“Once outside, you leave your past and worries at the trailhead—instead, focus on the task at hand, weather it is the next hill or looking for a bear.” -USMC Daniel Riley
Living a life with passion is something that Marine Daniel Riley is no stranger to. A now avid outdoorsman, Daniel loves to surf, mountain bike, snow ski, hunt and run. That might sound like a normal 29-year-old young man to many of you, however, Daniel is quite extraordinary.
As a corporal in the USMC, Daniel served as infantryman on two different tours; the first in Iraq and the second in Afghanistan. It was December 16, 2010, and his tour was literally down to its final day His replacement company was set to arrive that afternoon.
“My sweat-stained boots plod along the hard-packed dirt, each step no different than the millions of others that have circled this tiny corner of a backwater town, in a forgotten province, in a distant land—no different, that is, until the last one …”
Daniel was on foot patrol when a single step changed his life—forever. An IED (improvised explosive device) detonated, sending Daniel rocketing through the sky.
“The helicopter with its large red cross sets down in a tornado of dust. All that is between me and those wings of mercy is the ubiquitous Afghan irrigation ditch. It takes a team to lift the olive-drab stretcher over the black muddy water, everyone working their best to be swift and smooth. Out of the black open door, the Army medics rush toward us. Succinctly receiving my history and information from Doc, the Army crew takes over and starts to slide the stretcher into the waiting belly of the bird. With a chorus of ‘good lucks’ and [take cares,’ the men I’ve spent months shedding blood, sweat and tears with start to turn and return to the mission at hand.”
Daniel made it back to American soil just in time for Christmas; in fact, it was Christmas Eve when he arrived at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. This was not the homecoming that he and his family had been looking forward to. Daniel was in an unconscious state, fighting for his life.
His injuries were so severe that he was in ICU until February of 2011; injuries that resulted in the loss of both of his legs above the knee and the loss of three fingers on his left hand. Daniel is no stranger to mental fortitude, and despite his physical condition and the unknown road that lay ahead, he remained optimistic, thankful and grateful to be alive—never complaining because he knew that it could’ve been worse.
Prior to sustaining his injuries, Daniel was on the debate team and the drama club in high school. He was not an outdoorsman or a high school athlete, but Daniel’s injuries had changed his life and sparked a new determination to see the world and experience every adventure possible.
Having been transferred to Balboa Navy Medical Center, he was anxious to move forward with his physical therapy. The hospital introduced Daniel to the Wounded Warrior Outdoors, Adventures Enabled program. WWO is a non-profit organization exclusively founded to provide wounded servicemen and women with therapeutic outdoor adventures. With a new-found passion burning inside, Daniel was on fire to experience adventure—despite the fact that he was wheelchair bound, he had a desire to conquer the world.
A black bear hunt suddenly became a therapeutic option for him to get outdoors and out of the sterile hospital environment. Daniel had come so far and was looking forward to the hunt, but that plan was derailed when a necessary surgery kept him off the mountain and in the hospital. He spent the next 2 years slowly working his way out of his wheelchair and onto his new prosthetic legs.
Seeking the familiar rush of adrenaline and the desire for a good workout, Daniel was determined to find the adventure that he sought. The great thing about America is the countrymen, and Daniel was met with open arms by another group that helped shape the course of his life, The Vale Veterans Program (VVP) based out of Vale, Colorado.
Thanks to the VVP and the skills they helped Daniel learn, he now spends his winter months, over 70 days a year, skiing. In the summer months, he took up mountain biking, is an accomplished triathlete having participated in the New York City Triathlon, and he has even taken up surfing. Daniel discovered with surfing that once he is in the water, he is just as capable as anyone else—which holds true to so much that Daniel does in life.
The Bears Of British Columbia
Even with all of his accomplishments, Daniel still had the desire to conquer the mountain, and once again the Wounded Warrior Outdoors Program was there with the opportunity for Daniel to navigate the steep mountain terrain of British Columbia in pursuit of the black bear that he had dreamed about hunting years prior.
True to his adventurous spirit, Daniel drove into camp having already spent a month on the road traveling and cycling. As a dual citizen of both the United States and Canada, Daniel had been visiting family along the way.
Assigned to an all-girl team consisting of myself and Deb Cook, Daniel did not complain. We were all excited for our first morning on the hunt, and the first thing Daniel wished as we loaded into the truck was to see a moose.
The day was warm, and the truck beating down the gravel roads was a bit too relaxing. Intermittent dozing sessions throughout the day proved me a rather worthless spotter. As a trained infantryman, Daniel’s ability to detect movement from both close and afar is unbelievable. Of course, the training that he had received while in Afghanistan would make you good at doing your job as the targets over there shoot back at you. Literally, he was trained to detect anything with his eyes that would be out of the normal and potentially life-threatening. Let me tell you, 10 moose later and not a single black bear and we were all cursing him for not asking the good Lord to provide him with a bruin.
The next morning, I awoke refreshed and ready to take on the mountain once again. We all jokingly threatened Daniel if he wished to see any more moose. With a laugh, he said, “I want a chocolate-colored black bear, broadside, just off the road at 100 yards.”
I guess if you are going to ask for something, it’s better to be specific and you might as well ask the good Lord for the absolute perfect situation. After all, if you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
The morning started out with a bit of rain, but the sky quickly dried and the low-hanging clouds made everything a dreary shade of gray. We stopped at a beautiful lake and I took the opportunity to take photos of some geese and goslings. The assault from the mosquitos was so fierce that our sight-seeing around the lake was short lived.
The spring always brings on such beauty. The beauty of birth, life renewed and for the bears, conception for the birth of tiny new bundles of baby bear joy during hibernation for expectant sows. This time of year, the bears act a bit crazy from the frenzy of the rut.
This frenzy is exactly what we found ourselves smack in the middle of. Of course, Daniel spotted the chocolate bruin just as it bolted out of sight. With a guess as to where the bruin was off to, we made our way after with the hopes of catching up.
Another different bear, a large chocolate, put our current mission on hold. The bear was moaning at the base of a tree. Daniel was out of the truck and on the sticks, ready to press off the shot, but no, this was not right. Was the bear a sow moaning for its cubs We needed to make sure. When the bear climbed up the tree for the second time, instinctually, I ran to it. My hope was to keep the bear up the tree so we could determine the gender of the strangely behaving bear.
I put bears up trees every year afoot, and it has always worked out well for me. This bear, however, was a bit out of the ordinary and as soon as my sprint became too close to reaching the base of the tree, instead of climbing higher, the bear descended down the tree and ran away.
This was not how I had imagined this working out. My instinct of running to the bear had backfired; however, it gave me an opportunity to look for cubs in the surrounding area. There were no cubs to be found, making the bear’s strange behavior an easy answer. It was a boar, crying out to a sow in heat.
Deb and Daniel drove the truck down to pick me up. Daniel exited the truck on high alert, rifle ready, walking the road scanning the perimeter when he heard another bear making its way towards us—and fast. We all went into action, Deb grabbing the tripod as I ran down to meet Dan.
Quickly, we got him set up and ready. Holy mother of crazy, the beautiful chocolate was there—standing broadside—off the road at 80 yards, just as Daniel had as wished for earlier that morning.
We had literally found ourselves surrounded by bears with an obvious nearby sow in heat. It was an absolutely thrilling hunt, and Daniel did what Marines do, he fell back to his expert level of training and rose up to the occasion, executing a perfectly placed shot. The bruin expired less than 20 yards from where Daniel had taken aim.
For Daniel, the adventure never ceases. The next day he biked over 7 miles and swam in a crystal clear Canadian lake. We even managed to get out to do some fishing for the first time in Daniel’s life, where he caught four lake trout.
After our week was over, instead of heading home, Daniel was on his way to Yellowstone Park for a 3-day backpackcycling adventure with a buddy. This man really is living life to the fullest.
Daniel is enrolled at Colorado Mountain College, he no longer owns a wheelchair, is living in a second story condo and runs or exercises nearly every single day. Later this year, you can find Daniel participating in the Off-Road Hand Cycle World Championships … and he is now an accomplished mountain hunter.