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When In Churchill

When In Churchill

Back in California, his biggest worry was his kids getting too much sun. But when Zac Unger moved his wife and children to Churchill, Manitoba, they had to adapt to a furry, four-legged danger, and accept a scary fact: that in the Arctic, polar bears are part of the family.
By Zac Unger
Apr 23
From the April/May 2013 Issue

Guns and children don’t mix. But then again, neither do children and polar bears. So when it came time to take my children trick-or-treating in bear country, I made sure to surround myself with as much firepower as possible. 

The near-Arctic town of Churchill, Manitoba is a model of Canadian small-town friendliness: everyone knows everyone in the coffee shop, a dinner invitation is easy to come by and the teenage hooliganism is mostly limited to the hockey rink. But after a few days in town I discovered that the reason people leave their cars and homes unlocked isn’t because of the low crime rate, but because it’s always important to have a place to duck into when you’re being chased by a 600-kilo polar bear who hasn’t had a decent meal in six months.

Once a strategic fur-trapping outpost on Hudson Bay, Churchill has become a victim of its own location. Polar bears do all their seal hunting out on the ice, and unfortunately for them, Hudson Bay becomes completely ice-free every summer. So that leaves the bears wandering around on shore, eating the occasional goose and getting more and more irritable in the summer heat. In the fall, the sea ice begins to form at the mouth of the Churchill River and the bears march right through town with visions of seal blubber dancing in their heads. While the ocean freezes, bears aren’t above rummaging through garbage cans or snacking on the occasional family dog.

Which can make living in Churchill a bit more like a reality-TV “Animal Attack” special than most people would care to live through. Take Halloween, for example. With freeze-up just days away, the bears are at the peak of their yearly hunger cycle. A full-grown polar bear can eat dozens of kilos of meat, which they capture by lying in wait for days at a time until they can happily collapse a seal’s skull with their massive teeth and claws. Which is not exactly the best environment in which to walk around outside with a bunch of squirmy toddlers carrying bags of candy.

I’m not exactly a hardened Northerner. In fact, I’m the opposite; I’m a Californian. I’ve got a commuter bicycle, a two-litre pump-bottle of sunscreen and a vegetable garden that throws out tomatoes for about seven months a year. The roof of my house has never touched snow. Nonetheless, I decided to move to Churchill in order to research a book on polar bears. My three children – ages six, five and two – went there because they’re my children and they didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want them to be eaten alive, and yet cancelling Halloween outright seemed too cruel. 

Illustration by Monika Melnychuk

So I learned the unofficial rules of high-risk trick-or-treating: #1. Go door to door with as many friends as possible. Bears love Snickers bars, but are unlikely to attack large groups of people. #2. Any able-bodied person who owns a gun should take that gun and spend the evening driving around town looking for anything white lurking in alleyways. #3. Children must not dress as ghosts, skeletons, princesses or anything else that might cause them to be mistaken for polar bears because, well, see Rule #2. My kids were dressed as various Star Wars characters; I was dressed as a weak-kneed Californian who’d never fired a gun and was thus forced to rely on the armed kindness of strangers.

Almost 10,000 tourists flock to Churchill every year. They go because Churchill is weird and different and cooler than yet another trip to Disney World; they go because they want to see a sentinel species that may be on the verge of extinction; they go because they have money to burn on acquiring stories to tell. But they also go because there’s a unique thrill, an unmistakable rumbling in the gonads, that only comes when you put yourself in a place where you might die the sort of horrible and grisly death that would get you top billing back in your hometown paper. Skydiving is a leap too far for most people, and mountain climbing involves actual exertion and maybe even some skill. But in Churchill, you can eat three crullers at Gypsy’s Bakery, then step outside into the darkness, well-marbled with fat and smelling like bacon, and feel like you’re in mortal danger.

The town of Churchill doesn’t do much to disabuse tourists of the notion that a visit there might be lethal. Walk down the main drag and you’ll see dozens of polar bear statues, billboards and window displays. The logo for one of the tour companies is a massive shaggy bear, mouth open, teeth bared, literally ripping its way through the pages of the brochure. On my first trip to Churchill I saw one of the company’s trucks, with a stencil on the side of a polar bear tearing its way through the sheet-metal in an apparent attempt to escape from the gas tank. At one hotel I stayed at, the proprietor showed up every morning with a shotgun slung over her shoulder. It was unclear to me if this was actually for her protection or to give her guests something to titter about. 

But here’s the dirty little secret about your chances of getting mauled when you travel to Churchill: It won’t happen. It just won’t. But it might, and that’s worth a hell of a lot from a marketing perspective. Letting your guests think they’re in occasional mortal danger? That’s just good product. But when one of those nice senior citizens from San Diego actually gets disemboweled? Terrible for repeat business.

All of which is not to say that polar bears aren’t dangerous. When you live in Churchill – and I’ll get to that in a moment – the dangers are more real. But if you’re a tourist, odds are overwhelming that you’re going to do just fine. Tour groups travel in packs, the guides know where not to go, and polar bears – smart as they are – still haven’t figured out how to work the doorknobs on the motels (at least the better ones). Every part of the tourist experience is designed with safety in mind, as it should be. One of the companies that operate those enormous tundra buses even has a raised, gated cattle-chute type system to move people safely from one vehicle to another. 

The head wildlife officer for the district told me about a guy who came to town in the spring and set up his tent out in the unpeopled bush near the airport. “We told him that you just don’t do that, you don’t camp around here.” But technically there was nothing illegal about it, so they let him be. “You can’t arrest someone for being stupid,” the officer said, shaking his head. 

Of course, even the best security system can be breached – not by bears, which behave rationally – but by tourists, who are the most unpredictable creatures of all. One tour guide told me about standing inside the safety of a lodge, watching a mother bear and her cub just beyond the barred window. Without warning, one of the guests opened the door and stepped outside, putting herself squarely between the two animals. The guide described it to me this way: “She was looking for Narnia” – that mythical world where nature is cuddly and hungry bears share friendly, psychic communication with people in purple Patagonia outerwear. Fortunately, one of the guides yanked her inside before any harm befell her, and she was sent packing on the next flight out of town.

Every guide has a story like this, about the guy who wanted a picture of himself petting a bear, or the woman who dropped her Cherry Chapstick off the back deck of the Tundra Buggy and thought she’d just scramble down and get it while half a dozen hungry bears looked on. The head wildlife officer for the district told me about a guy who came to town in the spring and set up his tent out in the unpeopled bush near the airport. “We told him that you just don’t do that, you don’t camp around here.” But technically there was nothing illegal about it, so they let him be. “You can’t arrest someone for being stupid,” the officer said, shaking his head. 

For tourists, then, the road to safety involves nothing more than being marginally un-stupid and following the advice of people who know what they’re talking about. But for residents, the calculus is trickier. In polar bear country, as in any other place, life is untidy and one is rarely accompanied by armed guides. Sometimes you need to run over to your mom’s place in the middle of the night; sometimes your Skidoo breaks down in a lonely, inconvenient place; sometimes you’re tired and the dark, rocky shortcut between the ice rink and your house is impossible to resist. In big cities we sometimes choose to walk in places that our mothers would warn us against. In Churchill, people make those same kinds of decisions every day.

Churchill is a small town, fewer than 1,000 people, most of whom live within the town’s orderly downtown grid. Polar bear incursions into the heart of the community are rare, but not so rare that you shouldn’t worry about them. Our apartment was on the very outermost street, beyond which stretched a jumble of rock, the tidal flats and the endless open expanse of Hudson Bay. Bear country. This borderland was littered with bright green signs warning of death and dismemberment for anyone stupid enough to venture past. The back side of the signs said nothing – polar bears being famously illiterate – and there seemed no reason why a hungry Ursus maritimus would respect the transition zone, especially since I’m a pretty decent cook and, from a bear’s perspective, my two year old was basically a piece of bait.

A number of longtime locals told me that if I was ever about to have an encounter with a polar bear, I would be forewarned by a distinctive tingling along the length of my spine. But I had been feeling that tingle since the minute I got to town, and it reappeared every single time I laced my boots and stepped outside.
Either my every move was being followed, or my bear-detector was seriously on the fritz.

Illustration by Monika Melnychuk

The problem was that I didn’t know exactly how scared I ought to be. “Do you ever worry about running into polar bears on the street?” I asked one of the local park rangers.

“Never,” he replied, in a heavy Quebecois accent. “Polar bears like to eat seals and I am not a seal. Besides, if he really wants to get me, then he’ll get me, whether I worry about him or not.” This was probably a sound philosophy for life, but not exactly the reassurance I had been hoping for when it came to the responsibilities of parenting.

“Do you ever worry about polar bears?” I asked a young mother I ran into at the playground.

“Constantly,” she said.  “These little kids look just like seals in their snowsuits. I wouldn’t walk anywhere in the winter, especially after dark.”

“Do you ever worry about polar bears?” I asked an old First Nations man who could be found standing on his porch smoking at any hour and under any weather conditions. He laughed and waved his hand in the air dismissively. “I don’t worry about them at all.” Now this was what I wanted to hear, a little Cree wisdom about the mutual respect between species. “I don’t need to worry,” he said, “because I’ve got a great big gun.” I followed his gaze to the ancient shotgun resting against the doorframe. The thought of using it to blow a bear’s brains out delighted him, and he went from chuckling to making little pow-pow sounds like a kid with a new set of plastic army men.

In the unfortunate absence of an electric fence or a moat of fire, the most effective bear deterrent in town is known as the Polar Bear Alert Program. Between 1966 and 1969, there were three serious maulings in Churchill and one fatal attack.

Near the town’s school, I once came across a poster instructing children on how to behave. It was full of confidence-inspiring suggestions like “Running is not a good solution” and “As a last resort, play dead … It takes courage to lie still but resistance would be useless.”

In the 1970s, so-called defense kills, in which bears were shot by townsfolk who felt themselves to be in imminent danger, were logged at a rate of about a dozen a year. On average, the Manitoba Conservation Department killed an additional six bears a year, and everybody was on edge. Bears feasted at the municipal dump and roamed the edges of town, prying into outbuildings, dog sheds and cabins, generally causing trouble.

It was against this backdrop that the Alert program was born. The basic idea was simple. You give people a telephone number to call – 675-BEAR – when they see a bear, you beg them not to kill the bear before you get there, and then you have the problem dealt with by professional wildlife officers who are better trained and presumably somewhat more clear-headed than the guy cowering in his house with a shotgun.

Although there’s nothing like a good marauding bear to spice up the tourist trade, the Alert folks have become awfully good at what they do. In the 10-year period that ended with the 2007 bear season, the rangers had dealt with 2,219 calls to the bear hotline, and not a single call ended in a fatality to a bear. Or a toddler. 

But even with the Alert guys being alert, people in Churchill still need to take care of themselves. A lot of people do carry guns, although (almost) nobody would want to end up in a position where they would have to actually kill a bear. At home, some people hammer dozens of nails through sheets of plywood and lay the resulting “welcome mat” up against the front door or flat on the porch. Then again, I was told a story about a bear who punched right through an exterior wall to get at a hunk of meat that was defrosting on top of a refrigerator. So much for the welcome mat.

The biggest worry is usually over what to do with the kids. You want the little ones to be able to play in the snow, but you don’t want them to become snack-food, either. When we first got to Churchill and had to make the decision for ourselves, I remembered a friend of mine who had grown up in Beirut during the worst of the war-times there. “We were kids,” he told me once. “We went outside. We played. You can’t live your life waiting for the worst, and so you just say a prayer and hope for the best.” Which is good advice in theory, but harder to follow after you’ve looked out the kitchen window and seen a polar bear nuzzling around the trash cans. Near the town’s school, I once came across a poster instructing children on how to behave. It was full of confidence-inspiring suggestions like “Running is not a good solution” and “As a last resort, play dead … It takes courage to lie still but resistance would be useless.” I wonder if this advice is more or less effective than the Cold War admonition to hunker under one’s school desk when the nukes start falling.

But what most people do to combat bears is simply stay inside a lot of the time. Since the most dangerous period only lasts for about eight weeks – and happens to coincide with the prime hot-chocolate drinking months of fall – staying indoors isn’t all that onerous. You go from your home to your car to the store to your car to the office to your car and back home again. Simple as that. For such a geographically small town, the amount of driving that takes place is utterly mind-boggling.

Paradoxically, the part of town that gets the most foot traffic also gets the most bear activity. Down by the Churchill River, on the scrappy side of the train tracks, you’ll find an area known as The Flats, which is the Arctic version of a shantytown. It’s a lovely spot, with beautiful views out over the water and a thick head-high stand of brush separating the area from the hustle and bustle of downtown. There are a few nice houses in The Flats; and by nice I mean they’re put together with conventionally recognized building materials. But a lot of them are made of castoff lumber, tarpaper odds-and-ends, and bits of old furniture. One guy even appears to be living in half of an old schoolbus.

People who live in The Flats are less likely to have cars than people who live right in town. But they’re no less likely to want to avail themselves of the bars and coffeeshops downtown. Yet the path between the two is perilous, especially when it’s dark and especially when the reason you went to town was to find something – or a lot of somethings – that are sold in bottles and carried in brown paper bags. 

The safe bet is to hitch a ride home from town, or failing that, at least to walk home the long way around via the road instead of taking the shortcut through the high brush. By all rights, the riverside belongs to the bears, and so do the willows and the dark places behind rocks. And yet, all through the long fall and into the winter, the residents of The Flats walk those paths, and take those risks.

You won’t see many tourists in The Flats, with their matching parkas and battle-ready guides. It’s too wild for most of them, too unscripted, too much like bear country. But the truth is that The Flats are the best place in Churchill, with their wide-open views to the west. This is where the shorebirds land, where the beluga whales gather, where you can sit on the roof of your decimated shack and watch the current carry those great white chunks of ice that just might be a polar bear’s backside instead. 

If this were one of those analogy questions on a standardized test, you’d say that The Flats are to Churchill as Churchill is to the rest of the world. The people who live in polar bear country do so not in spite of the uncertainty and the risk, but because of it. The risks are real, and if you live in Churchill long enough you might well have a polar bear encounter one day. But most people would tell you that the risks of moving off the frontier are much, much worse. In Churchill, a bear could sneak up on you from around a corner, but you’ll never get lost in a jungle of high-rises and you’ll never have to worry about life becoming boring. A bear can kill you, but the idea of a bear is what makes life worth living.

Zac Unger’s book Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye was published in January 2013.