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Polar bears check out Churchill during fall migration

Closer to the Arctic Circle than the nearest city, you might not think that Churchill, Manitoba, has become a major Canadian tourism draw. And the main reason is the polar bears -- all 1,200 of them which migrate through there in the fall.

But there are more attractions than just the polar bears -- roughly one of every 20 in the world congregate there -- since Churchill, on the shore of Hudson Bay, also is a good spot for observing Beluga whales and many varieties of birds, and viewing the spectacular Aurora Borealis, or northern lights.

An Austin area couple, Ron and Pat Hoag, made a fall trip to Churchill and report their impressions on Page 11E of today's travel section. The two like adventure vacations and settled on a trip to Churchill after Ron read an article about polar bears in an issue of National Geographic magazine. They made the trip with the International Wildlife Adventures tour group.

Churchill calls itself, justifiably, "the Polar Bear Capital of the World." And each fall one of nature's most remarkable spectacles occurs there: The gathering of the polar bears. The event draws 10,000 oglers every season.

As the air turns wintry in mid-October, the bears abandon their inland dens and make their way to the coast at Cape Churchill to wait for the pack ice to form. The town of Churchill, made up of a group of Quonset huts and low-slung apartment houses that is home to some 600 people, is squarely in their migration path.

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And the bears are evident -- all over town!

A writer from the San Francisco Chronicle reported that he almost got a closer look they he wanted. Within an hour of stepping off the plane, he was walking toward the shore of Hudson Bay when less than 200 yards away he spotted a line of fresh footprints -- each print was the size of a dinner plate, he wrote.

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer was summoned with his 12-gauge shotgun that fires firecracker-like projectiles at the bears to scare them off. If the bears return, a tranquilizer gun is used. The Mounties patrol a "defensive perimeter" around what passes for downtown Churchill and the bear, if caught -- and this one wasn't -- would have faced a three-week sentence in the heavily reinforced Quonset hut near the airport that serves as the polar bear jail.

Bears, the writer relates, amble down Churchill's main street, Kelsey Boulevard, from time to time but no tourist has ever been harmed in town. Polar Bear Alert teams patrol the town 24 hours a day during the fall, and the human residents and the world's largest land carnivores have learned to live with each other.

"The bears were here long before the people of Churchill," the Chronicle writer quotes Richard Romaniuk, district supervisor for Manitoba Conservation which operates the patrols. "We're smack dab in the middle of their natural path. It's our job to make sure people and bears coexist peacefully."

While this gathering of the bears has been going on in Churchill for years, there are some doubts how long it will continue. A recent BBC documentary said global warming could wipe out the world's polar bear population by the year 2050, so it's not certain how many more autumns they'll be congregating around Churchill.

The Hoags, who live on a farm west of Austin one mile south of Oakland, said they enjoyed their trip immensely. Ron recently retired after working 38 years as an engineer for Hormel Foods Corp. and Pat worked for Sears at one time. They have three children, including a son Michael of Rochester.

MSP traffic down

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Passenger traffic at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport dropped 3.2 percent in 2002 from the previous year. For the year, the total number of passengers was 32.6 million, Dow from 33.7 million in 2001.

More planes operated from the airport, however. Takeoffs and landings rose 1.2 percent. Major carriers such as Northwest Airlines sustained traffic losses while operations involving regional airlines and air freight increased.

Here and there

So your fantasy is to sleep in a tent in the Arabian Desert? You can do it at the Emirates' Al Maha Desert Resort, but it will cost you. The resort offers tented accommodations in 30 suites from $800 to $3,800 nightly, reports the Dallas Morning News.

Several major cruise lines have changed age rules for drinking and gambling within the last year. Royal Caribbean, for instance, lowered the age to consume wine and beer from 21 to 18 on all but its Alaska cruises.

On Carnival, you have to be 21 to drink but 18 to gamble; on Crystal 18 to drink wine and beer only and 21 to gamble; on Royal Caribbean and Celebrity 18 to drink wine and beer and 18 to gamble, and on Radisson Seven Seas and Orient 18 to drink and gamble.

You must be 21 to drink and gamble on Norwegian, Holland America, Princess, Seabourn and Silversea. Disney also sets 21 as a drinking age, but has no casino.

Bob Retzlaff is travel editor of the Post-Bulletin. He can be reached by phone (507-285-7704) or e-mail (retz@postbulletin.com).

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