A dispatch from Churchill, Manitoba, where polar bears, PBI scientists and regular people come together to conserve Arctic habitats.
My 8 year-old nephew Marley has a stuffed polar bear that he calls Snowball. Snowball is cute, friendly, perfectly white, and spends most of his days on a bookshelf outside Boston. Snowball doesn’t have sharp claws, or a jaw that could remove a limb from your body, or anything that might frighten a child. But as a cuddly companion, Snowball serves his purpose well. We love Snowball.
Isn’t it strange, however, to think that many of our planet’s most majestic and vulnerable species end up living in our minds like stuffed animals?
Consider the polar bear. Most of us go our entire lives without seeing polar bears in person, so we rely on external sources—documentaries, science books, photographers, toys like Snowball, so forth—to explain what these animals are like. We therefore only end up perceiving polar bears in the most abstract, decontextualized, photoshopped and curated ways. We come to think of polar bears as cuddly, friendly stuffed animals. Keeping a polar bear on your shelf is one thing; encountering one in the wild is another.
Something about coming to Churchill and seeing these bears in the wild changes people.
As a travel writer, I am well aware of the transformative power of experiences, and how going places has the potential to change the way we think about things. I’ve swum with humpbacks in the Indian Ocean, I’ve walked with endangered gorillas in Rwanda, and I’ve climbed mountains at sunrise on Bali—so upon receiving an invitation to visit Churchill, Manitoba, last November to visit the polar bears, I jumped at the opportunity. That time of year is perfect for visiting Churchill—it’s when many of the Hudson Bay polar bear population gathers on the shoreline. After a long summer of fasting and mating on land, the bears wait for the sea ice to freeze over so they can head onto the water and start filling up on fish.
As you arrive for the first time, you can tell Churchill is unique. Because of its high latitude, sunrise and twilight seem to last for half the day, bathing this waterfront town in golden light that lasts for hours. There is very little noise on the streets of Churchill, except for the howling winds which come from hundreds of miles away, and keep going for hundreds more. It’s also understood that homes and cars are left unlocked in the event of a surprise polar bear encounter and a local needing to duck for shelter. When polar bears are this close, they’re less of a cuddly stuffed animal and more of a harsh reality.
As I came to understand, it’s kind of a miracle that Churchill exists at all. It’s breathtakingly cold most of the year, and it’s so off the grid that it’s not even accessible by road (to get there, you need to take a train or a plane from Winnipeg, which is 1000 kilometers to the south). It’s been home to, at various times, a fur trading post and a military base, but the only industry to speak of that seems to have really persisted in Churchill is polar bear tourism. If the bears didn’t reliably congregate in this area, waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can go fishing on the sea ice, it’s hard to imagine that Churchill would still be here at all.
Our trip began at PBI House, a new interpretive center funded in part by Canada Goose, where biologist and Polar Bears International researcher Dr. Thea Bechshoft guided us through a recap of her recent research.
One of PBI’s latest breakthroughs involves the molecular testing of bear hair samples, gathered via non-invasive “hard snags” which mean minimal disturbance or effect on the animals—a win for low-impact research methods. “From just a small hair sample we can now get data on a bear’s hormones, stress, chemical pollution, diet and genetics,” said Dr. Bechshoft.
Since PBI has made such strides in learning about polar bears on a molecular level, it struck me as surprising that macro-level observation is still a challenge for researchers. “Regular population estimates are key to protect and manage polar bears around the Arctic,” said Dr. Bechshoft. “Because the current methods we have for counting polar bears are expensive, high risk, and time-consuming, they are not being done as often or as widely geographically as needed, especially given how quickly the Arctic is changing.”
Polar bear research, as it turns out, is making leaps and bounds where it can—but still faces significant challenges in terms of funding and logistics. That’s where Krista Wright, PBI’s executive director, sees value in getting visitors out into the field to witness polar bears in person. Something about coming to Churchill and seeing these bears in the wild changes people.
“Seeing polar bears and the environment that they call home is an experience most people will never forget, and connecting with our team of scientists and experts takes people’s knowledge and understanding to a deeper level,” Wright told me at PBI House. But the real value of visiting Churchill isn’t just learning about the research, she said—it’s about getting into the field and looking polar bears in the eye. “It’s a life changing experience, and I think it really grounds people in our work and the reality that polar bears, and all of us, face a warming world.”
And with that, Wright and Dr. Bechshoft took us out into the field. Driving around on our monster truck-sized tundra buggy, it only took a few minutes for us to find our first bear in the bush—and then another, and another, and another. Each situation presented a different facet of polar bear behavior: two males play-wrestling; the bond between a snuggling mother and child; the laziness of another stretching out before settling down for a nap.
Each bear was magnificent in its own way, but it was the curiosity of one bear in particular that resonated with me deeply. Upon spotting him, we slowed the buggy to a stop and gathered on the observation deck that hangs off the back. Peering over the edge, we waited in perfect silence to see what the bear would do. Step by step, he slowly approached us with all the curiosity of a human, and, in order to get a better sniff of us, stretched up onto his hind legs directly underneath where I was standing. Standing straight up, paws on the back side of our buggy, he craned his neck in my direction.
For a few seconds, I looked down at him and he looked up at me, our faces just a few feet apart, and we stared directly into each others’ eyes. I wasn’t only gazing into nature—nature was gazing into me. For the first time, I fully understood—and really felt—the vulnerability of polar bears.
The whole experience is something I’ll never forget. As I learned about PBI’s research, and had the opportunity to see living, breathing polar bears in their environment, they started to feel real, and less like a stuffed animal. Now that I’m back home, I can’t stop talking about my Churchill trip, and anyone who encounters me is likely to get an earful about polar bear behavior, about molecular research based on hair samples, and about all the ways that PBI is working to secure a future for polar bears. As Krista Wright put it, “One of the most significant things each one of us can to do address climate warming is to talk about it, and personal experiences and stories keep polar bears and the challenges they face at the forefront of the global conversation.”
Todd Plummer is a travel writer from Boston, Massachusetts.