Siege of the Polar Bears
Credit: RGB Ventures LLC / Alamy

A few hours before my turboprop landed in the small Inuit town of Arviat last November, airport workers chased a polar bear off the runway. Three bears had passed by the terminal earlier that morning. Around noon, a fifth bear entered town, loped down the main street, turned a corner, and took off after two young men. Paul Aliktiluk, one of Arviat's two cops, arrived just in time to head it off. That evening, over by the cemetery road, a sixth bear charged a woman named Judy Ubluriak, who dashed into a nearby house. Later that night, explosions woke residents in their beds as the town's newly appointed bear monitor, Leo Ikakhik, used firecracker shells to scare off a seventh bear. Ikakhik did not attempt to dislodge the eight or so bears at the town dump eating Arviat's leftovers – residents had already ceded the dump to the bears.

In winter, Arviat is a fleck in a homogeneous whiteness of frozen, snow-buried sponge lake and marsh and sea – a peninsular town of 2,700 people on the western shore of Hudson Bay, in the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut. No roads lead to Arviat; no other town lies within 160 miles of it. Everyone's first language is Inuktitut, and nearly everyone hunts the same animals they've hunted forever: beluga whale, ringed seal, caribou, white fox, polar bear, arctic char. Arviat's few hundred frame houses sit above the tundra on pilings, along an irregular grid of nameless streets.

Approximately half the world's 25,000 polar bears live in the Canadian Arctic. About 1,200 of them pass Arviat every fall as they migrate up Hudson Bay's west coast on their way to the high Arctic. Evolution has synchronized their migration to the freezing of the bay. As they move northward, they range east onto the widening ice. Polar bears live mainly on seal, and ringed seals have an affinity for shelf ice. By the time the bears reach Arviat's latitude, most should already be out on the bay, hunting seals. But the climate has warmed in recent years, and the ice freezes later, so the bears hug the coast longer. Their new route runs straight through Arviat.

Probably no other town on the planet has more per capita polar bear incursions than Arviat does in the late fall. At least 50 bears come right into town every season, according to local wildlife officer Joe Savikataaq. Last year, Leo Ikakhik spotted seven or eight bears every day between mid-October and early December – more than 300 sightings in six weeks.

"We're the number one target," a tribal elder named Peter Alareak told me, noting that Arviat was far worse than Churchill, which lies 150 miles to the south and bills itself as the Polar Bear Capital of the World. A decade or so ago, there were only a few months a year when you saw bears. Now there are only a few months a year when you don't see them. "You never know where they're going to pop up," Alareak said. "You might be inside and want to go out for a smoke, and next thing you know, the bear is right there."

It's been like this for a half-dozen years, yet the residents of Arviat had shot only 24 intruding bears in self-defense – a display of extreme temperance considering that the Inuit have always been polar bear hunters and almost every home contains a high-powered rifle. The Canadian government sets an annual quota of polar bear hunting tags for Arviat and other Inuit communities, and although it permits kills "in defense of life or property," those kills count against the quota. That means that every self-defense kill takes a polar bear away from a traditional hunter. Because government biologists consider Hudson Bay's polar bear population vulnerable, Arviat receives only eight tags a year – far below the number traditionally hunted.

No one in Arviat has yet been mauled or killed, but for many residents the town has become a scary place. I kept hearing that people were a serious injury or death away from shooting bears preemptively, which at this point could mean carnage.