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Polar Bear Invasion

Bear Trouble 1 | 2

In the 1600s, seafaring adventurers ventured into the frigid waters of eastern Canada's Hudson Bay looking for the fabled Northwest Passage to the riches of the Orient. Some of the European explorers sloshed ashore where the sweet waters of the broad Churchill River tumble into the bay's salty shoals, eager to set foot on the new world. But their quest for the Northwest Passage was largely in vain, and many died far from home.

Polar bears come to Churchill by the thousands.
These days, however, adventurers still flock to the Churchill River's banks -- with more satisfying results. They come to see the hundreds of polar bears that gather each autumn at the river's mouth, waiting for the bay to freeze so they can amble out on to the pack ice and hunt seals, their favorite meal. More than 15,000 tourists travel to the remote region each year to take in the spectacle.

This week, NATURE takes viewers to the "polar bear capital of the world" -- Churchill, Manitoba -- for a firsthand look at the POLAR BEAR INVASION. It is a wondrous and sometimes quirky look at a town where people are learning to coexist with the largest land predator on earth -- and the hordes of tourists who come to see them.

Churchill's dance with the bears in nothing new. Since the town was established in the 1700s as a fur trading post, residents have lived with the knowledge that their homes are directly in the path of the bears' annual migration. Each summer, the huge white carnivores wander the brushy tundra without eating, burning off fat reserves built up over the winter. Then, come fall, they head toward the bay, following the Churchill River's banks toward salt water. By October, they have gathered on the outskirts of town, waiting for cold weather to ice up the bay. By November, the waiting bears typically outnumber the town's 1,000 residents.

Once, the annual arrival of the bears meant trouble. The huge animals, which weigh up to a ton and can reach a dozen feet tall when they stand on their hind legs, are fearless and hungry. They would barge into kitchens and stake out dumps, slaughter livestock, and pounce on unwary townspeople out for a walk. As a result, townspeople killed dozens of problem bears each year.

Bear Trouble
Polar bears invade Churchill.

Great Wanderers
Discover what researchers are finding out.

Out On The Town
Learn why tourists visit Churchill.

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