Fjeld watched in horror as the mangled gun dropped from his friend’s hand and the monster’s jaws clamped around his head. He redoubled his own search, frantically digging through the tattered remains of the groundsheet while the bear began to drag Plur Nilssen away from the tent, the man’s blood-curdling screams piercing the air.
“At that moment I wasn’t sure if it was one or two bears,” recalls Plur Nilssen. “I was thinking if there are two bears, it’s game over. He released me from the bite and then stood on my chest with his two front legs. He was heavy, but the pain in my neck and shoulder was much greater. It seemed like a long time that he stood on me. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and we actually made eye contact. I raised my arms as he came in for another bite, and I remember the soft feel of his fur. I tried to hold his head as he attacked, but I had no chance. He was too big, too powerful.”
The bear had dragged Plur Nilssen 100 feet across the sand and jagged rocks of the shoreline, leaving a sickening trail of blood. It was about to come in for the kill, for the final, lethal bite.
Racing from the tent, Fjeld raised his weapon, only to find the bear clutching his stricken partner, blocking a clear shot. “When the bear noticed me, it picked Sebastian up by his head and stood up on its hind legs, lifting him clear off the ground.
“I was afraid I’d hit Sebastian. He was hanging down in front of the bear, leaving me with perhaps a foot and a half of space where I could shoot. I didn’t know how injured my friend was, but I knew he was alive because he was shouting at me to shoot. It was good to hear; I knew I could still save him.” He took a breath and squeezed the trigger.
The crack of the shot split the cold silence, and the bullet found its mark, slamming into the animal’s flesh. The bear howled and dropped Plur Nilssen to the ground, presenting the opportunity Fjeld had hoped for. He fired another round, running toward the injured animal and letting loose another three rounds until the bear finally slumped in the sand.
Lying on the blood-spattered shore, the bear’s body just a few feet away, Plur Nilssen stared at the sky and watched the wisps of breath leave his body. “It wasn’t easy to lie there, because the pain was so bad. I was afraid my neck had been broken. I could still move my fingers, but the pain was like nothing I had felt before.”
Meanwhile, Fjeld desperately called for help on the emergency channel of their satellite phone. Deep in shock, Plur Nilssen rested as his friend tried to dress the horrific injuries, knowing that, though he had survived the attack, their remote location meant any helicopter would take hours to reach them. Quietly, Fjeld had another, possibly more pressing, worry.
“We had seen more bears and knew there were a lot of them in the area. I was extremely worried because there was blood all over the tent, Sebastian, and the camp. I’d heard that polar bears can smell blood from a long distance away.”
Fjeld set to work keeping his friend conscious, nervously checking the perimeter of their ruined camp for bears, while Plur Nilssen cursed his way through the pain. “It was a relief when I realized I was still alive, but the pain was terrible. I also remember thinking it would take four hours for anyone to reach us.”
At the time, medic Aksel Bilicz was stationed at the hospital in Longyearbyen, one of the world’s northernmost towns. The medical staff is accustomed to treating those who have succumbed to the hostile environment of the Arctic, but even here polar bear attacks are a rare event—and almost always an attack delivers a corpse rather than a casualty. “I took the call at reception,” recalls Bilicz. “When Ludvig told me his friend had been attacked by a polar bear, my first thought was that he was very lucky—I know how big these bears are. I told him to get Sebastian in a sleeping bag to keep him warm and that it was important to keep him conscious. Then I got his GPS coordinates, and we were off.”
The helicopter took just over two hours to get to the campsite. Bilicz stabilized Plur Nilssen and bundled him onto the helicopter for the flight back to Longyearbyen.
Two doctors happened to be on duty, and even before the blades of the emergency helicopter had shuddered to a halt, Plur Nilssen was in the operating theater. “They found my neck hadn’t been broken but that I had suffered deep tissue lacerations to my shoulder, back, neck, chest, and head,” he says.
“When Sebastian arrived, there was a lot of blood, but he was awake, which was a very good sign,” says Dr. Hansen, who performed the emergency surgery. “Once we were happy that his other injuries were not immediately life-threatening, the priority became preventing infection, because there are a lot of germs in a polar bear’s mouth.”
That Plur Nilssen survived the attack is staggering, a miracle even. “Polar bears will attack animals larger than Sebastian. The odds of surviving an attack are not good. He was very, very lucky,” says Dr. Hansen. “But the bottom line for a polar bear is never attack a guy whose friend has a gun.”
“It took three hours for them to patch me up and three months for me to recover in the hospital,” says Plur Nilssen. “The muscles in my shoulder had been very badly damaged, and there was a worry that they would never fully heal. It was very depressing to hear this because of the expeditions and training I do.
“It was a difficult time, for sure. My recovery has been painful and difficult. But I was able to get back in my kayak within the year and return to the islands. And now I must be one of the only people in the world who can say when people ask me about my scars, ‘I got them in a fight with a polar bear.’¿”
Back to Part 1