Churchill, Canada

Churchill, Canada

Residents of Churchill, Canada, leave their cars unlocked to offer an escape for pedestrians who might encounter Polar Bears.

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Spend enough time in Churchill, and you will hear the stories.

Hearing a noise outside, pulling open the drapes, and seeing a polar bear looking in through the window.

Of encountering an old man with a walker, determinedly clacking past a puzzled bear that peered at him from behind a rock and muttering defiantly: "If it gets me, it gets me."

Being about to, against all better judgment, walk the couple of hundred yards from the restaurant to the hotel room at night, only to be pulled back by a warning that a pair of polar bears had been spotted across the street.

Such is everyday life, particularly during October and November, in this small town on the shores of Canada's Hudson Bay. A little more than 1,000 miles north of the provincial capital of Winnipeg, Churchill is not just remote, it is defiantly so, accessible overland only by rail, its residents bonded by the conjoined challenges of living on the fringes of the Arctic and sharing their streets with the largest land carnivore in the world.

"If you were to build a town today, you would never put it here," explains Geoff York of Polar Bears International, a research and advocacy organization whose members, understandably, spend much time in Churchill each year. "Polar bears are creatures of the sea ice, and they come ashore in the summer here when the sea ice on Hudson Bay melts, and then they wait for the ice to return." That return tends to begin sometime in November; by October, the bears are already stirring, wandering in anticipation toward the bay along a route that takes them past, and sometimes directly through, Churchill.

From a cold war peak of about 5,000 people when it hosted a military base, Churchill is now home to roughly 900 year-round inhabitants, slightly more than half of whom are Native. Theirs can be a harsh and, at times, tenuous existence, one that is leavened by the income from tourists who come to gaze at the northern lights in the winter, paddle among the hundreds of belugas that throng the river in summer, and in October and November, visit the polar bear capital of the world.

Polar bears have made Churchill famous and led to it being dubbed the "jewel of Manitoba" and one of the top destinations in Canada. But as it emerges from the most testing two years in its modern history, Churchill may embark on an entirely different path as this frequently frigid community considers embracing a warmer future.