​The polar bear capital of the world

Kevin Burke is one of Churchill's few locals, and he takes great joy in showing tourists his frozen backyard. "So many people have told me now, this IS their bucket list," Burke said.

He drives one of those tundra buggies for Frontiers North, an adventure tourism company providing bundled up enthusiasts the chance of a lifetime.

The bears don't seem to mind the intrusion; in fact, many are downright curious of the buggies themselves -- on occasion a little TOO curious.

"I don't think we smell all that appealing to them," Amstrup said.

We might not smell too appealing, but the food in town does. There are warning signs posted everywhere reminding the town's residents to be "Bear Aware," as they call it, and we quickly found out why.

One mother bear and her two cubs wandered up right behind us on a busy road just outside of town. She came within a few feet of our camera ... only to be chased by another car of Lookie-Lews back into the trees.

Coean asked, "Is it safe to walk around Churchill?"

"I'd say it's safe to walk around Churchill in the day; I wouldn't say so at night," said Brett Wlock, a Manitoba conservation officer. His job? To keep polar bears away from people.

If they can't scare the nuisance bears away, they capture them.

The wayward bears are brought to what the locals call Polar Bear Jail. To make sure they're not tempted to come back to town again, the bears are given no food, just water.

"We don't want them to associate food to humans, or to that building" Wlock said. "We're going to hold them in there for 30 days. That's 30 days closer to the time the ice is going to form on the bay, which is when they are going to go out and hunt seals, and it's also 30 days away from the problem behavior that caused them to go there in the first place."

When their "sentence" is up, they're tranquilized and then airlifted back out into the tundra.

Not lost on anyone here is the carbon footprint left behind by those who travel all this way to witness all things polar bear.

Cowan asked, "All the tourists that show up here -- does that help, or hurt?"

"I think that for many people seeing something in person, seeing how things are now and hearing how they used to be, and seeing a magnificent species of the polar bear right in front of them, suddenly they can become inspired in a way they might have never become inspired before," replied Amstrup.

"I studied polar bears in Alaska for most of my adult life, and one of the last things that I did was predict that they were going to disappear," he said. "So it's a little hard for me to talk about, but to think that they might be gone, I don't want to think about that. So I want to do what I can to stop it. And I think we are; I think we are making progress."

Most agree progress was made at the global climate change conference in Paris last year, when representatives of 195 nations agreed, for the very first time, to lower planet-warming greenhouse gases.

In the meantime, the polar bears here -- and all around the vast reaches of the Arctic -- will continue to do what they've always done: survive the best they can in whatever conditions are thrown their way.


For more info: