Canada: At home with Polar bears

Cuddly? Polar bears are deadly killers, which is why Churchill employs a very special police force

THE MOST important telephone number in Churchill is 675-2327. Each of the 1,000 inhabitants knows it by heart – 675-2327 is the number of the Polar Bear Police, whose only post is in Churchill, Manitoba, in north-east Canada.

The most important telephone number in Churchill is 675-2327. Each of the 1,000 inhabitants knows it by heart – 675-2327 is the number of the Polar Bear Police, whose only post is in Churchill, Manitoba, in north-east Canada.

This is the polar bear capital of the world. Every year in November the inhabitants have to share their town with 200 polar bears, among the most dangerous predators on earth. Fast, strong and unpredictable, polar bears might look clumsy and cuddly but they can attack without warning.

Just before winter begins, Churchill has a six-week "season". Adventure tourists from around the world head to the Arctic Circle to see a unique natural spectacle; hundreds of polar bears waiting until the Hudson Bay freezes over so that they can hunt on the ice for seals, their favourite food.

A warning notice "Polar Bear Alert – Stop, don't walk in this area" is situated at the edge of town in front of a few rocks. Behind it, the slowly freezing Bay. Our guide, Denise, has twice seen a bear appear suddenly from behind the rocks.

I ask what you should do in such a case. "Take your clothes off and slowly walk backwards," she laughs. Bears are naturally curious, apparently, and stop at each garment to sniff it. You must never run away or look them directly in the eyes as that annoys them. Far better to arrive freezing cold at the next house than risk a stand-off with a bear. In Churchill all doors are supposed to remain unlocked at all times for just such emergencies.

When I tried the back door at our hotel, the Aurora Inn, however, it was locked and there were tracks directly in front of the window. Giant prints the sizes of two or three dinner plates. Luckily yesterday's bear was already in the Polar Bear Compound, the polar bear jail. Whoever spots a polar bear in the closed zone of town calls the rangers from Natural Resources, who challenge the intruding bear and knock him out with a tranquilliser gun. The sleeping white giant is placed in transit detention at the polar bear jail just beyond the centre of town.

Repeat offenders end up in the zoo. As we arrived there were just two polar bears under lock and key although there is space for 32. When the jail is full, they are flown 30 miles to the north. The bears are given ear markers so that they can be recognised again. Bears that are caught four times are considered to be hopeless, "never learn better" cases. Used to human settlements, they are a danger and so are sold to zoos around the world. Last year the rangers caught and freed 108 bears.

Driving out with Debra Wazney in her tundra buggy, a converted bus with giant buggy wide wheels, to the Wapusk National Park, in the monotonous, treeless and endlessly flat tundra, I imagined the GIs who once fought war games here. We almost missed our first bear as it lay in a lazy doze on the frozen ground.

Feeding is forbidden and climbing down from the vehicle would also be dangerous. We were warned to hang neither an arm nor a camera out over the open platform. A polar bear can travel at a speed of 50km an hour and he can kill with just one swipe of his massive paw.

Ahead of us a giant polar bear had reared up and was sniffing at another buggy. His mouth easily reached the slightly open window, but he was only sniffing. His nose is his most important "weapon". With it he can smell seals under a metre-thick ice cover. The bears are completely silent, they don't roar or hiss. They kill quietly too, Debra says.

On the second day of our tundra buggy tour the bears loved us. First, two males gave an impressive wrestling bout lasting for several minutes. They were only playing. We could see their sharp teeth and claws with our telescopic lenses. And then we saw a female with a pair of two-month-old cubs. They had killed a bird and were chewing the feathers. On the way back we spotted bears from the Polar Bear Compound being flown out. They hung in a net below the helicopter taking them back to the tundra. They would wake just before being released in to freedom.

Polar bear safaris to Churchill are organised by International Wildlife Adventures, Winnipeg (001 204 949 2050, A five-night trip including two nights in Winnipeg and three in Churchill costs about C$3,000 and includes flights to Churchill, tundra buggy tours and accommodation

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning: The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier leaguePlus updates from Everton vs Palace
people'I hated him during those times'
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Heskey's aim has improved since the end of his English football career

Long after his career in English football has ended, Emile Heskey's impotency in front of goal remains an object of ridicule.

Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleFirst memoir extracts show she 'felt pressured' into going out with the Sex Pistols manager
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
Lewis Hamilton in action during the Singapore Grand Prix
Formula OneNico Rosberg retires after 14 laps
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam