Marooned with polar bears: Part Two

In Part One, pilot Sergey Ananov attempted a solo round-the-world helicopter flight. Disaster struck and he was stranded on an ice floe in the Arctic Circle, unaware of both his friends’ rescue mission and the predator that lurked nearby...

Somewhere in the DAVIS strait, one of the earth’s great hunters has stood upright and is waving its head back and forth. It can smell a seal under several feet of snow and a rotting whale carcass from 20 miles away. But this scent? It draws a blank, having never encountered a middle-aged Russian. Moving in its pigeon-toed walk, the polar bear heads off to inspect.

The summer before, in nearby Arctic Bay, 31-year-old Adrian Arnauyumayuq and his 26-year-old brother-in-law ventured out on their annual hunting trip. The first night, they set up camp on an ice floe. In the morning, they were woken up by a 450-kilogram polar bear ripping apart their tent. Both men lived but were severely injured. In the Arctic, these kinds of stories usually end not in survival, but disaster. 

Read Part One of Sergey's story

polar bear
Image via Mental Floss

About four hours after falling out of the sky, Sergey is still on his stomach inside his makeshift tent when he hears the sound of heavy breathing and crunching snow. He peeks out from under the raft and sees the bear, its fur wet after swimming from floe to floe. 

Sergey hides beneath his raft and hopes the monster leaves. It doesn’t. The creature bobs its snout up and down, sniffing the air, and lopes straight for him. The bear is about five feet away, so close that Sergey can see the black of its footpads and toenails. Biologists will tell you that at this point the bear has one of two motives: hunger or curiosity. Both are bad for the pilot since polar bears often satisfy their curiosity with their teeth. Sergey has no rifle and no knife. 

"Polar bears often satisfy their curiosity with their teeth. Sergey has no rifle and no knife"

If I meet the bear face-to-face I will die, Sergey thinks. From somewhere deep in his core, a primeval and spontaneous urge is unleashed. He bolts up, flings off the raft, and rushes the beast—his arms flailing, roaring as loud as he can. And it works! The bear actually gallops away. But Sergey doesn’t stop. He chases the bear to the very edge of the floe, with the raft still attached to his leg and bouncing behind him. 

The bear nimbly launches across to a neighbouring slab, then looks back at Sergey, who continues to scream furiously. The bear sits down and looks right at the pilot, examining him mutely. Sergey still roars. But now it’s not only directed at the bear but at his utter helplessness. 

For a full minute, the strange encounter continues. Man roaring, beast watching. Then the bemused bear gets up and trots off into the Arctic fog. 

The euphoria and adrenaline from the encounter with the bear don’t last. The hours lumber on; minutes feel like years.

Then the sound of a plane.

Sergey can’t see it because of the fog, but with his clumsy mitts he seizes one of the three flares, aims it at the noise and pulls the cord. A dazzling orange-red flame leaps into the air. Sergey hears the plane arc directly overhead and continue on. The flare burns for 30 seconds, then fizzles. 

Evening approaches. The cold is deep, raw, gnawing. Sergey rations his protein tablets, about 2,000 calories’ worth, into three-day portions. After that, he figures, he’ll be dead.

Humans can go without food for more than three weeks—so long as they have water.

"From somewhere deep in his core, a primeval and spontaneous urge is unleashed"

Sergey has only the half-litre that came with the raft. He’s been urinating frequently in the survival suit—a liberating release that provides brief moments of warmth. But if his body fluids aren’t replenished, the resulting dehydration will cause decreased metabolic function and his heart would cease working, leading to his death.

Sergey doesn’t sleep. He thinks about his wife, Evgeniya, and his children, 22-year-old daughter Daria and 20-year-old son Andrey. At least they’re grown, Sergey thinks. 

About 200 miles away, the Pierre Radisson—the boat sent on a rescue mission by Sergey’s friends, who were following his progress online—finally reaches a section of open water. Captain Julien ploughs forward at the ship’s top speed: 16.5 knots per hour.

In the morning, another plane. It’s still too foggy to see the aircraft but Sergey, hopeful, lights his second flare. No luck. However, he uses the still-hot flare casing to burn holes in his survival suit at the tip of each foot. Now the urine that’s been pooling can drain directly onto the ice. The small things that enable a man to survive. 

Then the bear returns. Again Sergey flails, roars, chases the beast. It works again, but without food and sapped by the constant shivering—the only thing keeping his body warm enough to function—he’s even more worn out than the first time. 

Morning passes into afternoon. There’s a depression in the ice near the floe’s edge filled with dazzling aquamarine water. Sergey sets his life raft down, creating a sort of water bed. He lies down and dozes, memories spinning backward, until he hears the familiar crunch of snow. 

The bear walks toward him a third time, sniffing the air with its massive snout, smelling the human body beneath the neoprene fabric. Sergey scares it off in the same manner, then staggers back to the raft. He crawls beneath it. 

"Sergey rations his protein tablets, about 2,000 calories’ worth, into three-day portions. After that, he figures, he’ll be dead"

He doesn’t have the energy to fight the bear off if it returns a fourth time. He’s never thought of suicide before. But being marooned in the icy brutality of the Arctic has rendered Sergey’s mind a gelid mass of fear and uncertainty. He doesn’t want to be devoured and digested by a polar bear. He would rather die on his own terms. As he shivers violently on the ice, he contemplates how he might execute the task.

Twenty-five hours after leaving the freighter, fighting a one-knot current and narrowly avoiding 20-storey icebergs and submerged ice hunks called growlers, the Pierre Radisson chugs into the icefloe-flecked region of Davis Strait where Sergey Ananov went down. His friend Halifax has drawn up a plan based on Sergey’s last beacon point, the wind and the weather. But the wind is light and Captain Julien decides to begin the search eight miles from the beacon, as Halifax proposes, focusing on a two-mile radius nearest the helicopter’s last-known position. Although two military aircraft and one government plane had been dispatched, their search was hampered by low visibility due to fog.  

All available hands are on deck of the Pierre Radisson. The mood is tense. In a few hours it will be dark, making a rescue impossible, leaving Sergey to spend another night on the ice. It could drop below freezing, and that’s without the wind chill. By tomorrow his body will have diverted most of its blood from its periphery to the core to protect the internal organs, leading to increased risk of freezing peripheral tissues such as fingers and toes. 

Then, miraculously, the fog lifts. Captain Julien calls Halifax to convey the suddenly favourable conditions, but their planes are more than 200 miles away in Iqaluit and won’t be heading out again until morning. There’s one hour of light left. Acting on a hunch, Julien orders the ship’s GC 366 helicopter into the air with two observers. Back on the bridge, a third navigation officer spots a red light on the ice surface.

Julien takes a compass bearing and steers toward the point. The rescue helicopter is notified. They spot the final splinter of light from Sergey’s last flare. They spot Sergey.  

There are no bears on the floe but he’s once more running and waving and screaming.

That night aboard the Pierre Radisson, 36 hours after the R22 hit the ocean, the pilot is fed salad with olive oil and freshly smoked salmon. Everyone wants to shake his hand and take a photo. He obliges, even though this isn’t how he wants his name to live on. This is an insufficient immortality. 

As he smiles for the phone cameras, he’s already thinking about the new R22 helicopter he’ll buy, about how he’ll pack it differently—the emergency equipment, everything within reach. 

And he’s thinking about this summer, when he’ll once again lift a helicopter into the sky and point it in the direction of the other side of the world.