I learned overtourism has even reached the Arctic while shooting my new Channel 4 show

·8 min read
canada polar bears griff rhys jones Griff’s Canadian Adventure’
canada polar bears griff rhys jones Griff’s Canadian Adventure’

Sometimes I get what I call the “northern urge”, a yearning that is good but not always easy to satisfy. It’s the irrepressible desire to visit what Canadians call “true north”.

If you have a spare week, you can cross the entire country, east to west, by train. It is more than 3,000 miles on Via Rail Canada. You snake along the famed 49th parallel. The longest international border in the world, it takes in some wild-looking countryside. But 90 per cent of Canadians live within 100 miles of this unwavering line. They don’t trouble the 2,500 miles stretching away north above them.

Canadians do not live near the border to be nice and close to the United States. (Never say that. Not even as a joke.) They do it to get close to the warmth. This 49th latitude is further south than my house in Suffolk. In Canada, it goes straight through the middle of a vast and chilly continent.

Two years ago, our train stopped at Winnipeg. Or “Winterpeg”, as it is known. I thought Mrs Jones and I would just hop off and stroll over to a restaurant. (The three-hour refuelling stop and the onboard food helped.)

It was January. The cold, at -30C, hit us like a claw hammer. You can’t breathe. You need a mask of some kind. You need a big, woolly parka, not a stylish, going-to-a-restaurant coat.

Bear country

I got myself a big, woolly parka when I went back last Nov­ember (warm by comparison). I had come to scratch that itch. I was off to Churchill, known as “the accessible Arctic”. And the Arctic is specifically bear country. The word means “of the bear” in ancient Greek, though its use was astronomical not geographical.

Churchill is Canada’s only Arctic deep-water port. It lies on a virtually straight line north from Winnipeg, at the bottom of Hudson Bay. People go there to encounter polar bears. Or at least they do in November. (In summer, they go to see the beluga whales.)

A fully grown male bear could stand up on its hind legs and peer into the upper deck of a double-decker bus. And by November, the bears are both big and very hungry. They leave Hudson Bay when the ice melts. They have their cubs in the hinterland. Come autumn, they long to get back onto the newly forming pack ice and eat seals.

Only one thing stands in their way. It is the township of Churchill. There are about 1,000 bears desperate to get through. And about 1,000 people who live in Churchill. One each, I calculated.

Aerial view of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada - Alamy
Aerial view of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada - Alamy

We didn’t have the 45 hours the train trip takes, so we flew. I was glued to the plane window. What had I expected? Rolling hills of Canadian heather? The boreal forest rustling in the breeze? Well, maybe in summer. I was looking down on a huge, shiny, frozen puddle: an endless glittery, brown, green and blue expanse of icy emptiness.

It is quite a thing to get to a town that you can’t drive away from. The nearest inhabited neighbour, Thompson, is 250 miles away. And yet this tiny place dives way back into European history.

I had a series of quotes about ­Winston Churchill to hand. But Churchill had nothing to do with Winnie. The town was named after his ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. The British came here in the 17th century because two treacherous French sailors invited them to help themselves to a huge slice of Canada. So, they did. They claimed an area 10 times bigger than the Holy Roman Empire and proceeded to loot beavers and fight the French for the next 400 years. This was their base.

My first trip on arrival was to in­vest­igate this mind-boggling fact. There it was. Across the cold, cold water, I could see the outline of the improbable Prince of Wales Fort. It was built in the 18th century with all the redoubts and defensible bastions you’d expect in Holland.

Mike, from the Parks Department, was my personal bear of a man: my body­guard in a DayGlo yellow reflective vest. Standing 6ft tall, he was carrying a gun. “Just to scare them, you know.”

My driver had one, too, down by the gearstick. A menacing black pump-action thing. “We gotta have them in case the bears come in,” he explained. They fired some sort of flash charge, intended to scare rather than kill. Well, that worked. They scared me.

We had arrived on Hallowe’en – the night that kids everywhere across North America go out to frighten adults. As dusk came on, there were miniature ghouls flitting about. I was petrified, but on their behalf. Surely, this was taking the day of the dead a little too far?

It was routine in Churchill. Each year, the emergency services form a cordon around the place. The fire engines and police cars space out, an armed lookout in each. We saw only three witches, two hulks and a couple of zombies.

But I now desperately wanted to see the polar bears. And so did half the people in the bars, and at tables in the many good restaurants. Churchill is an unlikely tourist hub, but a well organised one. Perhaps a little too organised for some tastes.

There is an approved and regulated way of getting close to the bears. And that is by “tundra buggy”.

The grand tour

Next morning, I drove up towards six of these huge, crazy buses parked on a lot. The tundra is presumably less disturbed by their enormous tyres. Clarkson would drive one. Tough, Jeremy, it was my turn on the ultimate SUV.

Out on the tundra, ice was forming. It gets later every year. Climate change may one day put Churchill’s economy back on the map (as it loosens up the inaccessible northern passage for visiting ships), but it will frustrate the bears. They wait in the scrub to get out to the ice. They wait longer and longer.

“There’s a couple of them there,” said my guide. They were two youngish males, probably from the same mother. Their slightly yellow fur was only an optical illusion. Polar bears have black skins. Their hair is translucent. Out in the snow, it reflects the whiteness and the bears appear to be white.

The guide took us along a frozen shore. “A mother and child there,” he said suddenly. They were moving purposefully – mum seemingly impatient to get her tween-age charge to keep up. He was big and would be leaving her soon. Already he was roaming off on his own. One of his investigations was us.

If you have ever taken an organised whale-watching trip or safari, you will know that any experienced guide gets excited on your privileged behalf: “Oh, now, you are lucky. This is most unusual. Well, we don’t see this very often.”

Hudson Bay coastline at freeze-up- with Tundra Buggy vehicle and curious polar bear Wapusk National Park, Cape Churchill Manitoba Canada - Alamy
Hudson Bay coastline at freeze-up- with Tundra Buggy vehicle and curious polar bear Wapusk National Park, Cape Churchill Manitoba Canada - Alamy

The cub strolled straight towards the tundra buggy. He got up on his hind legs and leant against the side for a closer look at us. Mum watched warily.

The cub loped underneath the floor of the vehicle, raised up on its gargantuan wheels. He stood and put his nose against the see-through metal mesh of the floor beneath our feet. Could he detect a smell? Three days before, I had visited a new bison herd in Saskatoon. Had I carried that scent onwards? On my boots? He was sniffing my soles now, his black nose and curious eyes reminding me of my dog. I didn’t attempt to stroke or pat him, but I felt his hot breath.

Now that we were “with bear”, other tundra buggies, slightly dismayingly, decided to roll off-piste and come over to share a bit of the action, like giant transporters bringing an audience in a Pixar movie. It was becoming a mass touristic experience.

Back to reality

Back in town, I asked one of the firemen on Hallowe’en watch if he had ever met a bear. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “definitely.” He had been jogging, he explained. The polar bear jumped him from behind a fence. “But he was even more scared than me. He ran off straightaway.”

We laughed. This “threat” was surely part of keeping the tourists off the streets and in the hotels and bars.

My waitress that night was more circumspect. She quietly told us that she was the most recent casualty. Walking home late, some years ago, after a shift in this very bar, she was attacked. The bear nearly scalped her. She only just escaped with her life.

It is a thing to live in the north. Canadians may indeed huddle in their big cities on the border, but they wear boots and plaid at the weekend. Not many visit the frozen backyard, but those that do are widely admired.

On the way out, at Winnipeg airport, I had sat beside Albert, a charming, chatty Cree grandfather. He had been down south for a hospital visit and couldn’t wait to get home. “You live in Churchill?”

“No, no.” He roared with laughter. He was only going to Churchill to change planes. He lived on an island up in Cambridge Bay, in Nunavut. He was going onward as far again as I was going now. But the furthest out was beyond even him.

“Alert” is the answer to a pub-quiz question. It is the northernmost, continuously inhabited settlement on the planet, named after the ship that found it (not the Canadian forces stationed there). Alert is 3,000 miles further north than Churchill. Think of that.

Oh. I was feeling that urge again.

‘Griff’s Canadian Adventure’ airs at 9pm on Saturdays, Channel 4

Would you go brave the cold and go looking for bears in Canada? Join the conversation in the comments below