The bear facts in Churchill, Canada

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - PAMELA RUSHBY

There’s a bear in there … well, ac­tu­ally there were 14 in there, in the Bear Jail (of­fi­cial ti­tle the Bear Hold­ing Fa­cil­ity). Hun­gry po­lar bears that had per­sisted in com­ing into the town of Churchill on Hud­son Bay, Man­i­toba, Canada. They were be­ing held for later re­lease.

Ev­ery Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber about 1000 po­lar bears con­gre­gate around Churchill. They’re wait­ing for Hud­son Bay to freeze.

When the pack ice forms, the bears move out to hunt seals, their pri­mary food source. But un­til the sea freezes, the bears have to wait. And that pro­vides a great op­por­tu­nity for po­lar bear spot­ting.

Thou­sands of eco-tourists pack into tiny Churchill (pop­u­la­tion 800) in those two months hop­ing for an up­close and per­sonal look at these mighty mam­mals.

Po­lar bears are se­ri­ously big, 2m to 3m tall, weigh­ing be­tween 300kg and 650kg. They’re the largest land car­ni­vores and are fast and dan­ger­ous.

So how can visi­tors see them with­out run­ning the risk of be­com­ing lunch? We took a he­li­copter flight over the tun­dra. Look­ing down, we spot­ted po­lar bears all along the shore. Wait­ing. Then, we spent two days in tun­dra ve­hi­cles, huge bus-like ma­chines that lum­ber at a top speed of 8km/h over 40km of tracks.

We saw bears snooz­ing, draped over con­ve­nient rocks like poured cus­tard, and strid­ing pur­pose­fully across the snow. We saw po­lar bears snarling and spar­ring with each other.

And we en­coun­tered cu­ri­ous bears in­ves­ti­gat­ing our ve­hi­cle, stand­ing on hind legs to peer into the win­dows at us, eye­ball to eye­ball. And bears prowl­ing un­der the open view­ing deck at the back of the ve­hi­cle. Yes, there’s a bear un­der that open me­tal mesh, and it’s right un­der my feet. If I hadn’t taken the photos, I wouldn’t have be­lieved it.

There were bears ga­lore, in fact, but maybe not for long. Some sci­en­tists be­lieve their num­bers are de­clin­ing. Ris­ing global tem­per­a­tures mean less ice and less feed­ing time. Oth­ers, like our nat­u­ral­ist guide, seem more hope­ful. He be­lieves po­lar bear num­bers are con­sis­tent.

We hope he’s right. Then, for years to come, visi­tors can travel to Churchill and whis­per in awe, “There’s a bear in there.” Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion to Fol­low the Reader: travel@theaus­tralian.com.au. Colum­nists re­ceive a set of four Lonely Planet Make My Day guide­books for Lon­don, New York, Paris and Tokyo, of­fer­ing mix-and-match itin­er­ar­ies for morn­ing, af­ter­noon and evening. $99.96 ($24.99 each). More: lone­ly­planet.com.

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