Bear Attack: The Story of Seven Boys and One Grizzly

Seven high school students were near the end of their month-long survival course in the Alaskan wilderness, but the real schooling began when they came face to snout with the wildest thing of all.

By Derek Burnett from Reader's Digest Magazine | June 2012

Bear Attack: The Story of Seven Boys and One Grizzly© Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Thinkstock
Shane Garlock has set up a four-man tent, and they carry Gottsegen and Berg inside to get them out of the rain. All seven crowd into the shelter, where the uninjured donate most of what they’re wearing to warm Gottsegen and Berg, whom they’ve bundled into sleeping bags. Allaire has paused only long enough to wrap his own flayed scalp in gauze and then gone back to tending to the others.

The tent has become a field hospital, with Melman the ICU volunteer, Boas the EMR, and Allaire the lifeguard running the show. Boas devotes his efforts to keeping Berg’s head stable. Garlock and Martin do what the others tell them to: Keep pressure on Gottsy’s chest. It’s been ten minutes, so take a pulse. Move Josh’s feet to make him more comfortable. Lay across Berg and Gottsy to keep them warm.

They all pee into their water bottles and tuck them into Gottsegen’s and Berg’s sleeping bags for warmth.

Suddenly, Allaire speaks up. “I can’t feel a pulse on Gottsy.”

“Try his radial pulse,” Boas says.


“Try the brachial,” Melman says.

“I still can’t feel it.”

Allaire tries the femoral pulse, in the groin. There is a long, terrifying silence. “OK,” he says. “He has a pulse.” Everyone in the tent exhales with relief.

“Where is that helicopter?” Gottsegen whispers. Surprisingly, it is not his chest wound that pains him the most but the ring finger of his right hand, which the bear bit clean through, the tooth stabbing up through the fingernail.

“It’s coming,” Boas says.

The group hunkers down to wait for help. Rain taps the roof of the tent. Hours pass, and the temperature drops into the low 50s. Everyone is shivering uncontrollably. The blinking of the beacon offers periodic snapshots of the tent walls and floor, smeared and pooled with the boys’ intermingled blood.

A little after 2 a.m.—more than five hours after the bear attack—the tent is blasted by the glare of a floodlight, and its walls lean in the rotor wash. A Helo 1 A-Star helicopter settles among the brush some 30 yards away, and an Alaska state trooper steps down and approaches the campsite.

The trooper is a transplanted New Zealander named Michael Shelley. He sizes up the situation and determines that there isn’t enough room for everyone on the small aircraft. Nor is it equipped for severe trauma patients like Gottsegen and Berg. Shelley insists that Garlock and the walking wounded—Allaire and Martin—leave with the pilot. It’s up to the boys to decide which one of them will remain behind with Shelley, Gottsy, and Berg to wait for a larger helicopter to medevac them out. Melman volunteers, but for Sam Boas, the EMR, who has not left Berg’s side all these hours, there’s no debate: He will be the one to remain behind.

Minutes later, the others bid a tearful farewell to their friends, saying things that most guys would never dream of saying to one another, like “I love you.”

Three hours later—eight hours after their ordeal began—an Alaska Air National Guard Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk Helicopter thunders to a landing near the tent. Within seconds, helmeted elite pararescuemen have burst into the tent and begun working on Berg and Gottsegen, trundling them into orange superinsulated rescue bags. A crewman leads Boas out of the tent and into the helicopter. Soon Gottsegen, Berg, and Shelley are in the helicopter with him. The chopper lifts up, as if drawn straight up on a string. Boas gets one last look at the wreck of a campsite that lies below, and then they’re off. Only 12 minutes have passed since the chopper landed, and now they’re racing across the mountains that it has taken his group weeks of struggle to cover on foot, and the little makeshift campsite is once again an insignificant speck on a tight bend of an anonymous brook in the incomprehensibly vast Alaskan bush.

The bear was never found, and the reason it attacked is still a mystery. It might have been protecting its kill site or maybe a cub. Whatever the reason, experts were stunned—it’s virtually unheard of for a grizzly to attack a group larger than four.

All the boys survived. Victor Martin was treated for the bite on his leg and released. Sam Gottsegen suffered broken ribs, and his lung needed to be reinflated (his chest cavity had been punctured in not one but three places); he spent eight days in the hospital and is now nearly fully recovered. He even went snowboarding over the winter.

Surgeons worked eight hours on Joshua Berg’s head, inserting a titanium plate and bone graft in the boy’s skull. Berg spent a total of 20 days hospitalized. He is well now, his appearance little changed but for some scarring. Noah Allaire’s scalp required surgery to be stapled back in place. Doctors discovered that one of his lungs had been punctured by the bear’s tooth, but, though it leaked some air, it healed on its own.

Allaire spoke to his parents, Patricia Allaire and Scott Newland, from his hospital bed. They had
already talked to the troopers, but all they knew was that there had been a bear attack and Noah was injured.

“Mom, Dad,” he said. “I’m all right.”

“It sounds like you were really brave,” his mother said between sobs.

That’s something all seven of them would hear, a lot, in the weeks ahead.

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