‘Any Bears Around Today?’
Travel Stories: Kim Mance ventured into Canada's remote north looking for polar bears. She didn't anticipate becoming prey.
12.30.10 | 12:35 PM ET
There is no road to Churchill. To reach this community of 900 on Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada, travelers must fly, sail or ride a train. The nearest town is about 170 miles away. I made a 48-hour rail journey from Winnipeg—past prairie farms, through foggy forests, and eventually over subarctic permafrost.
When the train finally eased into Churchill’s station, I had one thing on my mind: polar bears. It’s the first thing I think of when conjuring images of the Canadian north. Having grown up in Colorado, where I was immersed in adrenaline-inducing activities, I’m a sucker for adventure. Combine that with the possibility of spotting a threatened species in the wild and this, for me, was the trip of a lifetime.
I was soon jostling over rocks along a dirt road in an enormous and boxy 38-passenger vehicle called a “Tundra Buggy,” outfitted with monster truck wheels and rectangular sliding windows. Our guide, Dave, gave riders a polar bear safety briefing as we ventured through the wildlife preserve outside town. Polar bears are the world’s largest carnivorous land mammals and nearly 1,000 of them are found in the region, so I listened more attentively than I do to, say, airline safety spiels. “Don’t put your hands outside the windows,” he warned. “Last year a guy wanted to get a better picture and snapped his fingers to get the bear’s attention. The bear ripped his arm off.”
As our massive white buggy lumbered through muddy paths, Dave scanned the horizon. Suddenly, he pointed to a white dot about 200 yards across the boggy tundra.
“Look, over there,” he yelled, “by the waterfront!”
Sure enough, a polar bear lazily stretched out on its back, at the edge of the Hudson’s lapping waves. It rolled over and plunked a paw on its brown stony bed, unaware of the thrill it was providing us. I stood on the buggy’s back deck watching through binoculars, marveling at each rise and fall of the bear’s chest as it breathed in crisp, cool air.
On the way back to Churchill, Dave offered more warnings, urging us to stay away from side streets in town and areas with trash cans—and to avoid sitting on the bayside boulders because bears could be sleeping under them. “Don’t worry, the 24-hour Bear Patrol will send off ‘bear shot’ warnings to try and keep them away,” Dave said. “If one gets into town and you’re not near your hotel the patrol’s truck will come by and pick you up.”
The population of Churchill swells with visitors each year as bear season draws near, but I began to understand that there was more to my visit than just my hunt for bear sightings. I’d gone to the bears’ home. And I was prey.
I felt a palpable awareness of the bears. In a local diner, rather than remarking on the weather or sports scores, friends greeted each other with the question, “Any bears around today?”
Each person I met added his or her own advice on how to handle a bear confrontation. Flipping his monocle down over a pair of glasses, 80-year-old town jeweler Ed admonished, “If you see one, stand completely still. They can’t see very well, so if you don’t move at all you have a better chance of not being noticed.”
Walking to dinner, I found my eyes darting left and right—not in search of traffic, but bears. Simply crossing the road to the edge of town was an adventure. “Oh crap, what is that?” I said to myself. And just as I was about to run, er, stand completely still, it was revealed to be only a white minivan on the horizon. Whew.
At dusk one night (the sun sets late in the subarctic summer), the center of town was quiet except for laughter and chatter wafting from a pub called Tundra. Inside, it was packed with beer-drinking Churchill residents and I soon met a bearded man in his 20s named Chris Cooke, or “Cookie,” as others around the table called him. He smiled and rolled his eyes but answered my questions about growing up around bears. Cookie spoke of close encounters, learning to stay aware, and how many Churchillians had been killed before the Bear Patrol was established in the 1980s (the last one being a guy who fell asleep on his porch in ‘82 and was eaten). Cookie often kept a rifle handy, but he said being around the bears was now second nature.
After a few drinks, I asked if he’d ever had to shoot at a bear. His eyes fell and his shoulders slumped; Cookie grabbed his bottle of beer and described the time a bear unexpectedly showed up in his backyard, blocking the path between him and his house. “I didn’t have a choice,” Cookie said. “He began charging me.”
Lifting his hand to his shoulder, Cookie mimicked the bear stopping its charge and grasping a bloody wound. “People don’t think of the bears having a shoulder, just like we do,” he said. “It still haunts me, him grabbing it when I shot him. We all live up here together, us and the bears.”
All in all, I spotted 18 polar bears during my weeklong stay. But as it turned out, the bears weren’t the highlight of the trip. It was the jovial and friendly people who choose to weather the elements and live in this unforgiving environment a world away from everyone else—who commute by exceedingly slow trains to shop for clothes or consult with a medical specialist. These residents happily give bear safety advice to visitors. They are people who live an adventure every day and put my own adventures to shame.
By my last day I’d become more confident walking the streets, just as the town began to buzz with news that the Northern Lights would appear that night.
As I craned my neck at 2 a.m., mesmerized by the presence of the fabled Aurora Borealis, a custodian came out of a nearby building and began staring up alongside me. The ethereal greenish mass swirled above. Though I’ve never been one to make small talk about weather, this magical phenomenon tempted me to break the silence and ask if he, too, thought it was amazing, even though he lived here.
But then, pulling a cigarette from his mouth, he spoke first.
“Any bears around tonight?” he asked.