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In the

Jaws
Polar
of a

Bear BY ROBERT KIENER

When best friends Sebastian
Nilssen and Ludvig Fjeld took off
STEVEN KAZLOWSKI/ALASKASTOCK.COM

on a two-month kayak trip north
of the Arctic Circle, they expected
the adventure of a lifetime.
They got that—and more.

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At 11 years old,
the polar bear
was 800
pounds and
nine feet tall.
The massive polar bear lumbered this two-month-long kayak expedition.
along the rocky shoreline, just a Hoping to follow in the footsteps of
yard or so from the stormy waters other Norwegian explorers such as
of the Arctic Ocean. Occasionally Roald Amundsen and Thor Heyerdahl,
it raised its head to sniff the Arctic the two were attempting to become
air, hoping perhaps to pinpoint an the first kayakers to paddle around the
easy meal of a washed-up ringed entire Svalbard archipelago, a trip of
seal or walrus carcass. more than 1,100 miles through one of
It was late July, and in this unin- the world’s most remote regions.
habited part of the Norwegian archi- To get fit, they had donned dry suits
pelago of Svalbard, high above the and kayaked through the ice-filled
Arctic Circle and just 600 miles from rivers near their hometowns outside
the North Pole, much of the drift ice Oslo, pulled heavy kayaks over ice
had melted. This made hunting for floes, and jumped into the freezing
seals—a polar bear’s favorite meal— waters to toughen themselves.
nearly impossible. Although huge, the Lifelong hunters, they honed their
bear was desperately hungry. marksmanship by sprinting up hills,

ILLUSTRATED BY 5W INFOGRAPHIC
With a westerly wind at its back, loading their rifles, and pulling the
the male bear continued to patrol the triggers. As many Arctic experts had
shore. Then, perhaps catching the told them, if they needed to defend
scent of something unusual, it stopped themselves from a polar bear, they’d
dead in its tracks. It sniffed the air, and have little time to think. Each carried
steam billowed out of its bright black a rifle in a waterproof bag lashed to
snout. Following its nose, so sensitive their kayaks. Holding steady, control-
that some say it can smell a decaying ling their breathing, aiming, shooting:
whale carcass from 20 miles away, the It all had to be second nature.
bear suddenly turned downwind
and inland. Its paddlelike
paws dragged, leaving Ekstremhuken
deep tracks in the Bear
attack
sand. The predator
NORDAUSTLANDET
was closing in on
its prey.

It was to be the ad- SVALBARD
G reen

Area
venture of a lifetime. shown
land

For almost two years,
longtime friends Se- Longyearbyen
Sea

bastian Plur Nilssen
and Ludvig Fjeld, both 0 50
22, had been training for MILES

112
Fjeld (left) and
Nilssen hoped to be
the first to paddle
around Norway’s
Svalbard archipelago.

The two pioneers set out from Long- charges would go off if an animal were
COURTESY ROBERT KIENER

yearbyen, dubbed the northernmost to cross the wire, giving the men time
settlement in the world, on July 5, to grab their rifles and scare away a
2010. They averaged about 15 miles a bear or, if necessary, shoot it.
day, and by the end of July, they had The two awoke the next day to fe-
reached the northern shore of Nor- rocious winds and rough seas. After
daustlandet, one of Svalbard’s High checking the weather forecast via
Arctic islands. satellite phone, Nilssen and Fjeld
With the wind picking up and the discussed the situation. “We’ll have
sea growing choppy, they decided to to stay another night,” Nilssen said.
head for shore and camp on a beach “Tomorrow should be clear.”
near a promontory named Ekstrem- Later that day, while chasing a
huken. As Nilssen paddled alongside tarp that had blown away, Nilssen
Fjeld, he held up the map and joked, fell over the trip wire, setting off an
“Funny name for a place, no? I won- explosive charge. He quickly fitted a
der if that means something ‘extreme’ new one to the wire.
will happen here?” Fjeld smiled. “Damn,” he said as he crawled back
After pulling their kayaks onto the inside the tent, “I’m getting clumsy
rocky beach, they pitched their tent in my old age.” As they did every
and rigged up a trip-wire perimeter night before they tucked in, Nilssen
nine feet away, as they did at every and Fjeld double-checked that their
campsite. A series of small explosive rifles were loaded and close at hand.
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Just at the moment the bear seemed about
to sink its massive canines
into Nilssen, it turned to look at Fjeld.

As they were sound asleep, the po- thought. Just then the gun fell from
lar bear that had picked up their scent his grip, and the bear stepped on it,
began lumbering toward the camp. snapping it in two. “I’m dead,” Nilssen
said out loud when he heard the gun
With the wind howling, the bear burst break in half. “It’s over.”
through the trip wire, but the charge
did not fire. Nilssen awoke to a crash- Fjeld woke up when he heard Nilssen
ing sound when the bear trampled scream and turned to see the bear in-
the tent and ripped it to shreds with side the tent, with Nilssen’s head in
a mighty sweep of its paw. “Bear!” its jaws. While shaking him, the bear
shouted Nilssen as he felt it lock its had stomped on their gear, much of
jaws onto the back of his skull, pull- which was now crushed or buried in
ing him from his sleeping bag. All the soft sand.
he could see was a towering mass of Fjeld jumped up and reached for
white fur. As the bear sank its teeth his grandfather’s World War II rifle.
deeper into his skull, it uttered a low- It was missing. He frantically clawed
pitched, guttural growling. at the debris in front of the tent.
Nilssen was able to grab his pump- “Where is it?” he yelled, then felt the
action shotgun while the bear dragged stock of the rifle and pulled it out
him out of the tent. Screaming, he of the sand. “Sebastian!” he yelled.
tried to hit the bear with one hand Sebastian didn’t answer.
while gripping the gun with the other. The bear was now by turns drag-
But nothing deterred the animal. ging and carrying Nilssen by his
Suddenly the polar bear changed its wounded shoulder. I must act now to
hold on Nilssen and sank its teeth into save my friend, thought Fjeld. Time
his right shoulder. Then it shook him was running out.
back and forth, each time penetrating
Nilssen’s flesh more deeply with its The bear dropped Nilssen some 100
teeth. Pain shot through his body as feet beyond the camp. Then it roared
if an ice pick were being twisted into and raked its razor-sharp claws over
his shoulder. Nilssen’s torso. Blood covered the
It’s trying to shake me unconscious, kayaker. The bear put its two front
thought Nilssen. The bear began paws on Nilssen’s chest, pinning him
dragging him onto the rocky beach. to the ground and pushing him deep
The shotgun is my only chance, he into the sand. Nilssen felt his ribs
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cracking. The bear’s hot breath was The polar bear stood sideways
on his face. He looked directly into to Fjeld; he aimed at its back and
its deep black eyes. They were cold squeezed off a shot. The bullet ripped
and empty. into the bear, and the animal dropped
Then the bear turned and saw Fjeld Nilssen to the sand. One last time the
standing with rifle raised outside the bear managed to sink its teeth into
tent. Fjeld held his breath to still his Nilssen’s shoulder. Then Fjeld pumped
shaking trigger finger and aimed at four more rounds into the beast’s
the bear. “Steady,” he repeated to chest. The bear fell over, dead at last.
himself. He was afraid he would hit
his friend. Nilssen yelled, “Shoot! Fearful that other polar bears might
Shoot!” But before Fjeld could fire, be attracted by the smell of blood,
the bear climbed off Nilssen, sunk its Fjeld slammed another five-shell clip
jaws into the back of his skull again, into the gun. Nilssen lay crumpled on
and stood straight up, lifting Nilssen the beach. The back of his scalp hung
LUDVIG FJELD

several feet off the ground. loose and his shoulder was shredded
Fjeld ran closer to them. Nilssen open. His body was covered with
shouted again,“Shoot! Shoot or I die!” bleeding wounds, but he was alive.

The
kayakers’
camp
after the
attack.

115
In Norway, it’s
a crime to shoot
a polar bear
unless your life
is threatened.

Fjeld carried him back to the tent; Bilicz called the local police, and

LUDVIG FJELD
he covered his bleeding scalp and about 35 minutes later, a rescue heli-
shoulder with compression bandages copter was in the air. The trip to the
and wrapped him in a sleeping bag. camp, however, would likely take al-
“You’ll make it,” he told Nilssen as most an hour and a half.
he gently wiped blood from Nilssen’s Fjeld returned to Nilssen’s side.
face. “We’ll get you out of here.” Nilssen was pale and shivering. Fjeld
Nilssen groaned. His body throbbed talked to him incessantly to keep
with pain, and the smell of his blood him awake. “They are sending a he-
filled the tent. He whispered to Fjeld, licopter,” Fjeld repeated. “It won’t
“My neck. I think the bear might have be long.” Though Nilssen writhed in
broken it.” pain, Fjeld made the hard decision
to withhold a dose of the morphine
Fjeld knew he had to keep Sebastian they carried with them because it
warm because it would be hard to sur- might knock Nilssen out. Despite
vive the frigid temperature with such his suffering, Nilssen did not want to
devastating wounds. He punched the lose consciousness. Meanwhile, Fjeld
number of a Longyearbyen hospital scanned the horizon for other polar
into the satellite phone. The operator bears, his rifle loaded by his side.
picked up. When the helicopter touched down,
“We need help,” Fjeld blurted out. two medics carried Nilssen to the
“We are kayakers,” he told the hospi- chopper. He was put on a saline drip
tal’s nurse manager, Aksel Bilicz. “My and given a painkiller, though his
friend has been attacked by a polar neck throbbed too much for a brace.
bear. Please hurry!” At the hospital, Nilssen underwent
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“I know it’s common for bears to
crush seals’ skulls,” says
Nilssen. “Lucky for me, I’m thickheaded.”

a three-hour operation during which torso are tracked with scars from the
surgeons removed all the damaged tis- attack. “I’m not a religious person, but
sue under his wounds. His neck was I know it was a miracle I survived,”
badly bruised but not broken. The he says as he buttons up. “I also know
next day, as Nilssen lay recuperat- that I owe my life to Ludwig.”
ing, surgeon Kari Schroeder Hansen Fjeld demurs, saying, “I just in-
visited him. “Another few milli­meters stinctively did what we were both
and the bear’s teeth would have punc- trained for.”
tured your lung and crushed your The men are considering a return
skull,” the doctor told him. “You expedition to Svalbard—although
wouldn’t still be with us.” their families, who initially learned of
“I know it’s common for bears to the attack on a radio program, are not
crush seals’ skulls,” Nilssen says now. keen on it. When asked about the ex-
“Lucky for me, I’m thickheaded.” perience, Nilssen is amazingly com-
posed. “It is our big regret that the
Today, at home north of Oslo, where bear had to be killed,” he says reflec-
he is raising a team of sled dogs, Nils- tively. “I still think the polar bear is
sen sips coffee with Fjeld. Nilssen the most majestic animal in the world.
unbuttons his shirt. His shoulder and It was just trying to survive.” n

OMG!
Sometimes a shortcut is just a shortcut to disaster.
In a move that must have been unsettling for thousands of Iowa
seniors, in 2009, the state changed the name of its Elder Affairs depart-
ment to the Department On Aging, or DOA.
While FAA identifiers for airports aren’t technically acronyms, the
three-letter codes can cause their own headaches. Just ask the Sioux
City Gateway Airport, which the FAA saddled with the unfortunate
designator SUX. Airport authorities petitioned for a new code and, in
a nod to the Gateway part of the airport name, were given GAY.
Ethan Trex in Mental Floss

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