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.