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When Home is the Polar Bear Capital of the World


 

“I like to go out for walks, but it’s a little awkward to push the baby stroller and carry a shotgun at the same time.”—a housewife from Churchill, Manitoba

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That’s right, welcome to Churchill, Manitoba! Year-round human population: 943. Yet despite the isolation and the searing cold here at the Arctic’s edge, visitors from around the globe flock to the town every fall, driven by a single purpose: to see polar bears in the wild. And for a brief time, one family from Oakland, Californa called it their home. And this is a tiny glimpse of author Zac Unger’s wild adventure, where polar bears stroll across coffee shops and can be seen checking out garbage cans.


 

Walking around outside in Churchill took a little getting used to. A number of people told me that if I was ever about to have an encounter with a polar bear, I would be forwarned by a distinctive tingling along the length of my spine. But I had been feeling that tingle since the minute I landed, and it reappeared every single time I tied my boots and stepped outside. Either my every move was being followed, or my bear detector was seriously on the fritz.

“Is your spine tingling?” I asked Mac.

“What’s my spine?”

“It’s the bone in your back.”

“My spine’s OK,” he said. “But my nose is cold.”

I stepped down off the wall and scooped up little Zeke, who was eating pebbles. His coat was misbuttoned, his hat was askew, and his scarf was tied in a fashion that was more noose-like than warmth-giving. A two-year-old California boy has difficulty understanding the direct relationship how he dresses and how comfortable he will be. I’m quite sure that he would have happily frozen to death rather than submit willingly to having a down coat put on him. He always fought valiantly as we headed out the door, but I outweighed him by a solid 150 pounds, so I usually won.

Holding Percy’s hand tightly, Shona looked as nervous as I felt. “Should we really be up here?” she asked, nodding at the Polar Bear Alert signs.

“We’ll probably be fine,” I said. “I saw some kids playing around here yesterday.” It occurred to me that all of the bear warnings were as much about the Churchill brand as about any actual danger. The unofficial town motto could be Scre hem and They Will Come.

“We’d feel pretty stupid if we got eaten by a bear, though,” Shona said. True enough. As if to agree with his mother, Zeke squirmed and whimpered, bait-like in my arms. In the end, we decided that Mac and I would say and explore, just a few minutes, and Shona and the others would go back. In my quick and stupid calculus of risk, I figured that I could grab Mac and run with him, but that Shona and the others would have more trouble. Besides, this was a four-year-old boy we were talking about, with a long-standing interest in the construction projects, rocks, and ruination in general. Showing him a crumbling castle might be worth a minor mauling.

After Shona and the other two kids left, Mac rambled without fear while I peered around corners and tried to keep him close. It was easy to imagine a sleeping bear nestled down in a roofless bedroom or prowling around possessively like an impotent emperor surveying the trappings of a nobility that had long since eroded.

“We should go, Mac,” I said. “It’s not really safe here.”

He considered my statement for a minute. Even back home I was constantly telling him that he was on the verge of killing himself, and he’d long since decided to be selective in regard to the advice he was willing to take. “It’s not really a person place anymore,” he responded at last, giving a respectful nod to my paranoia. “It’s kind of like he built a castle and gave it to the polars. And polars don’t need roofs.”

I wished I could share Mac’s calm, but I was glad to be going. I lifted him over the last wall and watched as he trundled off, zigzagging out of his way in order to smash the ice on top of every puddle. “Heeeere polars,” he sang as he ran. “Come on out big bad beary-bears… You can have my little broooooother.”

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

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