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Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here.
Polar bears are the fearsome legends that many hikers can only dream of ever seeing. Matt Dyer was one such hiker; when he ventured to northern Canada in 2013, Dyer thought he’d be lucky to catch a glimpse of the snowy beasts from afar. Little did he know, he’d get a much closer look, and his luck would take a very different form. Hear the story from Dyer’s perspective below, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Matt Dyer: The breath, you would not believe the smell of that bear’s breath. He’s dragging me, and I just, a voice he could mean said, you know, you you’re going to die.
Host: Polar bears, the grand beasts of the Arctic, are one of the most fearsome predators on earth. Healthy males can weigh half a ton, stand eight feet tall on their hind legs, and possess enough power to get all that mass moving at 25 miles per hour. Few sights in nature will inspire the sense of panic and doom as seeing a polar bear loping across the ice headed your way.
They are aggression sheathed in fur, spiked with two-inch claws and armed with teeth designed to catch and hold slippery prey. As a rule, few animals survive encounters with these hyper- carnivores. Matt Dyer is that rare exception.
Out Alive Trailer: I made a decision to survive. When you’re in that survival mode, the idea of dying wasn’t in my head. I knew immediately it was the worst case scenario. I was in a fight for my life situation. Remember, when you walk out on the trail, you’re in their house.
Host: I’m Louisa Albanese and you’re listening to Out Alive by Backpacker. In each episode of this podcast will bring you real stories of real people who survived the unsurvivable.
Out Alive Trailer: I saw the rope zip through the rappel ring, and I couldn’t do anything.
Host: Learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst case scenario happens to you.
Out Alive Trailer: There is no way we would find anybody alive.
Matt Dyer: My name’s Matt Dyer. I live in Easton Maine in a Aroostook County. I am a lawyer and have been [00:02:00] for almost 30 years of doing, working for legal services corporations, helping low-income. And, uh, I very much loved the outdoors and nature in all its beauty and danger.
I guess this whole story began probably in the winter of 2012. I had decided that I wanted to do a big trip. So I was looking through the Sierra magazine that I get, cause I’ve been a member of the Sierra Club for a long time. And I saw an ad for an outing to the Torngat National Park in Labrador, Canada. I’d never heard of it. So I did some research and I thought, you know, that looks like a great time.
It’s very remote, very rugged country. Beautiful in its bleakness. One of the things I thought was if [00:03:00] there were the old gods, you know, they talk about in Game of Thrones, the old gods and the new gods. If the old gods went to live anyway, that’s where they went.
Host: Torngat Mountains National Park on the Labrador peninsula is larger than the entire state of Delaware, but the remote tundra gets less than 600 visitors per year. Unlike more popular parks, there are no roads or campgrounds. The temperature in the Torngats hardly ever reaches above freezing, and the ground is permafrost. The tundra climate means that there are no trees, just glacier-carved valleys, and stony peaks that seemed to spring from the Atlantic up to 5,000 feet. Carved into the tundra are whale- and seal-filled fjords, caribou and wolves gather in the open land. Few people roam the Torngats. Here, the wildlife reigns supreme.
Rich Gross: We’ve seen bears, [00:04:00] brown bears, grizzlies, black bears everywhere. And I wanted to see polar bears.
Host: That’s Rich Gross, one of the Sierra club leaders on Matt’s trip.
Rich Gross: I like the Arctic. I like the starkness of that. I like feeling small in a vast and wilderness. The Torngat Mountains is one place where there’s a large concentration of polar bears. I’ve always tried to find places that are remote, that not many people have seen before.
Matt Dyer: They were a little concerned. Cause I didn’t have like a backpacking, a lot of experience. I mean, I’ve been an outdoorsperson forever. But I wasn’t like a backpacker, so they were concerned that I wouldn’t be able to hack it.
Host: So Matt spent all winter carrying a weighted pack over Maine’s trails. When summer rolled around, he was ready.
Matt Dyer: We headed up to where we we flew from Montreal to a town called Kuujjuaq in Northern Quebec on the, uh, on Ungava bay and from there, [00:05:00] we went to a base camp in Northern Quebec called the ( ) camps. An outfitter ran it. They arranged to get us a float plane to get us up over the Torngat Mountains and then down onto the coast in Labrador. And a rainbow, the rainbow came out. It was raining a little bit. Yeah, it was pretty late in the day. And we made camp there on the shore, pretty close to the shore or anyway. And we had been told, you know, all about the polar bears and everything. Um, although we didn’t, I tell you what, I thought I’d be lucky if I saw one.
Rich Gross: We talked to Parks Canada about what to do to be safe, how to be safe from polar bears. And so we did a number of things. We always carried flare guns. We prepared for, for what to do if we had a polar bear encounter and we carried bear spray, and we also brought an electric fence with us, which [00:06:00] was supposed to protect us from from polar bears.
Host: Rich and the other trip leader, Marta, had purchased two electric fences for the trip. One to fix around their camping setup and one for their food, about a quarter mile away.
Matt Dyer: So we hooked that fence up and, uh. Again, I had no experience with these things. The fence ran off a couple of double D batteries, like you put in a flashlight.
So I got to tell you, I was like, I don’t know about that. But everyone said, you know, the outfitter guy said if we touched it, it would blow us out of our hiking boots. So none of us touch it. Next morning, early waking up. And one of the guys says, look says, polar bear.
Rich Gross: One of the participants went out to pee and at four o’clock in the morning and he saw a mother and a cub walking on the beach, that was a few hundred yards away from us.
Matt Dyer: So I got up and looked and there was a polar a mother bear with a cub and she was coming down the beach right near the water. And it was just great, you know? Oh my gosh, first morning here there’s a polar bear. Um, and she didn’t pay any attention to us. Just kept going.
Rich Gross: So we saw a mom and a cub on the beach. Mom was pretty skinny. So we were a little concerned that she didn’t have much food.
Matt Dyer: We got day packs and packed up lunches and so on and so forth. Snacks. And, uh, went for a hike, you know, around beautiful countryside. I just, just absolutely stunning. And when we got done, we had to cross a little stream coming back to our camp and we were sitting there taking our boots off. Cause you know, like you don’t want to get a wet if you don’t have to, you know, small enough stream, just tampered across. And while we’re getting [00:08:00] sitting there, I look up. And there’s a great big polar bear like staring at us. A big one.
Rich Gross: We did what we’re supposed to do when we see a bear. We gathered together, we made noise, we shouted and that didn’t happen. I pulled out the flare gun and shot a flare at it and it ran away. It ran away about, I dunno, half a mile away up on a ridge and just slept for a long time. So it made us nervous, but it seemed to act the way we expected it to act.
Matt Dyer: I’ve seen black bears. I, at that time, I had never seen a grizzly bear, but you know, but this, this, this guy was a bruiser—just bigger than a black bear around here. I can tell you that. So he sat there and watched us. We, we ate our dinner and he was still there and we had to get sleep. Got in behind that fence.
And, uh, he sat there and [00:09:00] watched us. I sat up for a long time because I was nervous, but then, you know, whatever, we decided, that’s what the fence is for. And we went to bed and went to sleep. And I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and the bear was gone.
And that was like, oh, thank god. So then it started to rain and sleet. It was foul weather. But about 2:30, something woke me up. And I was sleeping on my back and I look up, and I see the shadow come over the top of my tent and it was two big bear legs.
And I knew what that was. So I started to holler. And he or she just came down top of that tent, just bam. You wouldn’t have believed it. And just started pawing on me, [00:10:00] pawing, pawing.
Rich Gross: We were all asleep. I woke up to Matt screaming and Marta screaming my name. I quickly got out of my tent
Matt Dyer: He was trying to get his mouth on me. And I was covering my head with my hands. That’s what he was going for. And by God, he finally got me. He got my head in his jaws and started to munch on them. And then I think he kinda stood up. Of course, you know, you don’t know what’s going on, uh, other than, and I’m screaming and hollering. And he just ripped me right through the side of the tent. What I say was like a coming like a cork out of a champagne bottle. Boom! And I hit the ground. And I felt like just, you know, just my lungs when, and he started running. He had me by my head running and I was getting dragged along. [00:11:00] The breath, you would not believe the smell of that bear’s breath.
And he’s dragging me. And I just, like a voice came to me and said, you know, you’re going to die. And my other voice said, yeah, I know.
I could feel the bones cracking in my neck and skull, where he was. Like any minute.
Rich Gross: I keep the flare gun loaded and cocked in my boot right at the front of my tent. And so I, as soon as I got out, I ran out with the gun in my long underwear. And what we could see was the bear was dragging Matt away from the electric fence. The bear had clearly gone right through the fence. I aimed the gun at the ground in front of the bear.
Matt Dyer: I heard a swoosh. And a flash, and a flare went over. That Rich had shot off a flare and by God that bear [00:12:00] dropped me and went.
Rich Gross: The bear ran away, about maybe 50 yards away and then turned around and started to come back.
Matt Dyer: And then, then I could hear them scream and everything. I tried to get up or something, but I was broken. I couldn’t do shit, just lying there. Uh, tried to move. Then I hear the bear coming back here. Uh, you know, like beach rocks. You would hear him coming back and they were screaming, and Rich shot him. Another flare shot up.
Rich Gross: And so, uh, I shot another flare. At the bear, at the ground, and these are double flares. So they not only exploded when we come out of the gun. When they land they explode again.
Matt Dyer: God, don’t come back, bear. Don’t come back.
Rich Gross: I realized we had to go get Matt because he wasn’t moving. So I went out with one other person to check on him, which was a very scary thing because we had no idea—it was dark and we didn’t know where the [00:13:00] bear was.
Matt Dyer: They came up they got me. I think I thought it I was dead for sure.
Rich Gross: So we went out and we couldn’t, two of us couldn’t pull him back. So I pulled in two other people from the group and we pulled him back into the tent.
Matt Dyer: Now that fence was toast, it was just, it was well, they told me I didn’t, I wasn’t at that point, I was just, you know, just a piece of meat. I was so relieved. I mean, at that point, when you, when you basically have given up. And then you’re not dead. Well, that’s a very good thing.
Host: The polar bear had left, but with the electric fence destroyed, the group had no idea if the bear might come back. Now they had work to do. Keeping Matt alive would not be easy, let alone protecting themselves from another potential attack.
Matt Dyer: Here we are in the middle [00:14:00] of nowhere. You’ve got a guy who’s just been mauled by a bear. And they had a satellite phone and I could hear Marta trying to hail someone up on that satellite phone for help.
Rich Gross: We did not plan for a polar bear attack, but we knew what to do when that happened. As it turned out, you know, getting, getting a rescue was much more difficult than we expected. We had a number of numbers of people that had, uh, of organizations. RCMP, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, um, and the parks service, Parks Canada, um, both had helicopters. And then there was a thing called Base Camp, which was also had a helicopter. So we called a number of places and because it was the middle of the night, it was difficult to get ahold of people that could actually get the helicopter off the ground. And we finally got through with somebody at around 6:00 AM I think, so four or five hours after the attack, um, and said they’d try to get a helicopter to us, um, to get Matt out of there.
Matt Dyer: They got a tent around me, cause you know, it’s still cold up there in July. I laid there. I’m not going to say six or seven hours.
Host: Another group member, a doctor, took charge of tending to Matt’s wounds. The others took turns standing guard.
Rich Gross: When we pulled Matt back, we had the best group of people, maybe that I’ve ever had in a trip. Nobody panicked. Nobody freaked out. Everybody took on responsibilities. So we set up, we had two flare guns, so we set up a watch with two people, always looking around camp. At that point we had no fence. Trying to see if the bear was coming near with the flare guns. And the other issue was getting all of us out of there. Cause we had to be evacuated as well. So helicopter came around 8:30 in the morning [00:16:00] with a bear guard that had a rifle and a medic that could take care of Matt.
And so they helicoptered him and the doctor on the trip out of the, out of the area. And then we were there and then the weather socked in. They tried to send a speedboat to us and they tried to send helicopters to us and really couldn’t get us out. So we actually ended up waiting for about nine hours—more than that—12 hours for a fishing boat to come and get us. A fishing boat that was going nine knots and an hour to come and get us from it from a town nearby—not so nearby, there’s no towns nearby —the town that was closest. We were most scared of ending up there at night. Again, we knew the bear was still around us and we were most afraid of another attack.
Matt Dyer: Eventually I woke up, I was in a hospital down in Montreal and, and there was my wife [00:17:00] looking at me. Um, and, uh, holy shit, that was quite a relief. It really was.
Host: The bear had cracked several vertebra in Matt’s neck, severed his carotid artery, and cracked his jaw. Its teeth had punctured clean through his hand and opened several wounds on his skull that would sustain nasty infections. He had a collapsed lung, a collection of puncture wounds, and a busted larynx that left him unable to speak for several weeks. But he was alive.
Matt Dyer: The people that were on the trip with me, they came and visited me in the hospital. I couldn’t talk or anything. I was all wired up to everything. They gave me a little, like a Quija board thing to spell out things on, you know, like “drink” or something. But then they got me [00:18:00] so loaded up with whatever, I couldn’t even do that. Uh, they, I remember them. They let them all come in that room and looked at me and I still keep in touch with all of them. They’re good friends. They did, they did a lot to get me out of there.
Host: Matt’s group pulled off a remarkable rescue that night, but everyone involved would agree that his survival was in large part luck. Regardless, A serious question still remains.: How did this happen? And could it have been prevented?
Tom Smith: They’re curious animals. And when we put our camps in their habitat, we create what I would call an attractive nuisance.
Host: This is Professor Tom Smith, bear biologist specializing in human bear interactions.
Tom Smith: That is this visual and sometimes auditory and an olfactory kind of [00:19:00] experience for them. I mean, they’re seeing novel objects and they’re hearing things and they’re smelling things maybe even, so it’s not unusual for bears to see a camp and to approach it.
Host: The electric fence Matt’s group set up was not enough to stop a determined polar bear. However, electric fences do have a good track record with bears, according to Professor Smith.
Tom Smith: The thing about this though, that’s really odd is the fact that the bear breached the electric fence. I’ve done a lot of work on electric fencing, and I’ve not had problems with them at all because I’ve had a lot of grizzlies come off my fence and they do not go through my fence. And it’s set up like that. Had there been a bear guard, um, it wouldn’t have happened because they could have scared the bear off. So that’d be a takeaway for me.
Host: Parks Canada conducted an investigation of the incident, and a number of safety practices were subsequently implemented. As a result of Matt Dyer’s accident, Sierra Club trips no longer venture into polar bear country.
Rich Gross: Kind of drawn a 25 mile. line from the, from, from the shore, knowing that polar bears will come into land more now than they would before. I know the Sierra club has done that. And I think there’ve been a number of outfitters that will not hike in polar bear country anymore. They went back a year later to look for that bear. They did not find him, but they, they have not made any effort to destroy the bear there.
Host: Matt returned to the Torngats a year later, as well. Since the attack he’s hiked through grizzly country in the Yukon, and he’d like to see Greenland one day. Polar bear country.
Matt Dyer: My big lesson is electric fences probably aren’t the way to go. In polar bear country you probably shouldn’t be camping. You should be in a boat or something else. Okay. They’re there, they’re big, they’re hungry and they’re not cuddly, friendly things. They’re apex predators.
Host: Despite his prolonged physical recovery, Matt came out of the bear attack feeling emotionally strong and grateful for the many people who helped to save his life.
Matt Dyer: It’s like I got zapped. I got the anxiety life just knocked out of me. It really changed me that way, I think. Just whatever, just, just cruising. You know, I’m not holding anything back. I’m not going to go camping with an electric fence in polar bear country ever again, I can tell you that.
Host: This episode was produced by me, Louisa Albanese, along with Zoe Gates and Sammy Potter. Story editing and sound design was by Wild Acorns Media. Our assistant story editor was Tim Mossa. Our script writers were Casey Lyons, Sammy Potter, and Zoe Gates. This episode was mixed by Jason McDaniel from Electric Audio, Inc.
Thank you to Matt Dyer, Rich Gross, and Tom Smith for sharing your stories and perspectives. If you enjoyed this episode of Out Alive, please subscribe and leave us a review.