IF there is anywhere you don’t want to be hobbling around on crutches, it’s Churchill, Canada. Nestling on the Hudson Bay in subarctic Manitoba, this town has been touted as the “polar bear capital of the world,” for reasons that scarcely need explaining.
And while the local bears looks about as athletic as Boris Johnson, in a chase scenario, these killing machines would have Usain Bolt in a hot sweat. So someone with torn knee cartilage like me would be up the creek without a paddle; as the polar bear quaffed my already mangled leg, I’d just about have time to contemplate the painful effects of Darwinism.
Still, assuming you don’t venture far from the town (frankly, if you do, you deserve to be eaten) there are things you can do to avoid becoming bear food. “Take off your clothes while you’re running away,” says Hayley Shephard, a guide for Frontiers North Adventures. “It buys you time, because the bears stop to sniff them.”
This struck me as a plan fraught with danger. What if you’re wearing skinny jeans? They’re notoriously hard to get off. And how are you supposed to see where you’re going while pulling a sweater over your head? Assuming you do evade the underwear sniffing bear, won’t you die of frostbite? I know it’s warming up, but the Arctic is still bloody cold.
Happily, there was some more sage advice; find a car or house. It didn’t matter who they belonged to, they would be open; the people of Churchill leave their property unlocked for this very reason.
Still, I wasn’t going to let it come to that. My plan was to spend as little time outside as possible, which was made easy by the fact my hotel was opposite the pub. All I had to do was push the front door ajar, look both ways and hobble across the street as quickly as I could. The rest of the time I would spend in vehicles, which you might think is an awful shame when you’re on holiday and, ordinarily, it would be. But I wouldn’t be missing much in Churchill. Although the surrounding area boasts bountiful wildlife, the town itself is fairly dismal.
A former Air Force base, this remote outpost was abandoned by the military years ago, leaving vacant buildings and rusting vehicles. With no roads linking Churchill to the rest of Canada, and the nearest city a two day train ride away, the Air Force decided it would be easier to abandon their equipment rather than take it with them. Consequently, the town feels as though it could be the setting for a post-apocalyptic film.
But what it lacks in aesthetics, good restaurants and evening entertainment, it makes up for in wildlife, chiefly the polar bear, which is what everyone comes to see. A poster child for global warming, these gargantuan predators strike fear into the minds of their prey, but watching them walk across the tundra (from the safety of an armoured vehicle, I add) there was a vulnerability about them.
After a summer in which Arctic sea ice set a record low, many are struggling to survive. As the ice, from which they hunt, melts sooner and forms later, they aren’t catching the food they need to sustain them through the barren summer. Instead they are turning up in increasing numbers in Churchill looking for whatever they can get their paws on.
The locals have had to take action. Marauding bears are lured to humane traps and taken to a “polar bear jail” before being transported, often by helicopter, to a more suitable environment. Some of the more environmentally aware bears have made their own way north.
This is a big problem for the “polar bear capital of the world.” Without the bears, it’s just a town and a pretty desolate one at that. How will it survive without bear-spotting tourists? Will locals be forced to make like the Air Force and abandon Churchill? Perhaps, but when the ice disappears, the poor bears won’t be able to move to the city and start again. Tragically, they could be moving to a bleaker place altogether in the annals of history.
If you enjoyed this, you might like The Faroe Islands in pictures, Weddings and wakes in Sri Lanka and The battle for Berlin: Bohemia versus gentrification.