In Minnesota, we like to think of ourselves as the North, but our state is really just the beginning of it. Farther north is a town overrun with polar bears. Knowing this made me feel like I lived in the South. It also made me realize I needed to go there.
To be fair, the polar bear capital of the world is close, but also far. Churchill, Manitoba, sits on the edge of Hudson Bay at the mouth of the Churchill River. The only way there is by plane or train. First, you fly into the provincial capital of Winnipeg then you board a propeller plane that takes you the rest of the way, landing at a small, one-room airport.
As we walked across the tarmac, a bitter wind took the temperature below zero even though it was only November. Inside, our group was greeted by a woman named Deb, who shepherded us onto a red school bus to Lazy Bear Lodge, one of several outfits running tours out into polar bear country.
Driving into Churchill, I could see this was a strange place. The population is right around 900 (899 with a baby on the way, Deb said), which is less than the number of polar bears living here. Every autumn, those thousand or so bears in Wapusk National Park, hungry from lean summer months, make their way toward shore, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze so they can light out and hunt seals. Inevitably, a few wander through Churchill’s streets, root through garbage and occasionally prey on a person. Those troublemakers are trapped and taken to Polar Bear Jail for 30 days before being flown up the coast.
Close behind come some 10,000 tourists from across the globe eager to see the bears, a symbol of climate change despite their spectacular comeback from being decimated by hunting in the 1970s. Today, there are some 25,000 worldwide, up at least 50% since then.
Being at the end of the world, Churchill has a certain apocalyptic charm: houses with boarded-up windows and peeling paint. The writer Zac Unger moved his family here for a season several years ago and wrote in his book Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye, “The few houses in town that are not owned by the government have a fairly consistent outdoor aesthetic, a scheme that relies on rusted-out car bodies, stacks of mildewed lumber, and twisted piles of scrap metal as the lawn ornaments of choice.”
Lazy Bear Lodge is a beautiful log cabin structure that feels like it belongs on a mountain in Colorado. Our group of 30 included people from all over the world, but not a single other Midwesterner, even though Winnipeg is as close to Minneapolis as Chicago. The border does strange things to our imagination.
It was dark by the time we finished dinner, and we were advised not to walk around town at night. At the airport, I’d picked up a brochure entitled Safety in Polar Bear Country that gave tips like, “Look outside before you leave a building,” “Travel in groups and stay together,” and “Never approach a seal or whale carcass.” Check. Check. Check.
The next morning, we drove out to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, which sits next to Wapusk National Park. The temperature was well below zero. When we arrived, we got off the bus and climbed into an arctic crawler, a kind of super bus equipped with a kitchenette, a small bathroom, a propane heating stove and a viewing deck on the back — high enough so the bears can’t climb up. “Remember,” Deb told us, “polar bears are excellent at pulling small things out of holes, so keep your arms inside, but also your clothing and camera straps.”
The big diesel engine rumbled into gear, and we rolled across the tundra. The landscape was dotted with stunted spruce, willow bushes and permafrost. Churchill sits right where the northern arctic and the southern boreal forest overlap. At times, it felt like we were crawling across the moon.
There were no bears in sight, but Deb was optimistic: “Every day is different! You never know what you’ll see.” After an hour, we’d seen lots of tundra. I was starting to get bored, so I went out on the back deck to see what it was like. The air was full of sharp winter sunlight. The rocks were covered in orange lichens. And the snow was full of tracks: arctic hare, red fox, wolverine and polar bear — which were still nowhere to be seen. I went back inside. After an hour, then another, then another, I leaned my head against the window and took a nap.
When I awoke, we were grinding toward the water’s edge. Ahead was an old shipwreck frozen in the bay. Deb got out her binoculars and looked across the ice. “There,” she said, pointing. “Out at the end of the rocks.”
We looked. Bears! Lots of them. With the naked eye, they looked like blurry yellow spots in the snow. With binoculars, they were less blurry. There were at least five of them.
The air crackled with the sound of cameras. A new energy shot through the crawler. We watched these distant bears as we ate our lunch. The two closest were sparring, playing and killing time before they could kill some seals. Eventually one started walking toward us. I felt a rush of excitement and a touch of fear.
“He’s coming this way!” someone said.
“He wants our sandwiches!” another added.
The bear lifted his nose to the wind and sniffed. We watched, rapt, hoping he would keep lumbering our way. But after a pause, he turned his back to us, climbed over a hill and disappeared.
The next day, we were scheduled for some cultural programming. Our first stop was Parks Canada, a small building that doubles as a train station. It has a dioramic history museum, which we passed through on our way to a small lecture hall. There we sat and listened to a presentation by ranger Florence Hamilton from the local Sayisi Dene tribe that once followed the caribou migration through the area. As with many of the First Nations, her tribe’s story is one of tragedy, forced relocation and resilience.
Next, we headed over to the Itsanitaq Museum a few blocks away. It was a large, single room filled with tiny elegant sculptures. Intermixed were a sealskin kayak, a narwhal tusk, and a taxidermied musk ox and polar bear.
The curator showed us how to build an igloo with a snow knife. Then she explained how to kill a polar bear with the same knife: Hold your arm vertically so when the bear bites, it turns its head and you get a shot at its neck. (This information had been notably omitted from the Safety in Polar Bear Country brochure.)
I spent a long time perusing the carvings before I left the museum and walked over to the Town Centre Complex, which houses the town’s library, hospital, playground, school and city government offices. It felt like a small-town mall from the eighties, save for the massive windows overlooking Hudson Bay. Two days earlier, waves had crashed on the shore. Now it was frozen solid. As I stood looking across the ice, a woman sidled up beside me.
“Well, it’s freezing up!” she said. “The bears will be gone soon.”
“You mean when the ice comes in?” I asked.
“Yeah. As soon as it freezes, they’re gone.”
It was getting dark, so I decided to walk back to the lodge. As I headed down the street, I heard something behind me.
I turned around to see a guy in a sweatshirt and baseball cap with a cigarette in his bare hand. It was well below zero.
“Where are you from?” he asked as he caught up.
“Minnesota,” I said.
“Churchill. Born and raised. Best place in the world.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“There’s no gangs. There’s no violence. There’s no assholes.”
“You don’t have crime?”
“Do you see any crime going on around here?”
“I guess not.”
“This place is better than Minnesota,” he said. “Well, to be honest, there are a couple assholes here.”
The next day, we broke into small groups and headed to the airport. Deb had made an announcement: “I felt bad about the first day — the polar bears were so distant,” she’d told us. “So we’re going to put every one of you on a helicopter to give you the best chance of seeing one.”
The group burst into applause. Helicopter rides were spendy, and none of us had opted for one. But with the ice on Hudson Bay freezing ahead of schedule, this might be our best shot.
At the airport, we stood waiting for our helicopter to refuel then climbed in and put on our headphones. Soon we lifted off the ground as though we were weightless. The airport dropped away. We rose up above the sea, a puzzle of open water, jagged ice, and patches of white and gray.
“Down there to our right,” the pilot said.
I looked down. A bear loped forward, muscles rippling. We were about a mile offshore, and I thought about the long, lonely journey he had ahead. The pilot circled around.
“It can be hard to spot them in this flat light,” the pilot added.
We flew on. Soon we came to a small island with several frozen lakes. Two bears sparred as another approached them, probably a mother and cubs. Across the island, a fourth bear slept on another lake, while two more walked past the island. Six polar bears in close proximity.
“Well, that was a sight and a half!” the pilot said.
“How far inland do they go?” someone asked.
“Sometimes they go so far,” the pilot replied, “it seems like they took the train.”
By lunch, we’d seen more polar bears than I ever thought I’d see. We’d spotted at least 12 from the helicopter, plus the five tiny ones from the first day. But there were more to come.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Deb announced. “This afternoon, there’s going to be a bear lift.” A cheer went up. This was high drama. Soon we were headed to Polar Bear Jail (officially known as the Polar Bear Holding Facility), which is housed in an old metal Quonset hut left over from the Cold War.
At the jail, we waited as the conservation officers laid three nets out on the ground. Presumably the bears were being tranquilized inside. There was a strong wind from the north, and cold seeped into our gloves and boots. After nearly an hour, the garage door opened. An ATV rolled out, towing a trailer with a large, limp bear sprawled across a board. The driver stopped at one of the nets, and the officers rolled the bear onto the ground. Two more bears were dumped into the other nets. Then a helicopter flew over, hovering low as the nets were clipped on. Once secure, they rose, taking the bears high into the sky.
After the bears had been lifted, we got back on the bus and drove out on the arctic crawler for a final jaunt. None of us really expected to see more bears, but our lunch was on the crawler and we were hungry. So we went happily, climbing aboard and rolling out onto the tundra.
Not long after starting, Deb veered along the shore and stopped. Through the willows, she spotted something moving. Soon we all could see it: a mother bear and cub. (Females tend to give males a few days’ head start so they don’t eat the cubs.) Deb parked and handed out lunch. We ate and waited. Soon the bears ambled our way. Maybe they did want our sandwiches?
They didn’t. They walked past the crawler and started digging in the snow. They pulled something out of a hole and spent a long time extracting and eating it, flicking the air with their long black tongues. When they’d had enough, they wandered back down the shoreline and disappeared into the willows.
We finished our sandwiches. Deb revved the engine. And we started the slow crawl back to the bus, then back to the lodge and finally back to the south, where we all, by now, knew we belonged.