Heavy footfalls crunched the stones along the shore of Nachvak Fjord. The misty air was unusually still with no scent of seals. There hadn’t been ice for many days, and there would be many more until ice returned. The big bear’s body was slowly weakening, starving actually, as the winter fat reserves burned off in these warm summer months. He was empty and desperate for food, forced to scavenge eggs and carrion when he could find it. He craved meat but was driven to consume the tundra’s grass and berries which didn’t sit well in his stomach. So many days now without seal. The hunger was maddening. He was hungry, very hungry. Reluctantly, the big bear turned away from the fjord and headed inland. He would come back tomorrow. The searching was as constant as the hunger now.
Experienced wilderness guide Rich Gross wanted to see a polar bear. He teamed up with partner Marta Chase to organize a trip to Torngat Mountains National Park on the northern tip of Newfoundland. Established in 2008, it is Canada’s newest national park accessible only by plane. There are no roads, no trails with signs, no buildings, or any signs of civilization whatsoever. Just an expanse of land as wild and untouched as it had been for thousands of years. Torngat Mountains National Park is so isolated that less than 200 people visit it in a year. The park is 125 miles away from its own headquarters, perfect for an adventure.
Gross and Chase placed an ad in Sierra magazine stating, “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.” Five people responded to their ad. The average age of the group was 60 years old. Matt Dyer was the youngest at 48.
A polar bear spends most of its life out on the ice hunting seals. It waits by the air holes, and when a seal pops its head up for a breather, Nanook pounces grabbing the unfortunate seal by its head. With a quick crunch, dinner served. But in the summer months, the great white bear is trapped on land and out of its element. It goes into a reverse hibernation from its smaller cousins. The polar bear burns off the fat reserves in summer stored up in winter. The difference, and this is really important, is that unlike its smaller cousins the polar bear is awake and acutely conscious of its starving state until the ice and seals return. It is maddening.
The big bear was searching further and further inland to find nests that still had eggs. He listens for the screech of the terns and gulls or the honking of the geese and then watches where they land to find their nests. This was hunting when there was no ice. He had spotted a cub a few days ago. Meat. But when he approached, the mother wouldn’t let him take it. The big bear headed back again to the fjord to check for ice and seals even though it didn’t feel right for ice. Maybe a dead fish. But as he approached the water’s edge, there was something new happening. He heard a distant buzzing sound and looked up to see a strange bird in the distance. It was getting closer.
Gross, Chase, and their group arrived by sea plane Sunday, July 21, 2013. The swirling mist parted on their descent showing them a landscape that was breathtaking, straight out of Lord of the Rings. Rivulets of water trickled and cascaded down the tall peaks reaching through the mist into the above. Lush tundra carpeted the contours of the hills and valleys. The pilot landed on Nachvak Fjord and they unloaded. Without delay, the pilot took off again and the seven were left on the shore with just the sound of a soft breeze whispering through the grass and the quiet lapping of water at their feet. There was no one else around, anywhere. As the plane buzzed off into the distance, a sense of wonder and vulnerability crept in. They were in a land that time forgot and no longer at the top of the food chain.
The white bear had retreated at the bird’s approach and now watched from the safety of the rocks some distance away. The big bird landed on water like smaller birds do and then swam to shore. Big birds have big eggs. This bird was very big. It was the first time the bear had experienced any living thing bigger than himself. He might not get the eggs after all. But instead of eggs, it brought out its young which amazingly looked like seals. Meat. The big bear watched as the bird turned and flew away leaving her seals on the shore. Instead of going into the water, the seals built a nest on the land. The big bird did not return to the nest and her young.
Gross and Chase had their group set up camp a couple hundred yards from shore. The park website told them, “The chance of encountering a Polar Bear (Ursusmaritimus) or a Black Bear (Ursusamericanus) is extremely high in the Torngat Mountains. It is safest to travel with an experienced Inuit polar bear guard who is permitted to carry a firearm in the park.” It is also recommended to use flare guns, bear spray, electric fences and other loud noise makers for deterrent. Gross and Chase had elected to use the electric fence and other mechanical devices as protection. They did not hire an armed guide. The electric fence would not harm a bear, but was enough to give it a jolt and send it running. That was the theory anyway. But as Yogi Berra said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” In others words, “shit happens.”
The stress the polar bears are experiencing on land is increasing. Climate change over the past few decades has increased the ice-free days of summer in the Torngats from 125 days to 175 days. That’s almost two more months now that the world’s largest land carnivore has to live off their fat reserves and scavenge what food they can find. Evolution can’t adjust that quickly so the bears get really hungry. The largest polar bears can weigh up to 1,700 pounds and need to eat 15 pounds of food a day, more if they’re building up reserves. That’s a lot of egg and berry salad. Fifteen pounds of fiber is not the same as fifteen pounds of protein.
Standing 10-feet tall when upright and weighing in at three-quarter ton, the polar bear is the apex land predator of the arctic. Only a person with a high-powered rifle is higher on the food chain, and even then they better have steady hands or I’m still betting my allowance on the bear. Polar bears in a well-fed state will steer clear of people. It’s not that we’re tougher, but something about us just turns them off. I know how they feel. But when you’ve got a shriveling tummy for six months, you have two categories, “food” or “not food.” So if you should just get lucky enough to come across one of these funny-looking land seals whose mother has abandoned it, jackpot.
Nothing personal, but to a starving polar bear a human is just week’s worth of meat.
The bear had come back to watch the land seals after a night of fruitless search inland for food. He laid down with a hollowed out, weak feeling. The nest was quiet. The first embers of dawn glowed. He noticed movement along the shore. The big bear heaved to his feet for a better look. The mother bear and her cub were back and they were approaching the nest of seals. One seal barked and the others soon appeared. The two bears continued their approach. The seals grouped together for defense. He listened for the large bird to return and protect her young. If the mother bear killed the seals, he would take them. But the mother and her cub seemed uninterested in the seals and continued along the shore. He settled back down and wondered. Hunting seals meant watching and waiting.
Dawn was breaking when one of the hikers, Kicab Castaneda-Mendez, stepped out of his tent and saw the bears. “Polar bears on the beach!” he shouted. A mother and her cub were out for an early morning walk along the shore of the fjord. The others appeared and watched the pair in silent reverence. It was all so surreal. The power and serenity moved Matt Dyer to the verge of tears. The bear and her cub moved on and the group stood in silence, not wanting to break the spell. When the two bears were gone, the group ate breakfast and, readied their packs and excitedly set out for their first day’s hike.
The stunning scenery only added to the spell cast by the mother bear and her cub. The wild peaks, brooding sky, and absolute isolation was like a glimpse into prehistoric ages when the forces of nature were wild and still untamed. It was like entering a time when superstition, roiling and uncouth, gripped the hearts of men, and the old gods that haunted the primeval universe had not yet withdrawn. It wasn’t just the untouched nature that moved them, but the feeling of savage and formidable forces, the world beyond the world. Not evil perhaps in themselves, yet violent in their tendencies toward humanity. It is sacred ground. Not the paper ideologies of a caged deity created by small-minded people, but an uncaged Force both awesome and terrifying, both worshiped and feared, where the only liturgy is humility and wonder.
The group had spent the day exploring around the fjord. On their way back to camp in the afternoon, they paused to dip their tired feet in a cool stream. It felt good. Matt Dyer looked up and saw something coming toward them. “Polar bear!” he shouted. The bear was about 150 yards away and even at that distance they could see it was larger than the female they’d seen earlier. The hikers crowded together following bear defense protocol: group together, make yourself big, make noise, get your spray and flare guns ready. The bear kept coming. “I’m going to shoot,” Gross said leveling the flare gun. The bear was 50 yards away. “I think that’s a good idea,” Chase replied. There was a crackling as the flare burst forward. Hitting the ground in front of the bear, it flared causing the bear to turn and run off. The group was jubilant, but the bear didn’t go far. It lay down on a ledge several hundred yards from the camp in clear view.
The big carnivore had stalked the group of seals since they left the nest and now closed in as they splashed in the water. One of them barked a warning to the others but he continued his advance. They were just pups and their mother was not here to stop him. Meat. But suddenly sky fire struck out from the seals burning the grass. He turned, fled, but the fire did not chase. He found a spot out of reach from the fire on high ground where he could watch the nest. The great white bear was hungry, but he could wait. This is hunting. You learn and try again. He settled down to study the seals. He was so very hungry.
It was raining hard when the hikers returned to the safety of their camp. The bear could be seen about 300 yards from camp, but their defense had worked and the electric fence was in place. The tired group went to their tents for a nap, all except Matt Dyer who was uneasy about the bear. Everything appeared to have worked in chasing off the bear, but something was poking at his thoughts softly suggesting something was wrong. He stayed outside keeping watch. But after sometime when the adrenaline of the day wore off, he too retired for a nap.
Dyer’s unease was due to something disrupting his mental map of the situation. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something wasn’t right.
Yes, their bear deterrent maneuvers had worked textbook perfect. Well, almost. The bear ran off, but the big carnivore didn’t exactly run away. It was in plain sight watching the camp as though it wasn’t ready yet to give up on the situation just yet. And what exactly was this situation to the bear? At a subconscious level, Dyer’s mind was telling him the threat was not over. The emotional reaction to that information was his unease. He just didn’t know it. We’ve all experienced that. Something feels wrong when everything looks right and we can’t quite put our finger on why.
Intuition is the feeling that tells you to react, but you don’t understand why. There’s no clear evidence to your five physical senses. We usually dismiss it because it doesn’t seem rational, and that’s exactly right. It’s a survival trait developed back when humans were spearing woolly mammoths and trying not to get eaten by big sharp-toothed cats. Back then your life depended on a well-honed intuition. Not so much now though. In our lives of high comfort and low risk, the consequences of dismissing our intuitive thoughts are usually, well, inconsequential. You’re sitting in a traffic jam thinking, “I knew I should have taken the other route.” You miss a meeting or appointment and tell someone, “I knew I should have checked my calendar.” Stuff like that. Somewhere along the way you had picked up subtle clues to a situation and dismissed them. Our intuition has dulled because the consequences for ignoring it have little or no impact to the big picture.
Back in the days of spearing your dinner and gathering fruit, when man wasn’t the apex predator, intuition was the big part of the human connection with nature. You tuned in to the power of your environment. There were all sorts of ways to die, many of which were pretty nasty. It was survival of the intuitive. A person had to be sensitive to the cues of the immediate scene to get an idea if the bigger picture posed a threat. This sharpened sixth sense was lost as we domesticated ourselves to the point where now we don’t even recognize a dangerous situation when we’re in it. We’ve lost skill to stop what we’re doing and follow-up on those little pokes that are trying to tell us something. In the spirit of get more and getting it faster, we dismiss those little nudges, those voices that are trying to tell us something. Too often we just plow through to get on to the next thing never wondering why we would even have such a thought in the first place.
We all remember the devastating tsunami that struck south-east Asia at the end of 2004. Amid all the destruction, a rather inspiring story (ahem) surfaced about a hunter-gatherer tribe on Sentinel Island, part of the Andaman’s in the Indian Ocean. This Stone Age culture is one of those groups that has been frozen in time and avoid contact with the outside world. The tsunami swamped Sentinel Island in the season when the tribe would have come down out of the forested hill country to fish along the coastline. They were all feared dead. Two days later, however, a buck-naked tribesman was spotted standing on the beach. He shot an arrow at the nosy helicopter. Everybody was amazed. How did they survive? Environmentalist lawyer, Ashish Roy, works to protect the tribes and is well acquainted with their skill sets. He explains it quite simply, “They sensed the approach of the waves and fled back to higher ground. They used skills that have been crucial to their survival throughout the ages. They can smell the wind. They can gauge the depth of the sea by the sound of their oars. They have a sixth sense that we don’t possess.”
We may not have to go out and compete with sabretooths for dinner, but we still need to know when to trust our gut in the modern world. In matters of business, finance, career, education, and all other relationships of civilized man, we need to step back and pursue that little nudge of, “What’s bothering me here?” My nephew is finishing his sophomore year of high school with dreams of going into automotive engineering. He loves it, dreams it, and constantly talks it. Problem is that his grades are mediocre at best. Beginning when he was in the seventh grade, good grades were emphasized for college acceptance and scholarship. He and I have a close relationship and he bought into it. Still does. But for whatever reason, it just isn’t happening.
I get frustrated because I want to control this for him so it turns out spectacular, but I can’t force him to get straight A’s, or even B’s apparently. The only way I could try to control the outcome would be to turn up heat on my nephew to the point where his formative teenage years are filled with stress, self-doubt, and an inner voice telling him for the rest of his life that he is not measuring up. Not to mention ruining our relationship. Or I could just write his papers for him I guess. I’ve heard of that too. This is our culture. It’s the American Stepford way of programming Kid 12.0 into their children so they can get more stuff, more power, and more public recognition in the world to come. Like that’s the thing to live for. We ourselves are pressured to pressure our kids. If we are not pressuring them, there is something wrong with us. We are barraged with data, everything from school grades, to athleticism, to TV commercials, to Facebook “likes”, that tell us if our kid is measuring up. But practice doesn’t match theory here. It just doesn’t work that way.
Do we really have to wait until things go wrong in adult life to remember the reality is never like the dream of reality?
This is a wilderness of a different kind every bit as vast as the Torngats, filled with gods, spirits, beauty, and malevolence. We’re in a powerful arena bigger than ourselves but we have this illusion of control. My gut is telling me my nephew doesn’t need harassment from an endless loop of school, homework, extracurricular, and sleep. He doesn’t need me dispensing approval for him based on achievement. My nephew needs what all of us need – safety. Against the cultural grain, my intuition is telling me to back off the overbearing pressure, encourage where I can, and most of all let him know he is safe and not on a hopeless performance treadmill that will never be turned off. I know this is what he needs because it’s what I needed as a teen. I was never allowed to fail. If it wasn’t perfect, it was a failure. If I did fail, my mom quickly redefined that failure into a win. Now as an adult, I have to deal with all sorts of anxiety issues that arise from how I see myself fitting into this world. But I digress. The point is, I don’t want to do as Dyer and the rest of the group did that day and go to sleep, ignoring my intuition. I’ve done that enough times already.
The hikers woke from their naps and prepared dinner. They watched the bear through their zoom lenses. Some thought it was harmless, like a big dog. Others were disconcerted. They enjoyed lively conversation about the day’s events through the evening. Dyer’s unease about the polar bear had returned and he suggested, “Why don’t we post a watch?” Gross wasn’t worried, “That’s what the fence if for.”
Dyer tuned in, but like most us didn’t realize he had tuned in and let it go. There is a scientific explanation for such intuition and premonitions. It has to do with how the brain works. It has to do with the mechanics between the amygdala and the cortex. Brief high school biology review here: The amygdala is in charge of action without thought. When the five physical senses receive information that warns of danger, it goes straight to the amygdala. Do not pass the cortex. Do not collect $200. Act! Changes in the workings of the body’s organs glands are triggered, respiration, adrenaline, and such producing the well-known “fight or flight” response. It’s all meant to protect you from a Sponge Bob gullibility that just accepts everything at face value until its too late.
When amygdala kicks in with a fear response, the rational part of the brain (cortex) tries to analyze what’s going on and calculate an action. The problem is that when the cortex calls the amygdala on the cell phone, there is only one bar of reception working. It is a weak, intermittent line. But turn it around and it is much different. When the amygdala speed dials the cortex, it’s getting all four bars from its network. The amygdala is on a rant and the cortex can’t get a word in edgewise. Rational thought gets lost to emotional responses. This explains why, once an emotion fires up, it is impossible to put it out. Ever try to talk rationally to someone who is having a meltdown? It could also explain why we experience an emotion, a feeling, a sense of something without rational thought behind it, like intuition. It’s like a bad knee telling you heavy weather is coming when all is sunny and pleasant.
The big bear watched the seals. Their mother had not returned. There was no more sky fire. He could wait no long and left his spot while it was still dark. It was time to hunt.
The next morning the polar bear was gone. Some were disappointed. Others relieved. They filled their daypacks and went exploring for their second day. They were in complete awe, intensely aware of the millions of years and the tremendous power it had taken to carve out and set up life in this place. Even though it was cold and rainy, they were thrilled at the wildlife. Besides the bears they had seen, there were whales in the fjord, caribou in the distance, ptarmigan, terns, and geese. There was no sign of the big bear. They returned to camp for naps and then dinner. That night before he went to bed, Gross walked the perimeter making sure the electric fence was on. The wind and waves lulled him to sleep. A few hours later, screams woke him up.
Marta Chase looked out her tent and saw a polar bear a few feet away. “Rich!” she shrieked, yelling for Gross. The bear tore into a nearby tent and dragged it off into the darkness. Gross grabbed the flare gun and ran out of his tent. The animal was about 75 feet away and dragging something away with it.
Gross was horrified to see the bear had Matt Dyer by the head and was headed to the water.
The seals were barking furiously now. He had stalked them all day wondering if there was more sky fire or if the mother would return. Neither. He found some eggs but they did little to ease his failing stomach when there was meat close by. He stayed down wind and out of sight from the seals using his powerful nose to follow their movement. Now dark, the big bear carefully approached. Something suddenly bit his leg. The big bear snapped at it but only got a mouthful of grass that couldn’t be chewed. He warily approached one of the funny looking air holes where the seals came and went, and pounced. He dragged out the barking seal and quickly headed for the safety of the water. He whipped seal hard against the ground and it stopped its barking. Then the fire came again. Dropping the seal, he fled.
The other hikers shouted at the bear. It turned back and whipped Dyer around and hard into the ground, never losing its grip. It turned again and moved toward the fjord. Gross fired a flare. The big bear dropped Dyer and fled. Gross ran out to Dyer’s crumpled, blood-covered form. He was dead.
The other hikers quickly came alongside and one of them noticed Dyer was breathing. They carried Dyer’s limp body back to camp and begin attending to his injuries. The basic first aid kit was ill prepared for such injuries. Dyer’s face was swollen and bruised, blood was running out of a number of wounds, and his jaw dislocated. The wounds that ringed his face and head were only trickling blood, not pumping it out. Good sign. The biggest wound was on Dyer’s neck and his carotid artery could be seen. The artery was intact, but they would have to be careful not to tear it in treating him.
Marta Chase used the sat-phone to call in help. She told the rangers about the polar bear attack and that one hiker needed immediate evacuation. The rest of them, albeit unharmed, were in danger. But the area was enveloped by fog. No rescue could come until it cleared. The electric fence was ruined beyond repair. A couple of hikers took turns patrolling the perimeter with the flare gun. Meanwhile, Dyer seemed to stabilize as morning broke the third day.
By mid-morning the clouds had lifted and a little while later a helicopter appeared. Dyer was quickly loaded and whisked away. The others would wait for a boat that was on its way to pick them up. Dyer was flown to Montreal General Hospital. His injuries were: two broken vertebrae that fortunately would not cause paralysis, a crushed jaw, a broken left hand, a dozen puncture wounds, a punctured and collapsed lung.
Inuit mythology holds the polar bear as the most powerful of deities.
It is believed that the polar bear, “Nanook”, decides the fate of the people by determining whether hunting is successful. The powerful bear is also believed the punisher of those who broke the taboos such as trespassing on sacred ground. The Canadian National Parks tell us “Torngat” is an Inuit word meaning “place of spirits.” Well, they actually diluted the original meaning to attract more tourists. “Torngat” is Inuit for “killing spirits.”Not very good branding, but it does speak to the ideas and traditions the indigenous people have had about this place. Maybe this is how the story goes here. Intuition or not, sometimes the arenas are just too big for us to comprehend – the world beyond the world.
To the traditional Inuits of northern Canada, the supernatural world with its gods, premonitions, visions, trances, transcendence – is in fact the natural world – a harsh, omnipotent world of constant danger. While searching the arctic in the early 1900’s famed explorer Knut Rasmussen asked his Inuit guide what they believed. “We don’t believe. We fear,” the man said. Beneath nature’s beauty, terror is ever-present.
It is so easy to be wise in the explanation of an experience that one has not personally experienced. I read a lot of survival stories and readily admit that about myself. It’s easy to be an armchair judge over other folk’s tribulations. I know that, but I do find inspiration from such stories. I connect to them in a way that pertains to my own experiences. Yes, I am working on my intuitive sensitivities and to my great delight it’s working. But there is a greater inspiration for me in Matt Dyer’s story. Dyer’s wounds healed leaving scars on his face and neck, and a raspy voice. But not only did Dyer recover from his physical wounds, he conquered any emotional damage he may have had from that terrible night. He returned to the Torngat Mountains to the place of his ordeal a year after the attack. He wanted to build better memories of the park’s majestic splendor and not the horror of a polar bear attack. Stephen King says in his novel, Duma Key, “Healing is kind of a revolt.” Maybe in that way, we can change the past. That’s exactly what Matt Dyer was doing. Dyer was challenging and reforming his mental model of wild places. He was killing spirits of his own. If he can, I can too. If Matt Dyer healed, I can too. Accompanied by two friends and this time two armed Inuit guides, he flew once again into Nachvak Fjord. Within minutes of revisiting the old campsite, he saw a polar bear. Thank you Matt.