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“If he catches, then he catches”: the life of an isolated Canadian town next to polar bears

In the past, random bears in Churchill were shot. Now its inhabitants are trying to coexist with formidable predators.

One of the many signs around Churchill warning of bears nearby. Getty photo
One of the many signs around Churchill warning of bears nearby. Getty photo

Churchill is located on the shores of the Arctic Ocean in the Canadian province of Manitoba. Here are very cold winters and short cool summers, and the population does not exceed 900 people. These are the people who did not leave the town for the sake of a better life somewhere else, but remained to keep the memory of their unique culture. One of the features of this culture is the ability to coexist with polar bears. The story of the town told the edition of The Guardian.

Transit city for bears

“The World Capital of Polar Bears” is the name that Churchill unofficially called tourists and travelers, and this is completely justified. On the street it is easy to hear the casual dialogue of the locals discussing how the curtains were pulled at night and they saw a polar bear outside the window. Or the story of an elderly man who slowly walked past an animal that was watching him from behind a stone, and muttered: “If he catches, then he will catch.”

Similar episodes occur in Churchill every year from October to November, when polar bears move from the depths of the mainland to the coastline, sometimes entering the city. This is doubly surprising, given that Churchill is not just far from civilization, but is accessible by land only by rail. “If you were to build a city today, you would never have founded it here,” said Jeff York, a specialist at Polar Bears International, a research organization.

Churchill was founded in 1688, and its demographic peak fell during the Cold War, when a military base was operating there in case of an attack by the USSR. Then about 5 thousand people lived in the town, but now the number of inhabitants is less than a thousand, and most of them are indigenous.

Policeman monitors the appearance of polar bears near Churchill Photo by Reuters
Policeman monitors the appearance of polar bears near Churchill Photo by Reuters

Ecotourism remains an important industry of the city: people from different countries come here for the opportunity to see the aurora borealis, whales, belugas, reindeer and the same polar bears. Thanks to the latter, Churchill is called the “pearl” of the province of Manitoba. During the “bear season”, up to 10 thousand tourists come to the city every year to see animals in special trucks.

Travelers have nothing to fear, as in transport people are protected by grids. But before the local “bear season” sets the task of “send” animals along their route without stopping in the city. In the past, this deterrence policy was less popular: until the 1980s, the police simply killed stray animals. Sometimes up to 25 individuals died in one season.

At present, local people prefer a more peaceful approach. There are signs hanging around the city reminding people of caution during the “bear season”, and in case an animal appears, call the special hotline. To protect against animals, the police lay traps that exude a seal odor around the perimeter of the city: animals caught in them are put to sleep and taken to a “bear prison”.

The Bear Prison in Churchill Photo by the Manitoba Provincial Government
The Bear Prison in Churchill Photo by the Manitoba Provincial Government

Usually, predators are kept in custody for up to 30 days, during which they are not fed, so that in the future they are afraid to walk the same route. After the conclusion, the bear is put to sleep again and taken by helicopter to a safe place away from the city. If the animal still penetrates Churchill, first of all the police want to bring it out safely by using blank cartridges.

For local residents, the appearance of polar bears has long been considered an integral part of life, which requires special care. “In Winnipeg (city in Canada – approx.) They say that you can always understand when a person is from Churchill, because they are always watching carefully before turning the corner,” says a former resident of the town.

Locals always keep the doors of houses and cars open, so that a person has the opportunity to hide from a predator. Whenever possible, citizens try to avoid popular places with bears: the coast or river banks, on the outskirts of the city, in the alleys, especially at night. But for some this is not an option. Employees of public utilities have to travel to any point where a breakdown occurred, even if it is a point of “increased popularity” among bears.

You try your best not to be in this position. But if you have to go to an area where there are dangerous places or bears are spotted, I always equip myself: I install protective fences and keep with me a gun with blank cartridges. In 90% of cases, bears will not bother you at all, but there are hungry or curious people who want to attack you.

Parker Fitzpatrick
Manitoba Hydro’s electricity and natural gas production and supply worker

The hard way to live with bears and elements

In 1983, Churchill adopted a program to prevent polar bears, which involves the safe removal of them from the city, and since then there have been almost no serious attacks. However, the first season of the program ended tragically. A homeless man ran into a bear on the street when he was collecting pieces of meat from a discarded refrigerator. Locals heard his cries and rushed to the rescue, shooting the beast. But by this time he had already dealt with the victim.

Another incident occurred with a girl named Erin Green. In 2012, she first visited Churchill and worked at a local restaurant. She liked the city so much that the following summer she moved from the big Montreal. On the Halloween night of 2013, she was returning home with her friends, when a polar bear unexpectedly jumped out to meet them.

Green’s friends managed to escape, but she was less fortunate. Predator grabbed her and tore off part of the skin from the head, then threw it to the ground. At this moment, the scream was heard by 69-year-old Bill Ayotte, who was at home. He ran out into the street, holding a shovel in his hand, and with a sweep of an animal hit between the eyes. The wounded girl managed to crawl away into the man’s house while he fought off the bear: the animal tore off his ear and pressed his foot. At this point, the locals arrived, firing blank predators at the predator. Frightened, he retreated.

A polar bear peeks out of a car window in Churchill Photo by Alamy
A polar bear peeks out of a car window in Churchill Photo by Alamy

Green and Ayotte were taken by helicopter to a hospital in Winnipeg, where the girl was partially restored the skin on the head, and the man had her ear stitched back. Part of the bills for treatment paid residents of Churchill. It took several weeks for the couple to recover, and then they returned. Since then Green has been teaching yoga in the city, and during the “bear season” she works in a gift shop.

The incident finally convinced the girl to stay in the town: “Knowing that this community had created someone who risked their lives for another, I definitely wanted to live in such a place.”

The community of active residents plays an important role in the survival of small towns, and Churchill is no exception. In March 2017, a long test of the strength of the community and resilience of residents began. A snowstorm hit the city and lasted more than two days. Snow spread through the streets at a wind speed of 120 kilometers per hour, creating giant snowdrifts. By the end of the storm, the height of some reached nine meters.

To move around the city, residents had to dig their way in with shovels. At some point, the streets of Churchill became like a network of deep tunnels in which local people crawl around. It seemed difficult to make the situation worse, but two months later the drifts began to melt. This led to severe flooding that damaged the last 249-kilometer section of the railway connecting Churchill with Winnipeg and civilization.

Engineers found 20 washes and damage at 130 points of railway tracks. At a rough estimate, the cost of repairs was $ 43.5 million. OmniTrax, a Colorado-based company that owns the tracks, refused to admit to blame for the damage and pay for repairs. Canadian authorities sued, hoping to recover money from the company for repairs. In the meantime, Churchill found himself in complete ground isolation.

New Hazards

A week without contact with the outside world has turned into a month, it is two, then three, six and 18 months. The only way to get to civilization is the plane of the local small airport. However, few residents could afford a ticket for $ 1,200. School sports teams lost the opportunity to compete with institutions in other regions, and were forced to constantly compete with each other.

Prices for transporting goods to local stores jumped sharply, soon local ones had much less free money. Business activity of some stores fell by 90%. People with drug addiction have lost access to drugs. Against this background, the number of crimes in Churchill increased.

In August 2018, a consortium of industrialists and aboriginal Canadian communities merged into the Arctic Gateway Group community, after which they bought the railway and the port of Churchill. Immediately after this, repairs began, and on October 31, for the first time in 18 months, residents of the town heard the sound of an approaching train.

Churchill View Alamy Photo
Churchill View Alamy Photo

The next day, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flew to the city, officially opening the railway and promising to send additional funds to repair and rebuild the port. But with the new owners came the new conditions. In the past, the port was used to transport diesel fuel to remote communities, but new owners want to create a transport route between Europe and India for the possible export of oil and gas.

“Churchill is the only city with a deep-water trading port in northern Canada, and climate change extends the shipping season,” says Arctic Gateway head Murad al-Katib, explaining the company’s objectives in the town. These prospects may give Churchill new jobs and a new source of income, but for now local people are skeptical. They are worried that with the arrival of a large company focused on large profits, the unique look of the city may disappear.

“This is the pearl of Manitoba, the pearl of Canada, and we must protect it. The port will eventually become viable, but our economic future lies in tourism, ”says Churchill activist Dave Daley. Local artist Sandra Cook is looking into the future of the city more optimistically: “We will find a way, this is how it is with us. Stand and find our way. “

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