The small Canadian town of Churchill, Manitoba is known as the polar bear capital of the world, and for good reason. The area is home to both 900 or so year-round human residents and the western Hudson Bay polar bear population, and sometimes, inevitably, the twain shall meet.

Interactions between Churchillians and polar bears used to be quite frequent, and rarely ended well for the bears, which were all too often shot on sight. Over the last three decades or so, that has changed: the town dump, which used to attract bears into town, has been closed, and the guns that are fired in the direction of polar bears these days fire only firecracker shells — explosive ordinance which creates a loud ‘bang’ and ideally scares the bears away.

In 1982, the Manitoba Department of Conservation established the Polar Bear Alert Program, with a dedicated number for residents to report bear sightings. There is also a holding facility, more popularly known as the “Polar Bear Jail,” in which the more persistent intruders are held for 30 days before being flown out onto the sea ice far from town.

Even so, inevitably, sometimes polar bears sneak into downtown Churchill without detection, which is why folks leave house and vehicle doors unlocked — just in case somebody needs to leap to safety. And even the most experienced and cautious Churchill veteran can find themselves surprised by a bear, which is just what happened to one man over the weekend.

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According to the Winnipeg Free Press, Garett Kolsun — a border agent hired by Canadian Customs to inspect grain ships that put in to Churchill’s port — was walking home in the early hours of Sunday morning when the bear appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

Kolsun himself picks up the story, in an interview with Canadian broadcaster CTV:

“I stopped and I turned around to face the bear,” he said. “It was already there, right on top of me. I started shouting, yelling, screaming, waving my arms, running backwards to keep my eye on the bear.”
  Kolsun said he ended up trapped on the porch of a bakery …  It pinned him against the door and swiped at him with his paw. The bruin, which stood about 1 1/2 meters tall, also sank his teeth into Kolsun’s hip, although Kolsun says that, at the time, he didn’t even realize the bear had punctured his skin.
  “The bear’s nose was inches away from me. I didn’t know where else to go. I was just (thinking), ‘what can I do to get away from this bear?’ That’s all I kept thinking about. I didn’t want to be a stat.”

So Kolsun dug into his pocket, and pulled out … his cellphone.

“I was hoping anything I would do would give me an opportunity to get away from it, I was trying anything at that point,” he told CTV. ”I was trying anything at that point. I was screaming, yelling, waving my arms, trying everything and it just kept chasing me and chasing me. I was just hoping for the best and, luckily, it worked.”

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The light from the cellphone startled the bear, which backed up a little and knocked over a flower pot. With the bear briefly distracted, Kolsun took off. He ran for several blocks, looking for a home with lights on; when he saw some people sitting on a deck, he ran toward them. By that time, the bear had stopped chasing him.

In shock, he initially had no idea he had been scratched and bitten, but once his injuries were apparent, friends took him to hospital. After a tetanus shot and some bandaging, he was discharged, and reported for work on schedule on Monday.

The bear was a young male, which is to be expected: older bears have learned to skirt the town on their way to the sea ice, whereas younger ones are more reckless and generally less adept hunters, so more likely to be attracted by the smells of, say, a restaurant. This one has likely learned the lesson that many bears before him have learned: after the attack, it was captured and is now doing 30 days in the Polar Bear Jail.

Asked about resident’s reaction to the weekend’s incident, Churchill mayor Mike Spence explained to the Winnipeg Free Press that, ”it’s something we live with. It’s part of what we do.”

Photograph of polar bear outside Churchill by Kieran Mulvaney