On July 23, 2011, Josh Berg and six teenagers were hiking in Alaska’s Talkeetna Mountains, a remote section of wilderness south of Denali National Park, on day 24 of a 30-day expedition with the National Outdoors Leadership School. The boys had set out as an independent student group that afternoon and expected be without a NOLS instructor for much of the remaining trip. Gaining that independence—a major achievement for any NOLS group—was why Berg, who is 17, returned to Alaska in 2011 after completing a similar NOLS course a year earlier. Berg was acting as team leader when he and three other students were mauled by a grizzly bear hours after leaving camp. This is Berg's story, as told to Madison Kahn.
We left camp at 3 P.M. The plan was to hike through the night because at that time of year it stays light. We were hiking in a stream because there were these massive cottonwoods and hiking there let us avoid them. I had been walking at the back of the group the entire day, but around 8 P.M. we took a break and I decided to move to the front.
Twenty minutes later, I came around a bend in the stream and saw what looked like a hay bale up in the brush 30 or 40 feet away. I remember thinking there are no hay bales in Alaska. Then I saw it move. And all of the sudden I was like ‘Holy fuck, this is a grizzly bear.’
I turned around and started screaming, ‘Bear! Bear! Bear!’ but he was on me in two or three steps. He went for my head first. The thing I remember best is hearing my skull crack. He started dragging me by the head and I tried to punch him in the face and throw my fists up, but I don’t think it did anything. Somewhere in there he got my left leg and my right arm, too. I remember thinking where is the pain? Then he stopped and bit me in the back of my neck. At that point he could have done anything to me, but he heard my friend Sam Grottsegen and ran off and attacked him. I remember hearing Sam scream. I was screaming a lot, too, and I’m glad I never saw the bear’s face. It means I won’t have nightmares about his face coming to get me.
I had the first-aid kit and the personal locator beacon in my pack. At this point things got a little blurry. Right after the bear dropped me and went after Sam I remember rolling over, sticking my head in the water and playing dead. After that I tried to get the beacon. People tell me I didn’t look for it, but I know I did.
I guess around then Vic Martin kicked the bear in the face and he ran away. Vic’s leg was pretty cut up.
Noah [Allaire] came over to help get the beacon out of my pack. He had been attacked but he was in much better shape than I was. And for a while we just sat there trying to figure out how to get the beacon open. It was an awful feeling. It was getting dark. It was starting to rain. Finally one of the other kids who got away came down with his knife and pried it open and the antenna shot up. Someone set up a tent and Sam Boas, who’s an EMT, came rushing down the hill. They moved Sam Grottsegen into the tent first. I’m a big dude, I’m the biggest one there, 6’3'', 180 pounds, so it was hard for people who were hurt and just regular people to lift me into the tent.
If anyone was going to die first it wasn't going to be me. It would've been Sam—his lung was totally ripped open and he wasn't breathing well. They couldn’t find his pulse, and Sam Boas was trying really hard to feel his lung and make sure it stayed inflated.
At that point I remember yelling. I guess my attitude was 'I may be hurt but I’m still the leader, so listen to me.' I wanted to know if the signal was going off. The lights will blink three times consecutively and then go blank if the signal has been received by NOAA. Eventually I saw the signal myself so I believed it.
Sam Boas was looking me over and wrapping me up, and when he got to the left side of my head he stopped. He goes ‘There's this pink stuff flapping out of your head and I don’t know what it is but I'm just gonna wrap it up and leave it.’ That's when I started wondering if my brain would ever be the same.
I was soaked after falling in the stream and I was freezing, shaking. Noah came over and asked if he could cut my clothes off and I screamed ‘No you can’t!’ because I thought I’d be colder. So he says ‘Okay,’ and then he cut them off anyway. I was really angry at him for that. They got me completely naked and put me in a sleeping bag. That only keeps you so warm, so people laid on top of me barechested. It was about 9 P.M. by then, and from that point on we waited.
The first helicopter came at 2 A.M. We had no idea who was coming. It turned out to be a state trooper and a pilot from Fairbanks. The trooper had a funny accent and of course I said, "Who the hell are you?" and he went into this whole story about how he was from New Zealand. He had water, gauze, and some sterile things. After he checked us over he went outside the tent to look for the bear but by then he was long gone. The trooper put the four kids who could still walk on the helicopter and stayed behind with me, Sam Grottsegen, and Sam Boas. The idea was to airlift everyone else out with a medivac helicopter.
An Alaska Air National Guard Gray Hawk, which is the medic version of the Army’s Black Hawk, came at 4 A.M. I knew I would be okay when I saw a National Guard sergeant with a red cross on his helmet. Before that I thought I was going to die.
The medics lifted us onto stretchers and flew us into Anchorage and the emergency room staff had me in surgery within an hour. That lasted eight hours. The doctors put in a titanium plate to replace my shattered zygomatic arch and gave me a bone graft on the right side of my skull where a layer between my brain and skull was torn.
I was in Providence Alaska Medical Center’s neurosurgery ward for two weeks. The night I got back to New City, New York I spiked a fever and had to go back to the hospital. I was there for another week. They don’t really know what caused the fever, maybe a reaction to some of the drugs, maybe a virus.
I started school in early September. The doctors were worried about my concentration and brain function, but I haven’t had any problems. I have a massive V scar on my forehead, and I’m pretty scarred up on my arms, my back, and my right leg. I can’t open my jaw all the way, either. But otherwise I feel back to normal.
Alaska in my mind is the biggest and the best. I’ll probably go back. But I don’t know if I’ll hike for 30 days.
Analysis of the Attack
Walking in a creek was risky: creeks are a convenient way to get around the Alaska backcountry during summertime, but they’re often full of spawning salmon, which means you could be hiking in a bear’s feeding ground. The students were making noise, but they should have been calling out every three to four seconds to warn bears of their presence. Two of the boys had bear spray, which is essential, but they didn’t use it because it was buried in their packs. Carry it in your hands or at least on the side of your pack where a water bottle fits so you can grab it easily. And if you haven’t practiced using the spray with a test fire before your trip, you might as well be carrying a 12 ounce rock.
Once the bear charged, the smartest thing Berg did was to lie down and play dead. Kicking the bear in the mouth worked for Vic, but fighting back could have made the bear more aggressive. Whatever you do, don’t run. Grizzly bears, like dogs, have a chase reflex. Running triggers it.
—Former Alaska Department Fish and Game bear expert Rick Sinnot as told to Madison Kahn