TURNER, Maine — When Matt Dyer started training for his trip-of-a-lifetime last year, his biggest concern was fitness.
“I trained all winter,” he said. “I’d go out with a weighted pack on snowshoes, and I did a lot of other work getting ready. My concern was that I wouldn’t be ready physically to cover the terrain.”
He knew that Canada’s Torngat Mountain range was nothing to take lightly. It’s a cold, dangerous, remote place. A carnivorous place, he said. He wanted to be sure he could handle it.
“I remember thinking one morning, ‘what the hell am I doing up here?’ It was 90 degrees when I left home.” Dyer said. “But, when the sun would come out, oh my God. All this wildlife, the whales coming down the fjords. It was everything I wanted, everything I wanted to see.”
That included polar bears, but Dyer said he wasn’t worried.
“I Googled polar bear attacks before I took the trip and I saw something like two,” Dyer said. “So I wasn’t that concerned.”
It was a polar bear that ended his trip and nearly took his life last month. The bear breached the electrified fence that surrounded his group’s camp while they slept on July 24, clamping onto Dyer’s head and neck and carrying him away.
It was his friends, the eight people that accompanied him on the trip, that rescued him from the bear.
“So many people cared for me, from the moment it happened to right now,” Dyer said. “Every dark cloud has a silver lining, and this has been it for me — finding out about the people who care for you.”
Now home in Turner, Dyer said he’s a lucky man with at least a month’s worth of healing to do before he’ll be back at work.
“I’m hoping to get back to normal,” he said. “I had taken up mountain biking and kayaking and I hope I’m going to be able to do that stuff again.”
The Torngat Mountains National Park is one of Canada’s newest national parks, established in 2005 from 3,700 square miles of wilderness located on the Northern Labrador Mountains in Newfoundland. These are the highest Canadian peaks east of Rockies, well into the Arctic Circle and home to a dizzying array of wildlife — whales, caribou, arctic foxes, seals and bears.
The Sierra Club offers the $6,000 trip led by two guides. Dyer said he wasn’t familiar with the the area, but the idea intrigued him.
“I had the opportunity at this point in my life to spend the money and go do something I’d never really had considered,” he said.
Dyer said he began planning the trip last winter, and training. It promised to be a grueling experience.
“I’m no spring chicken, but I was the youngest in group,” Dyer, 48, said. “These guys I was with, they were a very experienced group. Some of them had climbed Mount Everest.”
The group had set up a base camp near the water and would make daily excursions up the mountains. The bears were a constant presence. Dyer said the group awoke one morning to find a mother and her cub nearby.
“My god, they are cute, like a little stuffed animal,” he said. “Then we had another big boy that came in and sat and watched us for a bit. We had to fire a flare at him to chase him off.”
But the group felt secure, sleeping behind a 4,000-volt electrified fence designed to keep the animals out.
That was the scene on July 24. Dyer said he woke up in the middle of the night in his little one-person tent on the western side of their little camp.
“I was kind of laying awake, and I saw the arms of the bear coming over my tent. I could see the shadow,” Dyer said. “So I hollered ‘Bear in the camp! Bear in the camp!’”
The bear fell on him, latching on to his head and neck and began carrying him away.
Contrary to what his wife said last month, Dyer did not fight back. It just wasn’t possible, he said. He felt like a chipmunk caught by a cat and he went limp while the bear made its way to the beach.
“I thought I was dead,” he said. “I could hear the bones crunching back in my head where he was chewing on me. I could see the bear’s legs. I was kind of under this belly with big white legs — no doubt what it was. I remember thinking to myself, it’s gotta happen to everyone. This is my time. And then I saw a flare.”
A flare gun fired from the camp startled the bear into dropping Dyer near the beach. Dyer said he suspects the bear was young. An older bear probably wouldn’t have lost its grip, and Dyer would have been a fatality.
His friends carried him back to the camp, performed what first aid they could, and waited for rescue.
“It took seven hours for the helicopter came, but it was okay,” he said. “I could hear them cooking, making food. They were very kind to me. I have to thank those people a lot because they were very kind to me.”
Dr. Rick Isenberg, a Scottsdale, Ariz. gynecologist that made the trip with Dyer, told an Arizona TV station last week that the group did the best they would with the limited first aid supplies they had. The group waited another 12 hours after Dyer was flown out before a boat arrived to take them away.
Dyer suffered severe injuries to his back and head — occluded arteries, a broken jaw and sinus bones and two broken vertebrae — as well as a collapsed lung and broken bones and bites to his hands and arms. There was no spinal cord damage, however.
“If he had bitten any other way, I think I would have been dead,” Dyer said. “Either I would have had a stroke or been paralyzed. But now, here I am, sitting in Turner. It’s pretty nice.”
Dyer said he’d willingly go back to the Torngat Mountains, but this time he’d have the group set up a night watch. They wouldn’t need guns, only alerts.
“Only the Inuit are allowed to carry guns in the park,” he said. “When the helicopter came to get me, they left an Inuit guide with a gun and he said the gun wouldn’t have helped in my situation. He said the guide would’ve been asleep, too. The only thing he would have been able to do is to kill the bear afterwards.”