Tuesday, November 02, 2010
Churchill, Manitoba - Polar Bear Capital of the World
Troy got some amazing photos! We had great luck with the bears. Click here to see his pictures.
Traveling to a tiny town on the edge of the Hudson Bay far north in Manitoba, Canada just as winter is beginning is not a destination most people would choose for a vacation. But to see the largest concentration of polar bears in the world, Churchill is the place to be. And when I say tiny town, I mean tiny. Population 923 to be more exact.
Our first stop before Churchill was Winnipeg which looked like it was designed by an East Berlin architect from the 1940’s. Definitely not the most attractive town. But before we could fly out the next morning to Churchill, me, Troy and our two friends Seon and Ki first had to piss off the snotty bar waiter and pretty much half the group we would be traveling with for the next six days! Our trip had barely just begun and we were already labeled as “those people”! But honestly, if that fat, cross eyed lady had not stolen my wine, maybe I would have been nicer to her! A quick note here regarding the people in the tour groups: they were all old! I don’t know if I accidentally went to Geriatric.com to book this or what, but we were the youngest by far. We asked our guide, Elise, about it and she said that 65+ was the normal demographic for the trip. I’m guessing it’s because it’s such a sedentary trip. This was by far the least active trip Troy and I have ever done!
Churchill is something else. It is probably one of the most remote places we have ever been, which is saying something. There are literally no roads leading to this miniature town. The only way to get there is by a $1800 plane ticket, a 40+ hour train ride or by ship (notice I didn’t say cruise ship). Think about how big Canada is. It’s pretty amazing to think that Churchill is so far away from anything that there is not even a single road leading to it. That led us to all kinds of questions regarding the people who live there: Who do they date? How many kids are in the high school graduating class? What is their prom like? What do they do for fun? It’s not like there is a larger town 50 miles away that could provide solutions to these problems. There is nothing!!! We did find out that their bars, actually hotel lounges, stay open until 2am and the “lounge to be at” rotates throughout the week so they do have some sort of social action here. They even have Churchill Idol! Our last night there we found “ladies night” at the Tundra Inn which featured several female musicians as well as an Adam Lambert look a like! I guess he was the inspiration for Churchill Idol! It was a lot of fun!
We did get the opportunity one morning to do a tour of the town. It was excruciating! When we looked at our itinerary and found out it was going to be a 3 ½ hour tour, we just about choked. We thought there is no way it will be that long, the itinerary is exaggerating. We were sadly wrong. It didn't start out too bad and was almost interesting until our tour guide pointed out in detail everything including the dilapidated grain elevator, clumps of trees, the needles on the clumps of trees, ridges of dirt, unfinished hotels and the town dump. We drove up and down every single street and even made a stop at the post office. I think the most interesting thing she pointed out was the polar bear holding facility (which I’ll talk about later). We did find out that besides the polar bears being a tourist attraction for Churchill, they do have a really well kept secret: in the summer around 3000 beluga whales migrate up the Churchill river for the birthing season. We saw photos of them swimming up the river in groups of 100’s.
Their medical system was fascinating. They have three doctors full time at the hospital (which by the way is connected to the curling rink) and a dentist and vet that flies in every once in awhile. So for people who need a dental checkup and cleaning, they check the dentists schedule to find out when he is there and makes an appointment. Same thing for vets. But if you have an emergency, you’re kind of S.O.L. The doctors have books they can refer to try to help but otherwise you have to wait for the dentist or vet. So the last thing the locals want to do is get in a fight and get a tooth busted out or to drink too much and fall down and break their teeth. We thought the vet thing was sad. If a dog gets sick or hurt and the doctor can’t help them, there is nothing that can be done. Oh, and people don’t get embalmed when they die. They don’t have the equipment for it and if someone wants to be cremated, it’s very expensive because they have to be flown to Winnipeg to have this done.
Of course, like all small towns there is history behind it but it bored me so I won’t bore you with it. One interesting thing though is it had a small army base during WWII so it has a very long runway at the airport. It’s almost 9800’ long and can accommodate the space shuttle and is actually an alternate landing site if it is needed.
Like I said before, Churchill has the highest concentration of bears because of the towns’ proximity to the Hudson Bay. The bears have sight memory, which means they remember they were born here, plus they remember that this is where the ice first forms over the bay. The Hudson Bay is where they spend the winter hunting Ring Seal, their main source of food. When the hunting season ends and the ice starts to melt, they come back to land near Churchill and do a walking hibernation. They then spread out over hundreds of miles until it is time again to return to the bay to hunt. The bear population here can reach up to 900 bears as they wait for the ice to form.
Churchill is so close to the bear activity on the tundra that there are several warning systems in place to protect the people. First off there is a 10pm curfew for the kids under 18. This warning sounds like an air raid siren announcing the arrival of WWIII. It was a good thing we were told about this because we all would have thought we were under attack. Second, tourists are warned to not walk around town after dark and they are highly discouraged to walk down to the water. Of course after hitting the town on our last night there, as we’re walking to our hotel at midnight, the last thing we were concerned with was running into a polar bear. We were more concerned about making snow angels. Sometimes we’re not the smartest or the most aware! We were also told if we heard gun shots to not be alarmed. It is just the locals shooting guns to scare off the bears. If bears are seen wandering around town that can’t be scared off, they are lured into a bear trap and then taken to a bear holding facility right next to the airport. This facility is an old quonset hut leftover from the WWII. If someone volunteers up the money, the bear is flown by helicopter about 40 miles away and then released, otherwise the bear is kept in the facility until the bay freezes over then they are transported a short distance to the bay by truck and released.
The trucks we toured the tundra in are called tundra buggies. They weigh 240,000lbs and get 8mpg and the top speed is 28mph but we averaged around 7pmh. The truck has to be tall and tough enough to protect the tourists from bears. The bears get curious and stand up to get a closer look at the smells coming from the interior. Plus they are very strong (duh). The town dump is inside a facility which had to have its walls reinforced with steel because the bears were pounding down the walls trying to get inside. It wouldn’t look very good for the town if a few tourists got mauled because they were taken out to the tundra in a school bus!
We had three full days on the tundra with one day split in half. Our first full day out we had 19 bear sightings. Elise said that is the most she had seen so far that season. There were bears lounging by the side of the road, walking across ice, rolling around in the snow and also circling our buggy. I asked Elise how thick the ice needs to be for a bear to walk across. She said only 3”. I asked her if she had ever seen a bear fall in because he misjudged and she said no. Not maybe an hour later we watched a bear fall in and then pull himself out. He then dragged himself across the ice because he realized it was too thin for him to walk on. We love it when our guides get excited because it shows that we are seeing something very exceptional!
Our last day on the tundra was blizzard like conditions. Elise says the bears like the snow but not the wind and that they take cover in the willows. So we were not expecting much. But this ended up being the best day. Just by chance we came across a mother and her two cubs. These cubs were not the cute cuddly bears that crawl all over their mom. They were huge and probably weighed close to 600#’s. Elise said this would be the season they would leave their mom. For almost two hours we sat and watched while they slept, rolled and walked around, fought over seaweed and pretty much ignored us…until Elise got the smart idea of opening up a package of cookies and putting them on the radiator. As soon as Troy says “I smell caramel!” one of the bears got up to come see what the smell was. As he approached the back of the truck, everyone jumped up and ran out the back to the open viewing platform. We didn’t care that it was -15 with the wind chill, there was a huge polar bear walking straight for the back of the buggy. He was cautious at first as he approached, but he soon realized how much bigger he was then us and came right up to the back of the truck. He sat, stared at us and walked under us (the floor of the viewing platform is made out of a metal grate so we could have easily touched his nose). He then decided he was hungry because he started chewing on the tail of the buggy, tearing off chunks of the wood bumper. Elise had told us that if he started to stand up that we all needed to back up because she had no idea how tall he would be. No sooner had she said that when he decided to stand up and lean on the side of the truck to get a closer look at us. The railings of these trucks are 10’ above the ground so think about how intimidating this is to have a 600lb bear that can stand 10’ tall! In our geriatric group there was a couple named Jim and Helen. When the bear stood up Helen was standing right in front of the bear. Her instinct (which was a good instinct) was to back up. Jim was not going to let her. As he pushes her forward he yells “Helen, he’s not going to eat you, just take the damn picture!” This became the quote of the trip. Luckily for Helen the bear didn’t reach the top of the truck, but then he went around to the other side of the truck and discovered a rock he could stand on that made him about 2’ taller. As he stands up again, Elise tells Jim (that just made the quote of the trip) to get back. It was at that moment he chose to have selective hearing because he did not move. He just kept taking pictures. Well because the bear found the rock to stand on, he is now tall enough to not only reach the top of the truck railing but if he chose he could have easily reached over and grabbed the first thing which would have been Jim and his camera! Needless to say he did not like the shit we gave him for the rest of the trip! I wonder if Elise and the rest of the guides get together at the end of each trip and give out awards to which tourist did the stupidest thing? Jim would have won!
Also, Troy got this little video recorder when he worked for Qwest, so I took it to Churchill and made my first video: