Denver Bar Association
January 2000
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Jailed Bears Out Free

by Diane Hartman


If you’re lucky enough to meet up with Greg Martin, and spend some time chatting with him, you might get a new perspective on the word "vacation." I’ve heard him talk about biking 100 miles a day down the Oregon coast, and a few years back, he wrote a story for The Docket on mushing sled dogs in the Northwest Territories (which sounded incredibly cold and dangerous).

Most recently, he and his wife Betty went out of their way to visit some polar bears.

They flew to Churchill, Manitoba on Calm Air, an airline that operates four-prop planes into northern Canada.

The first thing they saw was a polar bear being released from "jail." More about that later.

Churchill, right on Hudson Bay and a significant Canadian seaport, is called the Polar Bear Capital of the world. From the spring thaw until ice starts forming on the Bay in the late fall, the bears semi-hibernate in the woods west of town. From the latter part of October through November, the bears are very motivated to get to Hudson Bay. They get on their migration path and head for the frozen Bay, where they feed on ringed seals and the occasional whale.

Why bears there?

"We heard two reasons for the bears being in the Churchill region," Martin said. "One is that the melting ice usually lasts the longest along this part of the coast and that gives the bears an opportunity to feed as long as possible. And when the ice melts, the bears must swim, and the western Hudson Bay coast is the nearest shore. The second reason is that bears are creatures of habit and likely head for the same area every year."

Martin said fully grown polar bears range in weight from 300 to 1,500 pounds. "Males are usually about 50 percent heavier than females, so large male polar bears are the largest carnivores on earth."

Polars coming out of hibernation are hungry and dangerous. Signs that warn "Polar Bear Alert" are a constant reminder that everyone must be on guard. A bear patrol keeps a look-out for bears approaching town.

Which leads us to bear jail.

Traps are set up at various points on the outskirts of Churchill to lure bears into large box-like containers where they are immobilized with a tranquilizing drug and transported to the Polar Bear Jail, a large barn-like structure about two miles out of town.

What the Martins got to see was a tranquilized bear, out of jail, being placed in a large net and picked up by a helicopter, then whisked to a new location about 50 miles outside town.

"The lawyer in me wanted to ask if the released bear had been given time off the sentence for good behavior, and I wondered about the recidivism rate among those released, but my wife’s better judgment prevented me from asking these legitimate questions."

They spent the next three days going about 25 miles out of town in a bus, transferring to a Tundra Buggy where they spent the entire day watching bears. "We saw at least 15-20 bears each day we were out. The second day we spotted a mother and two cubs resting by a small pond. We sat for about two-and-a-half hours, only 50-100 feet from them, watching them play and chase after each other.

Martin said that although the window for watching bears migrate is fairly narrow, he would highly recommend the trip. Churchill, with a population of 1,200 people, has a Town Center complex, with a high school, hockey arena, curling rink, pool, theater, indoor playground, gym, cafeteria, bowling alley, government offices and library.

"And we were told by one of the locals that it’s also a great spot for whale watching during the summer."

When not on adventures, Martin works in Boulder at Martin, Fest & Jessel.

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