On Aug. 17, 2014, Matt Dyer emerged from the cabin of The Robert Bradford as it headed into the mouth of Nachvak Fjord. After hours of cloudy skies and thick fog, the sky had turned a radiant blue. As the boat passed small icebergs, the sun’s reflection off the ice and water caused the handful of people on deck to squint. And then they saw them: The steep peaks of the Torngat Mountains sliced down to the cold water of the fjord below.
In his bright orange windbreaker and winter hat, Dyer walked to the side of the boat’s deck, a cup of tea in his hand. He leaned against the low rail of the boat watching the scenery.
The last time he’d seen the fjord was 13 months ago, when he was loaded onto a helicopter, semiconscious and covered in blood. Now he was back, searching for closure. He wanted to experience this beautiful place on different terms, building memories of its awe-inducing splendor, rather than of the horror of a polar bear attack.
Dyer had originally planned to return to the Torngats in the summer of 2015. But when InsideClimate News and VICE Media invited him to join them in August 2014 for a week in the Torngats, he accepted the offer immediately.
This trip was much different from his first one. The group of five slept on The Robert Bradford, not on the land. And they didn’t go anywhere without Maria or Eli Merkuratsuk, the brother and sister bear guards—both armed with shotguns—who had been hired to guide and protect them.
At a little after 4 p.m., The Robert Bradford put down anchor in a small harbor that was separated from the site of the attack by a grassy spit of land. The clear skies and late afternoon sun gave a glow to the area. Even the weather seemed to be cooperating—the temperature was in the high 40s, far nicer than it had been around a year earlier.
Eli Merkuratsuk found the first polar bear paw print just a minute or two after a dinghy deposited them on shore. The bear’s splayed toes had pressed into the hard sand—recently.
With one bear guard up front and one at the rear, the group wove a path inland and crested a small hill. Dyer found himself looking down through binoculars at the site where he had been attacked. Within minutes, he spotted a bear. It was standing on a raised piece of land where Gross and Chase had once considered camping.
Over the next three days, the group saw eight more bears. But instead of meeting them with fear or hesitation, or backsliding into the trauma of what had happened to him, Dyer was filled with a sense of peace. Sometimes he sat quietly and stared at the landscape in an almost meditative way. Sometimes he gave in to his seemingly constant urge to make the people around him laugh—generally at his own expense.
The Merkuratsuks were a constant presence and a constant comfort, teaching as they led. On hikes they plucked edible plants for the group to taste—the Arctic tundra is covered in edible plants, yet another incongruity in this place that seems so inhospitable. They pointed to some willows and said they should be avoided, because bears tended to congregate there. Dyer said he’d used that same location as a discreet toilet a year earlier and joked that a bear could have gotten him at a particularly vulnerable moment. But it was also a sobering reminder of the many risks he and the earlier group had unknowingly taken.
Back home in Maine now, Dyer is still consumed by—maybe even obsessed with—polar bears, but not how you might expect. It’s not PTSD, and he’s not haunted by dreams of being mauled. He’s just fascinated.
By the end of the year, he plans to get a tattoo of a polar bear on each of his forearms. If you’re a tattoo guy, he explains, you don’t go through an experience like that without getting a little ink. Along with the scars on his face and neck that are now covered by his newly grown ponytail and beard, and the low, husky rasp that is now his voice, the tattoos will be permanent reminders of just how close he came to death. There won’t be a day in Dyer’s life that he won’t remember the bears.
Marta Chase and Rich Gross
Chase and Gross have been going through their own coping process in the aftermath of the attack. The Sierra Club investigated the events of the trip and found that Chase and Gross did nothing wrong. Both remain active leaders in good standing. In August, they led a trip into the Sierra Mountains that included Marilyn Frankel, Kicab Castañeda-Mendez and Matt Dyer.
Still, the long-time guides have re-examined every decision they made in those fateful days.
Both have come to the same conclusion: For the kinds of minimalist wilderness trips they lead, without armed guards, there is no certain way to stay safe in polar bear country. So neither would return to polar bear country and sleep on the land without significant changes in protective technology. It’s just not worth the risk.
The Sierra Club has taken a similar stance. Tony Rango, director of the Outings Program and Program Safety for the Sierra Club, said such trips are on hold until next spring when the organization will decide whether to require armed guards on certain trips—like backpacking in polar bear country or hiking safaris in Africa where lions or other aggressive animals roam.
If they could do it over again, Chase and Gross say, they wouldn’t put so much trust in that kind of electric fence.
“I would never probably go back out there again and do a backpacking trip. It’s sad because it’s just such an amazingly beautiful area,” Chase said. “I think people need to be very much aware of the risks that they’re taking, and the fact that this incident did happen.”
Gross said the experience made him understand the insignificance of humans in what he calls “huge nature.”
“Think of all the things that we had to do in order to survive—and just barely did,” he said. “The other piece you realize is how much humans can …destroy that [world] with global warming and carbon emissions. You realize how insignificant we are … but also how quickly we can change that.”
Since Dyer‘s attack, Parks Canada has been trying to figure out what went wrong on the Sierra Club expedition and how to protect the few hundred visitors who enter the park each year from future attacks.
“We want to make sure that we’re doing our due diligence, that we are providing the right messages in the right way,” said Judy Rowell, superintendent of Torngat Mountains National Park. “I don’t think that we’ve done anything wrong but there may be some things we could do better.”
One step the agency expects to take next year will require any organization that leads a group into the park to apply for a business license that includes a Polar Bear Protection Plan that articulates how they will protect themselves from polar bears. The permit that Gross and Chase filed with Parks Canada included a similar question, asking what wildlife deterrents the group would take with them. But Rowell said the new requirement will go further and ask specific questions about how guides will operate in polar bear country, like where they will camp and how they will respond to a bear sighting.
At this point the agency’s plans don’t require visitors to travel with bear guards, Rowell said, because there are not enough guards to go around. But the possibility of requiring guards in the future “will never be off the table,” she said.
Rowell said a number of missteps added up to one catastrophe.
One of the group’s biggest mistakes was setting up camp near Nachvak Fjord. The area is known “a polar bear highway,” she said, and Parks Canada and Base Camp staff see bears there regularly.
“You wouldn’t have seen any bear guard agreeing to camp there,” she said. “Our folks here would go a minimum of 10 kilometers inland. And even then you need to be careful, very careful. When we say stay away from the coast we mean 10 kilometers inland.”
Gross and Chase say that in all of their conversations and emails with Parks Canada, including the vetting of their hiking route, no one ever mentioned that the area was a “polar bear highway” or that they should hike 10 kilometers inland before setting up camp.
That point—about moving 10 kilometers inland—isn’t articulated in the polar bear safety brochure that Parks Canada sent to the group. Nor is it mentioned in the polar bear safety video Parks Canada produced.
Rowell also said that after the encounter with the bear that was watching them, they should have set up a 24-hour watch and then relocated. “If I was in an area where I saw a bear hanging around I wouldn’t be very relaxed bedding down at night out without someone keeping an eye on where it was going or what it was doing,” she said.
One obvious response could be to make bear guards mandatory—to require that all groups enlist the services of a trained, armed Inuit bear guard. But Rowell said that while they continue to talk about it, it’s not on the table for now. They can’t require a bear guard without having a supply of guards available for anyone interested in going into the park, she said, and right now, they don’t have enough people who want to do the job. But “it will never be off the table,” she said.
The summer of 2014 offered more evidence that the bears are coming on land and interacting more with humans.
In late June, before Base Camp’s formidable electric fence was assembled, a polar bear wandered into camp. Base Camp manager Wayne Broomfield told the CBC that he had gone outside to try to scare the bear away when it tried to attack him. It chased him back into one of the Base Camp buildings, biting and scratching at the door when he slammed it shut. It was a big bear, but also skinny, Broomfield told the CBC. It was also more aggressive and determined than most bears. Eventually, they chased it away with a helicopter.
It’s impossible to get inside the head of a polar bear. There’s no way to tell exactly why the bear attacked, or why it chose Dyer over some other member of the group, although some suspect that it was drawn by Dyer’s impressive snoring.
But some things are knowable, and in the aftermath of the attack Parks Canada conducted an investigation to determine what they could about what happened and why.
By looking at the paw prints and behavior of the bear after the fact, Parks Canada determined that the bear that attacked Dyer came from just west of where they were camping, an area between the campsite and the ledge where the bear had been watching them the day before the attack. At the edge of the beach, which separated the campsite from the hill and ledge where the bear had watched them, there are thick shrubs and willows. Perfect for a bear to hide in.
“At some point the bear made a direct beeline towards the camp to the tent where the victim was camping,” said Peter Deering, Parks Canada’s resource conservation manager for western Newfoundland and Labrador. “It’s not like he came and spent some time poking around the periphery.
“It appears that it was a very focused attack.”
Since the bear wasn’t killed—and all parties involved with the incident are glad that it wasn’t—there’s also no way to determine what might have led it to attack a human. It could have had a bad tooth or an injury that had prevented it from eating, leaving it hungry. It could have been a curious, young bear that wanted to taste whatever it was that was sleeping in its territory. Or it could have been left hungry by a shortened season on the ice, seeking something to fill its stomach until it could get back onto the ice and hunt seals.
Given the circumstances of the group’s trip—where they were camping and when, and the fact that there was a bear that was clearly determined to attack—Deering said there’s a certain inevitability to what happened.
“Without a guard posted, without an alarm going off—I’m not sure anything could have stopped this.”
Next: How We Got the Story
Publisher: David Sassoon
Executive Editor: Susan White
Managing Editor: Stacy Feldman
Author: Sabrina Shankman
E-book Producer: Sabrina Shankman
Cover: Catherine Mann
Graphics: Catherine Mann and Paul Horn
E-book Production Assistant : Zahra Hirji
Photos courtesy of: Kicab Castañeda-Mendez, Marilyn Frankel, Larry Rodman, Rick Isenberg and Greg Shute
Additional photography by: Sabrina Shankman
Videos courtesy of: VICE Media and Kicab Castañeda-Mendez