NOLS students run into protective mother grizzly on Alaska course. Evacs needed.

A group of seven NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) students backpacking during an independent travel day during the last days of their course in Alaska came across a mother griz and some cubs. Four students were attacked, suffered injuries. They were in the Talkeetna wilderness.

The teenage students were armed with bear spray and the appropriate emergency protocol, but apparently did not get to use the repellent. Evacs got underway in enough time for the students to reach formal medical care before their injuries worsened.

A number of things are coming into play that make this situation unique in the history of bear attacks. The students were crossing a stream. The odds are very good that the bear did not hear them, a key issue in bear country, even as they were making noise for that very purpose. Thus, they may have startled a mother bear, which almost never ends well.

It was evening, around 8:30. This is when bears become active foragers, more so when with cubs. The kids were probably looking to find camp close to the stream as a water source.

The only way this could have been prevented was by staying home. Given the number of trips and students NOLS leads each year, it has done a remarkable job of keeping its students safe in hostile environments. The School, literally, wrote the book on backcountry travel, safety and injury care. I feel awful for the kids, who just wanted to experience wilderness. The School now has an ugly case study for the upcoming Wilderness Risk Management Conference and hopefully, more information on which to base future bear country travel guidelines.

Pack your rain gear

Great Smokey Mountain National Park

The Smokes in Fall

I am in the midst of assembling a brief backpack into the Great Smokies next month. I’ve mapped out what looks to be an easy 22 mile loop from the Big Creek entrance.

The route will take us along Big Creek Trail to Balsam Mountain Trail to Mount Sterling Trail. So far I’ve roped in a couple of fellow NOLS alumni to come along (tough sell) and a friend from my WFR course. My goal is to get my wife to come along so I can prove to her that rocks can be comfortable forms of bathroom hygiene. (That’s a really tough sell.) Funny thing, too, because she can out hike just about anyone but would much rather have the last thing she sees at night to be a stucco ceiling instead of the Big Dipper. But hey, I don’t have much to complain about. Like I said, I watched her lead us through Zion’s West Rim Trail in less than six hours. With a stop at Angel’s Landing.

If anyone has some other trail recommendations for Great Smoky National Park, drop it in the comments section. I’d love to hear about your trip.