Man recalls taking on a polar bear after receiving Star of Courage

WATCH: Bill Ayotte was awarded one of the country’s highest honours for courage. The 71-year-old took on an angry polar bear that was savagely attacking a woman, two years ago in Churchill, Man. Jacques Bourbeau reports on a brave and selfless act.

OTTAWA – Not too many people decide to take on a polar bear to save someone else’s life.

That’s exactly what 71-year-old William Ayotte did when he heard the woman’s screams outside his home in Churchill, Manitoba one early morning in November 2013.

“You never know I suppose until you’re confronted with a situation such as that what you’re capable of, or even if you’re capable of doing anything,” Ayotte said after he was awarded the Star of Courage by the Governor General in a ceremony at Rideau Hall on Friday in Ottawa.

With his new shiny silver medal on hanging on the left breast pocket of his collared shirt, Ayotte recalled for Global News his moment of selflessness.

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Churchill is known as “the polar bear capital of the world” with a population of more than 900 in the western Hudson Bay area. The locals are familiar with the bears, including Ayotte who was raised there. The area has a polar bear alert program set up with conservation officers to scare off  bears that wander into town, but the attack came at 5 a.m. and the only person awake to hear the screams was Ayotte.

Erin Greene, 32, a Montrealer, was walking alone after leaving a party when the polar bear attacked. Ayotte was watching TV and realized the screams he heard weren’t coming from his television. He went to his front door and about forty feet away he saw the bear mauling Greene.

READ MORE: Exclusive: Polar bear attack victim on the mend and heading home

“The bear had the woman by the head and was wagging her around in the air,” Ayotte said. “I was thinking, she can’t sustain much of this.”

“I had nothing.” Then he saw the shovel on his veranda. “I had to go get it, I couldn’t just leave her alone.”

He moved towards the bear with the shovel and figured he would do the most damage if he hit the bear between the eyes. Luckily, it worked. The bear let go of the woman, and she ran into his house.

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Unfortunately for Ayotte, the bear then turned its vengeance on him.

“He reached out and he grabbed me by the back of the leg and knee and he hauled me down. Then my mauling started.”

He said he wasn’t thinking much except he knew the bear wouldn’t let him go after losing his first prey. Eventually his neighbours began to come out of their houses with shot guns and bear bangers. But the noise didn’t disrupt the bear, and it continued to maul Ayotte. It wasn’t until one of his neighbours charged towards the bear with a truck, stopping within two feet, that the bruin finally  relented and let him go.

READ MORE: Two mauled in Churchill polar bear attack

Both Ayotte and Greene were airlifted to the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. The bear tore off most of Greene’s scalp and three arteries. She had 28 staples and stitches. Ayotte was in the hospital for six and a half days. The bear had ripped off one of his ears, and after doctors reattached it they wanted to make sure it would stay on.

He’s happy with how his ear recovered. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s great,” he said with a chuckle.

When Greene was released from the hospital she asked if she could see the man who saved her life so she could thank him. After the ceremony in Ottawa, Ayotte was asked if he would do it again, he replied: “hopefully I’d have enough in me to help somebody again but there’s no way of knowing.”

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Governor General David Johnston gave out 36 Medals of Bravery on Friday, and only one Star of Courage, which went to Ayotte for his selfless act.