Life in a Far Northern Town

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck
On our first night in Churchill, Pete packed up his camera gear and set out at about 10pm. Rustled into action by the Aurora Alert app flashing on his phone, he ignored the heavy cloud cover we had been under since earlier that day. He held onto the hope of a break in the clouds or that the strength of the lights would at least brighten their hue.

He left the warmth of our hotel room just as an old military siren blared. I never got a definitive answer as to why the siren is still in service given that there is no remaining military presence, but if I were to guess, I would say it still serves as an important reminder. That the streets are empty, quiet, and possibly soon to be overtaken by the world’s largest land predators.

Pete returned just a few minutes later. With his eyes focused upwards while walking on a peaceful street, hoping to see any glimmer of green cosmic light, he returned his gaze to street level and realized how utterly vulnerable he was. And that at any second, he could come face-to-face with a curious polar bear. Disastrous encounters in this small northern town usually happen when people forget to respect this environment in which they are in. He did not want to be one of those statistics.

It’s Churchill’s great deception. For all its friendly residents and quiet streets that would lure visitors into feeling welcome and secure, danger lurks large, in the form of an icon of the Arctic who moves stealthily and is primarily motivated by one thing.

Hunger.

It’s Churchill’s great deception. For all its friendly residents and quiet streets that would lure visitors one into feeling welcome and secure, danger lurks large.

Churchill, Manitoba

Accessible only by train or plane, Churchill is a tiny slice of Canadian civilization situated on the banks of the Hudson’s Bay. During seven weeks spread over October and November, polar bears can outnumber humans in the surrounding area. The bears congregate near town and wait for the Bay to freeze over so that they can begin their feeding season.

They would have gone several months since their last meal of seal blubber; the females even longer if they gave birth in dens and cut off many weeks of prime feeding while depleting their resources and nursing cubs. In between their annual quest across the frozen Bay to feast on ringed seals, they will have only eaten such things as small rodents, vegetation, and seabirds. While deadly encounters between humans and these carnivores are rare, the power of a big appetite should not be underestimated.

The residents of Churchill are on high alert during this time that the bears are passing through. House and vehicle doors are left unlocked should anyone need immediate shelter. An alert program is in place with a 24-hour emergency number that everybody knows. Gunshots are commonly used to scare those bears that get too close (in one day we heard six in the span of just a few hours). Large bear traps can be seen in some spots surrounding the town, and a bear “jail” even exists to house those who are not so easily deterred. The bears will be brought in while tranquilized and held up to thirty days; if the ice hasn’t formed on the Bay during that time, then they will be hoisted by helicopter to a location further north.

Halloween, smack dab in the middle of bear season, is an event like none other. Residents circle the town in their vehicles and helicopters circle above to ensure that the children can safely go door-to-door after dark. Common sense would have kids avoid costumes that resemble their hungry neighbours.

And journeys into open spaces are done under the watchful eye of someone with a rifle who knows how to use it.

Gunshots are commonly heard to scare those bears that get too close (in one day we heard six in the span of a few hours).

Polar Bear Trap - Churchill, Manitoba

Polar Bear Holding Facility - Churchill, Manitoba

Polar bear jail.

Polar Patrol Churchill
“You’ll see my colleague David there with a 12 gauge shotgun full of lethal ammo. He’s on polar bear patrol.” Rhonda, an interpretive guide at Cape Merry, stood on the steps of our converted school bus to explain the significance of the narrowing sliver of land in front of us, along with her own affinity to the area. She traded one northern locale (in Ontario) for another, and declared Churchill to be the home she would never leave.

Rhonda’s story was one we heard often during our short stay there, from locals and seasonal employees alike who return year after year. What continually draws them there may vary by person – while some likely shirk from the vigilance required to live in the surroundings of such powerful beasts and a harsh climate – I could absolutely acknowledge the appeal. Not only from the challenge of both mind and body to live so remotely, but also to be a part of such a close-knit community where the residents rely on each other to help preserve the safety of both themselves and the bears.

It is a tiny and quiet town, bustling for only two months of the year, but in a fascinating natural environment that can hardly be found elsewhere.

Churchill Town Morning
Inukshuk - Churchill, Manitoba
Train Station - Churchill, Manitoba
Churchill Home
Churchill Sunset

Within minutes of our arrival, we got a taste of what that life might be like.

Enroute from the airport to Churchill in the converted school bus, we made a sudden stop. Our driver noticed a small male bear (with paws the size of dinner plates!) sauntering along the ditch on her side, clearly heading for the garbage facility up ahead. With walls reinforced by layers of steel, the bears are prevented from devouring the treasures inside, but the aromas emitted are still alluring. Despite our schedule being in jeopardy, we followed the bear for some time and then drove past the building in order to check that no one would be caught outside and off-guard. Thankfully, the surrounding yard was empty save for the penned dogs whose barks eventually scared the bear off in another direction.

“That’s a bonus bear!” our guide Hayley said, referring to the fact that we had our first encounter before even venturing out onto the tundra. A bonus for us indeed, but likely not if someone had been caught unaware around the corner.

Our excitement at seeing that first giant of the north could not be overstated though. For that is what we had made the trip to Churchill for, and the best of our sightings was yet to come.

Our excitement at seeing that first giant of the north could not be overstated.

Polar Bear Visitor - Churchill, Manitoba

how to do it

We ventured to Churchill with Frontiers North Adventures, and they offer a variety of tours for different experiences and budgets. They provided us, without a doubt, with one of the most exciting and compelling tours we have ever done, with careful respect for the environment and community of Churchill. We were well taken care of on and off the tundra, and our guide Hayley was nothing short of exceptional.

Our trip was courtesy of Travel Manitoba and Frontiers North Adventures. All opinions, as always, are our own.

20 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Ellen Bentley
    January 4 2016

    Delicious coffee, a good a.m. posting joined with with MY own polar bears displayed on computer display background. I remember the frigid Arctic blasts that picked up energy over Hudson Bay dispensed over the Great Lakes and surrounding landfall–specifically a winter the freighters surrounded by solid ice were powerless to proceed and huge waves frozen in motion visible on the shoreline of Lake Erie. I learned from Wiki the name of another Canadian province–Nunavut.

    • January 5 2016

      Nunavet is fairly new (relatively) so most people don’t know about it! Although it actually is a “territory” and not a province. Pretty cool that you read the post with your own polar bears on display! 😉

  • January 4 2016

    I’ve been following your blog for a while now. It is inspiring! It helps us less adventurous travelers get glimpses of lands far, far away. It was nice to see you back in Canada. Looking forward to your future travels.

    • January 5 2016

      Thanks Marg! We always love to come back and explore more of our own backyard – we hope to do more this year!

  • What a beautifully told story! You have a way with words, Mrs Heck 😉
    Marie @ To Europe And Beyond recently posted..What I Loved About Cruising The Danube With Viking River Cruises

  • January 4 2016

    Despite all the frigid places you’ve visited this year, you somehow keep adding to my list of must visit places. And this of course is now added to my list!

  • What a cool story (also, scary)! I couldn’t help but giggle at the “polar bear jail,” though 😉
    Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate recently posted..One Short Day in the Emerald City

    • January 5 2016

      Right? I never expected that! Bad bears!

  • Victoria | Girl Tries Life
    January 5 2016

    Love this. Hard to believe all the precautions they have to take for ordinary things like Halloween! Certainly a different kind of life.

  • January 6 2016

    WOW! Gorgeous pictures and love the story around it. I knew that Churchill is the polar capitol of the world but with your pics it’s even better to imagine what it’s like to live there.
    antonette recently posted..Everest Base Camp trek: the movie!

  • Great intro – can’t wait to hear about the rest of the trip!

    Reading about Pete wandering the streets at night reminds me of a time I was in a small town outside Yellowstone and the laundromat was across the street from my hotel…I was so freaked out walking back and forth late at night! Certainly heightens your sense of awareness!

  • January 18 2016

    This post brought back so many great memories of our 2012 trip to Churchill! We loved the “polar bear jail,” and were so impressed with the innovative ways locals have figured out for (mostly) peacefully co-habitating with such fearsome predators. Can’t help but admire how they seem to prioritize conservation over the profit they’d gain from exploitation.
    Bret Love recently posted..PIC OF THE WEEK: Sunset On The Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

  • January 23 2016

    I have always wanted to be surrounded by snow/ice and isolated from the world. That’s why I’ve been wanting to go to Antartica for so long. But after seeing your post, maybe a trip to Manitoba would be an excellent destination as well. Thanks for the great post 🙂
    Hung Thai recently posted..You can help save the planet with these 4 apps

  • January 24 2016

    I live this post I really like this type of places they are so relax the people that live their they live different
    Izy berry recently posted..How to Save Money this Spring

  • Churchill looks like a beautiful town. It would take a while to get used to polar bear sirens though. Thanks for sharing!

  • February 23 2016

    You had me hanging on every word – you’re a wonderful storyteller Dalene. I’d read the follow up to this post and had been meaning to read the first. What a unique environment to experience. Reading polar bears outnumber humans for part of the year made me smile – so hard thinking of these majestic animals struggling with melting ice and dwindling food sources. Thanks for a great post 🙂
    Tracy recently posted..Last Child In The Rainy Woods

  • June 13 2016

    Not sure what is more interesting about this post – the bear “jail” they have for those polar bears who aren’t deterred easily by the gunshots or the SWAT Team-like atmosphere that the children experience at Halloween for their own personal safety. Crazy!

  • September 1 2016

    Now Churchill is definitely on my radar! It’s lovely to see pictures of the town covered in snow. This seems like a lovely adventure worth checking out, thanks for sharing your experience!
    Adriane recently posted..Route 66: Nostalgia from Arizona to California

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