Though frightened, Daniel Willingham didn’t panic as he faced one of the most dangerous of situations in our nation’s wilds — a 600-pound mama grizzly bear, ready to defend her cubs.
With a “good-sized revolver” in hand and the know-how to de-escalate an extreme situation, the Cape Girardeau native and avid hiker said he convinced the bear he was going to shoot.
Would his threats be enough?
On Sept. 6, tired from the six-day, 60-mile backpacking trip at Montana’s Glacier National Park, he and the rest of his group kept their momentum with the end figuratively in sight. But he and one other hiker strayed away from the group. That’s when the encounter occurred.
“For several days we had not seen even another person, because we were way in the backcountry,” Willingham said. And of all places to run into bears, he said, it seemed like it was the last place to spot one.
The trail, Two Medicine Pass, is common to day hikers, he said. It’s also fairly close to a ranger station and parking lot. But from where he was, Willingham said he heard something rustling in some bushes about 15 feet away. Grizzlies, one of the continent’s most deadly predators.
He stood his ground and mentally unpacked what he learned about bears from a previous trip. He knew what to do.
With his weapon and ammo in hand, Willingham knew he could “take it down” if he had to, he said.
Willingham said he could only see one bear at first, but couldn’t figure out why so much brush was moving.
“Gosh, I knew they were large, but this was insane.”
But as the female bear scurried up a nearby hill, Willingham said he saw two other bears behind.
“She runs them up to safety and then she starts running down at us,” he said of the adrenaline-fueled encounter. “I immediately pulled my gun out, dropped the hammer back, yelled ‘Stop!’ and amazingly, she stopped.”
If a charging grizzly is frightening, one rearing up on its hind legs is the stuff of nightmares.
He said as the bear stood up, he “luckily” grabbed “the right tool” — his gun — and yelled, “Do not move. Don’t come any closer!”
Willingham was “in all-out fight mode.”
“I had it in the back of my mind that there’s no way this situation is going to end without me having to shoot the bear,” he said.
Willingham attempted to calm the bear.
“We don’t have to do this; I don’t want anything to do with you anymore than you want to do with me.”
Several hikers unknowingly began walking toward Willingham and the bear, he said. Upon realizing what was happening, they began making loud noises to frighten the bear and ease the situation.
After what seemed like a long time — “50 seconds maybe,” he said — the female bear backed off. One of the cubs let out a high-pitched sound, and the three bears bounded up the hill, he said.
But the bears’ retreat worried Willingham even more. He thought they were gearing up to attack him from another angle.
“I was looking around for any brush that was moving. ... Then, out of nowhere, I see the mother bear come down crossing the trail where the hikers were, and the other two cubs come following her single-file, running into a valley, and disappeared.”
Willingham said he “certainly can’t say” he was fearless in those moments.
“A healthy level of fear is probably the right thing to feel in that situation,” he said. But, the experience hasn’t altered any future hiking plans, Willingham said.
“It actually makes me want to go do this stuff more.”