In the Jaws of a Polar Bear

As two Arctic kayakers were sound asleep, the polar bear that had picked up their scent began lumbering toward the camp.

By Robert Kiener from Reader's Digest | March 2011

Fjeld knew he had to keep Sebastian warm because it would be hard to survive the frigid temperature with such devastating wounds. He punched the number of a Longyearbyen hospital into the satellite phone. The operator picked up.

“We need help,” Fjeld blurted out. “We are kayakers,” he told the hospital’s nurse manager, Aksel Bilicz. “My friend has been attacked by a polar bear. Please hurry!”

Bilicz called the local police, and about 35 minutes later, a rescue helicopter was in the air. The trip to the camp, however, would likely take almost an hour and a half.

Fjeld returned to Nilssen’s side. Nilssen was pale and shivering. Fjeld talked to him incessantly to keep him awake. “They are sending a helicopter,” Fjeld repeated. “It won’t be long.” Though Nilssen writhed in pain, Fjeld made the hard decision to withhold a dose of the morphine they carried with them because it might knock Nilssen out. Despite his suffering, Nilssen did not want to lose consciousness. Meanwhile, Fjeld scanned the horizon for other polar bears, his rifle loaded by his side.

When the helicopter touched down, two medics carried Nilssen to the chopper. He was put on a saline drip and given a painkiller, though his neck throbbed too much for a brace.

At the hospital, Nilssen underwent a three-hour operation during which surgeons removed all the damaged tissue under his wounds. His neck was badly bruised but not broken. The next day, as Nilssen lay recuperating, surgeon Kari Schroeder Hansen visited him. “Another few millimeters and the bear’s teeth would have punctured your lung and crushed your skull,” the doctor told him. “You wouldn’t still be with us.”

“I know it’s common for bears to crush seals’ skulls,” Nilssen says now. “Lucky for me, I’m thickheaded.”

Today, at home north of Oslo, where he is raising a team of sled dogs, Nilssen sips coffee with Fjeld. Nilssen unbuttons his shirt. His shoulder and torso are tracked with scars from the attack. “I’m not a religious person, but I know it was a miracle I survived,” he says as he buttons up. “I also know that I owe my life to Ludwig.”

Fjeld demurs, saying, “I just instinctively did what we were both trained for.”

The men are considering a return expedition to Svalbard—although their families, who initially learned of the attack on a radio program, are not keen on it. When asked about the experience, Nilssen is amazingly composed. “It is our big regret that the bear had to be killed,” he says reflectively. “I still think the polar bear is the most majestic animal in the world. It was just trying to survive.”

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