Today, less than one week before I leave Churchill and return to 'civilized' lands, I attended a polar bear and firearms safety workshop. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are different from the black (U. americanus) and grizzly (U. horribilus) bears I'm somewhat more familiar with in several very important ways. Besides being bigger, faster, stronger and better-armed than either southern species, polar bears behave quite differently. Perhaps the most important difference is that while grizzlies will very rarely, and black bears will never hunt humans for prey, polar bears are likely to stalk humans as walking meat. This alone means a person's behaviour in bear country has to be quite different. In particular, while I've been told countless times to make plenty of noise while travelling in grizzly or black bear habitat, to avoid surprising a bear, the opposite applies here - stay reasonably quiet, and try not to attract the attentions of any nearby polar bears.
Besides such useful advice (among lots of other important bear-safety tips), we learned about firearms, in the context of bear 'deterents'. Nobody here has any desire to kill a polar bear; they can be legally hunted in Canada, but I'm pretty sure it's not bear season now, and the privilege of hunting is very restricted and probably expensive. So we learned about such things as firecracker and screamer rounds for starter pistols and 12-gauge shotguns. Because these devices are intended to scare a bear, or perhaps simply to convince it to move away, we also learned about shotgun slugs. Then, we got to actually fire some guns. One of the staff here, the research coordinator, owns a .22-calibre semi-automatic rifle and a Remington 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. The Churchill Northern Studies Centre also owns about half a dozen 12-gauge shotguns; all of these are pump-action as well, making ammunition standard for everyone here.
So, we went to the nearby Churchill shooting range (a clear bit of less-soggy tundra with a low, bulldozed ridge behind it) and fired off a few rounds, to get familiar with these deterents. We didn't get to fire the starter-pistol-cracker-round combination (loud bang, much louder bang), but we did get to plink away at a cardboard box with the rifle and blast it with the shotgun. Despite being born in Thunder Bay, and growing up mainly in Calgary, I'd never fired a gun before this evening. My first impressions: both guns had less recoil than I was expecting, but the shotgun definitely had much more kick (firing slugs; we didn't try fine shot). I was also surprisingly accurate, given my total lack of real shooting experience (disclaimer: I fired pellet guns a few times when I was about 12 years old at a summer camp, and received positive reviews for "good rifle technique").