When two young explorers set off on an expedition in the Arctic, they were looking for adventure, excitement, and glory. Along the way they found something else: a ferocious 800-pound carnivore with a very big appetite.
The explorer stood on the damp, cool sand and listened to the waves lapping at the shore as the sun began to rise over the horizon, casting long shadows across the beach. But this was no picture-postcard moment; it was a scene of utter carnage. To his left he could see the rampaged remains of his tent, while to his right lay the body of an 800-pound polar bear. And at his feet, the battered form of his expedition partner, Sebastian, whose head lay in a steaming puddle of syrup-thick blood. He knew the situation was critical. If he was to save the life of his friend, he would have to move fast.
Sebastian Plur Nilssen and Ludvig Fjeld had set out on a world’s-first attempt to kayak around Svalbard, the isolated archipelago that sits in the Arctic Ocean between mainland Norway and the North Pole. The rocky outcrop consists of four main islands—a 1,250-mile round trip.
There are two reasons why no one had managed this feat: In the winter the weather is brutal, with savage, subzero gales; and in the summer the Austfonna glacier calves (or, in layman’s terms: spits out hull- shredding icebergs into the sea). The glacier squats over the northeast coast and is so prolific in its berg birthing that it makes it impossible to come ashore for some 75 miles. Nevertheless the pair of Norwegians elected for a two- to three-month summer expedition, heading out on July 5, 2010.
Mountainous, beautiful, and treacherous, the surface of Svalbard consists of nearly 65 percent protected areas, including three nature reserves, six national parks, and 15 bird sanctuaries. The summer thaw offers enough respite to allow humans to inhabit the islands and would make it easier for the explorers to make occasional forays into the isolated villages that dot the landscape. Additionally, the relentless 24-hour sunlight would illuminate a safe path through the icebergs.
The flip side of traveling this time of year was the presence of predators, and not just any predators, but polar bears, the world's largest land carnivores. Capable of speeds up to 25 miles per hour, able to eviscerate a man with a single swipe of a razor-sharp claw or crush through bone with their jaws, polar bears are the top of the Svalbard food chain.
In their early 20s, Plur Nilssen and Fjeld were experienced survivalists, having adventured together extensively for seven years, including an 18-day, 560-mile sea kayak trip around the southern tip of Norway and two assaults on Mont Blanc, the highest mountain (15,782 feet) in Europe. This Svalbard trip, however, was to be their first major expedition, complete with funding and several months of rigorous planning.
On July 22 the pair reached Nordaustlandet, Svalbard’s second largest island and home to the infamous Austfonna glacier. But the bright skies and calm seas they had enjoyed for the previous three weeks had vanished, and as the weather turned the pair were forced to set up camp. When the cold currents from the North Pole meet the warmer winds from the south, the resulting windy conditions can be suicidal for ocean- goers. “In the morning it was very windy, too windy to kayak, so we had to stay there and wait for the weather to improve,” recalls Plur Nilssen. It was a delay that would take him into the jaws of death.
Plur Nilssen and Fjeld had done their homework and were well aware of the risk the polar bears posed. While, statistically speaking, black bears are responsible for more attacks on humans (there have been around 60 deaths from black bear attacks in Canada, Alaska, and the lower 48 states in the past 100 years), that’s a function of living n much closer proximity to human populations. And they’re lightweights when it comes to the power, weight, and ferocity of polar bears—which typically live in uninhabited regions.
Svalbard is the ursine exception to the global rule. The archipelago covers an area about the size of West Virginia, with a population of 2,500 humans and 3,000 polar bears. Nevertheless, the two species rub along with a nervy respect: There have been just five fatal attacks in the past 40 years, including 17-year-old Horatio Chapple, who was killed by a polar bear in August.
“It’s very rare for the bears to attack,” says Dr. Kari Schroder Hansen, who was stationed at Svalbard’s Longyearbyen hospital at the time. “On Svalbard we hadn’t had an attack since 1995, when two people were killed.” Plur Nilssen and Fjeld knew they might have to defend themselves and had packed trip wires and flares to protect their camp as they slept. They also each carried guns, knowing that the noise of a shot is usually enough to scare away all but the most desperate man-eaters.
However, a sighting near their camp that night had already made the travelers nervous. “We wanted to move the camp, but the wind off the sea that night was brutal,” says Fjeld. “We would have lost everything.” The pair decided to keep watch, peering into the midnight sun for any creeping shadow or flash of white fur. “We stayed awake for five hours that night,” Plur Nilssen says. “We made sure our trip wires were set up, but eventually we had to go to sleep, as we had such a long journey in the morning.”
The shock awakening they received in the early hours was not from the biting Arctic cold or even the blinding phosphorous flame and piercing scream of a tripped flare. It was from the impact of a polar bear’s claw.
“Neither of us woke until the bear ripped into the canvas,” recalls Plur Nilssen. “It tore the whole front away with one punch. I started screaming to Ludvig, but the bear grabbed me and sank its teeth into my neck, dragging me out of my sleeping bag. He then bit my head really hard. I could feel his teeth going deep into the flesh, and I knew it was serious. It was sickeningly painful.”
The animal attacked in a frenzy, ripping through Plur Nilssen’s skin and sending a searing jolt of pain through his body. “It was all going so fast,” says Plur Nilssen. Running on adrenaline and instinct, he remembered that his shotgun was lying nearby, and as the creature paused for breath, he impulsively made a grab for it.
Ludvig Fjeld, meanwhile, was scrambling for his own weapon. “I woke up a split second after Sebastian,” he says. “The bear immediately attacked him, so I started looking for my gun, but the bear had done a lot of damage to our camp. I had to dig around in the sand, and I could feel the seconds passing as I searched for it.”
Despite being pinned to the floor, Plur Nilssen managed to angle his own shotgun in the direction of the bear. He pulled the trigger. Nothing. No deafening explosion of gunfire, no howl of pain. He ran his fingers along the barrel and realized that the bear had broken the gun in two places.
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