Nunavut polar bear attack survivors thankful to be alive
“When it was biting my head, I could see inside its mouth"
Two important things happened before Adrian Arnauyumayuq left for a terrifying hunting trip May 21: his wife reminded him to take his pocket knife.
And she said no, he could not take their two-year-old son Lucas.
Two important things happened when Arnauyumayuq, 31, and his wife’s younger brother Bruce Pauloosie, 26, arrived at the floe edge a couple of hours later: they killed a seal and a couple of geese.
Two important things happened when the Arctic Bay hunters, exhausted from a day of travelling and hunting, went into their tent to sleep that night: Arnauyumayuq brought his knife with him, but he left his rifle on his snowmobile.
One important thing happened the next morning, after a polar bear finally opened its jaws and released Arnauyumayuq’s head. Arnauyumayuq did not die.
Polar bears are Nunavut’s iconic poster pet. They are what tourists crave to see, from the safety of cruise ship bows or from inside a walled qamutiq with trained and armed Inuit guides from Arviat or Grise Fiord.
They have been used to sell cola, Greenpeace memberships and Disney movies. Every upstanding Torontonian wants to save the polar bears, which they always picture forlorn, on an ice-floe, in a melting polar sea.
But Arnauyumayuq and Pauloosie know a different kind of polar bear, one that has 42 teeth and weighs somewhere between 750 and 1,400 pounds.
Polar bears can chew through bones. They can hold up to 150 pounds of food in their stomachs.
If you want to know how much pressure is in the bite of a polar bear, you could consult an obscure mixed martial arts website which compares these sorts of things.
It pegs a polar bear’s bite at 1,200 pounds per square inch; a shark has a psi of 669 and a Rottweiler dog, 328.
Or you could just ask Arnauyumayuq and Pauloosie.
Reached at their homes in Arctic Bay June 5, the two men told the story of their bear encounter as best they could remember it, but it’s difficult to piece together. Everything happened so fast.
Arnauyumayuq is a traditional Inuk. He was raised mostly in outpost camps by his grandfather, Isaac Shooyook, a renowned hunter and now MLA for Quttiktuq.
Arnauyumayuq has four children, aged eight and younger, and a wife, Victoria Pauloosie.
Victoria said June 5 that before she married Arnauyumayuq, her father told her never to discourage him from going hunting because it might lead him to give up hunting altogether. And so she never did.
When Arnauyumayuq left with Pauloosie May 21 to go narwhal hunting at the floe edge — something the two men did successfully around this time last year — he said goodbye to his family and embarked on the kind of trip he’d made hundreds of times.
Hours later, where ice yields to the sea, Arnauyumayuq managed to kill a seal and two sleeping geese, retrieving the seal with a small plastic boat they’d brought with them.
The two men retreated from the edge of the ice by about 1,000 feet, Arnauyumayuq said, and set up a tent — not a sturdy canvas tent but a small, modern, nylon one.
Too tired to actually cook the meat they’d harvested and cut up, the two men ate hotdogs and Fruit Loops instead.
Around 10:30 p.m., they climbed into the tent to sleep.
At 7:30 the next morning — he knows because he checked his watch — Arnauyumayuq awoke to the sound and feel of the tent shaking.
Bleary eyed, he saw that it was a polar bear tearing the tent and trying to push its head inside.
Perhaps it had been lured to the site by the fresh meat outside and was trying to eliminate the human competition first, Arnauyumayuq said. But no one knows for sure. Polar bears are unpredictable.
Grabbing his knife, Arnauyumayuq started yelling and stabbing the bear’s face with the three-inch blade to prevent it from getting inside.
At this point, Pauloosie was awake and screaming as well.
“At first, he thought it was a hunter visiting,” Arnauyumayuq said of Pauloosie. In a way, it was.
Arnauyumayuq then turned to flee out the tent’s other door, but the bear grabbed him from behind, tearing his clothes with its teeth and claws.
“I went through the other door and I got out and then the bear jumped me from behind. I had a couple or three bites on my back. Then he got on top of me and went for my head, my whole head — he pushed it with his paw, to get it inside his mouth.”
His left arm pinned beneath the weight of the snarling predator, Arnauyumayuq used his right hand to stab backwards at its head and neck.
“When it was biting my head, I could see inside its mouth. It was all black and smelly. I could see the tooth biting just beside my eye,” he said.
Perhaps because of the stabbing and Pauloosie’s screaming, the bear finally released Arnauyumayuq’s head and lunged at Pauloosie instead, knocking him to the ground and pinning him there.
Arnauyumayuq’s face was so covered in blood he could barely see but he managed to find his rifle and started shooting at the bear as it lay atop the younger man.
Injured and perhaps tired of battle, the bear ceased its offensive and bounded away.
Having emptied one gun of ammunition, Arnauyumayuq grabbed the second rifle with the scope and fired at the bear’s disappearing back.
The bear finally dropped.
That part of the story was over but the next was just beginning. The two men needed medical attention, and fast.
Pauloosie had a fractured collar bone and numerous cuts and puncture wounds. Arnauyumayuq was losing a lot of blood.
Arnauyumayuq wrapped a small blanket around his head to staunch the bleeding.
The two men took their sleeping mats from the tent, put them in the qamutiq for Pauloosie to lay on, then Arnauyumayuq filled a snowmobile with fuel and drove into a thick morning mist, scarcely able to see where he was going.
They headed for a hunter’s cabin a half hour’s drive away to seek help — prepared, if it was empty, to attempt the three-hour journey back to Arctic Bay on their own.
Nearing the cabin, they spotted snow machines outside and were immensely relieved. Inside were other hunters from Arctic Bay — Moses Koonoo, his son Jeremy and another man, Raymond Shappa.
Those men put the wounded hunters into qamutiit, used a satellite phone to call Koonoo’s wife and tell her to alert the nursing station that they were on their way, and then quickly set off for their destination.
Victoria had a friend visiting for breakfast that morning in Arctic Bay when she got a call from her mother-in-law who asked if Victoria was OK. Had she heard the news? She hadn’t.
The woman told Victoria that Arnauyumayuq had been attacked by a polar bear.
Before she could tell her that her brother too had been attacked, Victoria hung up the phone, yelling for her mother, “Anaana! Anaana!” Victoria’s mother had died a year earlier of cancer. The anniversary of her death was the following day.
Gathering up her children, she went to wait for the arrival of her husband at the nursing station. Others were there too. They all sat in silence.
“On CB Radio, they said Adrian was really bleeding. My only thought was: he was dying,” Victoria said. “My whole body was going numb.”
She prayed and wept and worried. She was regretting every mean word she’s spoken to her husband, and wished she had been nicer to him before he left.
Pauloosie was brought in first, then Arnauyumayuq, about five minutes later, and they were rushed into rooms for treatment.
Some time later, after nurses had tended to Arnauyumayuq’s wounds, an RCMP member asked if Victoria wanted to see him. She didn’t know what to expect.
“I walked into his room and he was all smiling,” she said, laughing now at the thought. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I had been super scared.”
A medevac was called but didn’t arrive until 6 p.m. that night, Arnauyumayuq said. He was told they were having trouble finding a pilot.
They were treated at the Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit and returned home about a week later. Both are still recovering.
“I’m okay. Still weak,” said Arnauyumayuq whose 50-60 stitches have now been removed. “I can hardly walk though.”
Pauloosie says he’s healing physically but is still frightened by the memory. And he’s getting a little tired of talking about it.
They are grateful to Koonoo and his family who they feel saved their lives. And they are also grateful to the friends and relatives who have offered them and their families so much love and support in the wake of this trauma.
But there are two important things to know about Arnauyumayuq, now that this is all over.
He doesn’t feel any special attachment to the 10-foot, six-inch bear pelt which the local hunters and trappers organization retrieved from the site and gave to the two men.
It’s not a trophy; it’s income. Worth $7,000 or more, they’ll probably sell it and buy a new snowmobile, Pauloosie said.
The other important thing to know is that Arnauyumayuq is looking forward to getting better. So he can go hunting again.