'It bit me on my neck and I blacked out': Man recalls polar bear attack in Nunavut

Elijah Kaernerk said he saw one of the women being attacked in a similar manner in which a polar bear catches a seal. He said he started blacking out, but did his best to get up and distract the bear, in an effort to try and save the others.

Elijah Kaernerk was among 3 adults in Sanirajak who survived the attack

A polar bear, captured in a file photo, rests on rocks. Elijah Kaernerk, his partner and her sister-in-law were attacked by a polar bear near Sanirajak, Nunavut on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. Kaernerk recalled the harrowing encounter to CBC. (Submitted by Tiffany Spence)

When Elijah Kaernerk sneaked a glimpse of a polar bear munching on a carcass outside his cabin near Sanirajak, Nunavut, he was only trying to confirm its presence after being tipped off that there was one in the area.

But when the polar bear spotted Kaernerk looking around the corner, it quickly left what it had been eating.

"It growled, and left the food … then it stood up and started running towards me," said Kaernerk, who is the community reporter for Tausunni.

"I tried running away, and it approached me fast," he said, speaking in Inuktitut.

Kaernerk was among the three adults who survived a polar bear attack last week near the community of Sanirajak, which sits on Foxe Basin in Nunavut's Baffin region, and has a population of about 800 people. 

The day after the attack, police said in a news release that all three people were "badly injured" but that they were expected to recover.

Earlier that day, Kaernerk along with his partner and her sister-in-law were travelling by ATV to his cabin when another woman told them there was a polar bear near Kaernerk's place.

Kaernerk had shrugged off the warning. But shortly after their arrival, he realized his mistake.

After its first attack on Kaernerk, the bear went after his partner, he recalled.

"As I watched the polar bear about to attack her, I struggled a little but tried to get up," he said. "I stood up, then started heading to the bear."

But it started coming back toward him.

It chased him around the ATV until it caught him, he said. 

"I can hear the attack on me. I can hear the cuts going in, and I can feel the teeth punching through," he said.

"It started pulling my hair and it was painful. Then it let me go, then started approaching the others."

The polar bear attacked Kaernerk three times in between attacking the other two.

When he saw one of the women being attacked, Kaernerk said he started blacking out, but did his best to get up and distract the bear.

"When I was being attacked, I didn't feel so much pain," he said. "I was trying to keep the bear from going to the other two. 

"They all have children, and grandchildren too," he said.

When the bear came down on him again, he said he felt a tooth on his eye.

"It must've opened its mouth," he said. "It bit me on my neck and I blacked out."

'Dead silent'

Then, Kaernerk said, there was silence. 

"No voices. I couldn't hear anything anymore," he said. "Then I realized, did the bear kill the other two? It was dead silent, I couldn't get up. But then I heard a voice."

That voice was the local reverend's wife, he said.

"I raised my hand and shouted 'I'm alright! I'm alright!,'" he said.

Then he heard his partner's voice. "I was so happy," he said.

Sanirajak, on Nunavut's Foxe Basin, has a population of about 800. The community grew around the former Distant Early Warning Line site, which is no longer operational. (CBC)

He said the next events were a blur. At one point he realized they were at the local health centre, and he said he "badly" wanted to see the other two. He blacked out again, and the next thing he remembers was boarding the medevac plane to Iqaluit.

"When we arrived, we were getting off the plane, and I can feel my feet getting cold. I was going in and out of consciousness," he said.

From there, he was taken to a hospital in Ottawa. 

The other two remained in Iqaluit for treatment.

Police also said the bear was found dead near the cabins.

Nunavut RCMP said Tuesday it was shot and killed by members of the community.

Although polar bear attacks are rare in Nunavut, there have been deadly encounters with bears in recent years.

In 2018, 31-year-old Aaron Gibbons was killed by a polar bear outside Arviat, while protecting his children. That same summer, 33-year-old Darryl Kaunak was killed outside Naujaat while out hunting with two others.

Kaernerk said he is grateful for the care he is getting in Ottawa and said he learned a good lesson about polar bears.

"I had this mindset where animals aren't feral. They're not scary," he said. "If you don't bother them they will not bother you. That is how my mindset was," he said.

"I decided to go look. If I didn't go, the bear wouldn't have seen me. That is how it happened."

Based on files from Cindy Alorut and Toby Otak