Life in a Far Northern Town
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.
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.
“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.
“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.