If there was an award for the “scariest place to be during Halloween” in Canada, Churchill, Man., could easily win the title. Unlike Manitoba’s historic Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg, it’s not the ghost stories or blood-dripping down the walls in room 202 that you have to be afraid of.
In Churchill, it’s the hungry polar bears.
For one month every year, the small, sub-arctic town of Churchill, Man., becomes the Polar Bear Capital of the World. During this time, from mid-October to Mid-November, more than 1,000 polar bears (that’s more than the town’s population of 800) can be found in this region on the west coast of the Hudson Bay. This makes up one of the world’s largest concentration of polar bears at any one time.
The bears wait in and around the town of Churchill for the ice to form on the Hudson Bay so that they can make their way to arctic waters to hunt for seal and build up their reserves for another year.
Since the melting of the ice in the Hudson Bay since the early summer, the bears have retreated to land to give birth and hibernate while summer passes, usually in northern Manitoba’s Wapusk National Park. Aside from scoring the occasional moose here and there, it’s been months since they’ve had a proper meal and hunger is starting to take a toll.
Around this time every year, the region attracts thousands of tourists who want to see these incredible bears face-to-face from large, armoured, tank-like vehicles called tundra buggies. Most adventure or wildlife tour operators to Churchill like Natural Habitat Adventures, name the end of October and beginning of November — around Halloween — as the best time to visit and see the polar bear bears in Churchill.
For the townspeople, it’s a different story.
Consider it for a second: snowy conditions; giant bags filled with chocolates and candy; a few hundred children running around trick-or-treating; and hungry polar bears milling about?
Yet despite the conditions, the locals are determined for the festivities to continue.
In preparation, the Polar Bear Alert team, a group of Manitoba Conservation officers, set up bear traps (called “culver traps”) on the outskirts of town to prevent them from entering the area. The large, cylindrical containers are baited with seal oil to lure the bears inside, at which point, the trap’s door will shut.
Most bears are easily scared off when loud cracker shells are fired and sometimes rubber bullets are also used. Problematic bears are often sedated and taken to Polar Bear Jail, along with the bears that have been trapped.
Bears who have been caught are taken to Polar Bear Jail — a giant hanger compound on the outskirts of town that serves as a bear holding centre. Bears are held there for a maximum of 30 days at which point they are either flown by helicopter to the Hudson Bay shores or are let go when the ice freezes.
As the evening of Halloween begins, the town enlists the help of armed firemen, volunteers, policemen, and Manitoba Conservation officers to form a perimeter around town while the festivities start. Helicopters circle the town to report any approaching bears or incidents to those on the ground.
Unfortunately, last-minute “throw a bedsheet over your kid and call it a ghost costume” tactics won’t work. In fact, none of the kids (and adults, for that matter) are allowed to wear white costumes to prevent confusion or panic — no ghosts, angels and definitely no polar bear costumes.
At the end of the night, everyone, from locals, to seasonal staff, tour guides, tourists, and hospitality staff from around town — gather in the basement of the town’s Seaport Hotel to celebrate another Halloween gone by without incident.
Luckily, there have been very little, if any, serious incidents involving humans and polar bears in and around the Churchill region — largely due to the hard work the Polar Bear Alert team does in safety and prevention.