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

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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 felt tugging, tugging, then 'pop' like opening a beer or a champagne cork," he said. "It bit my head through the tent and pulled me right out through the fabric."

The beast's mouth enveloped the back of his neck. The jaws were so close to his ear he heard his bones breaking.

"I couldn't see his head. He had me by the back of the neck" and he was moving quickly away from camp. "I didn't scream. I wasn't panicking. I was just keeping still, waiting for it to happen," Dyer said.

"I think if I had been flailing around, he would have killed me."

At one point, as the camp erupted into noisy chaos, the bear whipped him around, maybe to look back.

Then Dyer saw light.

One of the hikers had fired a flare that hung in the sky, burning intensely. The bear dropped him.

Dyer lay like an animal playing dead.

"I could still hear him, his footsteps. ... I couldn't holler because he busted my jaw."


The bear retreated and members of the group nervously approached where Dyer lay. He couldn't speak, and in the dim light they feared what they would find.

Dyer is convinced he would have died if not for one of the group being a doctor. Rick Isenberg, a research physician from Arizona, got Dyer into a tent and set about stabilizing his broken bones and treating multiple puncture wounds.

It was 1:30 a.m. One of Isenberg's first tasks, as he worked to treat the back of Dyer's neck, was to cut through Dyer's formidable ponytail with the first aid kit's small pair of scissors, he said.

Somewhere, he chuckled, his ponytail is now lying among the bones on the rugged landscape.

Another in the group tried to raise help on the ship-to-shore radio but was unable to get any response. Dyer lay for hours in the small tent, the other hikers taking turns sitting with him.

Others kept a nervous watch in case the bear came back.

The bear's smell and saliva enveloped him.

"It was like slug slime. Then you get the smell, very fishy, oily, and it lingered for a week," he said.

Despite his injuries, he said he felt good.

"If you ever get dragged out in the dark by a bear and then you've been saved, you're not going to be ungrateful. You're not going to be complaining."

Finally, at 6:30 that morning, they were able to reach a Royal Canadian Mounted Police communications center.

The park service dispatched a rescue helicopter, which took an hour to reach them.

Seven hours after the bear attacked him, Dyer was loaded into the helicopter. Isenberg stayed with him. The park service left behind a bear guard armed with a rifle to stay with the other hikers, who waited 12 more hours until a boat arrived to evacuate them.

Dyer remembers flying into the Torngat park base camp, which reminded him of a lumber camp. Impending bad weather convinced the park service he should be flown to Kangiqsualujjuaq, a small town in northern Quebec, and then on to Montreal.

Dyer said he wasn't in a lot of pain.

At the hospital in northern Quebec, he remembers a flurry of activity. They needed to install a breathing tube and he was given anesthesia. He was placed in a medically induced coma for the trip.

He woke at Montreal General Hospital, 1,000 miles to the south.


Back in Maine, Wells had been working with her photography equipment, shuttling between her house and her adjacent studio, when she saw two missed calls from Canada on her cellphone.

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