Every October, next to the icy shores of the Hudson Bay, a tiny Manitoban town plays host to nearly 1,000 migrating polar bears and 10,000 tourists who want to see them.
Churchill, known to the world as Polar Bear Town (hence the title), rests at the epicenter of the migratory route that Canadian polar bears take when summer reaches its end and the sea-ice freezes over once more. Unlike other bears, Polar Bears do not hibernate for winter. Instead, when the sea ice they use to hunt seals begins to thaw in mid-summer, the bears head for the hospitality of solid grown. While on shore, the bears bide their time, fasting and waiting (also known as walking hibernation) until the sea-ice freezes over again in October, which opens up their hunting grounds and precipitates the mass migration.
Churchill, a town of 800, is (whether for good or bad) stuck smack-dab along this migratory route, putting polar bears and humans into a proximity that, for some, is too close for comfort, and others is wildly exhilarating and a valuable source of income.
The series follows a colorful cast of characters, from the town’s safety-focused DNR officer, Bob Windsor, who works tirelessly to keep the town safe, to long-time polar bear guides Kelsey Eliasson and Dennis Compayre, who are dedicated to helping their clients snap the perfect photo or first-hand experience, to Brian Ladoon, a Canadian Eskimo dog breeder whose animals seem to get along fine with the 1,000 pound carnivores roaming around their sanctuary.
Unlike a typical reality series or straight documentary, Polar Bear Town, brings the best of both worlds. Full of interesting and insightful knowledge and information about the bears themselves, the series offsets some of the drier scenes with those filled with the tension that can only result from humans being so close to such a dangerous and beautiful creature. The series does a great job of constantly reminding the viewer that these bears are not there to play around and safety is always the number one priority. In the series premiere, we’re told that not long before filming, several residents of Churchill were attacked by a bear. Although all survived, the experience was another example of how quickly things can go wrong when living next to such powerful four-legged neighbors.
Also in the first episode, we see a bear tranquilized from a helicopter by DNR officers who traced the bear’s movements for several days before determining it was getting too close to town. So, they took the bear to jail.
Yes, Churchill is home to the world’s only polar bear jail. Used as a holding cell for bears who get too close to the town or seem too comfortable with humans, unruly bears are kept in the jail for a month before being released into the wild at a greater distance from the town. The jail feeds the bears only water during the course of their stay to prevent the animals from associating humans with food.
For more polar bear antics and thrills, follow along with Bob, Kelsey, Brian and more as they brave the elements, navigate the tundra, and come face to face with the Lords of the Arctic on Smithsonian’s Polar Bear Town.
“Polar Bear Town” premieres on Smithsonian Channel Wednesday, November 16, 2016 at 8:00 pm ET/PT and continues with a total of six episodes lasting through December.