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Drama in Real Life: Stalked By a Polar Bear

After crash landing in the frigid waters of the Davis Straight, Russian helicopter pilot Sergey Ananov must battle severe hypothermia, crushing fear and one very persistent predator.

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Russian adventurer Sergey AnanovPhoto: Alexander Gronsky

Robinson R22 Down

The pounding noise shatters the silence of Davis Strait, a frigid finger of ocean separating Canada and Greenland. Thwick-thwack, thwick-thwack. The noise comes from above the helicopter, its pilot realizes, and it’s getting louder. THWICK-THWACK, THWICK-THWACK.

That pilot, Sergey Ananov, wears an old red neoprene survival suit. But the bulky outfit is hot and its mittens make it difficult to operate the cyclic stick. After flying for 42 days over 33,000 kilometres and two continents (Eurasia and North America), he sometimes relaxes a little and unzips down to his waist. That’s why he’s bare-chested when the sound begins.

The helicopter is not big: a plucky 400-kilogram Robinson R22. Ananov knows every centimetre, every bolt. And he knows what the sputtering means: a belt transferring power from the engine to the rudder blades has snapped. He also knows what comes next. The helicopter is going down.

Ananov switches to autorotation, a safety mode that allows the craft to glide downward. From a height of 900 metres, it falls at roughly 15 metres per second. The marine fog is thick, so it isn’t until 215 metres above the partially frozen sea that the helicopter pierces it. With little time to manoeuvre, Ananov aims for an ice floe, realizes he won’t make it, tilts the craft for safest impact and lands the skids smoothly on the water.

Ananov knows the blades could chop off his head when he climbs out, so he leans the helicopter to the left so that they smash to pieces against the sea. This kills the engine and the machine starts to sink—tail first and fast.

Freezing water floods the cockpit, rising around the pilot’s naked chest and rushing down the legs of his open survival suit. His gear begins to float—plastic fuel tanks, a bag of clothes—but the most crucial items have been suction-cupped to the windshield: two GPS trackers, a distress beacon and a satellite phone. Somewhere behind his ankles there’s also a deflated life raft containing a survival kit with three flares, a half-litre of water and a tiny box of protein tablets.

As Ananov becomes submerged to his neck, there’s only time to save one thing. He swims out the door, then dives back into the helicopter to free the raft. The water is black and salty and cold—around 2 degrees C.

After surfacing, Ananov propels himself towards an ice floe 50 metres away, dragging the nine-kilogram raft with one hand. Killer whales and the elusive Greenland shark hunt these waters, but they aren’t on his mind.

After three gruelling minutes, he makes it to the floe. But the ice is a half-metre thick, and the weight of the suit makes it impossible to hurl his legs over the jagged lip. He keeps trying, the sharp ice scraping away skin, blood running down his forearms. He finds a smooth section, presses his chest flat against the ice and uses his nails to claw and shimmy to the top.

Every inch of Ananov is soaked, and his upper body is now exposed to the biting wind. He shivers violently, an automatic response to generate heat. His shaking hands peel off the suit, and he flaps it up and down, wringing out the water.

And it is then, just 15 minutes since the belt snapped, as he stands on the ice floe in nothing but his running shoes and underwear, that the grim situation becomes clear to Ananov. He is trapped on a slab of ice in the Arctic Circle with no locator beacon, no phone and barely any water.

The fog will hide him from any rescuers. Night will come. Hypothermia will set in. And whatever large, powerful creatures scratch out their existence in this primordial world, maybe they will come too.

Looking for another survival story? Check out this polar expedition gone wrong.

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Ananov in his helicopterPhoto: Courtesy of Sergey Ananov

Mission to Set a World Record

Back on June 13, 2015, the day Ananov lifted off from Shevlino, Russia, about 32 kilometres from Moscow, the then-49-year-old had already set five world aviation records but nothing as ambitious as this latest goal: to become the first person to fly solo around the world in a helicopter weighing less than one tonne.

According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, there has been only one successful round-the-world solo helicopter flight. But that was in a heavier craft, and the pilot had support aircraft trailing him. Except for a couple of friends tracking his progress online, Ananov was doing it alone.

He began by crossing Siberia into Alaska, flew south through the western United States, then zigzagged across the American heartland. He began at dawn and often landed in the dark, averaging about 800 kilometres a flight. He refuelled at local and regional airfields, ate mainly fast food and slept in nearby hotels.

He entered Canada near Montreal, traversed Quebec and crossed the Hudson Strait to Iqaluit, which is where he departed from that fateful morning on day 42 of his journey—less than 4,800 kilometres from home and glory.

Now, stranded and shivering, Ananov allows for a few minutes to beat himself up over his mistakes. If only he had dived once more and retrieved one of the GPS trackers or the distress beacon. If only he had managed to land on the ice floe. But none of this is possible now. And so he gets to work.

First he struggles to get back into the damp neoprene suit, pulling it up so the built-in cap covers his head. He then fumbles with the cord to blow up the life raft, and after several yanks, it inflates. He ties it to his leg so it won’t blow away. Using the raft as a windshield, he lies beneath it flat on his stomach.

Don’t miss this suspenseful drama about a fiery airplane crash!

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Pierre Radisson shipPhoto: Courtesy of Fisheries & Oceans Canada

The Search Begins

About 4,800 kilometres away in San Francisco, a Russian-American pilot friend of Ananov’s named Andrew Kaplin is tracking the flight online and notices that the helicopter’s speed has flatlined. He and another friend, Michael Farikh, begin calling around for help until Kaplin connects with the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax. Dispatchers send two C-130 Hercules transport aircraft to Ananov’s last known position, but it’s too late in the day for a thorough search.

Coordinators also radio the Pierre Radisson, a 98-metre Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker commanded by Captain Stéphane Julien. But here, too, is a snag—the vessel is at least a day away, in Frobisher Bay, escorting a freighter into Iqaluit. With no other icebreakers in the area, Julien cannot abandon his charge.

The captain understands, however, how dire Ananov’s situation is. Julien has completed 29 Arctic tours, sailed the Northwest Passage seven times, and rescued several people from an icy death. So three hours later, once the freighter has been escorted out of the ice and can safely navigate to Iqaluit alone, Julien steams his ship towards the pilot’s last known position.

For another story of heroics, find out how one good samaritan saved a woman’s life.

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Polar bear in the arcticPhoto: Ralph Lee Hopkins/Getty Images

A Polar Bear Approaches

Ananov knows none of this. He also knows nothing of the predator now tracking him. Somewhere in the strait, a polar bear has stood upright and is turning its head back and forth. Its nose is capable of recognizing the scent of a ringed seal under a metre of snow or a rotting whale carcass 30 kilometres away. But this scent? It would draw a blank, having never encountered a middle-aged Russian. Moving in its pigeon-toed walk, the animal heads off to inspect.

The summer before, in nearby Arctic Bay, 31-year-old Adrian Arnauyumayuq and his 26-year-old brother-in-law set up camp on an ice floe. In the morning, they were wakened by a 450-kilogram polar bear ripping apart their tent. Arnauyumayuq grabbed his hunting knife, stabbed the bear in the face and tried to flee. But the bear pounced, clawing open his back and biting his head. Then it flung him aside and went after his brother-in-law, fracturing his collarbone before Arnauyumayuq could grab his rifle and shoot it dead.

The Arctic is full of these stories, and most do not end in survival—for the humans.

About four hours after falling out of the sky, Ananov 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.

The creature bobs its snout up and down, sniffing the air, then lopes straight towards him. Stopping about two metres away, the animal is so close that Ananov 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.

If I meet the bear face to face, I will die, Ananov thinks. But from somewhere deep in his core a powerful survival instinct 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 gallops away. But Ananov does not stop. He chases the animal 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 Ananov, who continues to scream furiously. The bear sits down and looks right at the pilot, examining him. Ananov still roars, but now it’s not only directed at the bear, but at his own utter helplessness.

After a minute, the bemused bear trots off into the Arctic fog.

The euphoria and adrenalin from the encounter do not last. The hours lumber on, and time seems to pass slowly.

Then Ananov hears the sound of a plane.

He cannot 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 shoots into the air. Ananov hears the plane arc directly overhead, but it continues on. The flare burns for 30 seconds, then fizzles.

Evening approaches. The cold is deep and gnawing. The temperature hovers at the freezing point. Ananov rations his protein tablets, about 2,000 calories’ worth, into three-day portions. After that, he figures, he will be dead.

Humans can go without food for more than three weeks—so long as they have water. Ananov has only the half-litre that came with the raft. He has been urinating frequently in his survival suit—a liberating release that also provides moments of warmth. But if his body fluids are not replenished, the resulting dehydration will cause decreased blood flow to muscles, tissue cooling and decreased metabolic function. His heart would then cease working. It would be ironic, of course, to die of thirst while surrounded by water and even sitting atop it, but ingesting saltwater would only speed up the dehydration.

Unable to sleep, Ananov thinks about his wife, Evgueniya, and his children—22-year-old daughter Daria and 20-year-old son Andrey. At least they are grown, Ananov thinks.

In the morning, the bear returns. Again Ananov 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 is worn out. Morning passes into afternoon. There is a depression in the ice near the floe’s edge filled with dazzling aquamarine water. Ananov sets his life raft down, creating a sort of waterbed. He lies down and dozes, memories spinning backward, until he hears the familiar crunch of snow.

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

If the bear returns a fourth time, he will not have the energy to fight it off.

Could climate change make killer whales the Arctic’s next top predator

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Ananov with crew of Pierre Radisson after his rescuePhoto: Courtesy of Fisheries & Oceans Canada

Race Against the Setting Sun

Twenty-five hours after leaving the freighter, fighting the current and narrowly avoiding 20-storey icebergs, the Pierre Radisson chugs into the ice floe–flecked region of Davis Strait where Ananov went down. Rescue coordinators have drawn up a plan based on Ananov’s last beacon point, the wind and the weather. The mood on deck is tense. In a few hours it will be dark, making a rescue impossible, leaving Ananov to spend another night on the ice. The overnight low could drop below freezing.

Then, miraculously, the fog lifts.

Julien calls dispatchers in Halifax to convey the suddenly favourable conditions, but there is only one hour of light left and their planes are more than 300 kilometres away in Iqaluit. Julien orders his ship’s GC-366 helicopter into the air with a pilot and 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 towards the point. The rescue helicopter is notified. They see the final splinter of light from Ananov’s last flare. Then they spot him. There are no bears on the floe, but Ananov is once more running and waving and screaming.

That night aboard the Pierre Radisson, 36 hours after his R22 hit the ocean, Ananov is fed salad with olive oil and freshly smoked salmon. Besides his hunger, he’s in surprisingly good condition. Everyone wants to shake his hand and take a photo. He obliges, even though this is not how he wants his name to live on. As he smiles for the phone cameras, he is already thinking about the new R22 he will buy, and about how he will pack it differently when he once again lifts a helicopter into the sky and points it in the direction of the other side of the world.

Next, read the stunning drama about a sailor who spent 40 hours lost at sea.

Popular Mechanics (February 17, 2016) by Justin Nobel 2016 by Justin Nobel.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada