On the afternoon of July 19, the 19-seat Air Inuit Twin Otter descended over a steep waterfall and bumped down onto the gravel landing strip at Barnoin River Camp, some 900 miles north of Montreal. As they stepped off the plane, the Sierra Club backpackers walked into a wall of mosquitoes—a swarm that would harass them throughout their stay.
Although they wouldn’t head into the wilderness until the next morning, in many ways it felt like they were already there. The camp is a series of small plywood structures set on concrete blocks near the banks of the Barnoin River. The water is so clear they could see trout swimming under the surface. The river also serves as a driveway for floatplanes. With no roads, planes and helicopters are the only way in or out of the area.
Lagacé, a fit, middle-aged man with a gray mustache, gave them an orientation, pointing out the bathrooms, kitchen, dining facility and bunkhouses. The group paired off, deciding who would sleep where. The two lawyers—Rodman from New York City and Dyer from Maine—bunked together. Already they felt like old friends.
They were manufactured by a company called UDAP, which describes them on its website as “an answer to the problem of fear while camping in bear country.” In a testimonial, a backpacker describes waking up in his tent in the Torngat Mountains, roused by “a loud chuffing sound” from a polar bear outside.
“The mother bear was just outside the fence, no more than 12-15 feet away from me, looking at me warily and looking back at her cub,” he wrote. “Slowly, she walked away and herded her cub up a slope just outside the fence. It was clear to me that the mother bear had approached my camp and touched the fence right near the red energizer and the shock had caused her to make the loud chuff in surprise … After a few minutes the mother and cub walked behind a large boulder and disappeared. ”
When the men looked at the fences, what they saw wasn’t particularly inspiring. So Lagacé offered them two of his own fences, which were in much better shape. They came with directions, were wrapped properly and looked sturdy.
The men set up the fences one at a time. As they worked, they swatted at the black flies and mosquitoes. Bug spray—even the strong stuff, with 100 percent Deet—didn’t make much difference.
They switched the first fence on, but couldn’t tell if it was working. No one volunteered to touch it and find out.
Lagacé came to the rescue with the voltage tester he uses at his camp. A small rectangular device with a number of lights, it’s attached to a thin pole that is pushed into the earth to ground the device. When the device is touched to the fence, the lights are supposed to come on. As the voltage increases, more lights illuminate.
When Lagacé touched the tester to the fence, only a few of the lights lit up. Castañeda-Mendez got the same result. Gross wasn’t surprised. The voltage tester they were using wasn’t mean to read this type of fence, which sends pulses of electricity, rather than a constant current. But at least the test proved that some electricity was pulsing through the fence.
They broke down the first fence and set up the second, with the same results. Most of the hikers were reassured. But Isenberg, the doctor, still had reservations.
As the others stood around talking, he thought, the heck with this, and grabbed the fence with his bare hand.
Instead of a shock, he felt a light tingle.
“Look at your feet,” Lagacé said, pointing to Isenberg’s hiking boots. They had rubber soles, perfect insulation for that kind of shock.
Isenberg decided not to try again without his shoes. He still had some reservations, but he was ready to put his faith in the fence.
Swatting at the bugs, Gross pulled out one of the flare guns. He’d never shot one before and wanted to be comfortable with the way that it handled and to see how far it would shoot.
The bright orange gun looked almost like a toy. Gross pulled the trigger, and the 12-gauge flare shell erupted with a bang. The bright light of the flare shot about 150 feet in a straight path toward the ground. Upon impact, the cartridge exploded with a whoosh and a second burst of light.
Frankel saw the flashes from a shed where she was sorting food, pulling out the half that would be airdropped to them midway through the hike. OK, she thought to herself, those should work.
Later in the afternoon, the cloud cover thickened, with temperatures in the 40s. Rodman and Dyer took cover in their bunkhouse, napping and chatting. They found they had a lot in common—both had fenced and both loved opera. Rodman told Dyer about his decision to leave his law practice and go back to school. Dyer told Rodman about growing up on Cliff Island, Maine, worlds away from New York City. When Dyer changed his shirt, Rodman got a glimpse of the tattoos that covered Dyer’s shoulders and back, all images from nature—a turtle, a winged bull, a giant tree of life with ravens.
At dinnertime they headed to one of the main buildings to eat and watch the Parks Canada DVD on bear safety. The seven backpackers said Lagacé told them the DVD hadn’t arrived, so they asked him to talk to them about safety in polar bear country. Lagacé disputes that account; he says he showed them the DVD.
As they dug into their dinners, Lagacé shared stories about his run-ins with polar bears and what he had learned in his decades of bringing people into the Torngats.
The most important rule, he said, was to be aware and prepared at all times. Polar bears aren’t like the grizzlies they were familiar with, he warned—they’re hunters, looking for meat. Because the bears travel along water, the group should camp away from the edge of the fjord. If they obeyed those rules, and slept within the perimeter of their electric fence, he said they should be just fine.
They headed to their cabins that night with Lagacé’s warnings fresh in their minds. But mostly they were just excited for the day to come, when their adventure would begin.
In February 2013, five months before the Sierra Club group entered the Torngats, more than 35 polar bear scientists, conservationists, tour operators, government and community representatives and police gathered in Tromsø, Norway, to discuss an increasingly relevant question: What do we know about polar bear attacks on humans—and are such attacks on the rise?
The participants came largely from the “range states” where polar bears are found—Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States—as well as Denmark, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. When humans and bears collide, the people at that conference would likely be the first responders.
One of the key speakers was James Wilder, who at the time was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. He was compiling a database that tracks the number of attacks and catalogues key information: the bears’ health, what the humans did to deter the attack, and whether anyone died. Wilder’s data are still incomplete. Some of the range states haven’t submitted their reports, and even those that have don’t always have a complete accounting of the incidents.
But two things are already clear.
The number of people killed by polar bears is relatively small. So far, Wilder had found just 21 deaths in the last 140 years.
But the number of interactions between humans and polar bears is rising.
According to Wilder’s tabulations, there were fewer than 10 attacks per decade in the 1960s and 1970s. But in the first four years of this decade, Wilder has already documented 14 interactions. At this pace, he expects to see about 35 incidents by the end of 2019—nearly as many as the last 40 years combined.
The run-ins Wilder has documented are often well publicized. The media love stories about polar bear attacks, and the viral nature of the stories makes it seem as if they happen more often than they do. But the stories spread for a reason: the attacks are highly dramatic.
In 2011 a cell phone camera captured a bear biting and pawing a woman in the middle of a northern Russian town. In 2013, a 40-year-old man was chased down a main street and pinned in the doorway of a bakery in Churchill, Manitoba; he scared the bear off with an illuminated cellphone screen. A month later, in the same town, a 30-year-old woman was attacked while she walked home from a Halloween party at 5 a.m.
Some incidents slip through the cracks.
One that doesn’t appear in Wilder’s records took place in 2009, not far from the Nachvak Fjord in Torngat Mountains National Park, where the Sierra Club group was headed.
A group of hikers had arrived by boat at the North Arm of the Torngat Mountains for a camping trip. Before they even pitched their tents, a polar bear swam up to the shore and approached them. Their bear guard, John Merkuratsuk, followed the standard protocol, gathering the group together and making loud noises. One group member fired flares.
But the bear kept coming.
Merkuratsuk loaded his gun with bullets, but it jammed. With the bear moving closer, Merkuratsuk cleared the gun, reloaded and fired. He shot the bear three times before it died.
In photos the group took as the incident was unfolding, the bear looked as scrawny as a street dog, its ribs protruding and its head appearing unnaturally large. When some of the Inuit at Base Camp skinned the bear for its pelt, they found that it was severely underweight and had an abscessed tooth that could have contributed to its poor health and its bold attack.
Other incidents in the Torngats are also missing from Wilder’s log.
Alfred Duller, a 63-year-old retired schoolteacher from Austria who traveled in the park for about 30 years, said bears pulled him out of his tent in the Torngats at least three times. Although the details of some of those attacks are known by people who live and work near the park, they don’t appear in Wilder’s data.
In one incident, Duller was sleeping on the shore of Ikkudliayuk Fjord, not far from the northern tip of the Torngat Mountains, with his shotgun zipped into his sleeping bag. Suddenly the tent was flattened on top of him and a bear bit into the hood of his sleeping bag. Duller crouched in the bottom of the bag, unable to reach his gun. He yelled to a friend sleeping in a tent nearby and the friend screamed, “Flatten!” Duller scrunched down in the bottom of his sleeping bag while his friend fired nine shots into the bear.
The men were compassionate, experienced travelers, with great respect for polar bears, and they wanted to make sure the animal died quickly.
Duller stopped visiting the Torngats when the mountains became a national park and gun permits were granted only to Inuits, researchers and licensed guides. To go there without a gun, he said, would be “suicide.”
Wilder, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife researcher, can’t say with scientific certainty why the number of incidents is increasing. Maybe it’s because more people are traveling into polar bear country. Or maybe it’s because the melting sea ice is forcing bears to spend more time on land, away from the ringed seals that are their primary prey.
According to Wilder’s data, 70 percent of the bears involved in fatal attacks on humans were in below-average body condition, meaning they were skinny or thin. Sixty-three percent of the bears in the non-fatal attacks fell into that category.
“Obviously that’s a concern if sea ice is melting and bears have less access to their normal prey,” Wilder said in a recent interview. “So they’re in poorer body condition and they wind up on shore because the ice melts. That’s a worry for people living along the coasts in polar bear country.”
It’s unclear whether the bears’ health played a role in two vicious attacks that Norwegian police officers described on the third day of the Tromsø conference.
In the first, in 2010, two Norwegian kayakers were trying to paddle the 1,250 miles around the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. They had camped in an inlet on the island of Nordaustalendet and were sleeping in a two-man tent surrounded by a trip wire connected to a flare.
In the early hours of the morning, a polar bear reached into the tent and clamped its jaws around the head of 23-year-old Sebastian Plur Nilssen. As the bear carried Nilssen away, it punctured his lung, head and neck, narrowly missing an artery. The other kayaker shot and killed the bear. Nilssen was airlifted to a hospital and survived.
The trip wire and flare had failed. The bear was an adult male that weighed 784 pounds—on the low side of average—and had no existing injuries or disease. The probable cause in Wilder’s database is listed as, “Predatory on human – tent.”
A 2011 encounter ended more tragically. A group of British students and their guides camped near the Von Post glacier on the island of Spitsbergen, which is also part of the Svalbard archipelago. Their tents were protected by a trip wire attached to explosives that were supposed to detonate if triggered by a bear.
At about 7:30 a.m., a polar bear tore a hole through the wall of 17-year-old Horatio Chapple’s tent and grabbed the sleeping teenager by the head. Horatio’s screams woke the others, who scrambled from their tents in time to see the bear rear up and slam the teenager to the ground. While the group leaders wrestled with what turned out to be faulty rifles, two other students and two of the leaders were mauled. The leaders finally managed to shoot and kill the bear. Horatio died from his injuries; the others survived.
The bear that killed Chapple was old and weighed just 551 pounds, about half the average weight of an adult male polar bear. It had worn and probably painful teeth that could have left it starving.
The Norwegian officers ended their talk with a warning: Hikers shouldn’t rely solely on fences to keep them safe in polar bear country. In both of the cases they described, the campers had so much confidence in their fences that they hadn’t posted overnight watches. When the fences failed, the campers in their tents were like fish in a barrel for polar bears. Or, perhaps more aptly, like seals in the sea ice.
When the Sierra Club hikers woke at Barnoin River Camp on July 20, they discovered that clouds had socked them in and the floatplane that was supposed to take them into the Torngats couldn’t take off.
Unfazed, they spent the day climbing in the mountains that surrounded the camp, their bright orange, red and yellow jackets standing out in the stark landscape. The mosquitoes were relentless. Chase covered her hair with a kerchief to keep them away. Dyer tucked a pesticide-laced bandanna under his baseball cap to protect his neck.
They hiked to Barnoin Waterfall, which they had seen when they flew in. It has a vertical drop of 248 feet, and at the point where it crests, the dark water turns a light, iridescent shade of green before crashing to the river below. The sound of rushing water echoed through the area.
As the weather cleared, the temperature rose and they took off their jackets before heading back down. Pockets of snow looked like white puddles in the green mountaintops.
Their arrangement with Lagacé included only one meal, so that evening they prepared what had been on the menu for their first night in the wilderness: tomato soup, pasta with spinach and cheese sauce and chocolate pudding. Frankel noticed a natural cohesion to the group that she hadn’t always seen on past trips. Without direction, each person pitched in and took on different responsibilities.
It was a small thing, but to Frankel it signaled that they’d be in good shape for whatever came their way when they were alone in the mountains.
Next: Chapter 4