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A 23-year-old kayaker was in hospital with a deep gash to his scalp after a highly unusual wolf attack off Vancouver Island that has mystified scientists across the country.

Scott Langevin was set upon by the wolf early Sunday morning while he slept under the stars at a beach campsite on Vargas Island, about 12 kilometres from Tofino.

Mr. Langevin told rescuers he was awakened by something pulling at his sleeping bag. When he saw it was a wolf, Mr. Langevin covered his head with his arms and tried to roll away, but the wolf clamped its jaws around his hand. Soon the animal was gnawing at Mr. Langevin's head.

Eventually, Mr. Langevin's screams awakened his fellow campers, who were in nearby tents, and they scared the animal off.

Scientists said the attack was unheard-of, and some found it hard to believe.

"I can say with great, great, great confidence that this is an extremely unusual occurrence," said Monte Hummel, president of the World Wildlife Fund Canada.

Mr. Hummel, who recently returned from a field trip to the Arctic to study wolf behaviour there, said there has never been a documented case in Canada of a healthy wild wolf attacking a human.

That statement gets challenged periodically with anecdotal evidence from the wilderness, Mr. Hummel said, but when the stories get probed further, they often fall apart.

In 1996, a group of timber wolves that were bred in captivity in a wildlife reserve near Haliburton, Ont., killed a 24-year-old female employee.

The attack on Mr. Langevin was witnessed by several of his camping companions. In addition, one of his rescuers, a Tofino boater, gathered wolf hairs from the victim's sleeping bag, to assist in identifying the animal.

Members of Mr. Langevin's party reported seeing wolves near their camp earlier in the day.

Conservation officers on Monday travelled to Vargas Island and destroyed two wolves.

Mr. Langevin was rescued within minutes of the attack by a pair of boaters who overheard a radio call for help early Sunday from the campsite to the Canadian Coast Guard.

Dave LeBlanc and Doug Leys jumped in a Zodiak boat and sped to Vargas Island in the dark.

Mr. LeBlanc and Mr. Leys applied pressure to Mr. Langevin's wounds and took him to a hospital in Tofino. From there, he was transferred to Victoria where surgeons needed 50 stitches to mend the wound.