msnbc.com
updated 8/11/2010 6:05:16 PM ET 2010-08-11T22:05:16

Norwegian kayakers Sebastian Plur Nilssen and Ludvig Fjeld ran into one big, white obstacle in their quest to become the first team team to paddle 1,250 miles around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard: a polar bear.

Nilssen, 23, woke up one morning to find the animal's jaws clenched around his head. He was saved when Fjeld, 22, shot the bear dead with a rifle.

Nilssen recounted his terrifying brush with death in reports Wednesday in the U.K. media.

"I must be one of the only people in the world who can say when people ask me about my scars, 'I got them in a fight with a polar bear,' " he said, according to Sky News and the U.K. Telegraph.

According to press accounts, Nilssen was attacked last week as he and Fjeld, his expedition partner, slept in a two-man tent in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. The pair were in the middle of their two-month-long bid to become the first team ever to paddle around the island chain, which constitutes the northernmost part of Norway. The archipelago is about midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

Nilssen told reporters he woke up face-to-face with an adult male polar bear. Polar bears live only in the northern Arctic and are among the world's largest meat-eaters, with adult males weighing an average of 900 pounds.

Nilssen said the bear clamped his head in its jaws and dragged him 45 yards from the tent. He said the animal tossed him like a rag doll from side to side.

"It was so strong I could not fight, I grabbed for my shotgun and tried to shoot it but [the polar bear] had snapped [the gun] in half.

"It must have been only a minute I was in his jaws but it felt like forever," Nilssen said, according to press reports.

"It was a big bear, at one point it stood up on its back legs with me in its mouth, I was 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) off the ground and it seemed very high."

Fjeld found their other rifle, which had been covered with sand on the beach campsite, and chased after the animal.

"I was about 20 or 25 meters (65 to 82 feet) from the bear and it had Sebastian in its mouth, I was very worried I did not want to hit Sebastian as well," said Fjeld, according to the Telegraph. "That would have been a really bad day for him.

"When I fired the first shot, the bear dropped him, but I had to fire four more to make sure it was dead."

The two men called for help and a search and rescue helicopter within two hours. Nilssen,  bleeding heavily from lacerations to his chest, head and neck, was airlifted to a hospital and underwent three hours of surgery Thursday night.

Despite his brush with death, Nilssen told reporters he was not angry at the bear.

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