If you happen to make the drive to Churchill, Manitoba, during the fall months, don't forget to leave your car unlocked. The small town, located along the Hudson Bay, has made locking vehicles illegal for one very big reason: escaping polar bears.
Every year, starting in September and lasting through November, roughly 1,000 polar bears migrate through Churchill en route to the Hudson Bay. The bears, many of them 10 feet long and weighing more than 1,400 pounds, bide their time along the peninsula until the bay freezes and opportunities to hunt seals become plentiful. During that fall window, Churchill's permanent population of 800 or so residents balloons with more than 10,000 tourists descending on the "Polar Bear Capital of the World" to witness the invasion.
As you might expect, this unique interaction between man and the world's largest land carnivore is fertile ground for television. Starting this week, the Smithsonian Channel is premiering its new series "Polar Bear Town," documenting over six episodes the local people of Churchill, the "Lords of the Arctic" they host each autumn, and the tourists who come to watch it all play out.
As the series explores, there are several safeguards that Churchill has in place to make sure the bears and humans coexist in relative safety. During the migration months, four to five natural resource officers patrol the area around the town and monitor a 24-hour bear hotline. If you see a bear, you call the number, and immediately a perimeter is set up to keep the massive animal from progressing further into Churchill.
"In typical town patrol, I’m up at daylight and patrolling with four other colleagues," Natural Resource Officer Wayde Roberts explained during a 2002 interview. "There’s a control zone that’s set up, which is basically a border around the town of Churchill. If any bears pass through it, we try to capture them. When the bears move around a lot, we get very busy and may handle 12 to 14 bears before noon on any given day. Obviously, the idea is to create and maintain a separation between the bears and humans."
For those Arctic giants that insist on taking in the town's sights, Churchill has created a special holding facility known as "polar bear jail." Officials keep problem bears in 28 air-conditioned cells until the Hudson Bay ice has frozen over. They then airlift the tranquilized bears and release them a safe distance from any human settlements.
While Churchill has a strict policy about visitors and locals alike not wandering the town at night, that restriction is loosened for one day of the year: Halloween. In the episode "Halloween Horror Story," the Smithsonian Channel examines the lengths taken by conservation officers to ensure a safe evening for trick-or-treaters. As MNN's Laura Moss explained, it's a massive team effort by a number of local agencies.
"On Oct. 31, a helicopter goes up at 3 p.m. to scour the area for bears, and as night falls, numerous vehicles patrol the area," she wrote. "In addition to [conservation officers], there are Royal Canadian Mounted Police, an army reserve unit, fire trucks and ambulances."
Despite some close calls, including a 2013 incident in which a man narrowly escaped severe injury by distracting a violent bear with his cellphone, there has not been a fatal attack in Churchill since 1983.
The series premiere of "Polar Bear Town" roars onto the Smithsonian Channel on Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. ET/PT — but you don't have to wait. The network has generously posted an intro to the first episode for those interested in an early sneak peek. You can watch in the video below: