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Canada – Bearing Up

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In the barren cells of the Churchill ‘cooler’, twenty three repeat offenders wait out their sentences on nothing but water in temperatures as freezing as the windswept tundra outside. Juveniles all, they’d been caught disturbing the peace, trying to break into houses on the outskirts of town, rifling the local dump and generally running a muck. For their trouble these new kids on the block, the latest in a long line of unruly malcontents that annually disrupted the town, had received thirty days detention in the heavily reinforced quonset hut specially converted to withstand their excesses.

For those who have never traveled to the remote shores of Hudson Bay, such a sentence on five and six year olds may seem a little draconian, even in this outpost of Canada’s sprawling arctic wilderness. However such treatment amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist to these burly inmates – the smallest weighing in at around 300 kilograms. To the authorities, thirty days detention is the best deterrent, for it is not a human crime wave that they have to contend with each year but an invasion by the world’s largest land carnivore. For ten months of the year the town is peaceful and the cells lie empty, then in October and November the region around Churchill becomes a staging post for the world’s largest concentration of polar bears.

By mid to late July the pack ice that covers Hudson Bay through winter finally melts and the bears have no choice but to swim ashore and wait four months for its return. Strong and healthy after a winter-feeding on ringed seals, they live mainly on their fat stores, as they make their way north along the bay to Cape Churchill. It is at the cape that the first ice will form, pushed close to shore by prevailing north easterly winds, and from where the bears can once again venture out on to the flows. Through late summer and autumn they play a waiting game, remaining inactive for over eighty percent of their time to conserve energy. However they’re not averse to chewing over the carcass of a wolf kill if they come across one, eating a few tasty berries or on rare occasions killing a caribou or musk ox. As they slowly range up the coast the females travel up to thirty kilometres inland to give birth, then, as the cold squalls of autumn signal the coming onslaught of winter, they make the final leg to the cape. In their path lies the community of Churchill.

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