The bears of Churchill

In the "Polar Bear Capital of the World," vanishing ice is threatening to wipe out the polar bears -- and the town's livelihood. But Churchill's inhabitants say they'll survive.

By Jon Mooallem
March 17, 2006 5:30PM (UTC)
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One morning last fall, Claude Daudet drove out to check his snowmobile trails around Churchill, Manitoba, a tiny town on Hudson Bay's western edge, south of the Arctic Circle. He grimaced at the unfrozen ponds speckling the tundra. His one-man snowmobile tour company had just been forced to cancel its first group of the season for lack of snow. As we bounced along in his truck, the generally sanguine Daudet, 47, seemed sunk in worries. Among these burdens was Camus, his dead dog, which, at the insistence of his animal-lover girlfriend, was boxed in Daudet's freezer, awaiting cremation on their next trip to Winnipeg. Then there was his business, of course, the muddy terrain, the belated winter, the absent wind, climate change and so forth.

We got out at the small warming hut he'd built in the woods. He started pacing. Normally at this time of year, he'd be inside the hut, serving hot chocolate and homemade Nordic cookies, after leading a convoy of snowmobiling tourists across the frozen Churchill River on a day tour. He pointed to a jagged tear in the door made by certain furry uninvited guests. They have been turning up more frequently, increasingly desperate for something to eat. This is another worry. "We can no longer get insurance for polar bear break-ins," he said.


As climate change sets in, the Arctic is warming nearly twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Polar bears, which live and hunt year-round on the region's ice, are becoming stressed for food. A population of about 1,000 bears roams outside Churchill, slightly outnumbering the 900 people in town. In fall, one might be spotted picking through a dumpster outside Gypsy's Diner or lumbering over the rocks behind the Duke of Marlborough High School. "They eat baby geese by the bundle, like roses," a lifelong Churchillian told me, a man with two shotguns in his front seat and ammo ringing the headrest. "They step on you, and your head pops off."

It's tempting to think of climate change in terms of elusive numbers and future scenarios -- a spiking line graph of global temperature, a virtual glacier receding on a climatologist's computer screen. But the ravages of climate change are already being felt by people and communities. Northern towns like Churchill, dependent on one major resource for its economic survival, may be the most vulnerable. As the ice on the Hudson Bay disappears, biologists and climatologists predict the town's bears will soon be the first polar bear population wiped out by global warming. This is not welcome news in Churchill. The town's fate and that of the bears may be terribly intertwined.

"The bears are a big draw because they're an exotic animal," town counselor Mike Iwanowsky explained about the town's booming tourism industry. "They're a symbolic animal. You think of the North, you think of polar bears. You think of winter, you think of polar bears. They're, I don't know, 'chic.'" Iwanowsky, a brawny man with a daunting red goatee, was clearly not comfortable using the word.


After falling on hard times in the '70s, Churchill found a way to leverage the menace surrounding it into big business. More than 10,000 tourists now visit the self-made "Polar Bear Capital of the World" each fall. For six weeks, beginning in mid-October, when the bears amass near town, beat-up school buses cart visitors toward the tundra every morning and all the restaurants fill up at the end of the day. Hotels and shops sell embroidered fleeces and high-priced bear kitsch.

It is difficult and expensive to get to the town, and trips are booked far in advance, often through one big company that hauls tourists to see the bears in "tundra buggies"-- kind of like mobile ski lodges propped on monster truck tires. Small entrepreneurs like Daudet must make most of their annual income during the "bear season" when the tourists are flooding the town. If the climate doesn't cooperate, it can throw off the whole system.

Churchill, though, is habituated to hardship. It's lashed with wind off the bay in winter and battered with "bulldog flies" in summer -- bugs, a local paramedic says, that pluck out a slab of skin through your jeans. There are no roads out of town (you arrive from Winnipeg by train or plane) and only a single paved one running through it. "We're basically a big parking lot with houses on it," a trapper friend of Daudet's had told me. He said this affectionately.


Churchill's history, meanwhile, reads like a 400-year succession of miserable luck. The town has dwindled toward extinction in the past, but always managed to clamber back. Now, facing the near inevitability of yet another bottom dropping out, there's something about the residents that refuses to be cowed.

"The polar bear business goes through different phases," Daudet said on the drive back to town. "I think we're now going through another phase with the changing of the climate. People are figuring out we might not see these bears in 20 years, so we better go see them now." He had chosen -- out of instinct, out of necessity, out of sheer Churchillian-ness -- to focus on the opportunities.


Polar bears were frequent newsmakers this winter. All the news was bad. Russian bears, facing a lack of food, were becoming more aggressive. In Alaska, forced to swim longer distances between receding ice sheets, they were drowning. Recognizing the bears' troubles, Greenland set its first-ever hunting quotas last month, and even the Bush administration is considering classifying them as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, citing loss of habitat.

Churchill's bear population is the southernmost in the world and, like its human population, subsists under less than ideal conditions. Hudson Bay is not frozen all year. After roaming the ice all winter, gorging on seals, the bears decamp where the last ice melts at the southeast of town. They spend the summer on land, living off reserves in what's called "waking hibernation." But an influx of fresh water into the bay makes the area north of Churchill first to freeze again. And so, each fall, the bears lurch off the tundra toward it, anticipating their first opportunity to get back on the ice where they'll spend another winter ambushing seal pups. The town, of course, is in their way.

But Hudson Bay now melts earlier in the spring and freezes later in the fall, leaving the bears marooned on land for longer stretches of time. Ian Stirling, a leading polar bear researcher with the Canadian Wildlife Service, says the summer season has extended by about three weeks over the last 30 years. Churchill's bear population has fallen nearly 20 percent in the last 20 years, and U.S. and Canadian biologists have correlated the decline to earlier spring melts. Recently a female bear was found torn apart and devoured by a larger male -- which, like the increase in bears' venturing into town, may be a sign of "nutritional stress."


Meanwhile, projections show Hudson Bay becoming nearly free of ice, year-round, by mid- to late-century. William A. Gough, a climatologist at the University of Toronto Scarborough, has spent a decade analyzing 35 years of sea ice records in Hudson Bay. He's projected its future using six different climate models created by government agencies around the world. "The Canadian model shows total ice reduction by 2050," he said. By 2080, when the carbon-dioxide concentration in the atmosphere will have tripled, the other models show the same result. "By the end of the century," he said, "there will be no platform for polar bears." And no platform for bear tourism.

While no amount of earnest, Churchillian elbow grease is likely to fix the problem, the townspeople I met seemed staunchly pragmatic. Unable to start his snowmobile season, Daudet bought four reconditioned computers to sell in town. He was also doing snowmobile tuneups, patching tires his neighbors left on his doorstep and, given that the weather had been so mild, washing cars outside.

"When it comes to the pressures on the bears, things like global warming, what can we really do?" Iwanowsky said. "You can move forward or you can stand still and fade away. And this community doesn't believe in standing still." He proudly added that Churchill was one of the first remote areas in Canada to get broadband Internet service. It was a testament to the industriousness of the community, but, ultimately, also to its sour luck against the elements. A brutal windstorm knocked out the entire infrastructure not long after it was installed.


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On a bright and balmy morning, about 40 of us packed into a tundra buggy. Each vehicle is retrofitted with wood paneling, a heating stove, rows of seats and windows, and a steel, open-air viewing balcony in back, safely above the reach of the bears, which often rear up lazily to streak the hulls with muddy paw prints.

As we rolled across the tundra and tidal flats outside town, polar bears loafed on tangles of kelp, conserving what was left of their energy. They are breathtaking beasts, to be sure, but in this context -- chewing on straw, napping, even rising up to tussle with one another like drunken heavyweights -- they seemed more cartoonish than menacing.

Behind me, in matching blue parkas and gray fur hats, a couple from San Jose, Calif., sprung up at the day's first sighting. A yellowish bear had loped into view, his skeleton and muscles jumbling in his loosened fur like wrenches in a duffle bag. The woman tittered and squealed -- "This is a treat!" "Look at his stomach!" -- while her husband raised his 2-foot telephoto lens and clicked furiously. They were concerned about the warming weather but had no intention of stopping their annual visits. "I'm just so glad that everybody got to see that!" the woman said, a little flushed, after the driver put the buggy back into gear and we'd rolled on.


Frontiers North, which operates the Tundra Buggy Adventure, owns 18 vehicles, all of which they built themselves. Because the ecosystem is so delicate, the provincial government confines its operation to preexisting trails -- the training grounds of the since vanished U.S.-Canadian military installation built up during the Cold War.

"The town never had a bear problem in those days," Bob Penwarden told me. "The military used lead poisoning -- they just shot the bears." Penwarden moved here in the early '60s to launch communications and weather satellites for a private contractor. (The old rocket range is now the Northern Studies Centre, a base camp for visiting scientists.) With government agencies and contractors flooding in, the town's population swelled to 6,000. The military held dances, operated a movie theater and curling rink, and organized a hockey league for Churchill's kids. "They flew in lobster for New Year's Eve," Penwarden remembers.

When the Americans pulled out in 1965, it caused a ripple effect. Penwarden's outfit shed men fast, laying off nearly a quarter of its employees in one morning. By the early '80s, Churchill was down to about 1,000 people. There were rows of empty buildings and an infrastructure the town couldn't afford to keep up. Rocket shells littered the tundra and were sunk in the Bay.

Those who stayed scavenged to rebuild their community. No one wanted to drive the military's abandoned ambulance, so the woman who drove the town's cab took on the task. Penwarden and his wife tore down the old jail and built a house from the wood. Slowly -- with the buzz and firepower of the base gone, the whaling factory at the mouth of the river defunct and the once-bustling town reduced to a small, shivering settlement -- nature moved back in.


"You had all this crumbling and the walls falling down," said Mike Spence. He was a teenager in Churchill then and now runs two hotels, a restaurant, a flooring business and the town's only car rental agency. He's also the mayor. "Then, all of a sudden you're seeing a lot more wildlife coming in. You've got more bears coming in. You've got the beluga whale population coming up. You've got different kinds of wildlife like foxes, Artcic hare, caribou, all coming together. And then bang!" Spence said, pausing to lend gravity to this creation myth. "All of a sudden you've got tourism that's starting to prosper."

Merv Gunter, co-owner of Frontiers North, acknowledged the potential of climate change to undermine the Tundra Buggy empire he and his wife, Lynda, have built up over the years. "For a company that relies on the presence and welfare of polar bears, it would be sheer folly not to be concerned," he said.

He couldn't be sure to what extent humans are causing global warming, he told me, but "I think we should do everything we can about it just in case. And can we do anything more than that to stop climate change? No," he said. "So we will coexist with that. We'll have to, as will the bears. They're a very tenacious and a very amazing species with their ability to evolve and to adapt."

Many townspeople seem to expect the same stubborn resilience from the bears that they themselves have always used to get by. They assume the bears will find a way to survive, and some even speculate they'll learn to eat berries and evolve back into grizzlies. One afternoon on the tundra, I put this hypothesis to Jane Waterman, a Canadian biologist from the University of Central Florida, who was in Churchill studying bear behavior.


"Natural selection can happen very quickly in bacteria because they can breed in 20 minutes," she said. "Polar bears live 20 or 25 years. That means that for changes to occur genetically, it's going to take a little bit of time. And that's something they don't have. So, no," she went on. "If the change is as rapid as all the climate models predict, by the middle of this century, there's no sea ice in Hudson Bay and there are no bears. If there's no sea ice, you can't have bears."

One morning, as an Italian couple shuffled out to their tour bus, Penwarden and I stood chatting in front of a map of Canada in the lobby of the Tundra Inn, which he and his wife, Pat, own. Old Nike missile adapters sit on the porch, used as planters, and a slim, decommissioned rocket leans in the lobby behind a ficus. The floor was appropriated from the old bowling alley and still has its pin markers.

When I'd asked why he and Pat stayed after the military pullout, he'd simply said, "It wouldn't be home if we went somewhere else." His faith in the bears seemed informed by an identical logic.

"Oh, I'm worried," he said, stammering a little. "I'm worried because it's the livelihood of a lot of people in this town. But I believe that home is here for those bears. I don't say these scientists are right. I don't even believe they're right on this global warming. For the bears, this is home. I may be dead wrong -- and they do wander. And hell knows where they go. But they'll be back next spring."

Ironically, as the ice vanishes, taking the bears with it, global warming may be clearing the way, literally, for an entirely new industry in Churchill. The town happens to have Canada's only Arctic seaport -- a hulking assemblage of silos and steel that, underutilized through the '80s and '90s, quietly sank into disrepair past the edge of town. Only a handful of ships slid in each summer to load up on grain shuttled up from the prairies, and they often arrived dented, having barged through ice cover. "I've heard rumors about this place since I started here in 1981 -- that it wasn't going to make it," one port employee, Randy Spence, told me. "But somebody in the early '30s decided to put the port here for a reason. And that's for the future."

In 1997, the Canadian government dumped off the port for $10 to OmniTrax, an American company that had bought the rail line between Churchill and Winnipeg. OmniTrax immediately began upgrading, realizing the summer shipping season was extending. Moreover, less ice means new trade routes are opening up through the Arctic to northern Russia. Recent delegations have been sent back and forth between Churchill and the Russian city of Murmansk to plot their use. OmniTrax now envisions a realignment of the North American trade system through Churchill, with Canadian farm equipment and grain moving out and incoming goods traveling by rail through Winnipeg and the American Midwest to Mexico.

Yet few people I met in Churchill talked about the port with any real passion. While they're optimistic for this year, OmniTrax has so far had difficulty luring ships away from well-established routes. And while the Canadian Wheat Board could force more grain shipments through Churchill, there's a feeling in town that business is locked up in the south, in port cities like Montreal and Thunder Bay, Ontario, and nearer to the vast majority of Canada's population. "Omnitrax has been trying to make this thing go forward for a long time," Daudet had told me. "If the people down south would let Churchill be Churchill, this place would be booming. But it's not happening."

With the future of the port largely dependent on a vague network of non-local interests, I found instead, in Churchill, a strange streak of wishful entrepreneurialism about almost everything else.

Penwarden bought the dilapidated radar station where he used to work and has talked about turning it into a convention center. Iwanowksy has advocated setting up corporate call centers in Churchill, a feasible business, he said, even given Churchill's lack of roads. He has also proposed manufacturing prefabricated housing and hauling it over the ice to the tiny Inuit communities farther north.

Despite the great expense and difficulty involved in traveling to Churchill, the town is scrambling to diversify its tourism industry with less spectacular, more dependable attractions. As the Polar Bear Capital of the World may eventually be polar bear-less, it's pitching itself as "Bird Watcher's Paradise" in spring, the "Beluga Whale Capital of the World" in summer and "Nature's Light Show," for viewing aurora borealis in the middle of winter when it's routinely 40 below.

"The thing is," Mayor Spence told me, "we're trying to build momentum with what we have. Naturally what we have -- and again, I'll refer to it -- is the Polar Bear Capital of the World." It was clear he found great joy in just saying it. "That is a selling point, and that's what we need to use. We need to build on it. We need to capitalize on it. And if we don't, we're going to slide -- and we can't afford to slide. If we want to retain our youth and get our children to invest in this community, then we have to make sure this community progresses. We don't have a choice," he said. "We have to."

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"I feel like a lost and lonely bird," wrote Danish explorer Jens Munck when, after landing here in the winter of 1619, his men quickly succumbed. Munck slumped into his cot to die too, but the stench of his crew's cadavers was too much, so he went back outside. There, he found two men who were not quite dead and some green shoots peeking out of the grass. They sucked on the roots, started fishing through the rupturing ice and, eventually, through a massive storm, somehow made it back to Europe in their broken boat.

It was another 100 years before British fur trappers figured out how to survive here, erecting the Fort Prince of Wales on the Churchill River. In early November, Daudet and I stood into the wind at a place called Cape Merry at the edge of town, looking across the river at the fort. Normally, he leads his group over to it for historical tours. But the river had not frozen, and he was still without sufficient snow. He had nobody to give his lecture to, so I asked that he tell it to me.

The entire settlement -- the carpenter's shop, mason, blacksmith -- had been contained inside the fort, he began. Then, in 1782, "Three French warships came in with a person called Count La Pérouse. There were only about 20 people inside the fort and they gave up without firing a shot. Well, this La Pérouse guy came in there and wrecked the place. He stole all the fur -- which today would be valued in the millions of dollars. And then he left. The people didn't know what to do. So they moved south of the Fort Prince of Wales, about five miles downriver, and they reconstructed there."

The Churchillians stayed in that new location until 1928 when the railroad tracks from Winnipeg finally reached the river. Not wanting to build a rail bridge across the river to the town, engineers terminated the tracks on the riverbank. "So everybody moved across the river," Daudet said matter-of-factly. They disassembled their homes and their two churches, battened them to dogsleds, and lugged them over the frozen water to where we now stood.

"See the white pieces," Daudet now said, hopping up on a stone bench and pointing into the river. "That's ice." The first pans were just starting to form. Thin slates rode the indifferent current. Soon, he hoped, it would be solid and 4 feet deep, as usual. He had a group of 100 booked in a little over a week.

"I'm losing business today," he told me. "I could be out doing maybe 10 or 15 people today -- five in the morning, five in the afternoon. It could add up to be thousands of dollars." He was already looking ahead to northern lights season to make it up.

"It's tough," he said. "But I still have a few computers to sell and the shop's been a little bit busy, so" For a second, it seemed he wasn't going to finish his sentence, that he'd given up on it. He hadn't. "That'll keep us going," he said.

Read other articles in the Early Signs: Reports from a Warming Planet directory.

Jon Mooallem

Jon Mooallem has written for the Village Voice, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe Ideas section.

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