Reported in partnership with InsideClimate News
The campers woke to the sound of screams.
"Help me! Help me!"
It was 3:30 AM in the Nachvak Fjord, a gorgeously desolate chunk of grassy wilderness in the Canadian subarctic, and the sound ricocheted through the silence like a gunshot. The fjord is about 530 miles from the Arctic Circle, and not much warmer. Getting there requires multiple bouncy prop-plane flights or a ten-hour boat ride over choppy waters filled with icebergs, like ice cubes tumbling in a giant glass of ice water. The nearest bank or bar or convenience store is nearly 200 miles away, but who needs one when visitors to the fjord can drink directly out of its Brita-clean streams? In addition to Arctic char, a visitor here sees minke whales splashing in the sea, soaring ptarmigan, and seal skulls dotting the beach—leftover lunch scraps from the 2,000 or so polar bears that call this place home.
Rich Gross, the Sierra Club tour guide who had helped organize the trip, jolted awake at the shrieks. He grabbed a flare gun stashed inside the boot near his head. He tore open his sleeping bag and leaped out of his tent.
Marta Chase, the group's other guide, lay in a tent near Gross's. She was terrified. As Gross climbed outside, she peered through a little window and saw a polar bear, just a few feet away, standing over the tent beside hers. It was down on all fours, eye level with Chase, huge and white except for the black of its eyes and nose. It turned and stared right at her.
"Rich!" she screamed.
Her husband, a spritely man named Kicab Castañeda-Mendez, scrambled out of their tent while Chase searched for her flare gun. When Castañeda-Mendez emerged, Gross was standing in the grass, in his long underwear, aiming the gun at the bear as it started to run away. It was a moving target, now 75 feet down the beach, heading toward the shore of the fjord.
By now it was 3:31, maybe 3:32 AM. The night around them wasn't pitch-black—like it might be in a horror movie—but it was still dark, that dusky twilight that makes the air feel as thick as smoke when it descends in far-northern climates. It was dark, in other words, but not so dark that Gross and Chase couldn't see that the fleeing polar bear had something in its mouth as it ran off into the night—it was one of their travel companions. Matthew Dyer. He was no longer screaming, "Help me."
Nine months earlier, when Dyer read an ad in the fall 2012 issue of Sierra magazine, it described exactly the type of adventure he'd been waiting for: 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. Dyer, a 49-year-old lawyer in a small city in Maine, had saved up some money and had always been fascinated by the bears.
Participants would have to 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, Rich Gross and Marta Chase, would be leading the adventure, called "Spirits and Polar Bears: Trek to Torngat Mountains National Park." Gross, 61, worked for a low-income-housing nonprofit in San Francisco, but since 1990 he had spent a week or two each year guiding Sierra Club trips in remote parts of the world. Chase, 60, was a medical-diagnostics consultant who'd been leading hikes since she was in high school. She and Gross had guided 14 excursions together.
It was Gross's idea to go into the Torngats, one of Canada's newest national parks, located in northeastern Labrador. He'd never seen a polar bear in the wild and was drawn to the spiritual appeal of the place. Torngat Mountains National Park was named after Torngarsuk, an ancient Inuit spirit that takes the likeness of a polar bear and controls the lives of sea animals. In photos Gross pored over, the terrain itself had a mystical appearance, with sharply peaked mountains and fjords cutting into the park 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.
A large male bear can weigh as much as 1,700 pounds and stand ten feet tall. While they have evolved to eat seals, polar bears, unlike most species, will actively hunt humans in certain circumstances—especially if they're not able to access their typical prey. When the sea ice melts in summer, the bears come on land, and if there's a time and place to see a bear, it's midsummer in the Torngats.
Worldwide, the polar bear population is in trouble. The two best-studied bear populations, in Canada's western Hudson Bay and Alaska's southern Beaufort Sea, are both in decline, and experts predict it's just a matter of time before other bear populations start to plummet. Why is this happening? The sea ice where bears hunt seals is diminishing as a result of rising temperatures and man-made climate change, so the bears' hunting season is shrinking. In turn, bears are reproducing less and must migrate farther and farther to find food, even into cities, like the Canadian town of Arviat, more than 1,000 miles from the Torngat Mountains. Arviat recently hired an armed "bear monitor" to ward off the animals.
An increase of bears on the land is in turn leading to a rise in human and polar bear interactions—back in the 1960s and 1970s there were eight or nine attacks reported per decade, according to wildlife biologist James Wilder. Based on recent trends, that number is expected to reach 35 this decade. While no individual incident can be attributed to climate change, the rise in interactions is precisely what biologists have expected to see as the bears lose their habitat. The result is a paradoxical situation in which fewer polar bears may mean more attacks on humans.
Gross had learned some of this by the time he received an email from Matt Dyer, on November 17, 2012. Dyer was prepared to pay $6,000 for this trip into the unknown, and he wanted to sign up. But Gross wasn't sure Dyer was ready for such an extreme adventure.
"This trip requires backpacking experience and I don't see any on your forms," Gross said in an email after reading Dyer's application. "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. "I totally understand that you don't want to wind up a thousand miles from nowhere with a problem, but I think I can do this."
Dyer agreed to follow a strict training plan, and Gross agreed to take him.
On July 18, 2013, Dyer lugged his 50-pound pack into the Quality Hotel Dorval in Montreal, where he would meet his travel companions and then fly north to the Torngats. To save money, he'd taken a 12-hour overnight bus from Lewiston, Maine, and then spent the morning wandering around Montreal. He ate two breakfasts and napped in a park, feeling "kind of like a bum," killing time until he could check in to his hotel.
When Dyer arrived, Larry Rodman walked into the hotel lobby at the same time, fresh off the airport shuttle bus after a quick flight from New York City. Rodman, 65, was a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, and the walls of his office were adorned with photos he'd taken on previous wildlife trips, though he'd never seen a polar bear. He'd signed up the same day he read the "Spirits and Polar Bears" ad on the Sierra Club's website.
The big-city law partner and the legal-aid attorney with the scraggly gray ponytail hit if off immediately—they both loved opera and fencing and had an easy sense of humor. Dyer was relieved. He'd been less concerned about the arduous journey than about the people he'd be trapped with in the wilderness.
Gross and Chase had flown in the day before to buy supplies and make last-minute arrangements. When they saw Dyer he looked as ready for this trip as anyone.
He had a ropy frame, tattoos, and seemed to have a permanent grin on his face.
Later that night, Gross and Chase gathered the crew to go over final details. Another group member, a doctor from Arizona named Rick Isenberg, arrived in Montreal after midnight, and the next morning the crew boarded a plane and headed north.
There are two primary ways to get into the Torngat Mountains. The first is through the Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station, a small collection of tents and outbuildings that serve as the official gateway into the park. The Canadian government opened it in 2006, but in 2009 handed it over to the local Nunatsiavut government, which runs Base Camp as a hub for researchers, visitors, and staff from Parks Canada, the government agency that oversees all of Canada's parks.
The other way in is through a privately run outfit called Barnoin River Camp, about 900 miles north of Montreal. When Chase emailed Base Camp officials and got no reply, she reached out to Vicki Storey, an adventure-travel agent who'd been booking trips to the Torngats for years. Storey put Chase in contact with Alain Lagacé, the owner of Barnoin River Camp, who had been leading fishing expeditions and wildlife tours into the Torngats for decades.
"The thought of polar bears is still a concern to me," Chase wrote in one of her emails to Lagacé before the trip. "I have experience with black and brown bears but not with polar."
Lagacé said they'd need flares, pepper spray, and portable electric fences to protect them while they slept.
"Regarding the safety against polar bears, we have it all," Lagacé wrote. "The 12 gauge magnesium [flare] gun are working extremely well, plus we have the pepper spray, and the pepper spray greanade ( sic) and electric fence. These have worked very well in the past but there are always precautions to be taken. Never cook food in your tent, don't leave trash around your camp site, avoid camping along the shore of a coastal lake, etc."
Previously, Chase and Gross had read that Parks Canada recommends that visitors to the Torngats hire a licensed Inuit bear guard who is allowed to carry a gun into the park and is trained in polar bear safety. But Chase and Gross say that when they confirmed their hiking route and let the government know they'd be traveling through Lagacé's camp, which does not employ bear guards for hire, nobody at the agency mentioned hiring a bear guard. The only requirements for visiting were that they register with the park and watch a DVD on polar bear safety, which a Parks Canada employee said would be sent to Lagacé's camp.
Instead of an armed bear guard, 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. The instructions weren't included, so with the help of a close friend who is an electrician, Gross practiced setting them up outside his house in San Francisco.
Each fence stood about two and a half 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 enough to send it running.
Before their trip, Gross emailed a picture of the fence set up in his front yard to Castañeda-Mendez.
"What's the polar bear supposed to do?" Castañeda-Mendez wrote back. "Die of laughter?"
At Barnoin River Camp, Lagacé, a fit, middle-aged man with a gray mustache, gave the group an orientation, pointing out the bathrooms, kitchen, and the bunkhouses. After the group settled in, Gross began testing their equipment. On a patch of grass near the crystal-clear Barnoin River, he pulled out a flare gun. Lagacé had rented two orange Gemini 12-gauge flare guns to the group, but Gross had never shot one before and he wanted to get comfortable with the weapon. When he pressed the trigger, there was a burst of light and a flare shot forward about 150 yards in a straight path toward the ground. Upon impact, the flare cartridge exploded with a second burst.
Marilyn Frankel, a 66-year-old exercise physiologist from Oregon and the group's seventh and final member, saw the flashes from a shed where she was sorting food, pulling out the half that would be airdropped to them midway through the hike. OK, she thought after seeing the burst of flame, those are going to work.
At around 5 or 6 PM the group headed to one of the camp's main buildings for dinner. Chase and Gross had planned to show the group the DVD on bear safety. But they say Lagacé told them that the DVD hadn't arrived (in an interview, a Parks Canada representative claimed the DVD had been mailed to the camp). If they had watched it, they would have learned that the number of human and polar bear interactions is increasing, that the most common place to encounter bears is the coast, and that it's important to know the limitations of bear deterrents and not be lulled into a sense of false security by them.
In lieu of the video, Lagacé agreed to talk to the group about safety in polar bear country, sharing what he had learned in decades of bringing people into the Torngats. (When I interviewed Lagacé about the video, he said he had shown it to the group, and then he declined to answer any more questions.)
According to the hikers, Lagacé told them to be aware and prepared at all times. Polar bears aren't like the grizzlies they had come in contact with before, he warned—they're hunters. The bears travel along water, so the hikers should be sure to camp away from the edge of the fjord. Provided they slept inside the perimeter of the electric fence, he allegedly told the group, they should be just fine.
The Arctic's sea ice has receded rapidly as global temperatures climb. Since 1979, according to NASA scientist Claire Parkinson, about 695,000 square miles of sea ice there have been lost—an area about the size of California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Utah, and most of Idaho combined. In the Davis Strait, where the Torngat Mountains are located, there are about 15 fewer days of ice cover each decade, and 50 fewer days than in 1979. For two months of the year, where a visitor would have typically seen ice blanketing the strait and the Labrador Sea, he or she now sees dark water. This dark color further warms the earth by absorbing a greater amount of sunlight—the way wearing a black shirt on a summer day makes you hotter than wearing a white one.
In the early afternoon of July 21, 2013, the group traveled east on a floatplane toward the blue waters of the Labrador Sea and Torngat Mountains National Park. Dyer watched breathlessly as their plane skimmed over mountain peaks and then dipped into a desolate but spectacular valley—treeless, with steep peaks cutting down to the water's edge, leaving a spit of land and beach. The green vegetation covering the mountains and hills was new to the area. Years ago, the hills were all rock, but a shifting climate has brought with it new growth.
The plane landed flawlessly on Nachvak Fjord, backing into the shore so they could exit without getting their feet wet. Castañeda-Mendez held on to the plane's pontoon while the rest of the group unloaded their gear. The pilot quickly said his goodbyes and the roar of the engines receded into the distance, leaving the hikers alone with just the sound of water lapping quietly onto the shore.
A cold rain started to fall, but a rainbow stretched across the expansive sky. Dyer took it as a good omen.
Chase and Gross left the group on the shore while they scouted for a campsite. Lagacé had warned them not to camp on the beach and to find a high place to sleep because polar bears are known to come right up the fjord where they landed.
But when Chase and Gross reached an area that met Lagacé's recommendation—an elevated spot about a quarter mile away—they discovered it didn't have easy access to drinking water. Farther down, 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 a bit closer to the shore, but still at least 150 yards away from the mouth of the fjord. People had obviously camped there before, because they'd left behind stakes and piles of rocks. But little did they know, according to Judy Rowell, the superintendent of the park, the campsite was smack in the middle of a "polar bear highway."
"Hey!" Castañeda-Mendez called out in the dawning hours of the next morning. It was 5:40 AM and the group was cozily sleeping inside the perimeter of the electric fence. Castañeda-Mendez had climbed out of his tent to pee. That's when he saw a huge white object, like a cross between a large dog and an abominable snowman, lurking near the water's edge. "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 outside the tent. Dyer and the others grabbed their cameras. Here they were, in shouting distance of some of the world's most violent predators, yet the scene was overwhelmingly peaceful. Dyer felt on the verge of joyful tears as he watched the bears walk along the shore, the cub close on its mother's heels.
It was only later, as they looked over their photos and zoomed in on the bears, that they got a sense of the animals' physical state. A concave hole fell between the mother bear's sharply pointed shoulder blades. Experts who examined the photos confirmed that the mother appeared underweight, and a native guide would tell the group that he had seen what he believed was the same mother just weeks earlier—but she had had two cubs with her, leading him to believe that one had died.
Mother bears and their cubs have the most tenuous future when it comes to climate change, according to biologist Charles Robbins. Studies have found a direct link between earlier sea-ice breakup and fewer cubs surviving. When biologist Elizabeth Peacock studied polar bears in the Davis Strait, which includes the Torngat Mountains, she found that while the population numbers were strong, litters were smaller than anywhere else in the world, and fewer cubs were surviving into adulthood. She also found that the bears' general health was in decline-a sign that a fall in population may be coming soon.
Essentially, Peacock found that there's an abundance of polar bears in the region, but not enough of their natural habitat—sea ice—to support them. In a year when the ice breaks up early and refreezes late, that could add up to lots of hungry bears.
But on this morning, luckily, changes in the ice did not translate into the mother and her cub being interested in the hikers. The bears just sniffed the air, laced with the scent of humans, and eventually sauntered away. Dyer and the crew marveled at how close they felt to nature, how lucky they were to have this National Geographic moment not even a full day into their trip.
Later that morning, after a breakfast of oatmeal, the group packed their day bags to get ready for a hike deeper into the land. Gross carefully placed one of the flare guns in his backpack. Chase took the other.
They headed east to explore the area around the fjord. The weather felt unpredictable, with heavy clouds settling in and wind and rain beginning to whip through their campsite.
The Torngat Mountains are technically subarctic, but they lie along the 58th parallel, putting them above the tree line and within the Arctic eco-region. The group hiked through scrub willows and grassy hills and along the ledges above the campsite. The rain turned to a cool mist and gradually cleared, revealing blue skies and spectacular views of the Labrador Sea.
As they walked, Castañeda-Mendez took the lead, relishing moments alone and allowing some distance to grow between himself and the group. Occasionally Gross would call out, "Slow down," "Wait up." Gross, Rodman, and Isenberg made up the middle of the pack, while Dyer, Chase, and Frankel brought up the rear. They bantered pleasantly and playfully while they walked through a landscape that relatively few humans had ever seen and that by its very nature-the extreme cold, the remoteness-was inhospitable to human life.
At about 3:30 PM, after they'd turned back toward camp, they reached a wide stream near their campsite. They sat on some rocks and removed their boots. The water was shallow, clear, and cold. For feet that had been banging around in hiking boots all day, the cool of the stream offered quick relief. Castañeda-Mendez was already halfway across the water when Dyer looked up and saw a creature lumbering toward them.
"Polar bear!" Dyer shouted.
"Get back here! Get back here!" Chase yelled at her husband. "We have a bear!"
The animal was about 150 yards away and closing in. Castañeda-Mendez high-stepped back through the water, and the group clustered together, following the protocol that Lagacé had rehearsed with them before they left Barnoin River Camp: 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 bear they had previously seen. 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 approached. Castañeda-Mendez fired away with his camera. Gross pulled out one of the flare guns.
"I'm gonna shoot," he told Chase when the bear was within 50 yards.
"I think that's a good idea," she said.
As the flare fired, the animal kept coming toward them. But when it landed in front of the bear, causing a second burst, the animal turned and took off in a dead run.
The group burst into cheers, clapping, banging their poles, and celebrating their victory.
"It was like getting a touchdown at a football game," Dyer said later.
But the bear hadn't gone far. It settled itself on a ledge about 300 yards away and lay there quietly, watching the group make the short trek back to their camp.
By the time they reached the safety of their electric fence at about 4 PM, the rain was coming down heavily. Most of the group settled into their tents to rest until dinnertime, but Dyer was uneasy. He couldn't relax while the bear was perched on the nearby ledge.
"I mean, my goodness, there was a very large carnivore watching us," Dyer said.
As the rain poured down, Dyer stationed himself outside of his tent, leaning on his poles, staring down the bear as it watched them. Castañeda-Mendez said Dyer looked like one of the guards at the British palace. He stood staring at the bear for more than an hour, drenched under the dreary gray sky as the afternoon waned.
Eventually, the bear and the rain wore him down. Dyer asked Gross and Isenberg if they were watching the bear from within their tents, and they said they were. So Dyer retired to his shelter, escaping into Leaves of Grass, the only book he had brought with him.
After reading for a while, Dyer walked through the drizzle to the tent next to his, where Chase and Castañeda-Mendez were relaxing. It was just a few steps away, but on the walk he saw that the bear was still there. Dyer had just read a poem that felt so right he had to share it. He read to them Walt Whitman's "Me Imperturbe": "standing at ease in Nature, Master of all, or mistress of all, aplomb in the midst of irrational things…"
At about 6 PM the campers started making their way across the rocky strip that separated them from their cook area to prepare dinner. Up on the ledge, the bear now 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 arms. To Frankel, it looked like a big dog. To others, it looked like a menace.
At sundown, the bear was still there, and Dyer couldn't shake his sense of uneasiness.
"Why don't we post a watch?" he asked Gross after dinner. They could take two-hour shifts overnight until the bear was gone.
But Gross wasn't worried. "That's what the fence is for," he told Dyer. After all, Gross had done his research and spoken with the experts, who had reassured him that they would be fine. To be extra safe, he checked the fence again that night, making sure the wires were taut and the battery was switched on.
Dyer acquiesced, thinking back on their orientation at Barnoin River Camp where he remembered Lagacé telling them: "If the polar bear touches that, you won't have to worry."
The first thing Dyer saw was two giant arms coming over the top of his tent. It was 3:30 AM, two days later. Everyone else was fast asleep, and he had been too until seconds before, when he woke for some ineffable reason. The bear tore him out of the tent, its jaws quickly clamping around Dyers' skull. As he was dragged farther from the campsite and felt the bear's jaws sink into his head, he thought, This is it—you're going to die now.
To find out how Matt survived and learn more about the science behind climate change and polar bears, download the e-book, Meltdown, at InsideClimateNews.org.