In the Jaws of Climate Change

To a hungry polar bear losing its natural habitat, humans are just meat.

On August 17, 2014, Matt Dyer, a forty-nine-year-old legal aid lawyer from Turner, Maine, emerged from the cabin of the fishing vessel the Robert Bradford as it neared the shores of Nachvak Fjord in northern Labrador. The steep peaks of the Torngat Mountains sliced down to the cold water of the fjord below. The last time Dyer had seen the fjord was thirteen months before, when he was loaded onto a helicopter, semiconscious and covered in blood. Nonetheless, when a group of journalists invited him to join them a year later for a week in the Torngats, he accepted immediately. 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.

This trip was much different than his first. The group of five slept on the Robert Bradford, not on land. And they didn’t go anywhere without Maria or Eli Merkuratsuk, the Inuit brother and sister bear guards—both armed with shotguns—who had been hired to guide and protect them.

With one bear guard at the 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 polar bear. It was standing on a raised piece of land where his party had considered camping a year earlier. 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.

Back home in Maine now, Dyer is still consumed by—maybe even obsessed with—polar bears. It’s not post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s just fascinated. 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, covered now 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.

The ad in a fall 2012 issue of Sierra magazine promised the adventure of a lifetime: two weeks trekking through the untouched lower reaches of Canada’s Arctic tundra, with the possibility of seeing the world’s largest land carnivore, the polar bear. Participants must be fit and experienced hikers, the ad warned. They would also have to accept an element of risk, including lack of access to emergency medical care. But the payoff would be big. “If you dream of experiencing a place that is both pristine and magical, a land of spirits and polar bears rarely seen by humans, this is the trip you have been waiting for,” the ad said.

Two seasoned Sierra Club guides would be leading the trip. Rich Gross, now sixty-one, worked for a low-income housing nonprofit in San Francisco but since 1990 had spent a week or two each year guiding Sierra Club trips in remote parts of the world. Marta Chase, sixty years old, was a medical diagnostics consultant who’d been leading hiking trips since she was in high school. She and Gross had guided fourteen trips together.

It was Gross’s idea to go into the Torngats, one of Canada’s newest national parks. He’d never seen a polar bear in the wild and was drawn to the spiritual appeal of the mountains. The park was named after Torngarsoak, an ancient Inuit spirit who appeared as a polar bear and controlled the lives of sea animals. The terrain itself has a mystical appearance, with sharply peaked mountains and fjords cutting into the land from the coast of the Labrador Sea. Only a few hundred people venture there each year, and Gross wanted to be part of that exclusive group. Chase wanted to see the park, too. But she worried about hiking in polar bear country.

Polar bears sit at the top of the Arctic food chain. A large male can weigh as much as 1,700 pounds and stand ten feet tall. Unlike black bears or grizzlies, polar bears are carnivores through and through—they can’t survive without meat. They live most of their lives on the sea ice, lurking near holes, watching and waiting—sometimes for hours, sometimes for days—for their favorite prey, the ring seal. When a seal surfaces to breathe, the bear pounces, grabbing it by its head and crushing its skull. Polar bears typically stay clear of humans. But if there were a time and a place to see one, the Torngats in midsummer would be a good bet. That’s when the sea ice melts for a while, forcing the bears onto land.

In New York City, sixty-five-year-old Larry Rodman signed up the same day he saw the ad on the Sierra Club website. The walls of Rodman’s midtown Manhattan law office were adorned with photos of wildlife and scenery he’d taken on past wilderness trips, including one with Chase and Gross. But he’d never seen a polar bear.

Marilyn Frankel, a sixty-six-year-old exercise physiologist from West Lynn, Oregon, had traveled with Gross and Chase many times before. After some years away from backpacking, this would be her first trip back. Rick Isenberg, a fifty-six-year-old physician from Scottsdale, Arizona, signed up because he wanted to get away. Isenberg, a clinical researcher, hadn’t practiced medicine in fifteen years. This would be his third Sierra Club trip but by far the most adventurous
and extreme.

Matt Dyer was dreaming of adventure when he filled out the forms for the trip. But Gross was concerned about Dyer’s lack of experience. “This trip requires backpacking experience and I don’t see any on your forms,” he said in an email to Dyer. “This is a particularly tough trip since it is all off trail and packs will be quite heavy (50+ pounds). The area is remote and evacuation is only by helicopter.” Dyer told Gross he was in good shape and had been hiking and camping in New England for years, including some trekking with the Appalachian Mountain Club. “I’m not a city person (I grew up on an island about 8 miles from the mainland) so being away from the [7-Eleven] is not going to bother me,” Dyer wrote. Dyer agreed to follow a strict training plan, and Gross agreed to take him.

University of Alberta and longtime Environment Canada biologist Ian Stirling has devoted forty years to studying polar bears, and many consider him one of the preeminent biologists on the subject. His long-term studies in Canada’s western Hudson Bay helped establish the link between polar bears and climate change. That link is now so strong that the bears have become one of the most visible symbols of global warming. In 2012, Stirling wrote a paper for the journal Global Change Biology, coauthored with one of his former PhD students, Andrew Derocher, also a leader in the field. The long-term picture they painted is bleak.

Ocean temperatures are climbing faster in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world, leading to a substantial decrease in sea ice. In September 2012, the Arctic sea ice level was 49 percent lower than the historical average from 1979 to 2000. The southern parts of the Arctic, including the Torngats, have had an ice-free summer season throughout modern times. But the ice-free period is growing longer. Since the late 1970s, the number of ice-free days in the area around the Torngats has increased from 125 days to 175 days. Less sea ice means polar bears must spend more time on land. To survive, they live off the body fat stored from their earlier kills on the ice. As the period when they have to live off that reserve grows longer, some eat goose eggs, grasses, or berries. But their foraging goes only so far—they can’t survive without the fat they get from seals. “As the bears’ body condition declines, more seek alternate food sources so the frequency of conflicts between bears and humans increases,” the scientists concluded.

After all, to a starving polar bear, a human is just meat.

On July 18, 2013, Matt Dyer lugged his fifty-pound pack into the Quality Hotel Dorval in Montreal. He’d taken a twelve-hour overnight bus from Lewiston, Maine. The afternoon sun was hot, and he was tired. Larry Rodman walked in at the same time, fresh off the airport shuttle bus after a quick flight from New York City. The two men started talking. Rodman, the big-city law partner, and Dyer, the legal aid attorney with the scraggly gray ponytail, hit it off immediately. For Dyer, especially, that was a relief. He’d been less concerned about the arduous journey than about the people he’d be trapped with in the wilderness. When you’re paying for the trip of a lifetime, you want to enjoy the company.

Rich Gross and Marta Chase had flown in a day earlier to buy supplies and make last-minute arrangements. Chase’s husband, Kicab Castañeda-Mendez, was there, too. Chase had introduced him to hiking when they were in their thirties, and since then the sixty-four-year-old management consultant had joined all of her Sierra Club trips, playing the default role of group photographer. On this trip his presence was even more reassuring. In June, Chase had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was told she needed a mastectomy. At first, she assumed she’d have to cancel the trip. But when her doctor assured her that postponing the surgery for a few weeks wouldn’t matter, she decided to go.

Chase and Gross had developed a division of labor for their trips. Chase handled logistics like transportation and meals. Gross handled park permits and the route, poring over maps and plotting out the various options for getting from A to B. Each year they alternated who took the lead on research and outreach. For the Torngats trip, it was Chase’s turn.

Chase studied the website for the Torngat Mountains Base Camp & Research Station, which Canada’s parks department opened in 2006 in the Nunatsiavut region. This autonomous area in Labrador includes five small Inuit communities and the Torngat Mountains National Park. The camp sits just outside the southern limit of the park, on Saglek Fjord.

Chase sent an email to Base Camp, thinking it might serve as their entry point to the park. When she didn’t get a response, she contacted Vicki Storey, an adventure travel agent in Alberta. Storey sent Chase to Alain Lagacè, who operated two camps that offered guided tours, fishing expeditions, and wildlife safaris. Lagaccè knew the area well, Storey assured Chase. He’d been arranging trips into the Torngats for decades. In emails and phone calls over the course of months, Chase and Lagacè shaped the Sierra Club trip. The group would fly from Montreal to Kuujjuaq, the largest Inuit community in Nunavik, the Inuit region of Quebec. Then they’d take a small charter plane to Lagacè’s Barnoin River Camp and spend the night. The next morning a floatplane would deposit them in the Torngats, where they’d be on their own for eleven days. “The thought of polar bears is still a concern to me,” Chase said in one of her emails to Lagacè. “I have experience with black and brown bears but not with polar.”

Guns are generally prohibited in Canada’s national parks, but in 2011 Parks Canada broadened the rules for parks with polar bears, allowing researchers, guides licensed by Parks Canada, and local, native Canadians to apply for gun permits for those parks. Guns could also be carried by Inuit bear guards who have taken a polar bear safety course and been licensed by Parks Canada. In its explanation for loosening the restrictions, Parks Canada cited an “increased risk of dangerous human-bear encounters” due to the impact of climate change on sea ice.

Parks Canada’s website “strongly encourages” visitors to the Torngats to hire bear guards, but they are not required. When Chase asked Lagacè whether they’d need a bear guard, she said he told her that no one who traveled through his camp used them. And none of the Parks Canada employees mentioned bear guards. Chase and Gross decided that flare guns, bear spray, and electric fences would offer them the protection they needed. The guides arranged to rent two flare guns from Lagacè, each with four shells. Gross picked up two electric fences from the Sierra Club—one to encircle their campsite, the other to protect the area where they would cook and store their food. Each fence stood about three feet high and consisted of three parallel wires suspended from four-foot posts. Although the wires looked flimsy, they carried five to seven kilovolts of charge—not enough to seriously injure a bear, but supposedly enough to send it running.

Gross emailed a picture of the fence to Castañeda-Mendez. “What’s the polar bear supposed to do? Die of laughter?” Castañeda-Mendez wrote back. They’d also take bear spray, which they had carried on previous trips to ward off grizzly bears. Should something go wrong, they would have a satellite phone to call for help.

A Parks Canada employee told Chase that anyone entering the park was required to watch a DVD on polar bear safety. Parks Canada agreed to send the video to Lagacè’s camp, so they could watch it right before they entered the park. The employee assured them they were in good hands with Alain Lagacè.

Parks Canada also discussed options for their backpacking route. Chase says bear guards were never mentioned during these conversations, nor were Gross and Chase warned that the area is a “polar bear highway,” as one Parks Canada official later described it. The group decided to start at Nachvak Fjord and move inland, packing up camp most mornings and working their way toward Komaktorvik Fjord, where they’d be met by a plane from Lagacè’s camp. It would be a tough trip. They’d be carrying their fifty-plus-pound bags for about six hours each day, stopping in midafternoon to find a place to camp. Halfway through the trip, Lagacè would send a plane to drop off the rest of their food.

The conversation about climate change and its consequences often revolves around abstract concepts—sea-level rise, ocean acidification—but that’s not the case with the melting of the sea ice. In the Arctic, the consequences are more tangible, more immediate. Using yearly averages taken throughout the Arctic, NASA scientist Claire Parkinson has reported that about 695,000 square miles of sea ice have been lost since 1979. That’s roughly the same as if the western portion of the United States—California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Utah, and most of Idaho—had disappeared.

Parkinson explains that sea ice has a symbiotic relationship with climate change. It’s not just that the ice is melting, but also that its disappearance is exposing the dark ocean below. A surface that once reflected the sun’s radiation is being replaced by a surface that absorbs it, further warming the ocean and leading to even more sea ice melt. This process, called ice albedo feedback, contributes to a phenomenon called polar amplification, which refers to the increased rate of warming near the poles in response to rising temperatures, which are precipitated by greenhouse gas emissions.

In a study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, published in June 2014, Parkinson analyzed the satellite record and found that since 1979 there has been an average of at least five fewer days of sea ice per decade in areas with seasonal ice. In some areas, the decline is much steeper. Parkinson looked at the number of ice-free days in the Davis Strait, which is part of the ecoregion that includes the Torngat Mountains National Park. She found a decrease of about fifteen days per decade—or roughly fifty days since 1979.

Reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this year also quantified the sea ice loss. The IPCC said that Arctic sea ice has disappeared at a mean rate of between 173,000 and 196,000 square miles per decade since 1979—a loss larger than the state of California every ten years. The ice is disappearing even faster in the more southern areas of the Arctic—between 280,000 square miles (California plus Arizona) and 410,000 square miles (California, Arizona, and Colorado) per decade.

It wasn’t long ago that scientists who came out with such alarming findings faced doubt and ridicule. In 2006, Cecilia Bitz, a physicist who studies sea ice and does climate modeling at the University of Washington, coauthored an article in Geophysical Research Letters that projected the Arctic would have its first completely ice-free period by the end of the summer of 2040. The findings were greeted with skepticism, even a touch of derision. The Village Voice ran a cartoon mocking them. Even Bitz had trouble internalizing the magnitude of what she had learned.

When the 2007 readings came out, she, like many of her colleagues, was caught by surprise. By mid-August of that year, the sea ice minimum had broken every existing record—and there was still a month to go before it hit the annual low point. By the time the ice melted to its minimum that year, it was almost 40 percent below the 1979-2000 average. “To be that fooled by what came to pass was really shocking to me and a big wakeup call,” Bitz said. “I think the whole community felt that way. We were startled.” When the next record-breaking low came around, in 2012, Bitz and other experts were less shocked. Another 300,000 square miles of sea ice had been lost—more than the area of the state of Texas.

 

Jan15-Shankman-PolarBears3As the melting continues, a ripple of change reverberates through the flora and fauna that rely on sea ice as their habitat—the capelin and other fish that harvest the plankton along the ice’s edge, the narwhals and beluga whales that swim below, and, of course, the polar bear, the king of the Arctic, sitting patiently on the shrinking ice, waiting for its prey.

On the afternoon of July 19, the nineteen-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. 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 that the Twin Otter’s passengers 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.

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. Gross, Castañeda-Mendez, and Isenberg unwrapped the electric fences, to give them a final test. What they saw wasn’t particularly inspiring. The fences had come wrapped up haphazardly, with no instructions, so Lagacè offered them two of his own fences, which were in much better shape. These did come with directions, were wrapped properly, and looked sturdy.

The men set up the fences one at a time. They switched on the first fence, but couldn’t tell if it was working. Lagacè produced a voltage tester, a small rectangular device with a number of lights, attached to a thin pole that is pushed into the earth. When the device is touched to the fence, the lights are supposed to come on. As the voltage increases, more lights illuminate. When Lagacè 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 meant 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 grabbed the fence with his bare hand. Instead of a shock, he felt a light tingle. “Look at your feet,” Lagacè 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.

Next, Gross pulled out one of the flare guns to test it. Bright orange, it looked almost like a toy. He pulled the trigger, and the twelve-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.

The clouds thickened, with temperatures in the forties. 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. When Dyer changed his shirt, Rodman got a glimpse of the tattoos that covered his new friend’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 that Lagacè told them the DVD hadn’t arrived, so they asked him to talk to them about safety in polar bear country. Lagacè disputes that account; he says he showed them the DVD. As they dug into their meal, Lagacè 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. He told them if they obeyed those rules, and slept within the perimeter of their electric fence, they should be just fine.

In February 2013, five months before the Sierra Club group entered the Torngats, more than thirty-five 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?

One of the key speakers was James Wilder, at the time a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. He was compiling a database that tracks the number of attacks and catalogs key information: the bears’ health, what the humans did to deter the attack, and whether anyone died. Wilder’s data is still incomplete. But two things are already clear: the number of people killed by polar bears is relatively small—so far, Wilder has found just twenty-one 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 ten attacks per decade in the 1960s and ’70s. But in the first four years of this decade, Wilder has already documented fourteen interactions. At this pace, he expects to see about thirty-five incidents by the end of 2019—nearly as many as the last forty years combined.

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 forty-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 cell phone screen. A month later, in the same town, a thirty-year-old woman was attacked while she walked home from a Halloween party at 5 a.m.

One encounter that doesn’t appear in Wilder’s records took place in 2009, not far from Nachvak Fjord in the 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 Torngats 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. 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, which could have contributed to its poor health and its bold attack.

Wilder can’t say with scientific certainty why the number of incidents is increasing, just as he can’t say whether any specific attack was caused by climate change. No one can. In looking at the trend, Wilder says it could be that more people are traveling into polar bear country. Or it could be that 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 nonfatal 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 at 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 twenty-three-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.

Jan15-Shankman-PolarBears2A 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 seventeen-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. Or, perhaps more aptly, like seals in the sea ice.

On Sunday, July 21, a floatplane carried the Sierra Club party over the western portion of the Torngats and then descended toward the eastern shore, weaving between the final peaks. The landscape the group saw on the forty-five-minute flight was desolate but breathtaking—treeless, with ice covering parts of the glassy lakes below. Rivulets of icy water cascaded from mountain peaks that jutted into the cloud-filled sky.

The plane landed perfectly on Nachvak Fjord, backing into the shore so the passengers could exit without getting their feet wet. Castaèeda-Mendez held on to the plane’s pontoon while the others offloaded their gear. The pilot said goodbye, and the sound of the engines receded into the distance, leaving them alone with just the sound of small waves on the shore. The skies were clear, but a cold rain started to fall. In an untouched place like this, it was easy to imagine a world before humans. Fjords are usually formed when the ocean pours into valleys left behind by melting glaciers. What was left behind on Nachvak Fjord felt prehistoric—like the end of the earth, with the long fingers of the fjord reaching into the shoreline.

Chase and Gross left the group on the shore while they scouted for a suitable place to set up camp. Lagacè had said they should find a high place to sleep because polar bears are known to come right up the fjord where they had landed. But when Chase and Gross reached an area that met Lagacé’s criteria—an elevated spot about a quarter mile away—they discovered it didn’t have easy access to drinking water. Further down, a bit closer to where they had been dropped off, they found a spot that looked ideal: flat enough for comfortable sleeping and cooking, with easy access to fresh water. It was still at least 150 yards away from the shore, and people had obviously camped there before: they’d left behind stakes and piles of rocks. As if on cue, a rainbow appeared.

The first thing the group did at the campsite was set up their electric fences, using rocks to help stabilize the poles. The perimeter of the sleeping area was twenty-seven feet by twenty-seven feet, a bit larger than a boxing ring. The six tents would be separated by about three feet. Each person had his or her own tent, with Chase and Castañeda-Mendez sharing a slightly larger tent.

On every trip, Rodman made a point of finding out who the loudest snorers were, so he could pitch his tent as far away as possible. In this case, he didn’t need to ask around. His new friend Dyer was a serious snorer. Once Dyer set up his tent, Rodman picked a spot in the opposite corner. The group set up their food and cook station inside the second fence, about 200 yards away. Once everything was ready, they flipped on the switches for both fences and watched the lights on the battery packs flicker to life. They were pleased to see that they were in a prime location for viewing wildlife. “No sooner had we gotten the tents up than we looked down towards the water a ways away and there was a wolf,” Chase said.

Jan15-Shankman-PolarBears4

Great start: The Sierra Club hikers pose the afternoon before the attack. (Left to right: Matt Dyer, Larry Rodman, Marta Chase, Rick Isenberg, Marilyn Frankel, Rich Gross, Kicab Castañeda-Mendez).

The food chain that leads to polar bears starts with phytoplankton, tiny, free-floating, plant-like organisms that live in water and in the ice. In the spring, the breakup of the seasonal sea ice triggers a phytoplankton bloom, and light green shelves of it swirl into the Arctic Ocean, signaling that winter’s cold grip is fading, at least for a while. In recent years, however, these blooms have been showing up in places where they haven’t been seen before. In 2011, scientists found whole swaths of the Arctic teeming with phytoplankton blooms. What’s happening, says physicist Cecilia Bitz, is that old, thick sea ice is being thinned by the warmer ocean temperatures. That allows more sunlight to permeate the ice surface, stimulating the phytoplankton to grow within the ice. Because the blooms are much darker than ice or snow and absorb more energy from the sun, they trigger further melting.

In the southern parts of the Arctic, where these blooms have always been part of the ecosystem, the spring melting is happening earlier. That can trigger an earlier bloom, which in turn sets off ripples that affect zooplankton—miniscule, free-drifting organisms, like shrimp larvae or tiny marine bugs, that feed on the phytoplankton. That affects fish like capelin, a small fish from the smelt family that feeds on the zooplankton. Historically, this has occurred in spring, when the capelin feast on the bloom along the shelf of the retreating ice. The plankton is high in fat, and the fish rely on it for the growth of their reproductive systems. As the ice melts earlier, however, the timing is being thrown off. The zooplankton isn’t getting to the phytoplankton on time, and the fish don’t have as much to eat.

A 2014 study in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE found that as ice retreats earlier, capelin numbers drop off. That leaves the species at the next level of the food chain—seals—with less access to one of their primary food sources. Polar bears generally eat ringed seals, but in the region that includes the Torngats, they eat harp seals. Each spring, harp seals follow the ice breakup south, to Labrador, Newfoundland, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they haul themselves out onto the ice and give birth to pups, which can’t yet swim. Polar bears flock to the seals’ whelping patches, because the pups make for high-calorie, easy-to-catch meals at a crucial time, when the bears need to put on weight before the ice-free months.

In some areas, however, the supply of seal pups is declining. Garry Stenson, head of the marine mammal section at Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, has found that harp seal pup survival declines drastically in low sea ice years. In 2011, 70 percent of the harp seals born in the northwest Atlantic did not survive. The lower numbers are attributed in part to higher rates of miscarriages, called “late-term abortions” in seals. A 2013 study connected the miscarriages to lower biomass among capelin in years with less sea ice. “These ecosystem changes are predicted to continue,” Stenson wrote in a 2014 assessment of northwest Atlantic harp seals. “Therefore, it is likely that reproductive rates will remain low.”

For the bears, the relationship between seal pup survival and sea ice levels means that in low sea ice years, the bears don’t just lose access to their food—they lose the supply as well.

The Sierra Club hikers clustered behind the electric fence in the cooking area and prepared cream of potato soup and pesto pasta for dinner. While they worked, they watched lemmings weave in and out of tall grasses nearby. Wolves occasionally wandered into view. Dessert was blueberry cheesecake. Then the cleanup crew took over, washing the dishes in water from a nearby stream that they heated on their camping stoves. In small groups, they left the cooking area and headed back to their tents, announcing each time the fences were turned on or off. Rodman, who is tall and lean, could step easily over the fence. For the shorter people, like Frankel, the risk of being zapped wasn’t worth it, so they switched the fence off to get in or out.

When the sky finally darkened at about 10:30 p.m., they retired to their tents. The quiet was punctuated only by the steady lapping of water onto the shore of the fjord.

At about 4 a.m., Castañeda-Mendez woke up to pee. Trying not to disturb his wife, he slipped out of his sleeping bag and unzipped the door of their tent. When he stepped outside, he saw that he wasn’t alone. “Hey!” he called out. “Polar bear on the beach!” A mother and her cub were walking along the shore in the early morning light. The mother bear’s snout was raised in the air, sniffing out her neighbors. Chase joined her husband while Dyer and the others grabbed their cameras. They were shouting distance from two of the world’s most violent predators, yet the scene was overwhelmingly peaceful. Dyer was on the verge of tears as he watched the bears walk along the shore, the cub close on its mother’s heels.

Safe in the confines of their electric fence, the hikers felt a quiet connection with animals they all knew would, in some circumstances, see them as prey. That reality, though, felt very far away. Here was a parent taking care of its young and teaching it how to survive. They were in awe of their good fortune.

Although polar bears don’t normally hibernate, pregnant bears spend the winter in dens, rather than hunting on the ice. That means that in the spring and early summer before they enter the dens, they need to gain as much weight as possible. But when the ice broke up early in 2012, the spring hunting season was cut short, and pregnant bears had less time to store up calories. Studies of the western Hudson Bay polar bears have shown a direct link between the timing of sea ice breakup and the survival rates of newborn cubs.

Elizabeth Peacock, a biologist working with the government of Nunavut and the U.S. Geological Survey, flew around the Davis Strait in helicopters from 2005 to 2007, locating polar bears and darting them with tranquilizers to measure their vital statistics. In the winter of 2013, Peacock’s analysis of her data, along with thirty-five years of capture and harvest data from the region, was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Her first finding was, on its face, good news for polar bears in the area: population numbers in the Davis Strait were strong. With more than 2,100 bears, the strait boasted about 10 percent of the estimated 20,000 bears worldwide. That was in sharp contrast to bear populations in the southern Beaufort Sea and the western Hudson Bay, which are declining.

But Peacock’s other findings raised questions about the population’s long-term stability. The litter size for newborn cubs, known as cubs of the year, was lower in the Davis Strait than in any other subpopulation. Cub recruitment, the survival of cubs into adulthood, was also declining. So was the general body condition of the bears. Peacock didn’t point to a direct cause for the bears’ declining health. But she offered two possible causes: population density, which leads to increased competition for food, and a loss of habitat. Essentially, she found that while there’s an abundance of polar bears in the Davis Strait, there isn’t enough of their natural habitat—sea ice—to support them. In a year with low sea ice levels, that could add up to lots of hungry bears.

On Monday, July 22, after a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, the hikers packed up their daypacks and headed east to explore the area around the fjord. Gross stuck one of the flare guns in his backpack; Chase carried the other. The weather felt unpredictable, with heavy clouds settling in over the fjord and wind and rain beginning to whip through their campsite. Everyone bundled up.

The Torngat Mountains are technically subarctic, but they lie along the fifty-eighth parallel, putting them above the tree line and within the Arctic ecoregion. The group hiked through scrub willows and grassy hills and along the ledges above the campsite. The rain turned to a cool mist and then gradually cleared, revealing blue skies and spectacular views of the Labrador Sea.

As usual, Castañeda-Mendez took the lead. Gross, Rodman, and Isenberg typically stayed in the middle of the pack, while Dyer, Chase, and Frankel brought up the rear. They bantered while they walked. Occasionally, Gross called out to Castañeda-Mendez: Slow down; wait up. It was important that no one get too far from the group. They came across black bear scat, caribou antlers, and what appeared to be a wolf skull— everyday detritus from the park’s regular residents. Dyer tucked a tooth from the skull into his pocket.

After a quick lunch of beef jerky and bagels with peanut butter, honey, and Nutella, they turned back. At about 3:30 p.m. they reached a wide stream near their campsite. They sat on rocks and changed to waterproof boots or left their feet bare. The water was shallow, clear, and shockingly cold. For feet that had been banging around in hiking boots all day, the cool stream offered quick relief, even through rubber boots.

Castañeda-Mendez was walking barefoot, halfway across the stream, when Dyer saw something lumbering toward them. “Polar bear!” he shouted. “Get back here! Get back here!” Chase yelled at her husband. “We have a bear!”

The animal was about 150 yards away and walking toward them. Castañeda-Mendez tromped back through the water and the group clustered together on the side of the stream, following the protocol Lagacè had rehearsed with them: Stand together. Make yourself seem big. Make loud noises, especially metal on metal, like the banging of poles.

The bear was larger and had a fuller coat than the female they had seen that morning. Slowly it walked toward them, nose in the air and tongue sticking out, apparently trying to assess the two-legged creatures it had stumbled upon. Despite the group’s banging and shouting, the bear kept coming. While Castañeda-Mendez fired away with his camera, Gross pulled out his flare gun. “I’m gonna shoot,” he told Chase when the bear was within fifty yards. “I think that’s a good idea,” she replied calmly.

The flare shot forward with a flash of light, but the bear kept advancing. It wasn’t until the shell landed in front of the animal, causing a second burst, that the bear turned and took off in a dead run. The group cheered, clapped, and banged their poles together, celebrating their victory. But the bear didn’t go far. It settled on a ledge about 300 yards from their camp and lay there quietly, watching them.

By the time they reached the safety of their fence, the rain was coming down hard. Most of the group settled into their tents for a nap before dinner. But Dyer was uneasy. He stationed himself outside his tent, leaning on his poles and staring down the bear as it watched them. He stood watching the bear for more than an hour, drenched under the dreary gray sky as the afternoon waned.

Finally, the bear and the rain wore him down. Gross and Isenberg were watching the bear from inside their tents, so Dyer retired to his tent, too. He opened Leaves of Grass—the only book he’d brought with him—and soon fell asleep.

The cold, rainy afternoon became a cold, rainy evening, and still the bear watched them. At about 5 p.m. the campers made their way across a rocky strip to the cooking area. Up on the ledge, the bear appeared to be lounging. Using the zoom lenses on their cameras, they watched it roll on its back and then lie on its belly, resting its head on its crossed forelegs. To Frankel, it looked like a big dog. To others, including Dyer, it looked like a menace.

Half of the Sierra Club hikers helped prep and cook dinner that night: cream of potato soup, pesto pasta, cheesecake with blueberries and almonds. The others handled cleanup. They were already comfortable enough with each other to mimic the soft drawl of Dyer’s Maine accent and share stories of past trips and their lives back home. They didn’t talk much about the bear that was still watching them from the ledge. It seemed almost like a piece of the landscape—just one more detail in the majestic setting.

Castañeda-Mendez felt reassured by the bear interactions they’d had that day. The mother and cub hadn’t seemed the least bit interested in them. And the bear up on the ledge had responded to the flare in the way they had hoped it would. But Dyer couldn’t shake his unease. “Why don’t we post a watch?” he asked Gross after dinner. They could take two-hour shifts overnight until the bear was gone, he suggested. But Gross wasn’t worried. “That’s what the fence is for,” he told Dyer.

They had been asleep for several hours when Rodman woke to the sound of screaming. Quickly, he realized it was Chase, in the tent next door, having a nightmare. Rodman could hear Castañeda-Mendez soothing her. Isenberg slept fitfully too. Each time he woke up, he checked to see if the bear was still there. “Sure enough he was, sure enough he was,” he said later. And then, about 1 a.m., “he wasn’t.” It was unnerving, but there was nothing Isenberg could do about it. He went back to sleep.

The next morning was cold and rainy. The hikers bundled into layers—jackets, waterproof pants, winter hats and gloves. The plan had been to pack up camp and move to the next destination. But the weather wasn’t cooperating, so they loaded their daypacks and went exploring. Again, they were surrounded by wildlife: whales in the fjord, caribou, ptarmigan, black bear scat full of berries. By afternoon the weather began improving and they peeled off some of their warm layers. They stopped at a rock perched high above their campsite to take silly pictures of each other.

When they got back to camp, Chase unpacked a little happy-hour meal for them to enjoy: salami, crackers, and Bacardi 151 rum mixed with lemonade. Before Gross turned in, he walked the camp’s perimeter, confirming that the electric fence was still working. Isenberg detached the fly cover from his tent so he could watch the clearing sky. It was too early in the year for the Northern Lights to appear, but he wanted to be ready, just in case. Before Gross crawled into his sleeping bag, he tucked his flare gun into his boot. He fell asleep listening to the waves.

Dyer pulled on his silk long underwear and slid into his sleeping bag. He’d always been able to fall asleep anywhere, and this night was no exception.

At 3:30 a.m. the campers woke to screams.

From the little window of her tent Chase saw the shape of a polar bear just a few feet away, standing over the tent beside her. It was down on all fours, eye level with her, huge and white except for the black of its eyes and nose. It turned and stared right at her. “RICH!” she screamed. She grabbed her flare gun while Castañeda-Mendez raced out of the tent. The bear was just a few yards away. It bit at the tent next door and then dragged it into the darkness.

Gross grabbed the flare gun from the boot near his head. He ran into the grass in his long underwear and aimed the flare gun toward the bear as it started running. It was a moving target, now seventy-five feet down the beach, heading west, parallel to the shore of the fjord. Something was dangling from its mouth.

One by one, the hikers burst out of their tents. They could see only a few yards away into the darkness. But they saw enough to know that the thing in the bear’s mouth wasn’t a thing at all. It was one of them. It was Dyer. Gross fired the flare gun. The flare erupted, and then a second brilliant light exploded in front of the bear. The bear dropped Dyer and took off running. But it didn’t run far. After another seventy-five feet or so, it stopped and turned around. Dyer lay crumpled on the ground. It was coming back for its prize. Gross reloaded and fired again. This time, the bear ran off into the distance.

Nachvak Fjord echoed with the group’s screams and cries—one part fear, one part desperate attempt to keep the bear from coming back. Frankel screamed Dyer’s name, but he didn’t respond. Dyer wanted to let his friends know where he was—to yell to them, to wave. But his jaw wasn’t working and he could barely move his arms. Silently, he repeated a mantra: “Go away, bear, go away, bear. Just go away.”

He had been sound asleep when something—he wasn’t sure what—had caused him to stir. As his eyes adjusted, he saw two large arms, silhouetted by the bright Arctic moon, sweep across the thin nylon of the tent. Polar bear paws can be a foot wide, with claws up to two inches long. There was no mistaking what was happening. His tent was lifted off the ground, with him in it. “Bear in the camp!” Dyer remembers shouting. “He’s got me! Oh, he’s got me!” The bear clamped its mouth around the crown of Dyer’s head and ripped him out of the tent. Dyer heard his jaw break and felt the bear’s huge teeth, which can grow to an inch and a half long, puncture his head and neck. He could smell the fishy, oily stench of the animal’s saliva.

Jan15-Shankman-PolarBears5

The bear dragged him toward the mouth of the fjord, Dyer’s face bumping against its chest. Dyer stared at its white stomach and the yellow stains on its hindquarters as it carried him farther and farther from camp. He noticed with detachment that one of his socks had fallen off.

And then there was noise coming from behind him—the shouts of his friends.

The bear turned its head toward the sounds, flipping Dyer into the air and slamming him against the ground. Without losing its grip on Dyer’s head, it continued moving toward the water.

Dyer had sometimes thought about how it would feel, that terrifying last moment before you die. But instead of fear or panic, he found himself filled with an overwhelming sense of calm. In the arms of something so strong, there was no point in holding on to hope. At that moment, his head still in the polar bear’s jaws, Dyer saw a flash of light and heard the unmistakable whoosh of a flare gun. The bear dropped him—hard. He heard vertebrae in his neck crack as they broke. He was in shock, mercifully, and couldn’t feel the pain.

The sounds of the animal’s massive paws on the gravel began to fade. Then they stopped and grew louder again. The bear was coming back. A second flare lit up the sky. The bear took off, and its plodding footsteps grew faint in the distance.

Jan15-Shankman-PolarBears6Waiting for rescue: After first aid from a fellow hiker, Matt Dyer hovers between life and death.

 

Gross handed his flare gun and binoculars to Frankel so she could cover him. “I’ve got to get out there,” he said. Isenberg went with him. About seventy-five feet from the campsite they found the lawyer’s crumpled, blood-drenched body. At first, they thought Dyer was dead. But when Isenberg knelt beside him, he saw that Dyer was breathing. They tried to lift him, but he was too heavy. Castañeda-Mendez and Rodman, now dressed, ran out to them. The four men laced their arms under Dyer’s body and carried him back to camp. Dyer hung limply between them, a dead weight. Castañeda-Mendez grabbed a sleeping pad from his tent, and they carefully laid Dyer down on it in the middle of the campsite. Castañeda-Mendez covered him with the double sleeping bag he and Chase shared and placed a duffle bag under Dyer’s head for a pillow. Gross and Castañeda-Mendez ran to the cook tent and pulled up its stakes. The teepee-style shape of the tent gave Isenberg enough room to work and protected Dyer from the wind. Although Chase had wilderness first-responder training and certification, Isenberg was a physician, and she deferred to him.

All Isenberg had to work with was a basic medical kit with typical first-responder materials—four-by-four gauze pads, a roll of gauze strip, antibiotic ointment, splints. Isenberg cut off Dyer’s shirt. It was wet with blood, and the doctor was afraid he wouldn’t be able to keep his patient warm. Dyer’s face was swollen and bruised, and his jaw was displaced. The good news was that he was talking. “Thank you. Oh, thank you,” he said over and over, his voice a raspy whisper because of his crushed jaw.

Much of the blood appeared to be coming from his head and neck, but the wounds were hidden beneath his long ponytail. Isenberg hacked through the blood-soaked hair with first aid scissors. Puncture wounds ringed Dyer’s face and head, but they were oozing blood, rather than pumping it—a good sign. The biggest wound was a gash on Dyer’s neck that looked as if it had been filleted open by the bear. Isenberg could see Dyer’s carotid artery, the principal blood supplier to the head and neck. The artery was intact, but if anything caused it to tear, Dyer would bleed to death. Isenberg was terrified. Dyer was in critical condition; they were hundreds of miles from help; and Isenberg hadn’t practiced medicine in fifteen years.

It was also becoming clear that Dyer’s wounds might not all be external. The lawyer was struggling to breathe and spitting up blood and mucus. If he stopped breathing, Isenberg would have to perform a tracheotomy, cutting a hole in Dyer’s windpipe to open up the airway. But how?

Opening the hole would be easy—he had a pocketknife that would work for that. But what would keep it open? A drinking straw was too small to allow enough air in. He hit on something: the drinking tube in a CamelBak hydration bottle. The tubes to the water pouches are sturdy, and definitely big enough. At least he had a plan. There was little more Isenberg could do there in the wilderness, without sophisticated medical equipment. He held Dyer’s hand and prayed as his patient slipped in and out of sleep.

Outside the tent, Chase forced herself to stay calm as she worked her satellite phone, using the list of emergency numbers she’d been given by Parks Canada. Rodman helped her. At 3:45 a.m., Chase got a police dispatcher on the line. Her group had been attacked by a polar bear, she said. One member of their party needed to be evacuated, and the rest of them were in danger.

Their electric fence—which clearly hadn’t worked—was in tatters. The fence around the cooking area was still intact, but they no longer believed the few strands of wire could protect them. Frankel made slow circles around the perimeter of the camp, holding Gross’s flare gun, her eyes scanning the horizon. Castañeda-Mendez and Rodman took turns patrolling with the second flare gun. Gross stationed himself just outside the cook tent, ready to get whatever Isenberg needed. Every fifteen minutes, Chase called the police dispatcher to update their status and ask about the rescue plan. The area from Base Camp to Nachvak Fjord was socked in with fog. Until that cleared, there was no way to launch a rescue.

At 4:20 a.m., the unspeakable, unshakable fear that had been driving them for the last hour finally eased. Dyer was stable, Isenberg announced. If his carotid artery didn’t rupture and he kept breathing—and if the rescue team arrived relatively soon—he would survive. The sun was coming up. If a bear came their way now, at least they’d be able to see it.

Although Chase didn’t know it, Base Camp had been alerted at 6 a.m. and was already working on plans, backup plans, and backup-backup plans. Gary Baike, a Parks Canada employee, had awakened a medic, Larry Brandridge, and told him to get ready to go. Baike and Base Camp manager Wayne Broomfield checked the route the group had filed and figured out where they might be.

Base Camp consists of a couple of year-round buildings and a few dozen tents for sleeping. Everything sits behind a five-foot-tall electric bear fence that is connected to an alarm system. Because the camp is surrounded by mountains, the only way in is by boat or helicopter.

In case the helicopter could not take off, they started preparing a speedboat to take Brandridge and a bear guard named Jacko Merkuratsuk up to Nachvak Fjord. At the same time, they dispatched the Robert Bradford, a commercial fishing boat they contracted for the summer, to make the ten-hour trip up to the fjord. Unlike the helicopter, the Robert Bradford was big enough to get all of the hikers out together.

Back at the fjord, Dyer woke up occasionally, murmuring thanks to whoever was with him at the time. Isenberg occasionally barked orders—asking for a towel, water, or a bottle for Dyer to urinate in. Moments later, a hand would reach under the tent, holding whatever was needed.

By 7:30 a.m., the clouds were lifting. Minutes later, the group heard the thump-thump-thump of the chopper’s blades and saw it moving through the mountains and across the fjord toward them. Brandridge got off the helicopter and huddled with Isenberg to get an update on Dyer’s status. He ducked into the cook tent and found Dyer conscious and checkered with bloody bandages. He had a laceration over one eye and the lower part of his left earlobe was gone, but all things considered, Brandridge was pleasantly surprised. “I was expecting chunks of meat missing, more puncture wounds,” he said later. He maneuvered Dyer onto a scoop stretcher—a clam shell-like contraption that can open up and be placed around a patient—and with the other men put the stretcher on a backboard. Chase held Dyer’s hand as they carried him to the helicopter. As the helicopter rose through the clouds, the people they left behind became tiny specks and then disappeared entirely. Isenberg looked out the window, counting polar bears and black bears along the way.

Back on the ground, Merkuratsuk, the Parks Canada bear guard who had flown in on the helicopter, began gathering wood and building a fire, his gun slung over his shoulder. He told the group what he had seen before the helicopter landed: a large polar bear walking in the area where the group had planned to hike that day.

Merkuratsuk knew Nachvak Fjord—and polar bears—as well as anyone in the region. When he and his nine siblings were growing up in Nain, they spent most of their summers at the fjord. One of his brothers was born there. Three of his siblings, as well as his son, were bear guards, licensed by Parks Canada to travel into the park as guides.

He and other local Inuit had helped inspire the population study of the Davis Strait polar bears that biologist Elizabeth Peacock launched in 2005. They seemed to be seeing more polar bears in the region, and if they were right, they wanted Parks Canada to raise the annual quota for polar bear hunting. At that point, the five Inuit communities in Nunatsiavut could kill a total of six bears a year, a quota that had been in place since 2001. The hunting licenses are distributed via a first-come, first-served system to members of Nunatsiavut’s native communities. Hunters are given seventy-two hours to try to kill a bear before they have to return the license so it can be passed along to someone else. Once the quota is met—six bears in the past; twelve bears in 2014—the season ends. Different quotas are set for the other regions of Canada where polar bears are hunted.

In these Arctic communities, the changing ice can have deadly repercussions. For residents of Nain and other communities around the Torngats, snowmobiles are their cars; the ice is their winter highway. But the ice is no longer fully trustworthy. Not only is the Arctic climate changing on a grand scale, over years and decades, but it’s also changing on an immediate scale, with higher highs and lower lows and more variability within the seasons. In Nain, locals say a snowmobile can be flying across ice that appears normal when suddenly the ice cracks and the sled crashes through to the frigid ocean below.

In 2010, Moshi Kotierk, a social science researcher with the Department of Environment in the government of Nunavut, questioned thirty-one Davis Strait hunters and elders about polar bears and climate change. Twenty-four reported seeing more polar bears in the region. Few connected the increase in bear sightings with climate change, but the majority agreed that the sea ice has changed significantly.

The helicopter touched down at Base Camp around 8:30 a.m. As the propellers slowed, an ATV with a trailer pulled up. Dyer’s stretcher was loaded onto a mattress in the trailer and driven to the medic tent. With Isenberg at his side, Brandridge inventoried and cleaned Dyer’s wounds. He began with the bite and claw marks on his face, which were dripping blood into Dyer’s eyes. After removing each bandage, Brandridge cleaned away the blood and photographed the wound.

“How are you feeling?” Brandridge asked.

“Like shit,” Dyer said.

“That’s not bad for someone who just got attacked by a polar bear.”

After finishing with Dyer’s face, Brandridge peeled off the bandage covering the big wound on his neck. The thick odor of meat immediately filled the tent—an odor that, to Brandridge, smelled like death. He saw that the hole in Dyer’s neck was about the width of a pencil and went behind his jugular and toward his esophagus. Each time Dyer inhaled, he was wicking blood into the wound. The medic rushed to the main office of Base Camp. The plan to wait for a medevac plane from Goose Bay, Labrador, wasn’t going to work, he said. Based on his assessment, Dyer’s condition wasn’t stable after all. His lungs could be filling with blood as they spoke. Brandridge could clean him up and make him comfortable, but he didn’t have the medical equipment or the expertise for the kind of operation Dyer needed to save his life.

They decided to put Dyer back on the helicopter and send him to George River, a town about forty-five minutes away, where a first-response team with more sophisticated equipment would meet them. From there he’d be flown to Kuujjuaq and then on to Montreal. Within about a half hour, the helicopter was up in the air, weaving through the passes between Base Camp and the river valley en route to George River. The weather was terrible, with snow in one pass, and sleet and rain in others. Brandridge radioed Base Camp to say they were making progress. But he couldn’t help but feel that it was unlikely Dyer would survive.

At about 4:40 p.m., thirteen hours after the polar bear had attacked the camp, the Robert Bradford, a vision in green and white, dropped anchor in Nachvak Fjord. The fishing boat’s owners, brothers Chesley and Joe Webb, welcomed the five remaining hikers and Jacko Merkuratsuk aboard. Most of the group huddled in the cabin, at a small kitchen table with bench seats. At the front of the cabin Chesley Webb steered the boat through the nasty weather and toward the mouth of the fjord. Frankel stood beside him, looking straight ahead and trying not to succumb to seasickness. At 7:30 p.m., they neared the mouth of the fjord. But instead of entering the open waters of the Labrador Sea, the Webbs dropped anchor. With little to no visibility, and icebergs dotting the coastline, it wasn’t safe to continue in the dark. Freshly caught Arctic char was on the menu for dinner—“the most delicious char you’d ever have,” Rodman said. They tucked in where they could for the night.

Toward morning the Webbs pulled up anchor and the Robert Bradford steamed into the Labrador Sea. At 5 p.m., after a long day of high waves and bad weather, they entered Saglek Bay with Base Camp in sight. That night, their most basic needs were met: A warm meal. Showers. Cabin-like tents to sleep in. All behind the formidable bear fence that surrounded the camp.

Decades of studies about polar bears and the rapidly changing climate have led to a prevailing scientific narrative about the bears’ future: the loss of sea ice, driven by man-made climate change, will eventually force them ashore for such long periods of time that the species is inevitably doomed. In recent years, however, a competing narrative has emerged, driven in large part by the work of Robert “Rocky” Rockwell, a biologist and ecologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Rockwell has studied various species in the lowlands of the western Hudson Bay for forty-six years, and in 2009 he began publishing his findings about polar bears and their eating habits. He suggests that because the bears are opportunistic eaters, they might be able to survive climate change by foraging for food during their extended periods on land. Rockwell writes that the western Hudson Bay bears don’t necessarily fast during their months off the ice, when their hunting skills are thought to be almost useless. Some gorge on snow goose eggs and even the geese themselves. They also eat berries and plants. Rockwell points out that while a polar bear can’t run down a caribou, he has seen bears wait for a herd to pass by and pounce on stragglers. He also has seen bears stalk sleeping seals on land. Locals in the Torngats report similar incidents, as well as occasional sightings of polar bears catching char in streams, much as their grizzly ancestors fished for salmon.

Rockwell’s critics say that his Hudson Bay studies focus on such small sample sizes—in a few cases just ten bears—that the data can’t be extrapolated to predict how polar bears are responding to climate change globally. Perhaps the biggest flaw they see in his work is the idea that terrestrial eating—eating on the land while off the ice—is helping bears in the western Hudson Bay. In addition to having decreased body condition and lower reproduction rates, the bear population there has declined by 22 percent since the early 1980s as the ice has broken up earlier. “If terrestrial feeding was the savior for polar bears, why are polar bears starving on land during the ice-free period?” asked Andrew Derocher, a biologist who has been studying polar bears since 1984.

The big question, of course, is whether polar bears can adapt to the latest changes in their habitat. Brendan Kelly, former deputy director for Arctic science at the National Science Foundation, explains that a species’ ability to evolve in the face of new conditions depends in large part on the length of its life span. If the habitat changes slowly and multiple generations can survive during that period, traits that prepare the species to thrive in the new habitat will flourish while other traits gradually disappear. But when a species with a long life span, like polar bears, is confronted with a rapidly changing environment like the melting of the Arctic, adaptation is less likely. “When environments change really abruptly, more typical than adaptation, which takes just incredible luck, is extinction,” Kelly says.

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 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.

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 group. As he walked around the village he tried to process all that had happened in the last sixteen hours. Wherever he went, people stopped him to talk about it. Bear attacks are rare, and news travels fast in small, isolated communities like Kuujjuaq. Every time he described the events, Isenberg said he was met with the same reaction: You did what? You went there without a rifle?

Around midnight on July 25, about twenty 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 coma. He focused under the fluorescent lights, and the first thing he recognized was the face staring back at him: his partner of twenty-five years, Jeanne Wells. 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. She had brought an iPod, 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. As Dyer woke up, he saw his friends staring back at him. Slowly he 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 okay.

Afterword: After an internal investigation, the Sierra Club cleared Marta Chase and Rich Gross of any wrongdoing. They remain trip leaders in good standing. The Sierra Club is considering whether it will send other groups into polar bear country. Parks Canada, meanwhile, is revising its policies for licensing groups to go into the Torngats. A Parks Canada official said the agency won’t require groups to take along bear guards, but the possibility of requiring guards in the future will “never be off the table.”

Sabrina Shankman

Sabrina Shankman is a producer and reporter for InsideClimate News. She previously helped produce documentaries and interactives for Frontline on PBS and was a reporter for ProPublica, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press. This article is an excerpt from her book, Meltdown: Terror at the Top of World, published by InsideClimate News.