July 27, 2013

Polar bear mauls Maine lawyer after breaking through fence

Matthew Dyer, a Lewiston attorney, was attacked while camping in Torngat Mountains National Park in Canada.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Matthew Dyer's interest in hiking to extremely remote parts of the world is not surprising.

click image to enlarge

This photo shows a view of the Nachvak Fjord in the Torngat Mountains National Park in Labrador, Canada. Maine resident Matthew Dyer was camping in this national park, near the Nachvak Fjord, when he was mauled by a polar bear Wednesday, July 26, 2013.

Photo courtesy of National Parks of Canada

click image to enlarge

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TO SEE a photo of an electric fence like the one used by Dyer's group, go to

"He's kind of a hippie, counterculture guy, the kind of person who would go out in the woods and experience that type of life, get away from the day-to-day practice as far as you can," Auburn lawyer Leonard Sharon said Friday.

It was his interest that led Dyer, a lawyer for Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Lewiston, to hike in Torngat Mountains National Park in Labrador, where he was attacked by a polar bear early Wednesday. It was the worst mauling since the park was created in 2005.

Dyer remained in intensive care at Montreal General Hospital on Friday night after he was mauled by the bear, which broke through an electrified fence and attacked him in his tent while he was camping with a group.

The bear, a carnivorous predator that can reach 1,000 pounds and is common in the northern Labrador park, attacked Dyer about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. It dropped Dyer after other members of his camping party fired signal flares.

The Canadian park service sent an emergency helicopter with a medic and staff person to evacuate Dyer back to the Torngat Mountains Base Camp. With bad weather threatening, park officials quickly flew him to Quebec, where he was loaded on a flight to Montreal to undergo emergency surgery for serious injuries.

A message left at Montreal General Hospital for Dyer and his wife, Jeanne Wells, was not returned Friday night. The couple lives in Turner.

Dyer's friends portray him as a compassionate man who likes helping people and enjoys the outdoors.

"He's a great guy," said Sharon, who described Dyer's idealism as a "desire to help poor people secure the civil rights they are often denied."

Dyer, who graduated from the University of Maine School of Law in 1993, has earned recognition for his work on tenants rights and was a vocal advocate for renters displaced after the fires in Lewiston earlier this year.

A spokesperson for Pine Tree Legal Assistance said the legal aid group would not comment on the incident, out of respect for his family.

Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Maine, said Dyer is well-regarded in legal circles.

"Everybody thinks very highly of him. He's a really great guy and a great lawyer," Heiden said.

"It's obviously terrible," he said of the attack. "I'm hoping for a speedy recovery for him."

Dyer was with a group of hikers camping at the Nachvak Fjord, a spectacular landscape in Torngat Mountains National Park on the northeast fringe of the Canadian wilderness. The park covers 3,700 square miles.

"Nachvak Fjord is a very large, deep fjord -- 4,000-foot mountains surrounding an inlet from the ocean, extremely rugged terrain," said Peter Deering, manager of resource conservation for Parks Canada in western Newfoundland and Labrador.

The fjord where Dyer's group was camping has both natural beauty and cultural significance, with many remnants of Inuit, or Eskimo, settlements dating back 5,000 years.

The area is so far north that nighttime at this time of year is no darker than a soft twilight, Deering said.

Polar bears are common in the park. In the winter, they hunt seals on the sea ice, but during the brief summer period that lasts about two months, the ice is gone and the bears linger on shore, Deering said.

"Polar bears are plentiful across the whole park landscape, more plentiful along the coast certainly, but you can encounter them anywhere on that landscape," Deering said. "Visitors regularly encounter polar bears whenever they are in Torngat Mountains, but we've never had an attack like this since the park was established in 2005."

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