Chapter 10

The Torngats group, 2013. L-R, Matt Dyer, Larry Rodman, Marta Chase, Rick Isenberg, Marilyn Frankel, Rich Gross, Kicab Castañeda-Mendez. (Courtesy: Kicab Castañeda-Mendez)

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In George River, Dyer was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the town’s infirmary, where nurses got an IV into him, gave him oxygen and put a stabilizing collar around his neck. The clinic had no doctor, but Isenberg said an x-ray technician who visited every two weeks happened to be working. She x-rayed Dyer’s chest and gave them a preliminary report: One of Dyer’s lungs appeared to be damaged. 

Map by Paul Horn

Before the nurses could do much else, a plane landed with a medical team from Kuujjuaq, the Inuit community the Sierra Club hikers had flown through on their way into the Torngats. For Isenberg, seeing the medical team come in was like seeing “the cavalry coming over the hill.” They quickly loaded Dyer onto the plane and headed for Kuujjuaq.

Doctors at the town’s small hospital discovered that Dyer’s lung was, in fact, punctured.

While the team worked on him, Dyer repeatedly thanked them for their help. He pointed across the room at Isenberg. “That man saved my life,” he said.

Dyer was put into a medically induced coma, and a breathing tube was inserted into his throat. At about 8 p.m., the Challenger, Quebec’s flying intensive care unit, arrived to take him south, to Montreal. 

Isenberg stayed behind to wait for the rest of the group. As he walked around the village he tried to process all that had happened in the last 16 hours. Wherever he went, people stopped him to talk about what had happened. Bear attacks are rare, and news travels fast in small, isolated communities like Kuujjuaq. 

Rick Isenberg, outside of Kuujjuaq. (Courtesy: Rick Isenberg)

Every time he described the events, Isenberg said he was met with the same reaction: You did what? You went there without a rifle? Again and again, he heard stories about how polar bears had changed in recent years. There were more of them. They were spending more time on land and travelling farther inland. And they were more aggressive than ever before.

It was almost too much to absorb. 

Around midnight on July 25, about 20 hours after being attacked by the polar bear, Matt Dyer was admitted into intensive care at Montreal General, still in a medically induced coma.

He had two broken vertebrae in his spine, but they were in his neck, high enough that the doctors weren’t worried about paralysis. His jaw was crushed. His left hand was broken in several places. His right lung had collapsed. He had at least a dozen puncture wounds, including the gaping hole in his neck. A tendon in his right arm was punctured. Two arteries in his brain were occluded—permanently clogged—but his remaining arteries had taken over and his blood was flowing fine.

At 12:30 a.m., Dyer blinked his eyes open as he was brought out of the medically-induced coma. He focused under the fluorescent lights, and the first thing he recognized was the face staring back at him: his partner of 25 years, Jeanne Wells. Seeing her meant one thing: He was safe. It was over.

Dyer couldn’t speak with the breathing tube in his throat. But the medical staff had given him a board with the alphabet written on it, and he pointed to the letters he needed to communicate with Wells. She had brought an iPod with her, and he asked for some John Prine. She played the folk singer’s album “German Afternoons.”

On July 27, the rest of the hikers arrived at the hospital. They were allowed into Dyer’s room in small groups. Gross and Chase went in first, standing at the foot of the bed where he lay sleeping.

He was still drifting in and out of sedation. He was also having hallucinations—side effects from the medications he was taking, or from the trauma or maybe from some combination of the two. The hallucinations were nearly as terrifying as the attack itself, he said later.

As Dyer woke up, he saw his friends staring back at him. Slowly he pointed to the letters on his alphabet board and spelled out two questions: Would they all like to come to his house for a lobster bake? And would someone take him slap dancing?

It was the kind of random humor that had helped endear Dyer to the group in the first place, and seeing it now was a huge relief. Dyer really was OK. Together, they had survived the experience of a lifetime.

When the Sierra Club travellers headed into the Torngat Mountains, they hoped to see something rare—a wilderness still free from the effects of modern civilization. What they didn’t know was that the modern world has already arrived in the Torngats in the form of climate change, which is altering the Arctic ecosystem right now, not in some distant scenario.

With each decade, another huge swath of the ice-covered north dissolves into the ocean, taking with it a thriving ecosystem that is uniquely adapted to survive there. As this habitat melts away, the reflective white surface of the ice gives way to dark expanses of the ocean, driving a cycle in which warming leads to melting which leads to more warming.

The evidence is in plain view in the mountains of the Torngats, newly topped with green growth, the mosquitoes buzzing nearby as the permafrost disappears and the Ski-Doos that crash through the untrustworthy ice. And during the extended warmth of summer, the evidence is in the polar bears that crowd the shore, forced to wait longer than ever to return home.

After the Torngats trip of 2013, the hikers returned to their lives—in North Carolina and New York, in New Mexico and California, in Oregon and Maine. They carried home with them not only the relentless memory of their friend’s terrified screams but also the bond of having lived through an unimaginable ordeal. 

Their story also points to something else, something to which they had borne witness: the advanced symptom of a much larger environmental upheaval, in which humans are forced to adjust to their own changing habitat, not just in the Arctic, but everywhere on the warming planet.

Next: Epilogue

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