Being Beluga

Churchill, Canada, Isn't Just for the Bears

Tread lightly: Churchill's fragile, technicolor tundra     Photo: Mike Macri/Masterfile

CHURCHILL, MANITOBA, ATINRY PORT TOWN perched on the western edge of the Hudson Bay some 600 miles north of Winnipeg, bills itself the "Polar Bear Capital of the World." And rightfully so. Each fall, hundreds of the white-furred beasts, and the thousands of tourists who come to see them, converge on this hardscrabble Canadian outpost and its 1,000 human residents. Growing up in Winnipeg, I'd heard about the bears and about Churchill's rough side—the dockhand life, the visiting Soviet freighters and their hard-drinking crews. Only later did I find out about the natural beauty, and about Churchill's long history as a crossroads of humans, animals, and ecosystems. It's a place where native Cree longshoremen help Korean sailors load grain in the seaport and caribou and red foxes roam the tundra and taiga.
In late spring and summer, you won't find many polar bears—the icebreak deposits them farther down the coastline—or, consequently, many other visitors. What you will encounter are nearly 200 species of birds, including snow geese and eider ducks, in one of the Northern Hemisphere's key flyways; flowering tundra; and pods of beluga whales—no shortage of thrill-seeking in Churchill while the bears are away.

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