The ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ sounds like it might have a polar bear parliament, polar bear government buildings and polar bear financial district – a sort of vastly expanded metropolitan teddy bear’s picnic, perhaps. In reality, of course, Churchill is a fairly typical far-northern town, and most (though not all) of the picnicking is done by humans. But that’s not to say that it isn’t deserving of its name.
The town’s impressive bear to human ratio is at its peak in the autumn as a result of a series of geographical particularities. The town sits by the mouth of the Churchill River, the fresh water from which flows into the salt water of the Hudson’s Bay. This fresh water freezes at higher temperatures than the salt water, meaning the formation of the sea ice begins here earlier in the season than it does elsewhere. What’s more, the coastline of the western side of the bay dips fairly smoothly southwards but suddenly strikes out to the East for a short time at Churchill. This brief change of direction draws a tiny shelf of land out into the water which catches ice formed further North as it is brought down in the swell of currents and winds that race each other around the bay. The combination of these special features means that the sea ice that forms over the whole of Hudson’s Bay in the autumn forms first in Churchill. This is the key to its success.
Polar Bears are classified as marine mammals. This often comes as a bit of a surprise as it puts them in the same category as dolphins, whales and manatees. But the reality is that without the sea, and more specifically the sea ice, these bears would be unable to hunt, mate, roam or do any of the things that make them the species they are. Polar bears are completely unable to hunt seals, which form the lion’s share of their diet, from any platform other than the sea ice – too large and ungainly to be able to catch them underwater they must ambush them from the surface either at their breathing holes, or taking the pups from their dens beneath thick layers of snow. These hunting methods, and their reliance on the sea ice, mean that polar bears can only eat when the ice is formed. They have always gone months at a time without food, though with anthropogenic climate change, of course, the time available for them to hunt is ever diminishing. It is crucial, therefore, that the bears are able to get on the ice as early as possible in the autumn and stay on it for as long as possible into the spring, to be able to maximise their feeding time.
When the sea ice melts and the bears move back to the land to begin their period of fasting they bed down and wait. Then, in the early autumn, they begin to walk and hundreds of them walk towards Churchill. Generations of bears have learned that the sea ice will form first right next to this small Manitoban town and so they follow their stomachs there. In so doing, they unknowingly bestow upon the town a name and a whole identity built on bears. People visit Churchill from all over the world to see polar bears – they buy polar bear t-shirts and cuddly toys, send polar bear postcards and eat polar bear donuts. The truth is though, that this particular teddy bear’s picnic is only really about seals on ice.