Polar Bear Blog – The Polar Bear Attack

This post is actually about the polar bear incident out at Cape Churchill… back in 1983 – an attack that accidentally launched the polar bear industry…

The Treul Story

”Here, take my camera, I have to get a bear off my arm.”

Well, that’s what they say he said anyway and Fred Treul did have a pretty big camera, a clunky Hasselblad. And there was a bear on his arm, latched on to his tricep. Not too keen to let go either.

It was U.S. Thanksgiving, November 1983. Len, Dan and their crew were out on one of the first Cape Churchill trips, one that could well have been the last. Things were different then, it was ‘invite-only’ at the Cape. They had been chucking lard and sardines for a good part of the week, a bucket of whale meat, called ‘muktuk’ in Inuktitut, sat on the back deck of Buggy One. ‘The Tundra Bus’ was painted on the side of Buggy One, along with several tour options: ‘birds, polar bears, goose hunting, flora’.

Treul was a friend of Guravich, although more of a hobby photographer than anything. He worked as an airplane mechanic in Austria and later as a machinist. After the war, he emigrated to Milwaukee and founded his own company, Starline Manufacturing. They said he owned a bunch of patents and such. As an engineer slash machinist, he was always more interested in the technical side of photography. Of course, the technical side also brought along a wide selection of camera bodies and gear, much to the chagrin of whoever was close enough to be cajoled into carrying his equipment.

Anyway, Treul and his equipment were parked at the front of Buggy One when an Ivory Gull landed. Now, an Ivory Gull is not just any ordinary ‘shit-hawk’ as they are so elegantly described up here. It is a pure white bird, a high arctic resident; a rare and treasured sighting. Excited, Treul leaned out the window, his attention focused on capturing the image. Instead, a big male bear captured him.

The bear had been underneath the front of the buggy, just out of sight. When Treul leaned out, he simply reached up and grabbed onto his arm. A wave of shock rippled through the vehicle before Len grabbed a wrench and started hammering the bear on its nose. The bear’s nose is sensitive; the skin is thin there. A wrench or even a fist to the snout is the best way to stop them, better than cracker shells or rubber bullets. It’s a trick used many times over the years.

The bear let go but only then did they realize that Treul’s muscle was damn near torn off. He was bleeding profusely. To make matters worse, the north wind was picking up; a storm was brewing. The little crew did what they could to stabilize Treul but as the weather hit, they realized that no helicopter would be able to make it out to Cape. Buggy One lurched forward but one of her tires soon broke through a pocket in the ice. Unable to free the buggy, Len transferred a small crew into the Penguin, a small track vehicle used for support.

Len was good at building and repairing machines but, somehow, two details eluded him in all the years of Tundra Buggy: brakes and windshield wipers. They just never seemed to work on anything he built, the Penguin was not different. About halfway into town, the blizzard now hitting the coast with its full fury, the windshield wipers stopped working. Len drove the rest of the way standing up, looking out the top hatch of the vehicle. By the time, they reached help on the main road, his round and now frozen face peered out from a helmet of ice.

It was now sixteen hours since the bear grabbed Treul. In shock and weak from loss of blood, Treul still asked that no harm come to the offending bear. He would explain later, ‘He did what he was there to do. We were a potential food source.’ Near death, Treul was immediately medi-vaced to Winnipeg for surgery. Eventually, he regained almost full use of his arm.

The story was told in the February 1984 issue of LIFE Magazine; Anne Fadiman was on that trip working on a story, she ended up making the trip to town with Treul, helping stabilize him on the arduous trek. Her article, ‘A Tale of Arctic Beauty and Brutality’ was really the ‘tipping point’ in bear tourism; it grew by leaps and bounds in the following years. Then again, maybe it was just the fact that the Beatles were on the cover, hard to say.

Treul came back to Churchill the next year and made several trips after that. Until his passing in 2001, he held no grudge. ‘They’re such beautiful animals,’ he said in a New York Times interview. ‘I don’t hold anything against them. It was just an accident. It could have been just as serious if I had been in my car and been hit by another car.’

NOTE: Treul coined the name ” celebration ” of polar bears when talking about the group of bears at the cape.

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