With a population of just 700 people,
glacial winter conditions and no roads in or out, Churchill certainly
isn’t the obvious holiday destination. But every November the
town fills to bursting with thousands who have travelled from far and
wide. It’s here on the Hudson Bay in Canada that the sea ice
first starts to freeze, and it’s here that the local population of
polar bears gathers, ready to migrate north for the winter.
It was our last day in
Churchill, and having spent the previous two days exploring the
wilderness in a lumbering “tundra buggy” and getting up
close to the polar bears, our township tour seemed tame in
We were packed into a
geriatric yellow school bus, and trundled from place to place, taking
in the local church, the school and the docks. Half-heartedly
we snapped away, trying to show willing to our ever enthusiastic
guide David. Churchill isn’t Churchill without its ursine
inhabitants, and we couldn’t quite muster our previous enthusiasm.
There were no noses pressed up to the window to catch a glimpse of
the grain elevator, no squeals, oohs, or aahs. It felt like an
anti-climax when all we wanted was to see the bears one last time.
Suddenly a cryptic message
came through on David’s walkie talkie. “Pizza delivery at
10 o’clock”. We were mystified, but David got very
excited. Immediately the bus swung around, and we span through
the snowy streets back the way we had come, wheels squealing in
protest. David swivelled in his seat to face us, clinging on as
we navigated the icy roads, a look of childlike glee on his face.
“A pizza delivery”, he hissed excitedly, “that means
there’s going to be a bear drop”.
A bear drop, we were to
learn, is where a polar bear incarcerated in “bear jail” is
returned to the tundra by helicopter. Bears that stray too
close to civilisation are tranquilised and sent here for a couple of
weeks on a starvation diet. It is natural for polar bears not to eat
at this time of year, and it means that the experience is not so
pleasant that the bears are encouraged to come back to town.
According to David, the first year’s approach, where the bears were
fed, meant there was a queue of the ferocious beasts trying to break
into jail the following year.
A crowd of people was forming
outside the jail, and after a few agonising minutes some men emerged
from the building carrying a sedated cub. They flopped it onto the
back seat of the waiting helicopter, and armed the pilot with a
large revolver. The cub’s inert mother was wheeled out on a
large cart. She was arranged carefully on a sturdy net, and as
the helicopter took off she was adjusted so her weight wouldn’t
unbalance the helicopter. Off it whirred into the distance with
its precious cargo dangling below. It was all over, and now we
felt ready to go home.