Suzanne visits polar bear capital

Suzanne and Andrew Hamnett during the audio visual presentation.
Suzanne and Andrew Hamnett during the audio visual presentation.

Morpeth Rotary Club

Suzanne Hamnett, wife of Morpeth Rotary President Andrew, is Canadian and she recently told members about a visit she had to Churchill to see some wild polar bears.

Mr Hamnett assisted her with the audio visual presentation.

Churchill, located in the Canadian province of Manitoba, is about a third of the way up the left side of Hudson Bay and Mrs Hamnett had to travel 1,000 miles north from Winnipeg to get there.

It is ice free in the summer, when it is used for grain shipments from western Canada. It can only be reached by train or air as there are no roads.

Northern Manitoba is basically a large bog. It is on a polar bear migration route and the bears are often seen near the town, which has led to it being called the polar bear capital of the world.

The visit was in October, when ice starts to form at the edge of the water.

A total of 900 people live in Churchill, but most are not permanent residents. Many are on Government contracts or work in hotels, motels and tourism.

For safety reasons, it is very highly regulated. No-one is allowed out from the borders of the town on foot because of polar bears and wolves.

There is a curfew at 10pm sounded by a siren, after which under 16s are not allowed to be out alone – they have to be at home or with a parent or guardian.

A special exception is Hallowe’en when officials carefully search the town for polar bears, then surround the area with cars with spotlights on, after which children are allowed out.

There is a multi-purpose community centre, which is a quarter of a mile long. It has a hospital, primary school, high school, library, skating rink, cinema, children’s playground and community centre.

Most of the buildings are made of aluminium and pre-fabricated and provided by the Government – 25 per cent of salary is paid in rent.

There is a general store, a pharmacy, a very good bakery and several restaurants serving wine, ethnic food and game. Churchill is one of the few places where new arrivals are told to eat a lot, as it is the only way to keep warm. There is a local phone service and internet.

Here, and all over the Arctic, are rock cairns shaped like people called ‘inuksuk’ made by the Inuit, but no-one knows why. There is a little bit of stunted greenery in the area, but not much.

While taking photos, Mrs Hamnett found that the cold made the camera digital system close down after only a few shots.

During the visit, a passing polar bear smelled the food cooking at the hospital and broke down the garage doors trying to get in. It was shot with a tranquilliser dart and spent the night in the local polar bear jail.

If anyone sees a bear near their house, they have to report it and wait inside until an official comes to deal with it. If they are not at home, they are to go into the nearest house and make a report.

Visits to see the bears are by tundra buggy. They look like old American school buses, painted dark green with a fire engine chassis and 5ft high wheels.

They have a high viewing platform at the back just out of reach of the polar bears, which can be up to 10ft high. Sometimes they put their paws on the bus and try to push it over to get at the tourists (food) inside.

The buses can only go down to the water’s edge when the ground is frozen. Tyres are at 2-3lb pressure and they go very slowly.

As the ice begins to freeze, the bears gather and every now and then they test the ice to see if it is strong enough to walk on. There are some stunted willows nearby that give them some cover until they can set off.

It is strictly against the law to feed the bears. If a visitor breaks the rule, they are taken straight to the airport by the Mounties and put on the next plane, without stopping to get their luggage.

There are other tourist attractions in Churchill, with the beluga whales in August and the aurora in January and February.