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Alaska bear attack: NOLS kids did a 'phenomenal job'

Craig Medred

What began over the weekend as an unbelievable horror story set in the wilds of Alaska was becoming a much more believable tale Monday as details emerged on a grizzly bear attack that left two teens in an Anchorage hospital with critical injuries.

Joshua Berg, 17, from New York and Samuel Gottsegen, 17, from Denver were the two youths to suffer most when a group of seven students from Palmer's National Outdoor Leadership School wilderness course experienced what might best be described as a head-on collision with a mama grizzly over the weekend. All met unexpectedly in the narrow confines of a brush-lined valley in the Talkeetna Mountains about 100 miles north of Anchorage. What followed was chaos. Four students ended up being bitten and all were scared out of their wits.

Berg, the most seriously injured, told Alaska Air National Guard pararescue specialist Sgt. Brandon Stuemke that it all began as he rounded a bend in a creek bed to see what he at first thought were "hay bales." In the instant it took Berg to realize there is no hay -- let alone hay bales -- in the Alaska wilderness, one of the objects came to life in a rush. The general belief now is that what Berg saw was a golden or blonde-colored sow and cub. Sow grizzlies are notoriously aggressive in defense of their young, but they have never been known to attack large groups of people.

"I don't think there have been any reported … with groups larger than four," said Eeva Latosuo, assistant professor of Outdoor Studies at Alaska Pacific University, a school renowned for its outdoor education curriculum. Many of the instructors there were once NOLS students, and they know the "four-or-more" standard as something of a mantra. Up until Saturday, it had protected thousands.

"We're celebrating our 40th year in Alaska this year," said NOLS Alaska director Don Ford. "I'm thinking we're into the 10,000 student range. This is the first (bear attack)."

An 'unprecedented' Alaska grizzly attack

Sean Farley, a highly respected bear biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said it would be unprecedented for a grizzly to attack a group of seven, and it appears now the bear might have been as confused as the students by the situation in which all found themselves. As the students, Stuemke and Ford have described the creek bed in which everyone met, it is quite probable the bear at first thought it was confronting only Berg. He was attacked and knocked to the ground before he could grab the bear spray he and others were carrying with which to defend themselves.

"She (the bear) probably didn't realize the others were there," Stuemke said. Had she known the size of the pack she was confronting, bear biologists believe, she likely would have smacked her cub to get it moving and chased after it away from the area. Instead, however, she attacked Berg, cracking his skull in the process, to neutralize what she apparently perceived to be a solitary threat.

Despite being seriously injured in the assault, Berg remembered his NOLS training: If attacked by a sow grizzly, play dead. He did.

"That's when the bear left him alone and went after the rest of the group," Stuemke said. "It's just one of those things. They weren't doing anything wrong."

Gottsegen's bad luck was to be second in line. The bear bit him in the chest.

"Then there was just chaos," Ford said. "The first two students … there was a little bit of a distance to the rest of the crew."

Some of them were trying to get to their bear spray. They never did. There wasn't enough time. The bear bit or clawed three more and kept going. None of them were seriously injured, although 18-year-old Victor Martin from Richmond, Calif., did have to visit a hospital to have a wound to his ankle tended.

Where the cub was while the attack was taking place -- even if there was a cub -- no one is certain. Berg thought he saw a cub at the start, but Ford said that aside from the adult bear the other students "saw only some rustling in the brush."

Still sorting out what happened

"We're not sure on that (cub)," said official NOLS spokeswoman Jeanne O'Brien, who was getting bombarded by telephone calls to the organization's Lander, Wyo., office on Monday.

"We're just getting inundated with calls," she said. "Every parent who has a kid in Alaska is calling us, and the media … it's just an onslaught." NOLS itself was still trying to sort out what happened.

What is known for sure is that "only one bear attacked," Ford said, and the attack was over quickly, possibly in seconds, definitely within tens of seconds.

"The students thought the bear was totally freaked out," Ford added.

Farley and others said that would likely be a normal reaction for a sow grizzly that confronted one threat only to find herself facing a whole bunch of threats. Sometimes, he added, bear attacks are just unavoidable. They are the urban equivalent of meeting that car coming head-on at you in your lane.

"I think they just suffered some bad luck," he said. "It's horrible that somebody got bit and mauled. They might have been doing the right things. I've known some of the NOLS (groups). They were pretty skookum. They don't just turn them loose after 24 days" in the wilderness.

The group in question, according to a press release, was part of a NOLS Alaska Backpacking Course that left the Alaska road system on June 30 with 14 students and three instructors. The seven who were attacked had parted with the group on the first day of their "student expedition," which involves hiking the remainder of the trip without the minute-to-minute supervision of instructors. They were to rendezvous later with the instructors and other students, who were a few miles away at the time of the attack.

In the rugged terrain of Alaska, however, the distance of a few miles is the urban equivalent of being in another city.

NOLS is still in the midst of its own investigation of what happened.

Prime grizzly bear country

The area in which the attack took place is on the north slope of Wells Mountain where it drops into the Talkeenta River drainage to the east of that popular tourist town off the George Parks Highway. There is a well-established NOLS backpacking route that was pioneered through the area more than two decades ago. Hikers used to start on the Glenn Highway to the south and spend a month making the trek through the Talkeetna Mountains to be picked up by riverboat. They now take about the same amount of time to go on past the Talkeetna River to the Alaska Railroad tracks, on the Susitna River, where they flag down a "whistle-stop" train for a ride back to civilization.

"They were probably a week out, hiking-wise, and 30 miles to the east" of Talkeetna when the Saturday evening attack took place, Ford said.

The area is prime grizzly bear country. Studies conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game discovered grizzlies moving toward the Talkeetna drainage from tens of miles in all directions as salmon begin returning to the area in July in August. NOLS has in the past highlighted that as one of the attractions for the Alaska backpacking class. "Bear avoidance techniques while camping and hiking will be integrated into your daily routine. Precautions against bear encounters will decrease the opportunities for solitude and privacy on this course," says the course description. "To minimize risk, group size in brown bear country is generally four persons."

The warning to students about the decrease in "opportunities for solitude and privacy" during the 30-day, $4,110 course is a reference to the NOLS-mandated policy of group "potty breaks" in bear country.

Colby Coombs of Talkeetna -- a veteran woodsman, Mount McKinley climber, sometimes NOLS instructor and director of the Alaska Mountaineering School -- said he has never run into an organization or guide service as anal about bear safety as NOLS. And yet, he added, fumbling a bit for words, the worst happened as it sometimes does in the Alaska wilderness.

"It's the real deal here," he said. "You can't video game, all over."

On the day of the attack, Coombs said, it was "raining cats and dogs." That would have covered some of the sound as the NOLS group moved through the brush along the unnamed creek. So, too, would the sound of the water running in the creek, Ford said. "They were yelling," he added, but it is unclear how often or whether that would have served to alert the bear or simply confuse it.

The group was following a creek bed. Creeks meander. The bear might have been moving out of the way, as bears usually do by nature, only to have the people turn back onto its course. The problem with trying to sort out what happened in bear attacks, Farley said, is that there are a lot of variables and the parameters of most are unknown.

"They were walking down this splashy little creek," Ford said, discounting earlier reports the group was getting ready to cross a creek when the bear attacked. The splashy little creek provided a path through alders and willows 4 feet to 5 feet high on either side. Odd as this might sound to Americans used to more civilized parts of the country, or the trails of the country's established national parks and forest, creek hiking in Alaska often offers the easiest way through country so thick with brush one Alaska congressman once described it as impenetrable.

It's not. Those who learn to follow the routes used by wildlife can almost always get through. The only risk is that the animals also use these routes.

Dangerous bear encounters rare in Alaska

Dangerous encounters with bears are rare in Alaska, and deadly encounters even more so. But several people are mauled every year and a few die. Anchorage rafters Rich Huffman, 61, and his wife, Kathy, 58, were killed by a grizzly while they slept in their tent along the Hulahula River on Alaska's North Slope in 2005. And Timothy Treadwell, 46, and girlfriend Amie Huguenard, 37, were killed near their tent in Katmai National Park and Preserve in 2003 in the most famous bear attack in Alaska history.

Treadwell was a minor-league celebrity and movie-star wannabe who had been journeying from California to Alaska each summer for more than a decade to hang out with coastal grizzly bears. He formed an organization called "Grizzly People" dedicated to trying "to elevate the grizzly to the kindred state of the whale and dolphin." Video he shot of himself touching and even kissing grizzlies showed that in some circumstances the animals can be amazingly tolerant of humans. The video also showed, as Treadwell later unfortunately also discovered, that in one moment of rage or hunger the animals can be deadly powerful enough to rip to pieces a 1,000-pound moose or fellow grizzly.

Against that sort of power, unarmed humans don't stand a chance. Coombs noted that in the wake of the latest attack many are already second guessing the decision by NOLS to send students into the wilderness unarmed. The problem with firearms, he added, is that unless someone is well-trained in their combat use and has the weapon ready at all times, they are no help. And, in a worst case scenario, they are likely more dangerous to a traveling group than bears. On average, according to the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics, two people die from accidental gunshot wounds in Alaska each year, and many more are injured. A state study in 1997 concluded that "in Alaska, vehicle injury, drowning, and firearms cause the greatest injury to youth."

As in most of the country, motor vehicles are the big killer. Motor vehicles accidents -- not counting snowmachines and all-terrain vehicles -- killed 83 Alaskans in 2009, the last year for which statistics are available.

ATVs and snowgoes between them killed 20 more. Bears killed none that year.

Still, the danger of bears in Alaska cannot be dismissed. Almost every summer now someone gets mauled on Alaska's popular Kenai Peninsula.

Last year it was a Nikiski angler. A couple months later, an Anchorage man hunting deer on Afognak Island was mauled and nearly killed by a bear. He was saved by a friend.

Kids did a 'phenomenal' job

Stuemke believes Berg and Gottsegen might also have been saved by a friend or friends. Stuemke credited 16-year-old Samuel Boas of Westport, Conn., with providing "phenomenal" first aid to the worst injured of his new friends and added that the entire group did a superb job of regrouping after the evening attack.

They got a tent up. They got the injured into sleeping bags. And they started treating them even before turning on a rescue beacon, alerting the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center about 9:30 p.m. Saturday.

The RCC turned the call over to the Alaska State Troopers, which dispatched a helicopter from Fairbanks, more than 250 miles north of the attack. The helicopter with a pilot and trooper aboard didn't reach the scene until 2:45 a.m., according to a trooper press release.

The trooper and pilot then concluded two of the students were too seriously injured to fly in the state helicopter and contacted the RCC for more help. The specialists of the ANG's 210th Rescue Squadron were summoned around 3 a.m. The pilots and PJs, who stand on alert at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson outside Anchorage when not overseas rescuing downed pilots, were on the scene within two hours.

By the time they got there, the trooper helicopter was already flying four students to safety and a trooper was standing guard over Boas and the two most seriously injured.

Stuemke said he entered the tent to find Boas, who had undergone emergency medical technician (EMT) training just before his Alaska trip, and who had done an amazing job of improvising care for his friends.

"He used what he had," Stuemke said, "and he did a phenomenal job. One patient had two sucking chest wounds from getting bit in the chest," and both were pretty well chewed on. "The kid who did the treatment, he managed to patch some of the wounds and control the bleeding," Stuemke said. "He had them in sleeping bags. Neither of them ever lost consciousness."

Despite managing the situation better than most adults, Boas "wasn't sure if he'd done enough," Stuemke said. "I told him, 'What you did is phenomenal."

Berg remained in serious condition at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage on Monday. Meanwhile, Gottsegen, the other seriously-wounded camper, had already been upgraded to good. Both are expected to recover, though Stuemke compared the wounds they suffered to the sort of thing he'd seen in combat in Afghanistan.

He praised the students for their unit strength and intelligent use of a rescue beacon. The devices, he said, were designed for emergencies just like that Saturday -- not for summoning help because you've run out of gas three miles from the highway on our ATV or snowmachine.

"Good on them for having a beacon," Stuemke said.

Ford added that he was personally proud of the students. With Boas taking the lead on treatment, he said, another student stepped up to coordinate setting up camp.

"They managed the scene there really well," he said. "They put the tent up. They got everybody in the tent. They started to get everyone dried out. It was a young crew, but they did a really good job."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com