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 dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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

Like the others, Dyer was amazed. Herds of caribou grazed the tundra and wolves ran in the distance, giving the hikers a wide berth. Minke whales splashed in the deep waters of the fjord. Wildflowers and scrub willows sprang from hardscrabble ground.

There were signs, too, of nature's darker side. The ground was strewn with bones. The subarctic climate apparently preserves the bones of dead animals, Dyer said. They found bleached wolf skulls, whale bones and caribou. Dyer found the leg of a wolf that still had tissue on it, all that remained of a recent kill.

The park weather would change swiftly. A brisk east wind replaced sun and temperatures in the 60s with rain verging on sleet and temperatures in the 40s.

The group set up camp near the fjord, tents clustered in a space Dyer described as the size of his modest living room. At the edge of a three-foot buffer, they were encircled by the thin wire of an electrified bear fence. The high-voltage device had always been adequate to protect hikers from a bear attack.

"I was never fully on board with the fence anyway," Dyer said. "It was pretty flimsy looking." He would have favored having someone sit up all night keeping watch.

Dyer was aware of the threat of polar bears. He had read up on them extensively. He thought if he was lucky, they might see one.

Since it opened, the park had never had a polar bear attack a human, although some groups hire Inuit bear guards, armed with rifles.

Dyer does not believe a guard would have made a difference, unless the guard kept watch all night and didn't sleep.

That first morning, the group woke to the sight of a polar bear cub, soon joined by its mother, perhaps 100 yards away.

"I thought, 'Oh, God, this is great," Dyer said.

The next day, after returning from a hike inland to scout the location for the next campsite, they spotted a male polar bear, much larger than the one the day before.

He eyed them and ambled closer, his tongue lolling. The group gathered together and started to make noise as they had been instructed. The bears are less likely to attack a group than one or two people alone, Dyer said..

"He was getting closer ... a little too close," he said. The bear was probably 30 to 50 yards away. One of the trip leaders fired a flare gun and the bear ambled off, climbing onto a ledge where it watched their camp, sometimes dozing.

"We all stayed behind the bear fence," he said. "I wasn't freaking out or anything."

The group had dinner and retreated into their tents before sundown. That far north, the summer sun sets at 11 p.m. and rises at 3 a.m.

It was in the brief twilight between the two that the bear struck on July 24.

Dyer said he is a light sleeper and for whatever reason, was lying awake on his back staring at the ceiling of the tent. His tent was on the western side of the grouping and he suspects the bear approached from downwind. His was the first tent it came to.

"I'm laying awake. I saw the shadow of these two bear arms coming over the top and I thought, 'Oh, boy.' ... There was no doubt what it was," he said.

"I shouted 'Bear in the camp! Bear in the camp!' I think I got it out twice. He just scooped me up tent and all."

Dyer was being lifted by his head, the shroud of the tent still around him. The bear didn't growl or roar.

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