Four months after he was mauled by two grizzly bears in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in northwest Wyoming, Brad Johnson’s memories of the attack are frighteningly detailed.
Maybe it’s because he is a doctor, well versed in anatomy. Maybe the violence is so burned into his brain that he’ll never forget, no matter how many months pass.
In a video made with his backpacking buddies for their Minnesota Plymouth Covenant Church, Johnson recounts the pain, trauma and fear of being eaten alive. He gave the Billings Gazette permission to use his retelling for this story. Readers are advised that his descriptions are graphic and disturbing.
Hike gone bad
It was early September of last year when Johnson and his three friends began what was supposed to be a five-day hike into the wilderness area from the Clay Butte Lookout Trailhead in the Shoshone National Forest. They were aiming for Granite Lake, which straddles the Montana border, for the first night’s campout. Johnson was leading the pack, as excited as a “little kid” to be in the mountains, hiking ahead of the rest of the group.
Suddenly the dream day turned nightmarish.
After topping a steep hill he looked to his right and saw two bears running toward him.
“The bear or bears were on me immediately,” he recounted. “And I can’t tell if one or both of them mauled me.”
Looking uncomfortable, taking deep breaths, swallowing hard and sometimes reading from notes, the 48-year-old recalled how even though he had a can of bear spray in his hand when he saw the bears running at him from 30 feet away, he couldn’t get the safety cap off in time to discharge the pepper spray. Instead, he threw the canister at the first bear but it sailed high.
“I can still see the image of that can flying over the bear’s head. I couldn’t believe I missed it,” he said.
Then he turned away from the bears, dropped to his chest on the ground and awaited the onslaught. He’d learned when younger that playing dead was a last resort during a bear charge, but he wondered, “How in the hell do you play dead when you’re being ripped apart?”
Johnson, although staying still, couldn’t help screaming in pain as the attack began.
“And then a sharp excruciating pain ripped into my right shoulder. And the bear’s teeth tore through the muscles of my shoulder, and I remember I made this highest pitched screaming noise that I ever heard myself make, and I remember the tearing of the muscles, but mostly I remember the unbearable pain as the bear’s teeth found my shoulder blade and really got into it. I remember hearing the crunching and the grinding but feeling it as well. It broke my shoulder blade and that was just so painful.”
After shredding his right shoulder, the bear paused for a moment. Johnson remembered looking to his right side.
“There was this big gush of blood I saw flying through air. And at that point I was certain it had ripped into an artery. I thought I was really going to die out there, and I was going to bleed out, and that was the end.”
Although the bear or bears were no longer biting him, Johnson said it felt like one or both of them were standing on his backpack, clawing at it and repositioning themselves. At some point one of them pushed a claw through the side of Johnson’s cooking pot, piercing it like a bullet.
“So if I hadn’t been so poor in my packing you know that would have been my head that it was squashing. And I was silent as they were doing that, just hoping it would be over.”
Unfortunately for Johnson, the bear or bears would do even more damage, now moving to his left side.
“Then the teeth sank into my left shoulder. The pain was much worse than that on the right. It was so sharp and so intense. As it was pulling and crushing I was screaming again, that crazy high-pitched scream. The bear ripped the muscles of my shoulder and crushed a portion of my (left) scapula or shoulder blade, its teeth then slid further down to my left arm, ah, and ripped off the majority of my triceps.
“As the teeth found purchase in my bone the pain was far more worse than anything on the right. The teeth and the bone gave that crunching and grinding feeling and sound but there was also a sharp piercing and shooting pain that was unreal. Later I realized that this was the nerves being torn and ripped and stretched. At this point I screamed ‘kill me.’
“I’m pretty ashamed of that. I’m ashamed that I would give up (on my wife and children) so easily.”
In the process of that second attack, Johnson’s elbow was broken and there was a large hole torn in the back of his arm down to the bone where his triceps had been ripped out. The tearing of his flesh had exposed his ulnar nerve — responsible for controlling a person’s fourth and fifth fingers — but miraculously the nerve was not damaged. At some point Johnson was also bitten in the right buttocks and upper thigh.
“As I lay there in the most intense, excruciating and unrelenting pain, I wondered what was next. I was face down the entire time. I don’t remember hearing the bears leave.”
Certain that he only had a short time to live, he began reciting portions of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …”
Despite the persistent pain, thoughts of his wife and children flooded his brain. He grieved that he would miss his daughters’ weddings, holding grandchildren and growing old with his wife. Yet as blood poured from his tattered body he slipped into a feeling of peace, saying that his fate was by then in God’s hands.
As Johnson was being attacked, his friends were hiking the same trail, not far behind him. The third time Johnson screamed his friend Justin Reid, a fire captain in Minneapolis, began running up the trail to see what was wrong. The odd scream had sounded like an eagle or hawk, Reid said, “a really high-pitched, otherworldly sound.”
Reid almost ran past his friend, who was lying on the other side of a log just off the trail.
“I could tell immediately he was in shock.”
Reid said his firefighting training kicked in after the initial disbelief at seeing his friend lying bloody and mauled on the ground. An attempt to pick Johnson up on a homemade stretcher crafted from trees by Reid and fellow backpackers Tom Therrien and Todd Green didn’t work, so Reid sent his two friends back down the trail to get to a phone and call for help.
Luckily, Therrien and Green ran into two local hikers, one of them a trail runner, who sped ahead to get help. By the time the two hikers made it to the trailhead, a forest ranger was already on site.
Meanwhile, Reid and Johnson staggered about a quarter-mile down the trail to a meadow where they would be more visible should rescuers arrive by air. There was no rest for Johnson when he plopped to the ground, sitting propped next to a log.
“I was hoping for a sleep number bed or something like that,” he joked.
“Laying on my wounds was so miserable. It only made the pain so much worse, but there was no other way to lay.”
Looking up through the pine trees at the blue sky he says, “I remember thinking it would be so beautiful if I wasn’t in so much pain.”
When the life-flight helicopter finally arrived it took the two-man air ambulance crew and Reid to slowly carry Johnson to the helicopter. Given the rugged terrain, it was a strenuous, exhausting process. There was no room for Reid in the helicopter as Johnson was airlifted to surgery in Billings. Staying behind and alone not far from where the bears had attacked his friend, Reid waited for a search and rescue ground team to reach him.
It was about a half-hour flight to Billings for Johnson. He was still conscious in the emergency room and a chaplain asked if he wanted to make a call. Johnson said yes. After the chaplain retrieved Johnson’s cell phone and entered the access code, Johnson embarrassingly recounted telling the man, “OK, she’s under hot stuff” in his contacts.
“Everyone burst out laughing” and from then on his wife was known as “hot stuff” during his hospital stay.
Following extensive surgery and physical therapy Johnson has regained near normal function in his right arm, although his left arm is still deficient. Despite this legacy, he sees it as a miracle that his injuries were not more life-altering considering the intensity of the bears’ attack.
“I’m able to do a lot of things I never thought I would do,” he said.
“There’s just so many takeaways from this whole experience and I’m still processing them all.”
Philosophically, Johnson says everyone experiences situations in life that can feel somewhat like being mauled by a bear — whether that’s losing a job or spouse, or the loss of a lifelong dream. Instinctively, Johnson said he turned to God, and now counts the many blessings that he’s received from friends and family following his mauling. He also noted the importance of such relationships in his life.
“Without my friends, I wouldn’t be here today.”