September 3, 2013

Polar bear attack victim's thought: 'Dude, you're going to die'

Matt Dyer of Turner recalls the terrifying moments in July when a polar bear carried him away in its jaws.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

TURNER - Matt Dyer was hanging from the mouth of a polar bear that had just plucked him by the head from his tent as he heard the sound of his neck bones breaking under the crushing pressure of massive jaws.

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Matt Dyer still bears scars from being attacked by a polar bear at his campsite in Canada earlier this summer. He talked about the incident at his home in Turner last week.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Torngat Mountains National Park in northern Labrador is where Matt Dyer’s group ventured. They used an electric fence, lower left in photo, at their campsite to ward off polar bears, but it did not prevent the attack on Dyer.

Courtesy photo

"I can remember thinking, 'Well, dude, you're going to die,"' he said, his voice raspy from injuries and medical procedures. "This is your time."

He did not struggle, but was carried away motionless and helpless like a kitten in the mouth of its mother.

As he stared down at the bear's belly and huge legs marching away from camp, he saw a light -- the light of a flare fired by a member of his hiking party. The startled bear dropped him, and Dyer lay perfectly still. The thousand-pound bear didn't utter a sound, but Dyer could hear its footsteps around him, and then receding.

Dyer is one of the few people in the world to have been attacked by a polar bear and survived -- albeit with two cracked vertebrae, a broken jaw, a collapsed lung, injuries to both hands and a gash on the forehead.

He faces a lengthy and painful recovery, although he hopes this week to get his neck brace removed. Interviewed at his home last week, Dyer said he is lucky to be alive, and able to walk and shake hands and make jokes.

Dyer, 48, is a native of Cliff Island in Casco Bay, where he spent his early youth and still has family. A liberal activist since he was a young man, he determined the law was a better way to help people than his earlier jobs working in retail or light industry. He now serves as a staff attorney for Pine Tree Legal Assistance helping protect the civil rights of poor people.

Four years ago, Dyer and his wife, photographer Jeanne Wells, moved from Portland to the rural town of Turner to be closer to nature -- and so he could have a shorter commute to his office in Lewiston. The home they share is near Androscoggin Riverlands State Park and the Androscoggin River.

Last year, Dyer was flipping through a copy of Sierra Club magazine -- he's a longtime member of the environmental group -- and saw an ad for a trip to Torngat Mountains National Park in northern Labrador, billed in the ad as a land of spirits and polar bears. Dyer figured he could afford the $6,000 cost for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. His only other major trip was when he traveled in Europe while in college.

His main concern about the two-week hiking excursion to Labrador was meeting the physical demands of the trip.

He started training, hiking or snowshoeing 10 miles with filled water bottles in his backpack for weight. As he prepared to leave Maine in July, he joked with a colleague that he would be back unless a polar bear gets him.

When he and the other six in the hiking party assembled in Quebec, he was among the fittest.

Torngat Mountains National Park is Canada's youngest national park, created in 2005. The local Inuit agreed to allow the area to become a park but under the stipulation that only the native people could carry firearms in it.

The park is home to an abundance of wildlife, including omnivorous black bears and, during the brief summer months, the strictly meat-eating polar bears.


Bad weather delayed for several days the group's foray into the park. Eventually, they were flown in by float plane, crossing desolate mountains of rock and ice and landing in the spectacular Nachvak Fjord.

(Continued on page 2)

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