Polar bear checking things out. Photo credit: Erik Boomer

This story first appeared in the May 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine.

By Sebastian De La Torre

The most inviting thing about Svalbard, a handful of islands precisely halfway between Norway and the North Pole, is the opportunity it presents sea kayakers: the unclaimed circumnavigation of one of Earth's northernmost landmasses. It is home to innumerable hull-shredding icebergs, long and exposed crossings, and a 300-strong population of polar bears, each equipped with jaws capable of exerting more than 1,200 pounds of pressure per square-inch.

None of this deterred Sebastian Plur Nilssen and Ludvig Fjeld from attempting to paddle 1,250 miles around Svalbard's four main islands. The 22-year old Norwegian university students, both seasoned expedition paddlers, set off July 5, 2010, traveling clockwise from Longyearbyen. They paddled custom-built Seabird Designs expedition kayaks, each loaded with nearly 200 pounds of food, and made good progress, logging more than 500 miles in three weeks of clear skies and relatively calm seas.

On Day 22, the weather turned, leaving them wind-bound on Nordaustlandet Island, the northernmost large island in the group. "We had to stay there and wait for the weather to improve," Nilssen recalls. Summer is a hungry season for polar bears, and the duo had already spotted one of the hulking predators earlier that evening.

Plur Nilssen and Fjeld surrounded their camp with trip wires and flares, and settled in to wait out the weather. The perimeter defense was meant to frighten curious carnivores away, or at least alert the men to their presence. It did neither—the first warning the men received was not the blinding phosphorous flame and piercing scream of a tripped flare, it was the devastating sweep of a polar bear's claw rending their four-season tent like a child clearing a spiderweb.

"Neither of us woke until the bear ripped into the canvas," Plur Nilssen says. "It tore the whole front away with one punch." The predator stormed the tent and bore down on the terrified pair. "I started screaming to Ludvig, but the bear grabbed me and sank its fangs into my neck, dragging me out of my sleeping bag. He then bit my head—a really hard bite that was sickeningly painful. I could feel his teeth going a long way into the flesh and I knew it was serious … It was all going so fast, but then he bit deep into my shoulder and it was agony. The pressure, the force, the power."

Fjeld, meanwhile, was scrabbling for his shotgun as the bear bundled his friend across the sand and jagged rocks of the shoreline like a captive seal, leaving behind a trail of scarlet. By the time he found the stock of his weapon buried in the tattered remains of the tent, the bear had sunk its teeth into Plur Nilssen's head and reared onto its hind legs, lifting him cleanly off the ground.

"I was afraid I would hit Sebastian with my shot," Fjeld recalls. "He was hanging down in front of the bear, leaving me with perhaps half a meter of space where I could shoot. I didn't know how injured my friend was, but I knew he was alive because he was also shouting at me to shoot—it was good to hear, I knew I could still save him." He exhaled and squeezed the trigger.
The crack of the shot split the cold silence, and the slug found its mark. The bear howled and dropped Plur Nilssen. Fjeld immediately pumped three more slugs into the animal, killing it. He ran to his friend and began desperately dressing his injuries, then made an emergency call on their satellite phone.

Plur Nilssen was drenched in blood, and cursing. "It was a relief when I realized that I was still alive, but the pain was terrible. I remember being angry and swearing, and I also remember thinking that we'd worked out before that it would take four hours for anyone to reach us." Mercifully, the helicopter from the hospital in Longyearben arrived in two and a half.

Plur Nilssen spent the next three months in the hospital. "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," he says. Plur Nilssen still can't say he's circumnavigated Svalbard in a kayak; no one can. He does have a unique claim to fame, however. "When people ask me about my scars, I must be one of the only people in the world who can say, 'I got them in a fight with a polar bear.'"