September 1, 2013

Lawyer details polar bear attack

‘Well, dude, you’re going to die’

By David Hench
Staff Writer

TURNER — Matt Dyer could hear the sound of his neck bones breaking under the crushing pressure of the massive jaws of the bear who had pulled him by the head from his tent.

click image to enlarge

Matthew Dyer talks about what he endured when a polar bear attacked him at his campsite in Canada at his home in Turner on August 29.

Portland Press Herald photo by Tim Greenway

“I can remember thinking, ‘Well, dude, you’re going to die,” he said, his voice raspy from injuries and medical procedures. “This is your time.”

He did not struggle, carried away motionless and helpless, like a kitten in the mouth of its mother.

As he stared at the bear’s belly and huge legs marching away from camp, a light flashed — a flare fired by a member of his hiking party. The bear dropped him and Dyer lay still. The thousand-pound bear didn’t utter a sound, but Dyer could hear its footsteps circle him, then receded.

Dyer is one of the few people in the world who has been attacked by a polar bear and survived — albeit with two cracked vertebrae, a  broken jaw, a collapsed lung, injuries to both hands and a gash on the forehead.

He faces a lengthy and painful recovery, though he hopes this week his neck brace will be removed.

Interviewed at his home last week, Dyer said he is lucky to be alive, and able to walk and shake hands and make jokes.

Dyer, 48, of Turner, is a staff attorney for Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

Four years ago, Dyer and his wife, photographer Jeanne Wells, moved from Portland to Turner, near Lewiston, to be closer to nature and so he could have a shorter commute to his office in Lewiston. The home they share is near Androscoggin Riverlands State Park and the Androscoggin River.

Last year, Dyer was flipping through a copy of Sierra Club magazine — he’s a longtime member of the environmental group — and saw an ad for a trip to Torngat Mountains National Park in northern Labrador, billed in the ad as a land of spirits and polar bears. Dyer figured he could afford the $6,000 cost for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. His only other major trip was when he traveled in Europe while in college.

His main concern about the two-week hiking excursion to Labrador was meeting the physical demands of the trip.

He trained, hiking or snowshoeing 10 miles with filled water bottles in his backpack for weight. As he prepared to leave Maine in July, he joked with a colleague that he would be back unless a polar bear gets him.

When he and the other six in the hiking party assembled in Quebec, he was among the fittest.

Torngat Mountains National Park is Canada’s youngest national park, created in 2008, out of an agreement formed with two groups of Inuits, who had occupied the land for many years. The park was formed under the stipulation that only Inuit people could carry firearms there. It is home to an abundance of wildlife, including omnivorous black bears and, during the brief summer months, the strictly meat-eating polar bears.

A dark beauty

Bad weather delayed for several days the group’s foray into the park. Eventually, they were flown in by float plane, crossing desolate mountains of rock and ice and landing in the spectacular Nachvak Fjord.

Like the others, Dyer was stunned. Herds of caribou grazed the tundra and wolves ran in the distance, giving the hikers a wide berth. Minke whales splashed in the deep waters of the fjord. Wildflowers and scrub willows sprung from hardscrabble ground.

There were signs, too, of nature’s darker side. The ground was strewn with bones. The subarctic climate apparently preserves the bones of dead animals, Dyer said. They found bleached wolf skulls, whale bones and caribou. Dyer found the leg of a wolf that still had tissue on it, all that remained of a recent kill.

(Continued on page 2)

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