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Outdoors/Adventure

New report details 2011 Alaska grizzly bear attack on outdoors school students

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published March 25, 2012

Editor's Note: This is a two-part series examining the sequence of events during last summer's unprecedented grizzly attack on seven teenagers in the Alaska wilderness. Please return for part 2, detailing the actual attack, on Monday, March 26.

When a grizzly bear charged a group of National Outdoor Leadership School students in Alaska's Talkeetna Mountains last summer, teenagers scattered like flies, and in the confusion that followed the bear might not have known it had run into a group. The bear injured four students, two of them seriously.

A newly completed NOLS examination of the attack made available to Alaska Dispatch paints a portrait of a group in panic -- a normal and predictable reaction -- and suggests their behavior might have worsened an inherently dangerous situation.

"We understand that Student 1, Student 2 and the others responded to this situation out of surprise and fear, but this response to the bear may have exacerbated the situation," the report states. "The students ... were surprised and scared and instinctively reacted contrary to established practices and how they were taught to respond to a bear encounter at close range."

Among other things, the students abandoned or ignored the canisters of bear-repellent spray they had been given for use in a worst-case encounter with a grizzly, which is exactly the scenario the group encountered.

Problems began when the teenager at the front of a line of seven students following a creek down a brushy draw ran into a bear. The students were following the creek because the surrounding willows and alder were so thick the route of the water offered one of few semi-open paths through the terrain. And because they later told NOLS instructors they thought they might find a place to fish. Joshua Berg, a 17-year-old from the state of New York, was in the lead.

As he rounded a rocky outcrop, and the brush opened up slightly, he spotted what he took to be, judging from the object's color, a "hay bale." He almost immediately realized that was impossible in the wilds of Alaska and correctly concluded the object was a bear.

"He saw that it was moving," the report says. "He did not see its face, as it was not standing up. He saw only one bear. He turned and yelled, "Bear!"

Up to that point, the group was responding well. Students are taught to alert their hiking companions if they encounter a bear. They are also taught to group up and face down the animal. That didn't happen.

Berg no sooner turned and yelled than the bear charged and flattened him. At that point, according to the report, the rest of the students started fleeing willy-nilly.

Berg, the report said, "was knocked down into the creek, face down with his pack on." He suffered the worst injuries in the attack, but the report says it is unclear whether that happened at the onset or after the bear returned to Berg in the midst of chaos. Berg told NOLS investigators that he stayed "in the creek face down and 'played dead' when the bear first attacked him, and he remained in that position after the bear left him. He recalls that there was a period of time between the first and second attacks -- he cannot recall or estimate how long that was -- but the bear left and came back."

Playing dead is the recommended practice after a grizzly bear makes contact with an unarmed human. Running is only rarely a recommended practice, and then usually only if safety, such as a car or house, is nearby. But running is what those behind Berg were doing.

The teenager immediately behind, according to the report, saw the bear jump Berg, then "turned and ran back downstream for what he estimated to be about 10 feet. (Investigators who looked at aerial photographs of the scene estimated he ran farther.) He tripped and fell down face first in the creek bed, got up and got onto the creek bank on the south side, took off his pack, and lay down in the bushes and hid."

Readily accessible in the side pocket of the pack he jettisoned was one of the three canisters of pepper spray that had been distributed among the seven students to ward off a bear if necessary. None of the students ever got their spray out during the attack.

Though the names of the students attacked by the bear are now well known -- media across the country featured the stories of many after they returned home from Alaska -- the NOLS report attempts to shield their identities by referencing them only by numbers that correspond to their positions in line in the draw when the bear attacked. The behavior of the students after the bear encounter is understandable, but it violated all protocols for dealing with grizzly bears in the Alaska wild.

Authorities on grizzly bears spent considerable time pondering what happened to the NOLS group last summer because grizzlies almost never attack groups of three or more people. Sean Farley, a highly-respected bear biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, described an attack on a group of seven as unprecedented. But the NOLS report, completed after interviews with all of the students, questions whether the bear knew it had encountered a group.

"... If the individuals spread out while hiking, then, depending on the circumstances, the advantage of the group may be lost and an individual may appear as a solitary person," the report says. "The fact that Student 2 was 15 feet behind Student 1 is reasonable, but in this particular situation, when the bear attacked so quickly, Student 2 was too far away from Student 1 for his presence to provide any immediate deterrent to the bear."

The report also speculates that Berg might have "triggered the bear's natural reaction to attack" by turning his back to it. That is debatable. Many Alaskans have encountered grizzlies in the wild and turned and run in fear only to later look back and thankfully find nothing behind them. If, however, a bear is already charging, turning away from it or running away from it is unlikely to make the animal change its mind about the action it's already begun.

Then again, standing and facing it in that situation might not help, either.

Still, the report notes that when a bear charges, "the established practice is to stop and face the bear, talk normally or in low tones, slowly wave your arms, and depending on how the bear responds, slowly back away. If in a group, gather together and stand shoulder-to-shoulder to appear too large to attack. If the bear charges, stand your ground. Running may excite the bear's chase."

The seven students in the unsupervised NOLS group all ran. The report in general paints a picture of Berg startling a bear; the bear eliminating the threat of what it believed to be a lone hiker and then chaos erupting as the bear encounters more individuals and lashes out at them as it tries to flee.

Because much of what is in the report could prove embarrassing to the students involved, and because all are teenagers, Alaska Dispatch has decided to follow the precedent set by NOLS and identify the students involved only by number.

As protection against bears, three students in the group carried pepper spray -- a powerful bear deterrent -- and had been trained in its use before setting off alone on what NOLS calls the "student expedition" portion of a 30-day wilderness training course.

"Student 2," according to the report, carried his bear spray readily accessible in an outer, mesh pocket on the side of his backpack, but tossed his pack without ever getting the spray out. "Student 4" had bear spray in the top pocket of the backpack he tossed aside so he could run faster when fleeing the bear. "Student 7," who was part of a retreat up a slope on the north side of the draw, left his bear spray in the top pocket of his pack.

While "Student 5 and Student 6 dropped their packs near the bottom of the slope," the NOLS report says, "Student 7 kept his on all the way to the top." He apparently never thought to get out the bear spray inside, however. With at least one mauling victim screaming, according to the report, Student 2 looked upslope from his hiding place in the bushes "and made eye contact with Student 7 and tried to signal him 'where's the bear?' Student 7 either did not understand what Student 2 wanted or did not know where the bear was and shrugged.

Student 2, according to the report, wanted to help Berg. He heard Berg yelling for someone to turn on the group's personal locator beacon and went to get it. "...Thinking the bear was gone, he got up and ran toward (Berg) to help him. Student 2 had covered about half the distance to (Berg) when the bear attacked him," the report said.

The student was knocked to the ground and bitten in the head, but the bear then fled. The NOLS investigators believe it might have, at that point, returned to again attack Berg.

Students 4, 5, 6 and 7 made no effort to drive the bear away from their companions being mauled. Students 5, 6 and 7, who were never attacked, stayed together in a group on a slope above the fray.

Student 4, who had been with them initially, left and "headed downstream," according to the report. Why he did so was unclear. But the report says he "was thinking he had escaped, when the bear attacked him. The bear bit him in the lower left leg, and Student 4 said he kicked the bear's face and head with his right foot."

Student 4 had little option but to defend himself by kicking the bear because his bear spray was in the backpack he ditched. By the time he was attacked, the bear had already mauled three other students and was apparently just looking to get away. It fled after biting Student 4 and was not seen again.

Editor's Note: This is a two-part series examining the sequence of events during last summer's unprecedented grizzly attack on seven teenagers in the Alaska wilderness. Please return for part 2, detailing the actual attack, on Monday, March 26.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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