The PBI House lit up at night, with the glow of yellow doorways in a snowy setting.

Over 2,000 people visited our new interpretive center in Churchill, Canada, during this year's polar bear season. The center also includes lodging and kitchen facilities for staff and scientists.

© Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures

11/25/2019 7:06:17 PM

PBI House: Our First Bear Season!

By Emma Acorn, Churchill Programs Manager

It’s late November and I’m sitting in Polar Bears International’s beautiful new interpretive center in Churchill, Manitoba, reflecting on the past two months. The Polar Bears International House, or “PBI House” as it is affectionately called, closed its doors on November 21st after its first crazy-busy bear season. It will open again in late January for northern lights season. I was lucky enough to get the job as PBI’s Churchill Programs Manager and watch locals, visitors, donors, media, celebrities, and our own hard-working staff and volunteers experience all that the house has to offer. Over 2,000 people have come through the front doors since we first welcomed local Churchillians on October 5th.

As I sit and think about the time past, I’m humbled by the passion I’ve seen from people who love polar bears and want to protect their habitat, the sea ice. We now have a place that will help tourists understand the threats polar bears face in a warming Arctic and engage them in polar bear conservation—and that makes me feel as if my heart has grown in size. The warm reception from every person involved has reminded me that we are not alone in our hopes for immediate action on climate change.   

One of my favorite moments from the season was when 28 eighth graders from Saskatchewan came in from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on the last day of their trip. I quizzed them about polar bears, sea ice, and all that Churchill has to offer, and they shared their amazement with me and promised they would not forget everything they had learned and would be back again someday. I was also touched by a visit from a 12-year-old boy who had dragged his whole family from New York to the tundra! His mother made him tell me, through his blushes, about the fundraiser he had organized at his school and how he donated all the money raised to PBI. His joy was unmistakable as he explained all the interpretive displays to his parents.

Emma Acorn in action at PBI House
Emma Acorn in action at PBI House. Photo copyright Barbara Nielsen/Polar Bears International

Another very special day was the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony held on November 3rd. It was a hard choice for the organizers of the day as we’ve had many people help PBI over the years, but every building has a capacity limit—and ours is 50. After a few words from our staff, the mayor, and others, one of the Elders who received a special invitation gave the house a blessing in her native language, Inuktitut, and I am sure I wasn’t the only one in the room with a few tears in the corner of my eye.

I was also lucky to be present a few days before when ten of the Elders who live in long-term care at the Churchill Health Centre visited PBI House for afternoon tea and cookies. One of our volunteer ambassadors joined me in asking as many questions as we could about their lives growing up in Churchill. We loved it as they shared their knowledge and polar bear stories.

Upstairs at the PBI House are four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a common area for meetings. We were able to house long-time supporters of PBI such as renowned scientists Ian Stirling, Andrew Derocher, and PBI’s own Chief Scientist, Steve Amstrup. They all generously gave their time to do presentations for the public eager to rub elbows with the people in the know when it comes to the latest polar bear research across the Arctic. Our own staff scientist from Denmark, Thea Bechshoft, also spent many days in the house, mentoring volunteer ambassadors and educating visitors from around the world on a range of topics based on polar bear conservation.

To say the season was a success would be an understatement, and I will say it is because of the dedication and time the PBI team has spent working behind the scenes for years to make this dream become a reality. It has inspired many, including myself and the town of Churchill, to see PBI investing in its future and the future of polar bears across the North.

Our first season by the numbers at PBI House:

2,011 visitors between Oct 5th-November 21st

33 tour groups brought over 710 visitors

1,060 drop-ins during regular open hours

241 visitors for evening presentations and special events

130 locals on opening day

5 lectures by scientists

1 book signing (with Dr. Ian Stirling)

2 moccasin sewing sessions, with 16 participants each

6 groups for after-hours meetings

1 visit from Ash the great grey owl (from the Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre)

1 Skype call presentation with volunteer ambassador Cindy Roberts from the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington to over 300 kids ages 5-11 (not included in total visitor numbers)

1 red fox living under the house ... I think

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