On Thin Ice with Churchill's Polar Bears
All of us had heard mention of Churchill’s “polar bear jail.” A hangar-shaped building on the outskirts of town, it was where “problem bears”—ones that’d been found prowling downtown streets or nosing into residents’ backyards—were taken after capture by the town’s polar bear patrol. Patrollers run a year-round, 24-hour hotline for residents who spot a bear in town; when called, they employ a variety of tactics (like firing noisemaking “crackers” from 12-gauge shotguns) to scare the bear off. If it’s persistent, though, they set a live trap, or shoot the bear with a tranquilizer dart, and take it to the holding facility before bringing it back to the tundra 35 or 40 miles away.
On the final morning of our trip, Eric told us we were in for a rare surprise. The bear patrol, he’d learned, was scheduled to airlift a bear via helicopter that very day; though that was seldom seen by tour groups, we’d be stopping by the “jail” to watch the event.
“There are quite a few bears in there right now,” Eric said, referring to the holding facility. “Once they’ve been tagged and had their vitals logged, the patrollers try to get them back out as soon as possible.”
“How many is ‘quite a few’?” I asked, figuring maybe a half-dozen bears were brazen enough to have ventured downtown in a single season.
“Twenty,” Eric said, solemnly.
Later, outside the holding facility, we stood cordoned in a parking area far from the building. It was bitterly cold. The temperature when we’d woken up that morning had been -16 degrees; now a brutal gust had kicked up, numbing our exposed cheeks and blurring our eyes with tears.
By the time the hangar doors opened, it had started to snow. Through the driving flakes, we watched as a jeep with a flatbed trailer emerged. Lying atop it was a colossal mass the color of dirty cream: the tranquilized bear, sprawled on a stretcher. Working quickly, a cadre of patrollers, like pallbearers, lowered the bear to rest atop a net spread on the ground; once it was fastened, a whirring helicopter that had been hovering overhead hooked the net with a long length of rope. Then, its cargo secured, the helicopter lifted.
For a moment we all gaped at the surreal sight of the bear, curled supine in the net, hoisted high above our heads like a bag of laundry. Then the copter pivoted and began to pull away, heading north toward the far-off tundra where it would make its deposit. The next day, it would make another, and then another.
Empty, snow-covered tundra stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction. An icy wind is blowing; a thickly batted quilt of cloud covers the sky. But I am trying mightily to jam open a frost-streaked window, brutal weather be damned. I want a clear view out of the rugged steel “Polar Rover” vehicle I’m in.
That’s because, atop a nearby ridge, two fully adult male polar bears—maybe 700 pounds apiece—have risen to their hind legs and clasped one another in a fierce embrace. As I struggle with the window sash, the bears grapple and strain, baring their curved incisors, muscling each other with their brawny shoulders. I know the bears are only posturing, testing each other in a mostly harmless display. Still, I want to be closer to all that power. I want to hear the growls and heaving breaths, the scrabbling of claws on frozen ground.
It’s why I’ve come, after all. I would travel to this bitterly cold, desolate expanse of subarctic Canada for only one reason: to get as near as I can to wild polar bears.
By the time I’ve jimmied the window open an inch, the two sparring bears are already exhausted. Panting heavily, each drops back to all fours with a hefty thud before backing away from the other. It’s then, as they pivot and amble off in separate directions, that I see the concave swoop of their bellies and realize how skinny they are.
For a moment, as if on cue, the bears both pause and raise their noses in the Rover’s direction, sniffing deeply. I imagine, excitedly, that they might be curious enough to approach. But then each turns away in retreat, and I realize the truth: they were probably just looking for food.