Like Outward Bound, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is a widely recognized and respected wilderness education program that takes adults and teens on adventures in nature in order to learn and hone environmental ethics and skills while in natural and remote — and uncontrolled — settings.
It’s the uncontrolled part that’s the riskiest when sending a kid off on one of the popular summer courses. And that’s the part that can be hardest to come to terms with when something goes awry.
Seven teens who were part of a 30-day backcountry NOLS course in Alaska in the Talkeetna Mountains north of Anchorage were rescued on Sunday following an attack on Saturday by a grizzly bear. The group was found 34 miles away from the nearest highway.
The teens had been lined up for a single file river crossing when the grizzly with a cub appeared in front of the line, badly mauling two and injuring two more. Two of the kids are listed in serious condition.
The worst of the injured suffered a punctured lung, broken ribs and head and chest wounds when the bear came back for more, although another kid in the group started hitting the bear, who eventually broke off the attack. It was then that the teens activated a personal locator beacon, which was to be used in case of an emergency.
The teens were in the 24th day of their course on Saturday when the attack occurred. They were without an instructor because they had reached the point in their course when they were being tested on the survival skills that they had learned — the point of the course was to become an outdoor leader in the backcountry.
Earlier this month a camper at Yellowstone National Park was killed by a grizzly — the first such death there since 1986. Grizzly bear attacks are uncommon, but not unheard of either. And while the teens in Alaska said they followed the proper protocol knowing they were in grizzly country, it’s never a bad idea to refresh yourself on the steps that can be taken to avoid a bear attack while in a wilderness setting:
1. Make noise. Talk in loud voices. Wear a bell around your wrist or your shoe or your belt or your backpack. Surprising a grizzly is the worst thing you can do. Make sure they know you’re coming.
2. Stay in a group.
3. Carry pepper spray.
4. Keep food away from campsites. Don’t sleep where you cook or in the clothes in which you ate. Sleep far away from where you stash your food — at least 100 yards — and hang the food over the branch of a tree overnight.
5. If you encounter a grizzly, look down on the ground and be careful not to make eye contact. Back away slowly, but don’t turn your back to it and, most importantly, don’t run or make sudden moves. Speak in a loud, authoritative voice. You can also try playing dead.
6. Pick up small children and put them on your shoulders, or hold your backpack over your head so you appear larger.
7. If it starts approaching, throw anything you can at it, like large rocks, your back pack or even a bicycle.
8. If the grizzly starts attacking, crouch into a ball on the ground and cover the back of your neck.