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The Olympic flame began its journey to the furthest point north in its history by stopping off first at a town known for the Arctic's most familiar icon - the polar bear.

Unfortunately, the torch relay didn't venture near Wapusk National Park on the shores of Hudson Bay, just near here, where the polar bears congregate in the hundreds this time of year waiting for the ice to freeze so they can go seal hunting for a few months. The convoy with the Olympic flame was, however, briefly interrupted while driving in from the airport when a polar bear crossed the road.

The people of Churchill have a complex relationship with the polar bear, says Paul Watts, who, when he isn't volunteering to drive torch relay staff around when they come to town, is studying the polar bear. He has a doctorate in Arctic studies from the University of Oslo.

While it is the largest and most deadly terrestrial carnivore, the polar bear also represents a meal ticket, of sorts. Thousands of tourists descend on Churchill every fall to see the bears as they gather in anticipation of heading out onto the ice fields. For a town of just over 1,000, there are eight hotels - mostly to accommodate tourists.

"When you live here you don't do anything without considering the polar bear," Dr. Watts said. "When you take out the garbage you're aware. When you take your kids to school it's the last thing you tell them - look out for bears.

"There a number of reasons why a bear might come after you: because you've surprised them; because you've come between a mother and her cub; because they're hungry or because they just want to kill and eat you - but you may want to phrase it a little differently than that."

Roberta Wokes, who was born and raised in Churchill and has eight children she looks after, says the surest sign that a bear is roaming around town is when you hear a gunshot.

"Most people have a shotgun with them when they go out because you just never know," Ms. Wokes said. "It's just a fact of life here. Most people don't lock their doors because you never know when someone might need a place to run into."

Dianne Howell remembers the day a few years ago when she came face to face with a polar bear. Fortunately, the bear was on the other side of a glass window.

"But as soon as he saw me he stood up on his haunches and he was just gigantic and I completely froze," Ms. Howell recalled. "I was at the school I was working at and I left the room and started walking down the hall and the bear started following me on the outside. I went into an office and looked out and who was staring right back at me?" Churchill shut down the famous garbage dump outside town that the bears would come and feast at - and which provided a staging ground for so many photo opportunities for tourists. The town instituted a polar bear alert program that has drastically reduced the number of bear-human interactions.

The town also has a polar bear jail out near the airport. This is where they keep bears that are repeat offenders - bears who insist on wandering into town. The bears are kept inside small cages - accommodations meant to send a message that this is what happens when you stray where you shouldn't. After some time, the bears are taken out to a remote area and released.

In recent years, Churchill has been invaded by wildlife scientists who are studying the polar bear population and looking for signs that it may be in trouble because of the effects of global warming.

Air temperatures in the Arctic have increased, on average, about 5 degrees over the last 100 years. Arctic sea ice, particularly in the Hudson Bay area, shrank 3 per cent between 1978 and 1996. And most scientists believe it may have shrunk another 1 or 2 per cent since the last study period concluded.

The state of the sea ice is particularly worrying for the polar bear. It needs the ice so it can go out and feed on ring seals in the winter. For every week the ice breaks up earlier than normal, the bears come ashore 10 kilograms lighter and in poorer condition. Reproductive success is also tied closely to body condition.

The torch relay was scheduled to leave Churchill yesterday afternoon to head to Alert, Nunavut. Alert is only 800 kilometres miles from the North Pole - the farthest north the Olympic flame has ever travelled.



DAYS 10, 11 & 12

Globe and Mail journalists will follow the Olympic Torch Relay every step of the way, painting a compelling portrait of Canada as they go.