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Digital Subscriptions > Lonely Planet Traveller (UK) > November 2015 > CANADA’S POLAR BEARS

CANADA’S POLAR BEARS

On the banks of Hudson Bay, residents in the isolated Canadian town of Churchill live in perpetual fear of polar bear attacks, yet depend on the mighty carnivores for their livelihoods

PHOTOGRAPHS JONATHAN GREGSON

@therouvian

@gregsonjonathan

EVERY HALLOWEEN, Bob Windsor drives his truck out to the rocks that edge the steely waters of Hudson Bay and scans the shoreline for polar bears. A bandolier of shotgun cartridges is slung over the headrest of his seat.

Bob carries three guns and a range of ammunition: cracker shells to frighten bears off with noise, paint-ball rounds that deliver a painful sting and, for the most desperate circumstances, lead slugs the size of an AA battery. These are only accurate at short range, but one of them can stop a rampaging half-ton animal bent on taking a human life. Bob’s been in charge of Churchill’s polar bear alert programme for six years and he’s had to use them twice.

‘What’s incredible about the bears is their speed and stealth,’ he says. ‘They lay down somewhere and you just don’t see them.’

Churchill steps up its polar bear alert programme on Halloween night.

Compact and whiskered, Bob projects the alertness and physical confidence of a natural hunter, but he’s looking at something that bothers him. A man in an orange hat is hunkered down between two rocks on the beach, about 50 yards beyond the signs warning anyone from walking in the area. Bob has chased two bears out of town in the past 24 hours, both close to this point, where a traditional inukshuk, an Inuit marker, stands as a navigation aid for kayakers and hunters.

I look at the man through my binoculars. He notices me watching him and slithers out of sight into the rocks. I tell Bob that the man seems determined to become bear food. ‘That’s what I was thinking too,’ Bob says. ‘If he ends up being taken, at least we’ll find his orange toque.’

Churchill is an isolated town – the nearest city, Winnipeg, is a 90-minute fight away.

Keeping the human population of Churchill safe from bears is a year-round endeavour, but it peaks in bear season. In October and November every year, polar bears that have been forced off their seal-hunting grounds by the melting of the ice in Hudson Bay arrive in the area to await the winter freeze. As soon as the ice is strong enough to carry them, they vanish onto the bay. But during those weeks while the ice is forming, 800–900 bears are at large in the area around the town.

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