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
http://www.sierraclub.org/outings/
national/brochure/13026a.aspx
.

"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."

Deering said there are only six to 10 groups a year that embark on such a remote and elaborate land excursion like the group Dyer was with.

One such excursion is offered by the Sierra Club, which describes it in its literature as a "hike from fjord to fjord in the land of Inuit spirits and polar bears." The club's outing costs $6,000 and this year was to cover the final two weeks of July.

In addition to standard camping gear, organizers of that trip also provide "a satellite phone, bear canisters for securing food, bear-repellent spray, flare guns and an electric fence."

It was not known whether Dyer was part of the Sierra Club excursion or another group. A spokesman for the club's headquarters in California did not return a phone call Friday.

Most of the park's visitors come in cruise ships that land for brief periods, then leave the same day, Deering said.

People who enter the park must register with the park service and attend a mandatory safety briefing.

"It explains some of the challenges of traveling on the land and in particular covers the challenge of polar bears there and the risk when traveling on land," Deering said.

The park strongly recommends that groups hire an armed Inuit bear guard, specifically to look out for polar bears. The guides are hired from the local government, not the park, he said.

Dyer's group relied on an electrified bear fence, a portable enclosure that can be moved from campsite to campsite and is designed to keep bears out. It operates in a similar way to an electric fence used to corral cattle or horses, but has higher voltage, Deering said.

The park service is investigating whether the fence malfunctioned or if the bear's desire to get at the people inside overpowered the animal's fear of pain. The group had no firearms, Deering said.

Deering said he doesn't know exactly what happened but said the bear could have attacked with no provocation.

"Polar bears, as opposed to many other species of bear, they are true carnivores," Deering said. "They are predators. They hunt. They hunt things to eat. What precipitates a polar bear attack is you showing up on the landscape and them wanting something to eat."

Deering didn't know how the bear was holding Dyer, only that the animal dropped him when the group fired flares.

Deering said Dyer was lucky that one of the other hikers in the group was a physician.

"In a lot of ways, that's what saved Mr. Dyer's life," Deering said. "They arrived at the scene and Mr. Dyer was stable at the time."

After the attack, the group endured hours of waiting for rescue, with the bear that attacked -- and other bears -- apparently still prowling the area.

The group used a satellite phone to call for help, but was unable to get through to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's telecommunications center until about 6:30 a.m.

The RCMP forwarded the distress call to the park service, which immediately dispatched a helicopter that happened to be at the Torngat Mountains base camp.

The helicopter took more than an hour to arrive. A boat, dispatched as a backup plan, took 10 hours.

Rescue workers in the helicopter could see multiple polar bears in the area, probably including the one that attacked, Deering said.

"As best we can determine, the bear was still in the area," he said. "When we flew into the area, we saw several bears close to the camp area. ... We cannot imagine the distress the group was under at that point."

The helicopter flew back to base camp with the doctor and Dyer, who had "serious, significant trauma." Because of approaching storms from the south that could ground the helicopter, it took off and headed west into Quebec, Deering said. The rest of the camping party had to wait for the boat to arrive, he said.

From there, Dyer was loaded onto a fixed-wing aircraft and taken to a Montreal trauma center.

The website for Polar Bears International, an animal advocacy group, says attacks on humans are rare and usually because the bear was undernourished, frightened or provoked.

The group says encounters between humans and polar bears are expected to increase as sea ice melts and bears spend more time on shore.

David Hench can be contacted at 6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com 

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