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Bear Jail Awaits Errant Polar Bears on Hudson Bay: Playing With Bruin on the Looney Front - Part 2

11/15/2015 12:25pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Churchill, where the Churchill River meets Hudson Bay in Canada's province of Manitoba, is slam dunk in the middle of the annual migration route of polar bears, so it's only natural that the town that boasts of being the world capital of polar bears should have a Bear Jail.

Officially called the Polar Bear Holding Facility, it has room for 32 of the massive creatures, who every October and November make their way back in their hundreds from a summer of discontent and hunger to the ice floes of Hudson Bay, where they can move out to their favourite buffet of seals and gorge themselves silly all winter.

Bears in the area

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Those that misbehave - no, not loitering under the influence, but simply wandering into this small town - end up in the jail, where in early November there were 13 inmates.

When wayward bears come too close, watchmen at first use scare tactics to frighten them back out onto the tundra, firing whistling flares, cracker shells and rubber bullets. They tranquilise the more recalcitrant, hold them in the jail for up to a month, then helicopter them back out to the now fully formed ice.

Bear Jail

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They put tags in their ears and stain their backs green - no, it's not for St. Paddy's Day but so that the Inuit, who are allowed to hunt them, won't eat them and be affected by the tranquilisers in their system.

Tagged ears

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They also lay steel barrel-like traps around town with a door that comes crashing down once the animal has been lured inside by seal meat. A silly old bean in our group has just tried to crawl inside one, much to the annoyance of the guards who don't want to adulterate seal scent with human odour. I'm hoping the door will slam down and guillotine her but I'm out of luck.

Bear traps

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Most of the other tourists confine themselves to selfie-ing in front of the facility sign. Nobody is allowed inside to see the prisoners, who are kept in cages that aren't particularly comfortable and are only given ice and water. Bears in the wild don't have much to eat at this time of year and the guards don't want to give them any food - they'll just keep on coming back, thinking it's a free cafeteria.

Signs with a glaring red 'Stop, Don't Walk in this area' beneath a loping bear are posted throughout this narrowly sprawling rough-and-tumble village of 850 humans, 55 percent of them Inuit and other aboriginals.

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Parked car doors are left unlocked so that you can run and shut yourself in should a bear decide to seek your company on the way home from the pub - certainly better and more immediate than thumbing your mobile with the local 675 BEAR hotline.

Churchill views

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Manitoba's grain is shipped from here

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The end of the two-day rail trip from Winnipeg

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Station front

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The airport

Two cracker shells have just gone off as we photograph the wreck of a plane that crashed aeons ago. Bears on the prowl! We skittle back into the bus.

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At Cape Merry, where the Churchill River flows into Hudson Bay, a tourist guide stands guard with a rifle, stark against the snowy back-ground and low trees of the tundra.

His first three pieces of ammo are cracker shells, the next two the real McCoy should a problem bear intruder still continue to be a problem.

Armed guard

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We don't see any bears in town but we hear several warning crackers, and see one on the outskirts as we drive out to the tundra - if you can call the white smudge through the bus's disgustingly uncleaned windows 'seeing.'

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One thing you don't do if you're in Churchill on Halloween is go around disguised as a polar bear, not unless you want a cracker shell or whistling flare up your bum. So that the kids can have carefree trick-or-treating, guards are posted round the perimeter to scare off any ursine intruder.

White sheet disguises are also not advised, and a few kids are wandering round the main street in witches' hats and highwaymen ski masks.

Halloween

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When you're not out on the tundra bear-sighting, you can go dog mushing - or rather be a passenger while somebody else does the mushing.

The new puppies at the sledding outfit in the boreal forest on the town's outskirts are totally adorable, eight of them rolling around, chasing and playing with each other, while their seniors howl and yowl, straining at the leash or mounting their kennels in their eagerness to get out on the run.

The puppies

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Their elders

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If there's not enough snow in early November they have carts with wheels so that the six-dog teams can show their prowess with them.

Today there's enough snow, but my team is led by a couple of left-wingers who keep on grazing the brush.

On our way

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Speaks for itself

We don't run into any polar bears, but on the yellow school bus taking us to and from the kennels a rifle is affixed above the dashboard just below the ceiling, ready for a quick thrust from the driver should any intruder get too frisky.

It's fully loaded with the usual cracker shells to scare it off - and live ammo for use in extremis.

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[Upcoming blog next Sunday: Wandering round Winnipeg]

Views outside Churchill

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.