Every fall, the tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba (pop. 800) welcomes approximately 10,000 tourists from around the world, all there to see another group of visitors: roughly 1,000 hungry polar bears that pass through Churchill on their way to Hudson Bay — prime seal-hunting territory for the bears. The “Lords of the Arctic” can grow to be 10 feet tall and can weigh more than 1,300 pounds. They are also skilled hunters that can detect the presence of seals beneath three feet of snow and ice and can pick in scents from nearly 20 miles away.
Known as the “polar bear capital of the world,” Churchill is one of the few human settlements where polar bears can be observed in the wild, and the town has embraced its role in getting people up close and personal to the bears they’ve come to see. But as is often the case when humans and wild animals are in close contact, sometimes that proximity leads to unexpected and dangerous encounters. Last Halloween, a surprise late-night encounter with a polar bear left a local woman seriously injured and the bear dead, the nightmare all in Churchill strive to avoid.
Smithsonian Channel’s new six-episode docuseries Polar Bear Town, beginning Nov. 16, captures the annual migration of the bears through Churchill, and the annual invasion of tourists that goes along with it. Viewers will meet the professional guides on hand to keep the tourists safe, residents who sometimes struggle with the actions of potentially aggressive bears, and some of the visitors who have come to town hoping to see the bears in action. Of course, there are plenty of bears to “meet” as well, including new moms and their cubs — including one called “Curious” who ventures away from its mother and finds itself on a dangerous collision course with a hungry, elderly male known as St. Pete — and a pair the locals call the “Scrappy Brothers,” because they wrestle each other to hone their skills for the mating season to come.
Polar Bear Town airs on Smithsonian Channel Wednesdays beginning Nov. 16 at 8pm ET/PT