by Ned Morgan.
In summer, the polar bears of Churchill live like lazy and corrupt dictators. Their days consist of long periods lying around trying to beat the heat and paying little attention to anything or anyone, punctuated by short periods of extreme violence if a threat or meal comes their way.
It’s rare for an animal to so dominate a place like the polar bear does Churchill, Manitoba. Certain words of bear-safety advice get drummed into you upon arrival. Never travel out of town without a bear dog and/or a rifle. If you don’t possess either, do not venture more than ten feet from your vehicle if you’re out of town. Don’t walk alone on the beach, even close to town. Always carry bear bangers (portable blank charges that sound like a shotgun). According to every Churchillian I spoke to, bear spray is useless against a polar bear. Someone referred to it as “hot sauce.”
Polar bears used to be hunted here. During the Cold War when the military maintained an extensive rocket launching and research complex near Churchill, officers routinely killed bears for their trophy skins. And as the town’s only tow-truck driver told me, “in those days, if you saw a polar bear near town, you shot it.”
No longer. Since the ‘80s, the tourism economy generated by healthy polar bear and beluga whale populations has superseded the military presence and today vies with shipping as Churchill’s top industry. The town hasn’t seen a bear-on-human fatality in more than three decades due to its effective Polar Bear Alert program. Everyone in Churchill is supposed to follow polar bear safety protocols. The main one is to not put yourself in a position to be threatened.
One day, I broke that protocol.
* * *
About 12 km along the road out of Churchill is a region of coastal tundra, bare Precambrian rock and stunted spruce trees, deserted save the Lazy Bear Lodge’s tundra crawler, a heavily modified bus that takes tourists into the tundra to view polar bears and other fauna and flora. (The Lodge parks the vehicle by the side of the road where their tundra tour begins, on old military service roads un-navigable except by crawlers or ATVs). Against all advice, on a late afternoon in August, I drove my rental truck onto one of these coastal roads where a shipwreck, the rusted but intact ore freighter Ithaca, stands upright on the Hudson Bay tidal flats where it ran aground more than 50 years ago.
I want photos of this wreck and even though the road is poor, it is drivable at a very slow pace and I’m not going far. After taking photos for an hour, I return to the truck. While attempting to turn around, my rear wheels spin out and sink a foot into the sand. I get out and try to push but I’m hopelessly stuck – and alone in polar bear country with no way to contact anyone since cell phones don’t work out here. August is not the most active time for bears but I’ve seen one per day since I’ve been here, and everyone says they’ve seen more Ursus maritimus than usual this summer.
Suddenly, nothing is scenic or interesting anymore. One careless touch of the gas pedal has rendered useless the truck that was my lifeline, and now it’s immobile as a Precambrian boulder. I begin the three-kilometre hike back to the main road, my camera packed and my cast-aluminum tripod ready to use as a club.
I can’t shake the unsettling feeling that I am part of a reenactment on a wilderness survival documentary show where the subject doesn’t survive, or suffers a disfiguring injury. I continuously scan the tundra for polar bears. You can see a long way when the trees are three feet high. If I see a bear, it will most likely be far away (unless it is hiding behind rocks at the tide line, in which case it will approach me from behind). My dilemma: if I see one, do I sprint toward the relative safety of the parked tundra crawler at the main road, and climb up on its roof? Or do I keep walking in the hope that the bear will deem me unworthy of pursuit? I can’t hope to outrun a bear in a race to the crawler even if that bear is a kilometre or more away to begin with. I do feel safer holding the tripod but it presents another dilemma: if the bear is charging me, do I throw the tripod at him, or swing it like a club?
“I can’t shake the feeling that I am part of a reenactment on a wilderness survival documentary show where the subject doesn’t survive.”
As I spot the tundra crawler in the middle distance, I know I’m close to the road, though I’m not saved yet; it could be hours before a vehicle passes me. The only traffic might be the odd tourist, or commuters between town and the Northern Studies Centre another 10 km down the road. People spot bears along this road frequently, I’m told.
Within a stone’s throw of the road, I see the improbable: an SUV, driving past. I wave my tripod over my head and run towards the road. It’s the fair-haired, friendly Vanderhoofs – mother, father and two early-teen daughters – visiting from Alberta and taking a leisurely afternoon drive out of Churchill on the only road, hoping to see polar bears. Instead, the Vanderhoofs see me.
Mr. Vanderhoof stops the SUV. (He tells me later he was sure that I would only be running and waving a tripod like a madman if I was being chased by a polar bear.) Out of breath, I ask if I can catch a ride to wherever they’re going. It so happens that they’ve given up hope of seeing a polar bear and they’re on their way back to town, where they’re staying at the Lazy Bear Lodge, where I’m also staying. We see no other vehicles on the way back to town. I marvel at my luck.
Churchill is a safe place to visit. When I went exploring off-piste I was not just endangering myself but also the livelihood of eco-tourism in Churchill; for if I’d been eaten alive, the bad story would have supplanted all the good, pro-wildlife stories thousands come away with each summer and fall.
My advice is to visit Churchill in summer, fall or winter. The latter two seasons are all about tundra tours – Ursus m. is most active on land from September through November, before sea-ice forms and they head north – as well as dogsledding and aurora viewing. I’m partial to summer; you’ll still see bears, and you can go dog-carting; crowds aren’t as big as in fall; ubiquitous fireweed adds colour to your photos; and the beluga whales in their thousands frolic in the kayak-accessible Churchill River estuary. If you want to explore on your own, hire a guide with a rifle.
I’ve heard that some guides in the North arm themselves with rubber bullets; I never asked my guides if they had real bullets, but they did tell me that they’d never shot a bear. (Both had fired warning shots.) Shooting a bear even with real bullets is no guarantee. A guide told me a joke that sums up the dark Churchillian sense of humour that comes of living on the Arctic’s edge surrounded by the continent’s most dangerous predators: You have time for three rapid shots if a polar bear is charging you. For the first shot, aim for the head. If you miss, aim for the shoulder area (you can’t hope to hit the heart, and even if you did the bear would rip you apart before it expired). If you miss those two shots, might as well use the third on yourself. Quickly.