Polar Bear Capital of the World. Says who? Churchill, Manitoba does.
It is official. Churchill is the Polar Bear Capital of the World. Sure, most of us may have known this for years, but the town recently (and finally!) trademarked the moniker. So how can other small towns claim a grandiose title of their own? Here are some tips on becoming the “The ______ Capital of the World.”
Churchill, Manitoba is renowned worldwide for being located in the middle of a polar bear migration route. Photo: Uli Kunz
Indigenous peoples have frequented the coast of Hudson Bay for more than a thousand years. The Inuit, Dene and Cree peoples all encountered polar bears on their hunting journeys and to each group, the animal took on a spiritual significance. Many tales of bears changing to human form and back can be found along Hudson Bay.
Of course, the first recorded polar bear encounter would not occur until 1619. Danish explorer Jens Munck and his crew of 63 men decided to over-winter near the mouth of the Churchill River. Early that winter, they encountered a polar bear and shot it. Food! Hurray!
However, what seemed like good fortune took a bit of a turn as uncooked polar bear meat can contain a bacteria called trichinosis. This, combined with the intense cold and paucity of resources, made for a difficult winter. The next spring, only Munck and two survivors sailed back to Europe.
Do Your Research
From 1717 to 1930, Churchill was primarily a fur trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The HBC even built a giant stone fortress along Hudson Bay as a symbol of their tenuous dominance of the fur trade northwest of Churchill. Prince of Wales Fort still (mostly) stands today.
One of the most recognizable characters from this era was Samuel Hearne. Over a quarter century, he worked aboard an HBC whaling sloop, walked from Churchill to the Arctic Ocean (and back) and eventually became the Governor of Prince of Wales Fort. Technically, he was also the one to surrender the fort to the French in 1782 but given that really none of his contingent had any military experience or training, we can overlook that one.
However, Hearne’s passion for animals and the wildlands cannot be doubted. He made some of the first observations of polar bear behaviour and biology and was the first person to record the location of the polar bear maternity denning area. Today, Wapusk National Park protects much of this important habitat.
Stick With It!
Polar bears were not a major focus in Churchill until the late 20th century. Their furs were oily and did not fetch a high price and their meat did not compare to that of caribou. Even early tourism, from the 1930 to the 60s focused on birding and the tundra landscape instead of polar bears.
Churchill’s military presence, lasting from 1942-1964, did bring more contact with polar bears, albeit in rug form more than anything, but still bears were more of a footnote. Canada even offered up the area as a British atomic testing site, luckily the offer was politely refused.
The military withdrew in the late 1960s and soon polar bears re-discovered Churchill. At first, they were considered a nuisance then a local novelty and finally, with the advent of the now famous Tundra Buggy, an international tourist attraction… only 350 or so years after Churchill’s first tourists arrived!