Polar Bears: Scourge of the North

In the early hours of July 23, 2013, a Maine man, Matt Dyer, was camping in the remote Canadian Torngat Mountains National Park when he was awoken by an unwelcome guest. A polar bear crashed through an electric fence, ripped open Dyer’s tent, and pulled him into the icy night. After a number of terrifying minutes, fellow campers chased off the bear with burning flares and shouts, while Dyer left unconscious on the snow with a broken jaw and serious neck injuries. He was airlifted Montreal in serious but stable condition.

Polar bears have long posed a serious threat to humans who enter their territory. The Inuit people know the danger polar bears present, and though they have been known to hunt the bear, they respect the creature. The polar bear, or Nanuk, was seen as almost human, wise and powerful.  Some called it “the great lonely roamer.” If a bear was killed, the Inuit treated the body with respect and hung the skin in an honored place. However, polar bears were not easy prey. With one swipe of the paw, an unskilled hunter could be swiftly killed.

Barentsz Crew Encounters a Polar Bear Source credit: Wikicommons

Barentsz’s Crew Encounters a Polar Bear
Photo credit: Wikicommons

Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz received plenty of experience with the trouble the bears could pose. In 1595, Barentsz sailed north into the Arctic Sea near Vaygach Island. In a previous expedition, his crew sighted their first polar bear, which promptly tried to board their ship. After shooting it with a musket, the men decided to bring it aboard, though its indifference to the gunshot wound and continued violence caused them to reconsider the plan. They killed it instead.

During Barentsz’s second voyage, a group of men were sent ashore to search for a crystal that had been seen on the previous expedition. When one crew member felt himself being hugged from behind, and thinking it was a playful mate, he called out, “Who’s there? Pray, stand off!” The other sailors turned to find their comrade being mauled by a polar bear. They attacked the bear with pikes and muskets and the bear responded by killing another sailor. Only after launching a third attack were the men able to kill the bear.

Other mammals have also struggled with the arctic animal. After humans developed tranquilizer guns, they began transporting polar bears from their native lands into Europe and America for zoos and circuses. In 1942, at a zoo in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., a tiger clawed a feeding attendant to death. Apparently not satisfied, the tiger jumped into the neighboring polar bear enclosure, where it was promptly killed by the bear.

Despite these tales, polar bears, separated from humans by great expanses of ice and water, rarely attack. However, in recent years the combination of encroaching humans and retreating ice caps has resulted in a rise in polar bear incidents. In 2010, a particularly gruesome story came out of Russia where starving bears were digging up cemeteries, reportedly using the burial grounds as “giant refrigerators.” A year later, also in Russia, polar bears took shelter in abandoned homes in a town in Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Region. A number of videos showed the bears attacking the frightened inhabitants. Eventually the bears were chased out of town, but left a strong impression.

In 2012, Inupiat hunters left the severed head of a bowhead whale in Kaktovik, Alaska. Over the next few days, the head attracted up to 80 polar bears. According to a chief scientist at Polar Bear International, the polar bears can sense each year when such whale carcasses will be left by the hunters on the shore by the hunters. They have grown to expect it.

Matt Dyer survived his attack, but faced an intense recovery. He may be the most recent human to experience the might of a polar bear, but he joins a list that spans the centuries. The changing climate means polar bears will be driven further south, closer to human habitation. Man may have no natural predators, but should I encounter a polar bear whilst camping in Northern Canada, odds are slim the bear will give me any respect before finishing me off.