The bear facts in Churchill, Canada
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: email@example.com. 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.