along the shore and it´s only a matter of time until one finds them. John sits behind the wheel while his passengers on both sides of the aisle are daydreaming, gazing into the treeless landscape or unpacking snacks. After a while, the bus goes off-road to continue its trip on a snow-covered dirt road littered with potholes where “Fifty Shades of White” make it hard to make out anything until your eyes slowly adjust.

Only five minutes later, family members all around the globe receive a message that goes something like this: “Momma Bear with two cubs walking across a frozen lake.” With Churchill nearby and continued smartphone reception, John´s passengers now lay eyes on the world’s largest predator on land without protection from fences or being safely ensconced in front of a TV screen. Eleven cameras are taking dozens of pics and selfies, the tourists are busy with either watching the 12-legged family or typing messages. Nonetheless, – this could be a bit more exciting. The eagerly awaited moment of seeing Mother Nature in its humbling majesty and extreme, but it´s not quite there yet.
John sees that the animals are too far away, so all the photos taken will only show yet another shade of white, with the bears being actually a little more yellowish. “All aboard!“ he shouts and the group gets on the bus and back to the main road. It´s early in the day and hope does spring eternal.

Later that afternoon, a row of parked cars alongside the road is a good indicator of another bear sighting. Indeed, another female with one cub presents herself to the amateur naturalists. 40 yards across a field they are passing the time by rolling around in the snow and digging holes – “As a shelter against the wind,” John says. Today’s lesson is that observers need to be patient and oblivious to cold weather. Standing at the edge of that field for almost two hours, their legs are slowly turning into icicles as more hobbyist photographs of the tundra, the snow and polar bears pour out to the world at large.

Another lesson learned today is that patience and weather-hardiness sometimes pays off: Everybody is holding their breath when the cub turns around and decides to check out the crowd. It starts wandering over, followed by the lady bear which – as everybody knows – can be deadly when nervous. Dozens of eyes are on the baby which alternately sits on its tail and waddles through the snow. Momma Bear still seems relaxed. None of the photographers thinks about getting into busses or cars, and even if they did: An average polar bear could crack them open like we would a can of tuna. The white teddy has no notion of turning back, finally approaching the cars and walking around them. Anyone trying to pet the cub would truly have a death wish. The silence is palpable. What to expect from the mother? For a few seconds she actually rears, standing there like an ice sculpture, almost three yards tall.

A few minutes later, the cub heads back to her. The cameras click one last time, the pair disappears in the white desert and John smiles. He knows he will return to Churchill with a bunch of happy guests.

Side note
What does it feel like watching polar bears in their natural habitat? It makes you humble and will cause you to question your own behavior. How is it possible to get on a plane after that? It´s paradoxical: Climate change is life-threatening for the bears. At the same time, countless tourists pay lots of money to travel to the Arctic – by plane. In the polar bear capital of the world, you cannot avoid thinking of your own responsibility. Is it enough to talk about environmental problems? Or is it more important to act? Is it enough to change one´s own consumption behavior? Or can we only change climate change by going beyond that? To start doing something only very few of us still know how to do: to sacrifice.
I know this one thing: I came to Churchill by train. It took me two days and two nights. Sacrifice? Pure enrichment! It would fill a few more pages just to tell the story of how I made it all the way up to the polar bear capital of the world.

Interview with Dr. Stephen Petersen, Head of Conservation and Research for Assiniboine Park Zoo, Winnipeg:

Humans feed birds and wildlife to support them in surviving the winter. What do you think of the possibility of feeding polar bears if climate change makes things worse?
Many biologists, myself included, feel that birds and deer should not be fed in the winter for a number of reasons. Supplemental feeding of polar bears has been suggested as an extreme measure to ensure polar bear survival, but it is very difficult to imagine how humans could provide food across the enormous range of polar bears as a long-term solution to a complex problem. Most scientists believe that our efforts are best directed on measures that mitigate climate change and the habitat loss that is threatening polar bears.

Are there alternative food sources for polar bears beside seals?
Polar bears are specialized to eat fat, which they can get from seals and whales, and research has shown that although polar bears do eat other items like voles and lemmings, they don’t provide enough calories to ensure the survival of the current polar bear population.

Will Churchill face more polar bear attacks in the future due to climate change?
There are actually fewer attacks and problem bears than in the past due to the hard work of the Town of Churchill, the residents, and the Polar Bear Alert Program (PBAP). As conditions decline in Hudson Bay, we expect more hungry polar bears and more human/bear conflicts, but this is likely to result in more work for the PBAP, not necessarily more attacks on people.

Can you already see the impact of climate change on the population of the polar bears in the Churchill region?
The number of polar bears in the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation has been stable for the last 10 years, but other indicators suggest the Churchill bears are not doing as well. This includes fewer female bears with twins or triplets, lower average weight of female polar bears going into dens, and smaller size of polar bears.

Info box:

  • The town of Churchill with its 900 residents is situated on Hudson Bay at the Arctic Ocean. The tourism marketing organization “Travel Manitoba” states that Englishman Henry Hudson discovered the bay in the early 17th century. For a long time, the place was significant for fur trading. In the 1950s and 1960s, Churchill served as home for scientists exploring the Northern Lights. Until 1980, the place housed a military base; back then the census counted a population of 6,000. Nowadays, the community is a popular destination for tourists: They come watching belugas in the summer and polar bears and Northern Lights in the winter. The town is built on permafrost and surrounded by tundra.
  • In the area of Churchill, scientists have counted about 800 polar bears. During the summer months, they are resting in the tundra and do not eat at all. By late October, the animals come close to the coastline and gather while waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over. Then the hunt for seals begins. After four to eight months of fasting, they finally find food. Due to climate change, scientists estimate Hudson Bay to freeze over later in the year and thaw earlier. Hunting season would shorten and the starving population of polar bears would be getting smaller.
  • Churchill is situated right along the migration route of polar bears coming out of the tundra to wander toward the coast. That is why it is unlikely to stop the predators from entering town on their way. A patrol controlling the place from dusk until dawn is always ready to chase the animals off with blanks, trucks or snowmobiles. Bears which come back time and again will be sedated and spend up to 30 days in “polar bear jail.” Once their containment is over, guards will fly them out to the far north and release them.
  • The law of the province of Manitoba does not allow the killing of polar bears. Only in extreme emergencies will members of the nature conservancy be granted a kill permit. The last incident when a bear attacked a person on the streets of Churchill occurred in 2013, and the last time a person was killed was in 1983.

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