The ad in Sierra magazine promised the adventure of a lifetime:
14 days of hiking through northern Canadian wilderness, with the possibility of seeing the world’s largest land carnivore, the polar bear. “If you dream of experiencing a place that is both pristine and magical, a land of spirits and polar bears rarely seen by humans,” the ad said, “this is the trip you have been waiting for.”
Two seasoned Sierra Club guides were the leaders. Rich Gross, then 60, worked for a housing nonprofit in San Francisco but spent a week or two a year steering trips in remote parts of the world. Marta Chase, 59, a medical diagnostics consultant from North Carolina, had led hiking trips since high school. The pair had guided 13 trips together.
Joining them were Larry Rodman, 63, a New York City corporate lawyer; Marilyn Frankel, 65, an exercise physiologist from Oregon; and Rick Isenberg, 55, a clinical researcher and former physician from Arizona. Chase’s husband, Kicab Castañeda-Mendez, 63, a quality-improvement consultant, would be joining them as well. Rounding out the trekkers was Matt Dyer, 48, a legal aid lawyer from Maine. His shoulders and back were covered with tattoos of images from nature—a turtle, a winged bull, a giant tree of life with ravens.
It was Gross’s idea to go into Torngat Mountains National Park in Canada’s Arctic tundra. He’d never seen a polar bear in the wild, and he was drawn to the area’s mystical terrain, where steep peaks rose from the coast of the Labrador Sea. Only a few hundred people went to the park each year, and Gross wanted to be part of that club. Chase did, too, but she worried about hiking in polar bear country.
Polar bears sit at the top of the Arctic food chain. A large male can weigh as much as 1,700 pounds and stand ten feet tall. They spend most of their lives on the sea ice, waiting for seals. When a seal surfaces at a breathing hole, the bear pounces, grabs it by the head, and crushes its skull.
[pullquote] After all, to a starving polar bear, a human is just meat. [/pullquote]
Polar bears tend to stay clear of humans, but scientists predict that may be changing. Like many areas in the Southern Arctic, the Torngats has typically had an ice-free summer season, when the carnivores are forced onto land and live off their body fat. Worldwide climate change is driving temperatures higher—the Arctic is warming at about twice the rate of the rest of the globe—and the period when the animals have to live off their reserves has lengthened. Since the late 1970s, the number of ice-free days in the area around the Torngats has increased from 125 to 175 days a year.
Some desperate bears turn to goose eggs, grasses, berries—and anything else they can find. As the ice-free period increases, it’s predicted that more bears will come into contact with humans, which could have deadly consequences. After all, to a starving polar bear, a human is just meat.
Courtesy Kicab Castañeda-Mendez
On Sunday, July 21, 2013, a floatplane carrying the Sierra Club party descended toward the eastern shore of the Torngats, weaving between the peaks. The landscape was desolate but breathtaking. Ice covered parts of glassy lakes, and rivulets of water cascaded from mountain peaks that jutted into the cloud-filled sky. The plane landed on Nachvak Fjord and deposited the passengers. The pilot said goodbye, and the seven hikers were left with just the sound of waves lapping on the shore. The fjord felt prehistoric, as if they were in a world without humans.
The first thing the group did was set up camp 150 yards from the shore. While the Parks Canada website “strongly encourages” visitors to hire licensed Inuit bear guards who have taken a special safety course and are permitted to carry guns, Chase and Gross talked to an outfitter familiar with the area who told them that flare guns, bear spray, and electric fences offered the necessary protection. They set up two electric fences: one around the campsite, the other around the area where they would cook and store their food. Each fence stood about three feet high and consisted of three parallel wires suspended from posts. The wires had five to seven kilovolts of charge—not enough to injure a polar bear but supposedly enough to send it running.
As the hikers prepared cream of potato soup and pesto pasta for dinner, they watched terns and gulls swoop by. Wolves occasionally wandered into view. After they ate, some of the hikers stayed to clean up. By the time the sky darkened, at about 10:30 p.m., they’d all retired to their tents.
At 4 a.m., Castañeda-Mendez stepped out of his tent—and saw that they weren’t alone. “Polar bear on the beach!” he yelled. A mother and her cub were walking along the shore in the early-morning light. The other hikers came out. They were shouting distance from two of the world’s most violent predators, yet the scene was overwhelmingly peaceful. Dyer was on the verge of tears.
[pullquote] They were shouting distance from two of the world’s most violent predators, yet the scene was overwhelmingly peaceful. [/pullquote]
On Monday, July 22, after a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, the hikers assembled their daypacks, bundled up, and headed east to explore the fjord. Gross had one flare gun in his waistband; Chase carried the other. The group members hiked through scrub willows and grassy hills and along the ledges above their camp. They came across everyday detritus from the park’s residents—black-bear scat, caribou antlers, and the skull of what looked like a wolf or a seal. Dyer tucked a tooth from the skull into his pocket.
At about 3:30 p.m., they reached a stream near their campsite. The water was shallow, clear, and shockingly cold. For feet that had been in hiking boots all day, the stream offered relief. Castañeda-Mendez was walking barefoot in the water when Dyer saw something coming toward them. “Polar bear!” he shouted. “Get back here!”
The animal was about 150 yards away and approaching them. It looked larger and had a fuller coat than the female they’d seen that morning. Castañeda-Mendez rejoined the group, and the hikers clustered, following polar bear defense protocol: Stand together. Make yourself seem big. Make loud noises, especially metal on metal.
Still, the bear kept coming. Gross pulled out his flare gun. “I’m gonna shoot,” he told Chase when the animal was within 50 yards. “I think that’s a good idea,” she replied.
The flare shot forward with a flash of light, but the bear kept advancing. Only when the shell landed in front of it, causing a second burst, did the bear run off. The group cheered and clapped. But the bear didn’t go far. It settled on a ledge about 300 yards away, with a clear view of the camp.
By the time the hikers reached the safety of their camp, rain was coming down hard. Most members of the group went to their tents to nap, but Dyer was uneasy. He stayed outside, watching the bear for an hour, until he took a nap.
Courtesy Marilyn Frankel
Afternoon turned into evening, and still the bear remained nearby. At 5 p.m., the campers went to the cooking area. Using the zoom lenses on their cameras, they watched the bear roll on its back and lie on its belly. To Frankel, it looked like a big dog. But to others, it was disconcerting.
Over dinner, they laughed, sharing stories of their past trips and lives back home. They didn’t talk much about the bear that was observing them. It seemed almost like a piece of the landscape—just another detail in the majestic setting.
Castañeda-Mendez felt reassured by their bear interactions that day. The mother and cub weren’t interested in them, and the bear on the ledge had shied away from the flare. But Dyer couldn’t shake his unease. “Why don’t we post a watch?” he asked. But Gross wasn’t worried. “That’s what the fence is for,” he told Dyer.
Isenberg slept fitfully, and every time he woke up, he checked to see if the bear was still there. It was. But by about 1 a.m., it had disappeared.
The next morning was cold and rainy, and the hikers loaded their daypacks and went exploring. They reveled in the wildlife: whales in the fjord, caribou, and ptarmigan. By afternoon, the weather had begun to improve, and they stopped at a rock above the campsite to take silly pictures of one another.
That night, before Gross turned in, he walked the campsite’s perimeter, confirming that the electric fence was on. Before he crawled into his sleeping bag, he tucked the flare gun into his boot.
He fell asleep listening to the waves.
At 3:30 a.m., he woke to screams.
From the window of her tent, Chase saw a polar bear a few feet away. It was down on all fours, eyes level with her, huge and white except for the black of its eyes and nose. “Rich!” she screamed, yelling for Gross. The bear tore at a neighboring tent and dragged it into the darkness.
Gross grabbed his flare gun, ran out in his long underwear, and aimed at the bear. The animal was 75 feet away, heading west. Something was dangling from its mouth. He saw that what was in the bear’s mouth was not a thing at all—it was Dyer.
Dyer had been sound asleep when something—he wasn’t sure what—caused him to stir. As his eyes adjusted, he saw two paws, each a foot wide and silhouetted by the bright Arctic moon, sweep across the thin nylon of the tent. “Bear in the camp!” he remembers shouting. “He’s got me! He’s got me!” The bear clamped its mouth around the crown of the man’s head and ripped him out of the tent. Dyer heard his jaw break as huge teeth punctured his head and neck. He could smell the fishy, oily stench of the bear’s saliva.
Dyer stared at the animal’s white stomach and the yellow stains on its hindquarters as it carried him away. He noticed with odd detachment that one of his socks had fallen off. And then he heard noise coming from behind him—the shouts of his friends.
The bear turned toward the hikers, whipping Dyer into the air and slamming him against the ground. Without losing its grip on Dyer’s head, it moved toward the water.
Dyer had sometimes thought about how it would feel before he died, what that terrifying last moment would be like. But instead of fear or panic, he was filled with a great sense of calm. With his head in the bear’s jaws, he saw a flash of light and heard the flare gun. The bear dropped him hard and fled. Dyer was in shock, mercifully, and couldn’t feel any pain.
Gross handed his gun to Frankel so she could cover him. “I’ve got to get out there,” he said. Isenberg went with him. About 75 feet from the campsite, they found Dyer’s crumpled, blood-drenched body. They thought he was dead.
But when Isenberg knelt beside him, he saw the man breathing. Castañeda-Mendez and Rodman ran out, and the four men carried Dyer’s limp body back. They laid him down on a sleeping pad in the middle of the camp, covered him with two sleeping bags, and placed a sack under his head. Gross and Castañeda-Mendez pulled up the cook tent and placed it over Dyer. The teepee-style shape would give Isenberg, the onetime physician, room to work while protecting Dyer from the wind and the cold.
All Isenberg had was a basic medical kit—four-by-four gauze pads, a roll of gauze strip, antibiotic ointment, splints, scissors. Dyer’s face was swollen and bruised, and his jaw was displaced, but at least he was talking. “Thank you. Oh, thank you,” he said over and over, his voice a whisper.
Isenberg hacked through Dyer’s blood-soaked hair with scissors. Wounds ringed his face and head, but they were oozing blood, not pumping it—a positive sign. The biggest wound was a gash on his neck that looked as if it had been filleted open. Isenberg could see Dyer’s carotid artery, the principal blood supplier to the head and neck. The artery was intact, but if anything caused it to tear, Dyer would bleed to death.
Isenberg was terrified. Dyer was in critical condition, they were hundreds of miles from help, and Isenberg hadn’t practiced medicine in 15 years. He held Dyer’s hand and prayed.
Meanwhile, Chase used the satellite phone to call for help. At 3:45 a.m., she reached a police dispatcher and told him her group had been attacked by a polar bear. One hiker needed to be evacuated, and the rest of them were in danger. But the area was enveloped by fog, and until it cleared, there was no way to launch a rescue.
The electric fence was in tatters. Frankel circled the campsite with a flare gun, her eyes scanning the horizon. Castañeda-Mendez and Rodman took turns patrolling with the second gun. Gross stayed outside the cook tent to assist Isenberg. Every 15 minutes, Chase called the police dispatcher to check on progress.
At 4:20 a.m., Isenberg announced that Dyer was stable. If his carotid artery didn’t rupture and he kept breathing, he’d survive. The sun was finally rising. If a bear came their way, at least they could see it.
By 8:30 a.m., the clouds were lifting. Minutes later, the group heard the thump of a helicopter and saw it moving toward them. It landed, and medic Larry Brandridge got off. He and the hikers carried Dyer to the helicopter. Isenberg climbed aboard to help, leaving the others to wait for a boat that was coming to pick them up.
The chopper touched down around 8:30 a.m. at Torngat Mountains Base Camp & Research Station, a hub for scientists, visitors, and park staff. Dyer’s stretcher was taken to the medic tent, where Brandridge inventoried and cleaned Dyer’s wounds. He began with the bite and claw marks on his face, which were dripping blood into Dyer’s eyes.
“How are you feeling?” Brandridge asked the hiker.
“Like crap,” Dyer whispered.
“That’s not bad for someone who just got attacked by a polar bear.”
Then the medic peeled off the big bandage on Dyer’s neck. The odor of flesh filled the tent. To Brandridge, it smelled like death. The hole in Dyer’s neck was about the width of a pencil and went behind his jugular and toward his esophagus. Each time Dyer inhaled, he was wicking blood into the wound. Brandridge quickly realized that he didn’t have the equipment or expertise needed to save Dyer’s life, so he and the base-camp staff put Dyer back into the helicopter and sent him to George River, a town 45 minutes away, where a first-response team with more sophisticated equipment was waiting. From there, he’d be flown to Kuujjuaq, a small Inuit community, and then to Montreal.
In Kuujjuaq, doctors found that Dyer’s lung was punctured. Dyer was heavily sedated, and a breathing tube was inserted. At about 8 p.m., Quebec’s flying intensive-care unit arrived to take him to Montreal.
Around midnight on July 25—20 hours after being attacked by the polar bear—Matt Dyer was finally admitted to Montreal General Hospital. He had two broken vertebrae, but they were high enough that the doctors weren’t worried about paralysis. His jaw had been crushed. His left hand was broken in several places. His right lung had collapsed. He had at least a dozen wounds, including the hole in his neck. A tendon in his right arm was punctured. Despite his injuries, Dyer regained consciousness just past midnight.
On July 27, the rest of the hikers arrived at the hospital. Gross and Chase went into Dyer’s room first. Dyer couldn’t speak because of the breathing tube in his throat, but he had been given an alphabet board. He pointed to the letters, and slowly he spelled out a question: Would they all like to come to his house for a lobster bake? It was the kind of random humor that had endeared him to the group, and seeing it was a huge relief to the trip leaders. Dyer really was OK.
Today Dyer has recovered from his ordeal, evident only by scars on his face and neck and the husky rasp that is now his voice. He has a new tattoo on his arm: a polar bear surrounded by six stars, one for each of his travel mates. It’s a reminder of just how close he came to death, the friendships he forged in the most dire circumstances, and the animal he has come to admire.
A year after his trip, a group of journalists invited him to join them for a week in the Torngats, and he immediately accepted. He wanted to build new memories of the park’s awe-inspiring splendor rather than the horror of the polar bear attack. In August 2014, accompanied by two armed Inuit guards, Dyer revisited his former campsite. Within minutes, he saw a polar bear.
First published by InsideClimate News, a non-profit, non-partisan news organization that covers climate and energy.