HELENA – Joseph Williams was a 20-year-old Midwesterner hungry for adventure in 1959 when a hike through Glacier National Park turned into a vicious encounter with a grizzly bear.
Williams tangled with the bear for 45 minutes, getting mauled, fighting back and breaking free before the beast chased him down and attacked again. Then a young park ranger showed up and shot the bear dead.
Fifty years later, Williams and the ranger, Don Dayton, planned to visit the park together Thursday to commemorate the near-fatal ordeal.
“I’ve forgotten my own wedding anniversary enough times that no one would accuse me of getting caught up in anniversaries,” said Williams, 70 and a food broker in Missouri. “But this one is different.”
And such attacks are rare in Glacier. On average, Glacier has less than one bear “incident” a year, an incident being the injury of a human through contact with a grizzly or a black bear, park spokeswoman Amy Vanderbilt said.
The deaths of 10 people have been attributed to grizzlies since the park was established in 1910, Vanderbilt said.
“Visitors are safer in bear country than they are on highways,” she said.
The Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes Glacier, is one of the few grizzly strongholds remaining in the U.S. The U.S. Geological Survey determined that about 765 grizzlies inhabit the ecosystem, which includes the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness.
A road trip to Alaska brought Williams and Ron Kunz, a friend from his Ohio high school, to Montana in 1959. Canadian officials at the border turned them back because they did not have the cash that travelers must carry for emergencies before they are granted entry.
The men drove their Ford Fairlane to Glacier for what they thought would be a brief visit while waiting for checks to clear so they could cross the border. But they were able to get summer jobs as waiters in the park concession, earning about $1 an hour plus tips, room and board.
They were hiking on Mount Altyn the evening of June 18, 1959, when the grizzly approached Williams slowly and deliberately before pouncing, Williams said.
As the bear chewed at Williams’ body, Kunz threw rocks at the animal, Williams said. Williams said he then broke free and fled over a ledge, he said, but the bear caught up with him and the attack resumed. Kunz ran down the mountain to get help.
Dayton, then a 30-year-old park ranger, was following up on a traffic accident in the park’s Many Glacier area when he heard about the attack. As daylight fell, he rushed to the ranger station, picked up his rifle and four cartridges, and headed up the mountain on foot.
After hiking a couple of miles, Dayton said, he found Williams with the bear “really working him over.”
The first shot he fired missed the bear, but the second one struck its shoulder and the third its spine, Dayton said this month from his home in Santa Fe, N.M.
“The bear rolled down the hill past me,” he said.
Williams said the mauling had been “45 minutes of full engagement” during which he kicked and punched the grizzly. “She scalped me,” he said. Through it all, Williams said, all he thought about was survival.
“I don’t think there was one moment when I considered the possibility I was going to die,” he said.
Dayton said doctors didn’t think Williams would live. He ended up going through multiple surgeries.
Williams, who lives in Chesterfield, Mo., returned to Glacier three years after the mauling, but hasn’t been there since. His health prevents him from walking to the attack site, but he plans to dine with Dayton at one of the nearby lodges at the hour of the attack.
Dayton, now 80, visited the park about five years ago and hiked up Mount Altyn, to the place where he shot the bear. The two men have met a couple of times in recent years.
Park officials do not plan an observance, but Williams, who has survived colon cancer and heart trouble, is scheduled to speak about human resilience during an appearance Friday at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, near the park.
“This for me is an opportunity to acknowledge Don Dayton,” Williams said. “It’s a great time to get together in an incredibly gorgeous place with some people who are extremely important to me.”
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