Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Beyond the Bears (Churchill, Canada)

The tiny population (around 500) of the desolate township of Churchill share a love-hate relationship with polar bears. Accessible only via a three-hour air flight or overnight rail journey, this northerly outpost is enthused by the dollars associated with the wildlife-loving visitors (almost everyone who visits Churchill comes to see the polar bears) but not necessarily by the bears themselves. Signs near the edge of town with stylised pictures of polar bears warn visitors to not walk beyond the centre of town.

Churchill carefully police for rogue bears that wander into the township scouring streets and bins for a few morsels of food unwilling to wait the last few weeks for the freeze. These are darted and carted off to the “polar bear prison”, a large hangar-like corrugated iron compound. The bears are kept until the bay freezes when they are transferred via helicopter far out to the ice fields. Sadly, those impounded for the third time are euthanised in the interests of the population’s safety.

Churchill has all the feel of a remote town. The main street is wide and featureless with houses insulated against the savage winter cold and the summer mosquito plagues. The odd brave sole quickly bustles from the comfort of one building to another, snuggling their face into the cuddly warmth of their jacket. Though the thermometer shows -15°C, the biting wind chills it to -40°C. The best cold weather gear seems defenceless against such Arctic conditions.

Apart from the extraordinary polar bears, there is little else to encourage visiting this remote town. A small single room Eskimo museum contains some excellent historic handicrafts, a nearby property offers husky rides on wheeled sleds to keep their dogs physically fit and an old fort reminds of past times when the French and English scuffled for this historic fur trading area.

The short stumpy spruce trees are a sight, much shorter than normal from the harsh permafrost conditions and suffering from a strange condition called snow pruning, where the tree only grows branches on the side protected from the strong prevailing winds. Like a demented forestry experiment, it is somewhat disconcerting seeing clumps of trees bare on one side but with branches on the other.

Leaving the toasty warmth of the lounge’s roaring fire and braving the biting evening cold (not to mention the fear of bears wandering the dingy streets) may offer the lights of the aurora borealis. Around midnight one evening during my stay, wishing to find an area free from lights but not wanting to wander far from the safety of the central town, the clear night sky lit weakly to dancing green bands of light from this strange celestial phenomenon. Full on, the aurora must provide a stunning lightshow.

Churchill is a long pilgrimage to the northern wilds of Canada but well worthwhile to bear witness to one of nature’s great travel wonders as giant polar bears hover on the shores of Hudson Bay awaiting the onset of winter and a chance to hunt seals. It is a rewarding and uplifting experience to stand within a few feet of one of the planet’s great creatures, enjoying the antics of the cubs or staring into the eyes of a fully-grown adult, all from the safety of an oversized buggy.

Other Canada Posts
Polar Bear Splendour (Churchill)
The Twenty Dollar View (Lake Louise)
The Spiritual Medicine Lake
Johnston Canyon


Anil said...

It's unfortunate they have to kill repeat offenders, especially considering polar bears are vulnerable or endangered across much of their range.

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