When polar bears were a problem in Churchill, Man. (1983 edition)

Polar bears were a common enough sight in the northern Manitoba town of Churchill, but in November 1983 they were getting too close for comfort.

Warm November meant no ice on Hudson Bay, and the bears were getting hungry

Polar bear problems in 1983

40 years ago
Duration 1:47
The town of Churchill, Man. deals with a dangerous polar bear situation when the ice of Hudson Bay fails to freeze by the end of November.

Polar bears were a common enough sight in the northern Manitoba town of Churchill, but in November 1983 they were getting too close for comfort.

Knowlton Nash, host of CBC's The National, explained that people in the town had "special reason"  to fear the "annual invasion" by polar bears.

"Twice in the past week, bears have attacked people right on the streets of the town," said Nash.

 It was the first time that had happened in 15 years, and patrols were setting out nightly to "scare the bears off."

Driven by hunger 

Two bears, one with a numeral spray-painted on its side as part of an effort to count them, scrap while waiting for the ice to freeze on Hudson Bay. (The National/CBC Archives)

Reporter Karen Webb, usually a Winnipeg correspondent, made the trip to Churchill and explained that the town sat on a migration route for the bears.

"Usually the bears just walk around the town and are gone by the first week of November," she said. "The only people they encounter: the scientists and the game wardens who count them."

But it had been a warm year, and that meant the ice couldn't freeze solidly on Hudson Bay, preventing the bears from walking out to hunt for seal — "and that means they're hungry," explained Webb.

Their food of choice became whatever they could "scrounge" at the dump on the edge of town.

'They can kill'

Even though everything in town could be reached on foot, kids had to be taken to school by car or bus to avoid a polar bear attack. (The National/CBC Archives)

"The town is on polar bear alert," said Webb. "People stay in their homes and in the morning. They bring their children to school by bus or by car — even though in Churchill, you can walk anywhere."

Two kids said that polar bears "attack you" and that they "break into your house at night or something."

"They look almost as cuddly as stuffed toys, but they can run fast as a horse and they can kill with one swipe of those gigantic paws," said Webb. 

The "nosy ones" got airlifted out, although Webb said there was "nowhere near" to take them.

"All the people of Churchill can do right now is stay indoors, and hope the weather gets cold."

A pair of bears feasts on what they find at the town dump in Churchill, Man. (The National/CBC Archives)

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