People & Culture

Profile in courage: The Canadian man who saved a woman from the jaws of a polar bear

William Ayotte risked his life to rescue a woman who was being attacked by a polar bear in Churchill, Man. Grabbing a shovel he hit the bear, distracting it long enough to allow her to escape. The bear then turned on him, attacking him until a neighbour finally scared it away by driving toward it with a truck and blaring his horn on Nov. 1, 2013. 

  • Jul 25, 2022
  • 886 words
  • 4 minutes
[ Disponible en français ]
(Photo: Norrie Franko/Can Geo Photo Club)
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On July 20, 1972, the first Canadian Decorations for Bravery was awarded. On the 50th anniversary of the decoration, Canadian Geographic interviews five recipients who have been honoured for their exceptional acts of selflessness. The series forms part of Commemorate Canada, a Canadian Heritage program to highlight significant Canadian anniversaries. It gives Canadian Geographic a chance to look at these points of history with a sometimes celebratory, sometimes critical, eye.

William Ayotte was dozing in front of his television in Churchill, Man., on a cold November morning when he first heard Erin Greene’s screams. He opened his front door to investigate. “Lo and behold what exploded into view was Erin in the jaws of a polar bear, and the polar bear waggin’ her around in the air like rag doll,” Ayotte said.

For the briefest of moments, Ayotte stood still wondering what to do. He’d given up his guns after Manitoba Hydro built a dam that “took the river away” and effectively destroyed hunting and fishing in the area. Ayotte considered phoning Churchill’s polar bear alert number, but knew by the time they arrived, Erin would be dead. 

“At that same moment, I look down the veranda,” Ayotte said. “There was a snow shovel there. And I found myself involuntarily stepping out the door and going after the shovel. And once I grabbed a hold on the shovel, I said to myself, ‘Well, you’re either gonna do something or you’re not.’” And so the 69-year-old Ayotte, wearing only his pyjamas and slippers, raised his shovel and charged at the bear. 

He figured the best place to strike the bear was in the eye. “And when I got over there, lo and behold, he looked up at me. And there’s this big eye staring at me. So I said, ‘Well, that’s what I want.’ Ayotte swung the shovel over his shoulder and slammed it into the bear’s eye. The bear, jarred, released Greene, just as Ayotte had hoped. She dashed towards Ayotte’s house, but before he could turn and follow her to safety, he felt the bear’s claw circle his left knee. “Then the mauling was on me.”

In a ceremony held on May 1, 2015, Governor General David Johnston presented the Star of Courage to William Ayotte, S.C. The Star of Courage recognizes acts of conspicuous courage in circumstances of great peril. Credit: Sgt Ronald Duchesne, Rideau Hall, OSGG.
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Somehow, Ayotte managed to turn onto his stomach. After mauling him for a while, Ayotte said, the bear had had enough. “Then he was intent on eating me.” The bear grabbed a hold of Ayotte’s right ear in his teeth and started to tear. “I could hear his tongue. I could hear the skin ripping and everything,” Ayotte said. “But I didn’t feel anything.” At that moment, Ayotte was less worried about his ear and more worried about where the bear might decide to bite next. 

By then, the noise had roused Ayotte’s neighbours, who poured into the street and began trying to scare the bear off Ayotte. One fired a few shotgun into the air, while others yelled. One even threw a shoe. But nothing paused the mauling until one of Ayotte’s neighbours drove his truck at the bear, blaring his horn and flashing the headlights. From his position underneath the bear, Ayotte could see the truck approaching. 

“I thought ‘Holy smokes, he’s gonna hit the bear, but he’ll run over me as well.’” Fortunately, the noise and lights did their job, scaring the animal away before the truck hit man and bear.

Ayotte laid on the cold ground, “all bit up and everything,” wondering if he’d survive his wounds long enough to learn if Greene would survive hers. He wanted to know she was all right. As a crowd gathered around him, Ayotte remembers saying, “Get me up. Get me up. I don’t want to die on the ground like an animal. Get me up. I want to stand up and die like a man. I want to die on my feet.”

Star of Courage Medal (SC). Credit: Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall, OSGG / GG05-2017-0400-020.
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Someone lifted Ayotte into the back of the truck drove him to the hospital about a kilometre away. “They whistled me into the emergency room and stated working on me,” Ayotte said. The ER doctors put him under. When he woke up, he was 1,000 kilometres south in a Winnipeg hospital.

As soon as he woke, Ayotte asked the attending nurse, “Was I able to save the woman?”

“She’s in the next room,” the nurse said. 

“Is she all right? Ayotte asked. 

“She’s fine. They’re going to release her tonight.”

Greene came into Ayotte’s room that evening. Without his eyeglasses and groggy from drugs, Ayotte couldn’t see her very well and he doesn’t remember much of their conversation. He does remember telling her that he was happy to see her, and satisfied he’d been able to save her. 

Ayotte spent a week in the Winnipeg hospital where doctors stitched and stapled the many lacerations on his body. He also underwent a four-hour surgery with a plastic surgeon. “He was able to put my ear back on,” Ayotte said.

He returned to Churchill a local hero.  

Though Ayotte would see Greene around town in the years that followed, their brief and blurry hospital room exchange was the only time the two survivors ever spoke about their experience. “I don’t want to bring things back up,” Ayotte said. “It could be more devastating to her than for me.” Just like on that terrible morning, Ayotte cared more about Greene’s wellbeing than his own.

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