Brad Johnson had been hiking for four hours through Wyoming’s rugged Beartooth Mountains on a crisp, early September afternoon when he spotted the two dark silhouettes barreling through the forest, roughly 20 feet ahead of him.
“Two grizzlies,” Johnson, 49, tells PEOPLE in a story in this week’s issue of the magazine, “and they were at full charge, coming straight at me.”
Seconds later, before Johnson could deploy the bear spray he’d been carrying, one of the 400 lb. animals was on top of him. “It grabbed the right side of my back and shoulder with its mouth and bit down, then ripped through the muscles of my back and totally fractured my shoulder,” says Johnson, a surgeon from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The bear paused for a minute or so, then tore into the bones and muscles of his left upper arm. “The pain was out of this world,” recalls Johnson. “It jostled and kind of ripped me around for about a minute. I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I figured I was going to die.”
The bears took off as quickly as they’d appeared. Minutes later, Johnson’s three buddies — who had traveled with him from Minnesota for a five-day fishing trip — stumbled upon him, drenched in blood and crumpled behind a log.
Convinced he would soon die from the blood loss, Johnson asked them to record a video of him so he could say goodbye to his wife and three kids. “I said I loved them and I’d see them all in heaven,” he says. “I wanted that said so they would have something.”
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Thankfully, it was a video that Johnson’s wife Miranda and their three kids — ages 21, 19 and 16 — never needed to watch.
His friends — Tom Therrien, 48, who owns a printing company, Todd Green, 49, a technology executive, and Justin Reid, 45, a fire department captain — took swift action. Reid tended to Johnson’s injuries while Therrien and Green backtracked through the wilderness to find help.
“This still just seems so miraculous to us,” says Reid. “The odds of Brad making it out of this situation alive were incredibly slim.”
But it was those slim odds that spurred the men on to do everything possible to keep Johnson from dying. “We all knew he wouldn’t make it through the night,” adds Reid. Johnson’s only hope, they realized, was a helicopter rescue — which could only occur during daylight hours — but they were miles away from a cell signal and sunset was just hours away.
So Therrien and Green, already weary from the day’s hike, shed their 60-pound backpacks and began descending the narrow, rock-strewn trail. “We were both praying out loud,” recalls Therrien, “that we would run into someone who could get of here faster than us.”
Their prayers were answered when they encountered two locals who knew the trail and agreed to race ahead of them and were eventually able to alert authorities.
Meanwhile, Johnson fought to stay conscious as Reid continued taking care of his friend’s numerous wounds while keeping a lookout for the grizzlies they were convinced would soon return.
Four and a half hours later, medics and rangers arrived by helicopter. Johnson, who spent eight days in a Wyoming hospital, has endured three surgeries — with more to come, as he waits to see whether the nerve damage he suffered in his hands is permanent.
“I’m focusing on the blessing that I’m still here,” he says. “When you have one of these experiences, you realize the important things are your relationships with God and your friends and family. All the other stuff really doesn’t matter.”
And Johnson, along with his buddies, definitely isn’t getting rid of his backpack and hiking boots anytime soon. “What happened to me was a fluke,” he insists. “I’d love to go back. We all would. But it’s going to take a lot of bargaining with our wives before that’s going to happen.”