When a polar bear ripped Lewiston lawyer Matt Dyer out of his tent and dragged him away while camping in Canada, he thought he was going to die, he told writer Sabrina Shankman.
He was wrong. Thanks to the quick response of his fellow campers, Dyer survived to tell the tale. In the new ebook “Meltdown: Terror at the Top of the World,” penned by Shankman, the terrifying details of the attack and all that led up to it are recounted by Dyer and the six hikers camping with him in Canada’s Torngat Mountains National Park in the summer of 2013.
“My hope was that I would see a bear. I thought I’d be lucky to see one,” the 49-year-old Dyer said this week. “I didn’t think there would be so many of them up there.”
But there were. And one of them nearly killed him.
The bear plucked Dyer from his sleeping bag by the head, as it would typically attack a seal. It carried him across the beach, and slammed him on the frozen ground before his companions were able to come to his rescue. By then, he had two broken vertebrae in his neck, his jaw was crushed, his left hand was broken, his right lung had collapsed and he had more than a dozen puncture wounds, including a hole in his neck.
He was lucky. Today, a year and a half later, he’s back to work in Maine with a polar bear statue on his desk.
“The only real permanent damage you can notice is in his voice. It’s really scratchy,” said Shankman, who worked with Dyer to record the details of the traumatic event for several months.
Originally from Yarmouth, Shankman currently lives in Brooklyn. She began working for InsideClimate News about a year ago, and Dyer’s story was her first assignment.
For the project, InsideClimate News partnered with VICE media and invited Dyer back to the Torngats to create a short documentary about his experience and how it relates to climate change.
“It seems almost cruel to have him reliving this, dragging it out over a year,” Shankman said. “But he never once hesitated to have a conversation with me or answer a question. He is the most open and patient person I think I’ve ever met.”
Dyer said he was looking forward to returning to the Labrador Peninsula, even the beach where he was attacked. He knew telling the group’s story could benefit other adventure seekers.
“We were very, very fortunate that we didn’t get in any more trouble than we got in,” Dyer said. “My hope is that [the projects] save other people’s lives down the road. They won’t repeat what we did, with more grave consequences.”
Polar bear conflicts on the rise
Shankman had her own mission in telling Dyer’s story.
InsideClimate News reporters, known for producing in-depth investigative pieces on the environment, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for their work “ The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of.”
In writing “Meltdown,” Shankman worked with scientists around the world to put the story into context.
Polar bear-human conflicts have increased noticeably over the past decade, and many scientists are attributing this to the melting of the sea ice that enables bears to hunt for seals successfully.
“We knew from the start that this would be a way to present a climate change story to a much broader audience,” Shankman said. “People like to read adventure stories and survival narratives.”
Dyer admitted that he wasn’t entirely aware that the habitat of polar bears had changed so drastically.
“They’ve been teaching us about global warming, climate change, since I was in high school,” Dyer said. “I accept it as scientific fact, but this is the first time I’d been in country like that.”
And that “country” continues to change.
About 695,000 square miles of sea ice have been lost since 1979, according to a study by NASA scientist Claire Parkinson. In “Meltdown,” Shankman helps readers visualize that loss by stating that’s roughly the same as if “California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Utah and most of Idaho” disappeared.
Consequently, scientists have recorded polar bears having lower reproductive and survival rates and poor body conditions. In some areas, these majestic predators have disappeared altogether.
When Dyer returned to the Torngats in August with Shankman and VICE media, they were able to talk with Inuit guides about how their home has changed over the years as temperatures have risen.
“It was just story after story about snowmobiles crashing through the ice, things like that,” Shankman said. “There are orcas up there they didn’t used to see.”
While the polar bear population remains strong in the Torngats, the locals told Shankman that they see bears more often on land, especially along the coast, and they often appear malnourished. This worries them. More hungry bears on land could mean more attacks on people.
Indeed, polar bear-human conflicts are on the rise.
“According to [American biologist James] Wilder’s tabulations, there were fewer than 10 attacks per decade in the 1960s and 1970s,” Shankman said in “Meltdown.” “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.”
Bear guards can help
Guns are generally prohibited in Canada’s national parks, but in response to this growing danger, Parks Canada loosened their gun regulations in 2011. In parks that contained polar bears, they began allowing researchers, licensed guides and local, native Canadians to apply for gun permits. Guns could also be carried by Inuit “bear guards” who have taken a polar bear safety course and been licensed by Parks Canada.
Dyer’s group did their research before their trip to the Torngats. They had the recommended pepper spray, pepper grenades and electric fences for polar bear country. But they didn’t have a bear guard, and that may have made all the difference.
“During the attack, everyone had tunnel vision, they weren’t really aware of what the others were doing,” said Shankman, who talked to each of the hikers for hours to create a detailed, accurate narrative. “I tried to explain what each person saw.”
Dyer, who has chronicled important life events through the tattoos he wears, said he plans to commemorate the near-fatal attack the same way.
In April, a tattoo artist will draw a stylized, multi-colored bear on one forearm. If Dyer likes the result, he’ll have a mirror image tattooed on the other arm.
“If you do tattoos, which I have for years, when something like that happens, you’ve got to ink it up,” Dyer said. “You’ve got to.”
And while many who’d lived through similar attacks might hold a grudge against an animal that nearly killed them, Dyer doesn’t see the world through that lens.
“That bear was just doing what it was supposed to do. And I was the one who put myself up there,” Dyer said. “I often think, that bear had as much malice toward me as I do toward a pork chop. They’re in a stressed-out environment up there now. If anything, I feel empathy toward those creatures. Truly.”