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Back to Nature… A Backcountry Paddling Trip
By Dawn Ziegler
Andy Janicki, now 28, was always willing to give up the everyday “luxuries” to pursue his love of back-country camping. He regularly sought out the remotest places he could find. And when he became a quadriplegic six years ago, the biggest challenge Andy faced would be how the heck he’d ever get back to them.
Andy has been the Accessibility Coordinator for the Wisconsin DNR for the past three and a half years. As an outdoor enthusiast, he takes to heart the duties of his position to enhance outdoor recreation for people with disabilities. It wasn’t his degree in Biology and Water Resources that secured this job for him, though, but his life experience in camping and kayaking that made him a natural fit.
Growing up in the ‘burbs of Milwaukee, Andy loved swimming and biking. During his freshmen year at UW – Stevens Point, he had his first backpacking experience. It was an immediate obsession. Once Andy got a taste of this wilderness hiking, he couldn’t get enough of it. He loved being totally immersed in the outdoors…the smells, the sounds, the awakening of his senses… and being far away from the ‘noise’ of civilization.
“I developed the mentality that I needed to be outdoors every day,” Andy explained. “I was known as ‘the guy who was always outside.’” Camping, hiking, kayaking and canoeing…he did it all. Even his interest in improving the environment, which led him to a job with the University in the Center for Watershed Science and Education, afforded Andy more opportunities to explore the outdoors to do field surveys on area water sources. “It didn’t matter to me whether it was for work or pleasure. I was the most at peace when I was out on my own surrounded by nature.”
In January of 2005, Andy’s world took an abrupt halt when he dove into a snow pile to cool off after a night of dancing, shattering his C5 vertebrae. “There I was upside down looking back at where I had just run from,” he recalled vividly. “I could see my body crumple around me but could feel nothing.” Laying there unable to move and struggling to breathe, Andy was fully conscious of what had happened.
After a long half hour, an ambulance finally arrived. He was rushed to the Stevens Point Hospital and then air lifted to Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee. He spent three days in intensive care and started rehab soon after. A long seven weeks later he was discharged.
“I had no setbacks, and I was healthy and strong going in, so I regained strength quickly,” Andy described with a glint of hope in his voice. “But I was still kind of in denial over the whole situation. I don’t remember any doctor coming in and saying I wasn’t going to walk again, but maybe it was implied,” he admitted, “I knew I was in rough shape then, but I was still hopeful I would get better and walk again.” Soon, though, the reality of his condition set in. “It was shocking getting use to only having three main muscle groups functioning. It was humbling. It was disappointing. I thought with all the swimming practice and hiking that I would be able to jump right into therapy and regain all my strength,” he confided, “I really thought I’d be farther along when I went home.”
Andy’s character, however, couldn’t be repressed for long. He moved back to live with his mom for the next four months so he could continue his rehab at Froedtert. He had an upbeat drive that pushed him to get outside as much as possible. There were a lot of challenges to be worked out, but that would have to come later; for at the end of the summer, he was going back to Stevens Point to finish up his last two years of his degree.
“That first year was the hardest because it was frustrating trying to figure out what I could do,” Andy mentioned. “Before, I’d go backpacking by myself all the time, but now I couldn’t even look at old photos of my camping trips without breaking down.” It was this loss of independence that was the most difficult for him to adjust to. “The hardest thing for me to do was ask for help,” he said. “Not just with outdoor activities, but with day to day living.”
Andy’s outlook on life, however, was where he drew his strength. “Life was too good to let anything stop me from continuing with my passions,” he affirmed. “The world just had too much to offer!” And for Andy, surrounding himself in nature was some of the best therapy there was. “I did so much outdoors before my injury that it was something ingrained in my mind.”
Andy was determined to find trails in and around Stevens Point that he could manage by himself. Not an easy task. “I had to purposely search for paths that had crushed limestone or granite surfaces,” he described. “There were other things to consider, too, like the slope, width, and evenness of the trail. I needed to feel like I could propel my chair down the trail with no worries of getting stuck or tipping over.”
Although it was a start, the trails that were manageable by wheelchair couldn’t get Andy where he wanted to go, which was back into the wilderness. “The reason I liked backpacking before was because I could get away from civilization, way the hell out to the middle of nowhere, and not see city lights or hear anything except for the sounds of nature,” he confessed. “It’s great to be out there for a whole week without seeing a single person.” He wasn’t going to achieve that sense of solitude by wheeling on the trails around town.
Andy realized that if he was going to access remote places that he was going to need to find another mode of transportation, something other than the chair.
As if on a new mission, Andy had his friends sit him in the middle of a canoe so they could paddle him to places unreachable by chair. “It was nice to get further into nature, but I still had the feeling that I was relying on others to get around,” he said disappointedly. He he was aching to get out on his own again. But Andy was motivated, and that kept him searching for new things to try.
Andy lay in bed at night thinking about his single-person Perception kayak and about ways he could propel it on his own. He and his friend tried everything they could think of, but it just wasn’t happening, at least not yet. The cockpit was small which made it difficult to get Andy in. In addition to that, the slim design of the kayak made it quite tippy, and with Andy’s unsupported trunk, it was simply not steady enough.
One day, someone found a short (and more stable) tandem kayak to give a try. This kayak had a raised back on the seat which gave Andy more back support, but without any kind of lateral support to keep him from falling to the sides. “I could keep my balance alright, but I knew that if the kayak tipped a certain amount, that I would flop over and not be able to get back up and that could turn the boat over,” Andy stated. Though it was not a great setup, Andy was determined to make it work.
The next step was to figure out how to paddle the thing without the use of a grip. “I had someone mold handles out of that white plastic that OTs use to make splints,” he added, “and then I had them mold it right around the shaft of the paddle.” Since Andy had strong wrists, he was now able to paddle without the function of his fingers. Progress was being made!
After several excursions on local lakes and rivers and some additional tweaking to the setup, Andy was ready for a “Mancation!” Before his injury, he was exploring plans for a camping trip down to Big Ben National Park in Texas. Well, the time had come. In January of ’07, Andy, his brothers and two buddies left the cold winter of Wisconsin and headed south for a four day river camping expedition, paddling the scenic Rio Grande through the majestic Boquillas Canyon. Andy could hardly wait.
Spending four days paddling river rapids through the 1,200 foot canyon walls and setting up camp along the river each evening was just what Andy had been dreaming about. It was also just what he needed. His extensive backcountry experience, coupled with the confidence he had in his companions and the choice of river to run made this the ideal choice for Andy’s first time out. The 33 mile stretch through the Boquillas Canyon rate a Class II rapids, making it a modest challenge for his new rigging.
It was easy for Andy to adapt to tent camping because of how much he had done it beforehand. He loved to ‘rough it’, so getting by with the bare necessities put him in his happy place. Andy used a Half-Dome Plus two person tent, a Thermarest ProLite tent pad for extra cushion while sleeping, and a basic camping sleeping bag. The guys were used to packing equipment, so when they had to stow Andy’s gear plus his wheelchair in the canoes, they had the system down. [Andy would skip his BP cares until 2009 when he found the Activeaid raised toilet seat. Before that time, he would limit all of his trips to a max of four days.]
Andy admits, though, that things were different, “I had to leave behind what little independence I had,” he said. “I had to make adjustments. My friends had to pick me up and put me in my sleeping bag and it was really difficult to move around in it, definitely not like home where I could grab the side of bed to turn myself or sit up. And when I needed to cath at night, I had to rely on one of the guys to sit me up so I could do my business.” But this was a trade Andy was willing to make.
“Two years after my injury I was back,” Andy beamed, but it wasn’t without its hurdles. “The hardest thing to master was that kayak.”
Andy described a near capsize: “The river was really low at that time and the water murky with silt. That made it hard to see anything that might be floating in front of us. About two hours into our paddle on the first day, a branch popped up suddenly, and without any time to react, we hit it! The impact made the kayak rock, making me lose my balance. I flopped to the side and the kayak tipped enough to start taking in water. Luckily, I was with my buddy who is a very experienced paddler and the river was moving very slow, so we were able to make our way to the shore before the situation became tragic.” Smiling, Andy confessed, “We decided to rethink our plans, and I spent most of the remaining four day trip in the canoe.”
“It was such an epic trip though,” Andy recalled. “It was filled with so many mishaps and adjustments to our ‘plan’. Besides almost flipping, I also forgot my sleeping bag. I wrapped up with a blanket and my fleece jacket, but the dessert that first night gave way to freezing temps and I couldn’t stop shaking. The next day we had to travel quite a distance to the nearest town to get a sleeping bag.” There were other challenges, too, that came on a daily occurrence, but what he took away from that trip was a sense of how to accomplish.
After earning his degree at Steven’s Point, Andy took a job with the Wisconsin DNR as Accessibility Coordinator in January 2008. Working through his own struggles compelled Andy to create more access to the state’s parks, camp grounds, lakes and rivers for others. One of his first goals was to make the WDNR “Open the Outdoors” site more user friendly and increase the number of accessible outdoor activities. [Significant improvements were made and it is currently one of the most complete sources of information on accessible cabins, campsite listings, paddling, fishing locations, and hunting licensing throughout Wisconsin.]
Through his work, Andy met Kevin Carr from Chosen Valley Creating Ability from Minnesota who is the manufacturer of seating, hand, and outrigger adaptations for disabled paddlers. An instant friendship formed. Kevin’s designs were the missing pieces to the puzzle Andy had been working on.
He set Andy up with a Kestral 140 kayak. The cockpit was stripped of anything that might cause skin injuries or impede the paddler from making wet exits. It came with an adapted seat that has adjustable back height and tilt, as well as two levels of removable lateral supports. To increase the stability of the kayak, outriggers were mounted on the sides. And finally, included in the package was the Sweet Cheeks inflatable seat cushion that protects the paddler from pressure sores. With all of these innovations, combined with the CVCA hand grip which Andy attached to a lightweight Phantom GX paddle, he was good to go!
In May 2008, Andy and his friends traveled to the Flambeau River State Forest in northern Wisconsin for a three day paddling/camping trip along the river. The campsites along this river are only accessible by water and are more primitive than Andy had faced post-injury. But he was ecstatic! Andy was able to paddle alone in his one-man kayak with his chair secured behind him. “I knew I’d never get back to backpacking by myself, but being in that kayak knowing it was just me paddling… took me to a whole other level of freedom,” Andy explained.
Andy continues to work on getting information out about the various levels of accessible camping, but to him, staying in a cabin isn’t camping. He seeks the primitive nature of the outdoors, “You can’t expect things to be like at home. You need to be prepared to ask for help, and don’t go into a situation thinking you know what’s going to happen. To enjoy this freedom, you need to be flexible and patient, and know you can’t control the outdoors.”
Andy has since been on trips to Lake Powell in Utah, the sea caves of the Apostles Islands in Wisconsin, and two weeks paddling through Glacier National Park.
The One That Didn’t Get Away
By Chad Waligura
In 1987, Mike Schmitz was paralyzed in a car accident when he was 18 years old. Since then, he has become an accomplished outdoorsman and an advocate for disabled hunters. After college, he began working as a counselor with numerous organizations to promote the independence of individuals with disabilities and assist them in returning to work, and of course, the outdoors.
Mike has since collaborated with state and federal agencies to ensure that accessibility exists in parks, wildlife management areas and hunting reserves. He has designed accessible hunting and waterfowl observation areas, fishing piers, and hunting blinds for the state of Maryland and several federal refuges. He also worked for the National Rifle Association for 5 years and often volunteered with their disabled hunter program.
In 2006, Mike received a nomination for the Pathfinder Award given by Safari Club International to successful disabled hunters who have helped lead others back into the field. He won the award.
He currently volunteers as a hunt coordinator for Buckmasters American Deer Foundation, running hunts for terminally ill and disabled children and adults in his home state of Maryland. He enjoys building adaptive equipment that enables others to hunt and fish, but mostly Mike enjoys doing whatever it takes to share the outdoors with individuals that have not had the opportunity to do so.
The One That Didn’t Get Away… by Mike Schmitz
My first elk hunt was a little over two years ago, a rifle hunt. It was with Rick and Rusty Hawryluk of Watson Creek Adventures near Pelly, Saskatchewan, and when they told me that I’d have an excellent chance of taking a great bull, I believed ‘em.
The moment I arrived in Pelly, I learned one very important lesson: don’t go to Saskatchewan in mid-January unless you enjoy uncontrollable shaking and frostbite!
I ended up taking a nice 5×6 bull on that hunt, and to this day, I’ll swear he was frozen solid before he hit the ground, and at -32 degrees Fahrenheit, so was I!
This past year, I wanted to use what I’d learned from that first hunt and go back to Canada after another elk, a bigger one, so I called Rick and told him that I was ready to brave the wilds again. I also informed him that I didn’t want to have to wear nine sets of wool underwear this time, so we decided that early September would be a much better time of year for me. This time, I’d leave my trusty 30-06 at home and go after my first elk with a bow.
I started practicing with my Horton Legend SL crossbow two to three times a day after that, and for the next two months, it performed flawlessly. But twelve days before I was to leave for Canada, I noticed a small crack in one of the limbs of the bow. I frantically contacted Horton, explained my dilemma and was quickly assured that they could repair my bow and ship it back to me in time for my trip. Nine days later, I had it in my hands and it was better than new, fully upgraded with modern limbs and riser. The bow shot straighter and hit harder than ever before. My hunt was saved!
I spread the 1,685 mile trip over three days of driving. Other than some minor engine trouble and a North Dakota trooper with what must have been a defective radar gun (wink), the trip went smoothly. I had beautiful sunshine and temps that hung in the mid-eighties the whole time. There was going to be no worries about freezing to death this time… or so I thought.
Not more than 40 miles before reaching Watson Creek, the clouds darkened, the rain started in and the temperature dropped 35 degrees! ‘Ugh! Not again,’ I lamented. I was happy to see the rain letting up though as I neared the final turn, but not too pleased to see the huge fog bank that was rolling in behind it. In minutes, I could barely see beyond the hood of my truck. This was not a good sign. Not good at all. I even had to call Rick to have him come find me and escort me through the last few miles of that soupy mess. When I finally got to camp, it felt like the sun had come out again. Not from the skies, but from my smile. It was such a relief to have arrived and I couldn’t wait to get inside their beautiful lodge.
That afternoon, I met one of my guides, Doug. We hit it off right from the start and went out onto the back deck to swap some hunting tales and talk about his soon-to-be-born baby girl. Not long afterwards, Glen, my guide from the previous year, pulled up the drive. After just a few minutes, it felt to me like three long lost friends had reunited with each other. We swapped stories, laughed at old ones and then worked on a game plan for my elk hunt.
Rusty said he had seen a monster 7×8 bull not too long ago and thought that he would make the perfect one to go after. After he showed me a picture of it, I was convinced. He was huge! It wasn’t going to be easy though. Getting a shot at the big boys never is, especially if you’re hunting from a chair and with a bow.
Since the time Rusty took that pic, that bull had only been seen two times and in two different places. He was a reclusive old boy and I found myself suddenly wanting to get a glimpse of him myself. Later that night, I fell asleep to the sounds of elk bugling in the distance, something I’d never heard before, (probably because their vocal cords were frozen the last time I was here!). That really lit my fire.
||Laying there in the dark, I thought about that picture Rusty had showed me and prayed that I would get one chance at that tremendous bull.
The next morning, the aromas of coffee and toast seeped through the bottom crack of my bedroom door, coaxing me out of bed before the alarm went off. As we ate, Doug explained to me his plan to construct some ground blinds using concrete wire with willow branches woven into it, which sounded good to me. I trusted my guide, but I wondered what an elk would do when he suddenly saw a big bush that didn’t used to be there. Only one way to find out I thought. After breakfast, we took an ATV tour of the area and met some of Rusty’s neighbors whose land we’d be crossing through to hunt.
On my first trip to Saskatchewan that was in January, most of it was under a blanket of snow. It made for a beautiful photo, but I couldn’t look at it too long without shivering. Now in September, it was breathtaking. The aspen trees ‘shimmered’ in the breeze with glittering shades of yellow, light green and brown. Seemed like all the trees were turning colors. Loons crooned in the background, and the moment, the cool air felt welcoming despite the overcast skies. We spent the rest of that day scouting the country before returning to camp for dinner, finishing the day off by relaxing again on the deck that overlooked one of the many lakes on the property. Seamlessly, my three day drive faded into a distance memory and my hunt was one night away.
Earlier that evening, we’d taken one of those ground blinds and set it high up on a ridge where Doug said the elk liked to travel. When morning came, I found myself sitting in that blind doing my best imitation of a love sick cow elk using a call I had just bought before the trip. I must’ve not known what I was doing because I didn’t get any suitors. About an hour later, though, there was movement in the bush nearby. A large whitetail doe emerged. This would be the first test of our willow branch hide I thought. And to my amazement, the doe didn’t spook. She walked right to us in fact. The next thing I knew she was eating the leaves off our blind like it had been there all summer. She was so close that I could hear her breathing and crunching leaves. Naturally, I couldn’t resist the urge to go for my camera. Big mistake! She busted me, snorted in my face and bounded off the ridge in a huff. Doug and I just looked at each other and laughed.
Not too long after our blind-wrecking doe experience, a bugle rang out, echoing into the valley below. It was loud and it was close. Real close! I slowly turned my head to see a 5×5 bull topping the ridge. If he kept coming like he was, he’d pass about 20 yards in front of me. Not far behind him, on the same trail, I saw another bull coming, one that could’ve been his twin. Both of them walked cautiously along the trail toward us, stopping right in front of the blind. What a thrill! Then they both turned their heads and looked right at me. Busted again!
I don’t know what gave us away. It could’ve been my heart pounding against my chest or maybe my hands shaking, but they spooked a short distance and were quickly out of bow range, leaving Doug and I again looking at each other with wide eyes. We spent the rest of the evening swatting mosquitoes and watching numerous deer and elk roam around below us. We had set up in a good spot though. I almost got a shot at one of those bulls. Not too bad for the first day.
Due to the wet weather that socked in that night, we decided to wait until the next afternoon to go afield. The game plan would be the same but we’d sit on a different trail this time. The same willow branch blind proved effective again as we glassed several elk but we never saw ‘the one’, that big 7×8. His image was burned into my mind and I at least wanted to see him once before leaving.
Like my first night in camp, I was serenaded to sleep by several elk somewhere off in the night. I imagined one of them was a monster 7×8. He was out there somewhere and I knew it. I decided right then that I wouldn’t shoot until I found him.
The morning came quickly, and as usual, Doug showed up at the lodge right on time. We threw some gear in the truck and were off. We were just getting to the blind and… there he was! Right out in the open not far from the blind stood the 7×8 bull. Instantly, he jumped to attention… and ran! Busted again! Guess he didn’t like the sight of our truck impeding on his territory. He was gone so fast that I wondered if it was really him or a mirage.
For me, this bull had become a ghost. And if we did find him, I feared he’d disappear right in front of me again. Rather than continue on and possibly spook him even more, Doug and I decided to back out and let things settle down. We’d come back that evening and try our luck again.
||I began to shake as I raised my bow. I already had a bad case of buck fever, but as the reality of actually getting a shot sunk in, it was super-sized. I couldn’t believe I was about to lower my sights on this giant.
We got in the blind early that day, with the excitement of seeing that monster bull fresh in our minds, about 3:30 in the afternoon, and it was just in time. As soon as we got settled, here came a nice 6×6 out of the bush, bugling and heading our way. He was a great bull. It took all I had to not let an arrow fly, but I let him walk by me at 15 yards. I prayed that I wouldn’t live to regret that. He never knew we were there, though, and that’s what I wanted to see. We had new faith in our hide and we were ready for the ‘big boy’. We didn’t see another animal that evening but heard elk bugling in almost every direction. I kept stewing about that bull I let walk and wondering if I had made the huge mistake. Instead of being picky, I should have anchored him right where he stood. ‘That big 7×8 was going to ruin me,’ I thought.
I had to find the ghost now. If not, I’d never be able to live with myself. It was now the third and last day of my hunt with Watson Creek. If my bull didn’t show, I’d be out of luck and would have to make the long drive home with an empty cooler and terrible memories of what should have been. That thought made the uneventful morning and afternoon very, very long. Unlike the first two days, we hardly saw a thing. No elk and only one or two deer. This was not a good sign at all. Things just had to get better and there wasn’t much time. As the sun started to set and bring my hunt to a close, Doug noticed movement in the trees. It was just a couple of deer. ‘Awww! Oh well, at least they’re starting to move,’ I tried to tell myself. Let’s see what comes out next. A short while later, I heard a couple of bugles, a sound I’d been waiting all day to hear. I cow called which was answered right away this time by a bugle. And it was coming closer! Suddenly, like he’d sprung from the weeds, the ghost appeared! He was standing right in front of me, quartering away at 37 yards. His rack… massive!
It took everything I had to calm my nerves and try to steady my hands, but nothing was working that good. Finally… I steadied my scope on him. After one more deep breath, I slowly squeezed my Horton and sent a Muzzy-tipped carbon arrow at his shoulder. Just as advertised, it was “Bad to the Bone.” It smashed through the bull and lodged in his spine. He never knew what hit him. He staggered a few steps but wouldn’t go down. I knew I’d made a vital hit, but just to make sure he didn’t get away, Doug re-cocked my bow and I let another arrow fly. This time I locked on behind his shoulder. The bull lunged and, after a 60 yard dash, he went down for good. Doug hugged me as we yelled out our excitement. I was relieved at the same time, knowing that letting the previous day’s 6×6 walk would never haunt me. This was probably the biggest bull I’d ever take let alone see in my lifetime. What a rush! The feeling was indescribable.
For more information on Watson Creek Adventures and the fantastic hunts they have to offer, visit their website at Watson Creek Adventures.
The Hunt that Changed My Life
By Willy Amos
It was early November, smack in the middle of whitetail deer season in Iowa where I live and hunt. Something I look forward to every fall. I was bow hunting one morning with a friend of mine, Steve, until about 9am when we decided to move to a travel corridor that we knew the deer used later in the day. Anyway, after I climbed up one of his favorite trees, about thirty feet up, I went to shift the stand before I had hooked my harness to the trunk. It slipped. I fell.
Instantly, Steve came running over because he’d seen me fall. I could see the fear in his eyes when he got to me. His voice cracked when he told me that I was going to be ok, ‘That I’d be all right.’ But I knew I wasn’t. “I’m not OK Steve,” I told him desperately, “I’m paralyzed. Now go call 911 before I go into shock!” ‘I’m paralyzed… paralyzed…’ The word kept bouncing around in my head and I didn’t have a clue as to what it meant. I was alone, suddenly, flat on my back in the woods, AND in a lot of pain. While Steve had gone for help, that’s when the gravity of the situation really set in, lying there numb from the waist down, not knowing what my life would be like now. What kind of husband I could be? What kind of father to my two boys and daughter? I was lying there under my favorite tree having thoughts that would’ve been ludicrous for me to consider just an hour earlier. I thought I might be better off dead.
As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Living in a small town like Mount Pleasant, Iowa, I grew up knowing almost everybody who lived there, including the guys who were coming to rescue me now. When they arrived, I was very close to giving up, but they calmed me down. They got me out. They carried me to a Life Flight helicopter waiting to fly me to Iowa City for surgery. On the way, I started having trouble breathing because of a collapsed lung. And when the flight nurse put a chest tube in me, that was a hurt like I ain’t never felt before! That’s one thing I’ll never forget about that day.
My wife Cindy was waiting for me right downstairs from the helipad when we landed at Iowa City. Mentally, I was lost in the shock of what had happened to me. Well, she got a hold of me and told me something that straightened me out really quick. I’ll never share what she said with anyone, but I’ll never forget it either. After that was the first time I really got scared. I wanted to live.
Seven days I stayed in Mercy Hospital for surgery and recovery on my broken back before being shipped over to Great River rehab for another month. They released me on December 27th. Deer season was over and I felt like a stranger in my own home which was funny. A guy told me in rehab that I’d want to come back here as soon as I got home and he was exactly right! Even though my friends and neighbors had made it accessible for me before I got out, it seemed like I didn’t fit there anymore. They even unveiled an accessible van for me too when I got home. They were great, but I was still lost.
Thankfully, that feeling passed pretty quickly. Things seemed to go back to ‘normal’ and I put all my focus into my wife, my kids and my job. I thanked God for all the wonderful support I had.
||There I was, sitting in the woods under the very tree that I’d fallen out of the year before, on my own. It was that moment that I knew that everything would be okay.
I still had no idea what my future as a hunter would be like. Missing deer season was really tough for me to swallow. As soon as I got back home, I started watching all the hunting videos and shows that I could. All my hunting buddies were sending me pics of these big bucks they’d taken which added fuel to my desire. I’d already decided that there was no way I was going to miss another season.
Back when I was in rehab, I remember getting online one day and searching “handicapped hunting” or something like that. Well, the link at the top was for this site called Follow Me Outdoors. It’s where I saw Chad in his wheelchair next to some big game animal he’d taken, and for the first time I felt some hope about hunting again. I read some of his stories and followed some of the links and started thinking about what I would need to be able to get out in the woods.
By the time August came around the following year, I could hardly stand it. My oldest son and I started going out at least three times a week just to look at deer. I could feel this pressure inside me building like a storm front on the horizon. I wanted to shoot a deer and I wanted to do it my way. I needed that. One evening, while we were on one of our scouting trips, my son and I saw this beautiful ten point buck out in some cut cornfield with the setting sunlight on him and we both just broke down in tears at the sight. It was so peaceful.
As October neared, I was in full preparation mode. One of the biggest obstacles for me was finding a way get in and out of the woods since I couldn’t do that in the manual chair I had. I had a power chair, but it wasn’t built to handle the rugged terrain by any means. I knew I’d need a new one, one like the X4 Extreme that I’d seen online. Initially, my wife was against the idea. The X4 was expensive and she said we didn’t have the money, but I think she understood how important it was to me. Lucky for me, she decided that it was more important that I was happy.
Deer season finally arrived…
The first encounter I had came the very first day of the special disabled-only muzzleloader season. My buddy Steve and I were sitting together since it was my first time out. We had just backed my chair into the brush and gotten settled when this big ol’ burly eight point came waltzing right in and I took the shot. I couldn’t believe it! I got nervous and rushed the shot but he still went down like a bag of bricks! A couple seconds later, though, he sprang right back up and bounded away like nothing had happened while Steve and I were busy celebrating (Don’t laugh!). He got away. I guess I hit him too high. I’m still sick over it.
I made it out four or five more times that early season. Since I didn’t have my X4 yet, I got stuck a few times but I never let that bother me. If I did get stuck, and I was alone, I’d just hunt until dark wherever I happened to be and then call for help. Most of the time, I’d get in some brush or back up against a deadfall to hide. It was just really so nice to be out there hunting again.
I got the X4 almost right after bow season began. And much to my wife’s chagrin, I took my vacation during the week of the rut. I went out everyday by myself. The X4 gave me back the freedom I’d lost, and I was hunting hard again just like I used to. It was great therapy let me tell ya. Sometimes Steve came with me, sure, but we went separate ways once we got in the woods. I even sat one evening under my old favorite tree that I’d fallen out of. That was one of the most soul-soothing weeks of my life.
My second close encounter that year came during that week of the rut. I was hunting alone one day with my crossbow and I spotted this nice ten point coming up the trail toward my decoy. When he got in range and stopped to check it out, I sent an arrow sizzling over his back! The buck didn’t take off though. He was startled, but just stood there watching me as I tried to quietly re-cock my bow. Well, I think we all know how that turned out. (A crossbow is impossible to cock without making any noise. He heard me and was gone like yesterday’s news.)
A few days later, I was back in one of my favorite spots before dawn. As soon as I could see, I noticed a man fishing in a pond not 100 yards from me so I decided to make a mistake and leave my decoy when I moved (only about 200 yards away). I could still see my decoy, though, and naturally it wasn’t ten minutes before this monster eight point came right up to it and stood there sniffing it. And if that wasn’t bad enough, after he left, another nice ten point buck came out and did the same thing. ‘Great call Willy,’ I thought to myself. Nothing I can do but laugh about it now.
As the season rolled on, I kept going out whenever I could. There weren’t too many hunting days left and I began to face the reality that I may have used up all my chances for the year. The memory of that big one I’d lost during muzzleloader season started to really haunt my thoughts. Secretly, I was having the time of my life though. It might’ve looked like I was failing a lot, and I was, but that didn’t really matter to me. A hunter is supposed to be in it for the long haul, learning his way through and taking in the failures with the successes. It can be a grueling journey sometimes and I was having exactly that kind. I was happy to see that not much had changed. For me, it was enough to know that I could still do it.
On my last hunt of the year, I had a few does come by me about 7:00am, and after that, nothing. I resigned myself to the fact that my season was over and decided to call it.
Around 9:00ish, I started packing up my gear to go. I set my bow off to the side and started to roll up the camo blind material I used to hide my chair. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement! A doe was coming up the trail and instantly I decided to shoot her if I got the chance. When she stopped to look over her shoulder, a rush of excitement hit me. ‘There might just be a buck trailing her,’ I thought. Thought? More like prayed.
Sure enough, here he came! I suddenly had a huge problem. I’d reclined the back of my chair all the way back so I could pick up this candy wrapper I’d dropped earlier, so there I was, stuck in the supine position with this huge buck coming toward me. I didn’t know what to do. Carefully, I reached down for my bow and he saw me, but he only glanced at me only for a second before he spotted my decoy and went in for a fight. I use a decoy every time I hunt no matter the season, and this time it saved me.
I was tilted back in a natural blind behind a downed tree. I knew he was going to go down wind of my decoy and if he got too far he’d wind me, so I mustered all the strength I had to sit up with one arm and pull my crossbow up with the other. My shooting sticks were already stowed so I’d have to shoot him free hand. At 40 yards, I mouth grunted at him. He stopped. I shot!
Crossbows thump really loud when the arrow is sent, and on the shot, he lunged forward and blew as he wheeled to run. My arrow went in way back, but I knew I’d hit an artery because I saw plenty of blood as he bolted off. It was over in a heartbeat. I sat there silent, shaking, going over and over in my mind what had just happened. I didn’t know if I got him good enough or not, so I called some of my buddies and waited there in my chair ’til nearly 10:30 to go look for him. During that time I cried my eyes out. I really did, just sat there and balled. Whether I found him or not, I had done it! I had been hunting hard all season, and for some stupid reason I felt I had something to prove. I’m not even sure to whom, but I just had all the pressure lifted off me. It all melted away with that one shot.
Long story short, Steve showed up and we found that buck together. I tied him up to my chair and dragged him out with my X4. Now, I may have taken bigger deer before my injury, but you can bet this one was the most special of all. I felt just so lucky, so lucky to be alive, and so lucky to still be able to hunt!
On that fateful day in November, I fell 28 feet from a tree stand while deer hunting, injuring my spinal cord at T-8/9. Lucky for me, actually, I’m still alive, even though I probably shouldn’t be. There was only one place I could’ve fallen that wouldn’t have killed me and I just happened to hit that spot. I loved hunting so much though that I vowed I would get back to it someday.
The following year, I arrowed this big eight pointer from my wheelchair with my crossbow. It was one of the best feelings I have ever felt. I think I just needed to prove to myself that I could do it, and I did! I had to get help from some of my friends afterwards, of course, but that was after I drug him out of the woods behind my electric chair. I think my friends were actually more ecstatic than I was, my family too. No one was more relieved though. I just wanted to share this story with all those who hunt. ~ Willy
To the Roof of the World ~ First Female Para to Summit Kilimanjaro
By Dawn Ziegler
“Sports is my life,” Erica Davis affirmed. As a 29 year old, born and raised in Lodi, California, she grew up in the middle of two brothers who taught her how to be tough, competitive and positive. “I have always been a tomboy,” she continued. Starting as early as the fourth grade with her first 5K running race, Erica not only took part in, but excelled in sports of all kinds… flag football, volleyball, basketball, and softball (to name a few), often being named as MVP.
After earning her degree in Physical Education from Pacific Union College, Erica went on to teach high school PE in Hawaii. That’s where she got the itch for triathlons. She started training and competed in her first Tri in October, 2005, where she took 6th in her division. Being the thrill seeker that she was, she had her sights set on competing in the Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run) one day. It was during that time that Erica was accepted into the Masters Program at Sacramento State University in Kinesiology for Strength and Conditioning. There was no way for her to know that all that training would prepare her for an unforeseen journey.
Later that year on December 27th, Erica woke up with the worst backache she had ever had. Being tough-minded, though, she brushed it off as soreness from the previous day’s workout. Three days later, the pain turned into tingling that spread down throughout her legs. That is when she knew something was wrong. After six hours in the ER, she left with a prescription for muscle spasms. That evening, Erica got up to find she was no longer able to support her weight on her legs and had to crawl to get to the bathroom. On December 31st, Erica mustered up enough strength to walk to the couch from the stairs while holding on to walls and door frames. That was the last day she had walked, yet she remains hopeful it will not be her last!
Erica was diagnosed with a Cavernous Hemangioma, an abnormal cluster of blood vessels which isn’t that uncommon and usually doesn’t have such devastating results. However, in Erica’s case (one in every 5 million), the cluster of vessels ruptured, and a small droplet of blood made its way into her spinal column, causing inflammation to her spinal cord. The pressure on her spine from the swelling damaged the nerves, paralyzing Erica from below her chest down.
It would be understandable if Erica felt resentful about the misdiagnosis when she first went to the ER, or that she was one of the rare statistics that this happened to, but that just wasn’t in Erica’s character. Certainly, the realization of having her life as an athlete, which defined much of who she was, taken away could have put her in a spin of depression. Her reaction to the injury, though, would be what exposed who she was. “I didn’t want any negativity present in my hospital room,” Erica explained. “I grew up learning to be tough and positive… I don’t like the word can’t! This is a new chapter in my life and I need to focus on what’s next!”
||Erica would save her tears for the evenings in the hospital when she was alone, then pull herself together to meet the challenges of the next day.
A few weeks after returning home, Erica was introduced to a man who was an avid hand cyclist. He rekindled her passion for exercise and athletics. Hand cycling became the first of about 20 adapted sports that she would explore, some of which she pursued in the competitive arena in the years to follow. In January 2007, Erica and her mom moved into a senior citizen mobile home park in Carlsbad, California (where her dad would commute to and often visit), to be closer to the rehab facility so she could continue with a more intensive therapy and exercise regimen.
In the summer of 2009, Derek Gates went to the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) with his idea to document the first paraplegic woman to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. As crazy as the idea sounded, the intent was to send a message to the world that there would be no limit to the power of the human spirit. When thinking of who could possibly accept the challenge for such an enormous task, one name came up… Erica Davis!
By that time, Erica was back heavy into training for hand cycling and triathlons. She was already a member of the CAF which is a program developed in 1993 to help support challenged athletes with the cost of equipment and other expenses related to athletic goals. She trained six days a week, swimming, biking, pushing a race wheelchair, and other forms of exercise. When Erica got into competitive racing, the CAF became one of her sponsors.
Finding a purpose…
“I have two jobs now, training and recovery,” Erica said, “And it’s my job to be out there showing both able-bodied and the newly injured that anything you want to do you can do!” So when she was approached by CAF to be the first woman to wheel to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, she didn’t hesitate to say, “Yes!”
“After I said ‘yes,’ I had to think about what I had gotten into,” Erica admitted. “There were only three and a half months to train (before the scheduled climb at the end of January 2010).” She wasn’t concerned about her physical fitness, but there were many things that could go wrong with a climb of this magnitude… exhaustion, altitude sickness, dehydration, and hypothermia, for example. “You never know what can happen. Things can happen to anyone (on a climb),” Erica acknowledged. “I was especially concerned about altitude sickness and getting too cold. But I never thought of not making it. It was going to be fun and hard.”
And she had a message to deliver, “I wanted all people to know that they can accomplish anything they set their mind to! Something like this brings out more in you than what you thought you had inside.”
Soon after she finished with the cycling season in the fall of 2009, Erica put her bike away and focused her entire existence on making history by doing the unimaginable… climbing Kilimanjaro. Much of her training regimen for the climb was designed by the C.H.E.K. Institute (owners of the documentary), a worldwide philosophy on life coaching and personal training which involves a holistic body-mind health approach to performance and overall well-being.
Although there are good hiking trails near Carlsbad, there are no mountains to practice on. Erica’s weekly schedule consisted of pushing her chair up and down street hills, hiking with her new climb team on dirt trails, stretching, core strength training in the gym, continuing with her home program, getting educated on nutrition and learning the science of the mind’s performance during an ascent. (This last piece to her training would prove to be probably the most valuable to the team as a whole as the effects of the climb began taking toll on their physical ability to function.)
Another one of Erica’s sponsors for this endeavor was Colours Wheelchairs. They designed a chair specifically for Erica and her team so they could push, pull, and at times lift her over rocks and boulders. Tether ropes and push bars would be used on terrain over which Erica was able to maneuver by herself. And when mountain trails became impassable, modified bars that slide through the arm rests allowed her porters to carry her in the chair.
This wheelchair also came equipped with Magic Wheels to give Erica more power while pushing. With a 2:1 geared hub, they allow the user to go up inclines by exerting half the effort. To keep her secure in the chair while climbing, she used a seatbelt around her waist and a strap that went around her ankles. She also had her regular manual chair brought along so she could use it while in camp.
Erica and her team arrived in Tanzania, Africa, after dark on January 24, 2010. Excitement was in the air and they could hardly wait until daybreak to get their first real glimpses of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and the tallest free standing mountain in the world.
Her team consisted of eight people: Derek Gates, executive producer and master mind of the project, Chris Theibert and Matt Peters from Captured Life Productions who were in charge of filming the documentary, Philip Chester, the photographer, Zach Ralphs, a rep from Overstock.com which was another sponsor for this trek, Penny Crozier, CEO of the C.H.E.K. Institute, Tara Butcher, a below the knee amputee and fellow female challenged athlete, and Erica herself, the first female para attempting to summit Kilimanjaro.
Accompanying them was the Thompson Safari Team. This team of three guides and an entourage of 33 porters were a vital component to the climb. Not only were they responsible for carrying all the equipment (tents, supplies, food, wheelchair, tires, etc.) and setting up and taking down camp each day, but they were there to assist Erica with the climb when the terrain got really tough. The whole thing would’ve been impossible without them!
After spending one day in Tanzania, the next morning they would strike out for the mountain. “We’re going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro,” Erica said under her breath. It finally felt real to her. This was actually happening!
Not only was this a life changing adventure, but it would be a chance to witness some of the rare beauties of Africa. “Throughout the climb, we covered five different terrains,” Erica recalled. Day one started out in the rainforests of northeastern Tanzania. The sun shone brightly through the canopy of trees and monkeys hustled around overhead. Temps rose above 80 degrees when they started. The trails that wound through the thick forest were meant for hiking, not wheeling, but it was passable with some assistance from her team. This is what they all trained for. This is what they expected in the days to come.
Seven to nine hours a day for the first two days, they hiked. “I was up between 4:30 and 5:30 AM everyday (an hour before the others so I could do my needed cares to get ready for the day),” Erica shares, “We would get to bed around 8:00 and 10:00 PM at night. We were completely exhausted!” As they approached the end of day two, Erica took notice of the view, “I can see the floor of Africa,” appreciating how far she’d already come while camp was being set up.
Even though it was only day two, Erica and her team were already feeling the effects of the altitude. Breathing was noticeably harder and nausea was creeping in (although Erica recalls the first signs of sickness in her stomach on day four around 13,000 feet). “It was important to bring along snacks we liked to make it easier to force yourself to keep eating. ‘Erica’s bag of Halloween candy’ is what my team called my stash of goodies,” Erica remembers. “It was also crucial to drink much more water than you normally would, and you know how much people with SCI like to drink water,” she voiced sarcastically. “Fortunately, we were the only travel company on the mountain to bring a portable bathroom which the porters would set up and take down every day.”
The camps provided the bare necessities for the team while on the mountain. There was no electricity, heat or running water. They used wet wipes to get as much of the grime and dirt off as possible, and the porters brought them warm water in the evenings. “The first and fourth nights we were all in the same room on bunk beds. But on nights two and three we stayed three to four people in a hut which also housed our clothes, my wheelchairs, video and camera equipment, and supplies. And on the fifth and six nights we were two to a tent,” Erica describes. “The food, though, was quite surprising for up that high on the mountain. There was fresh fruit every day.”
The third day of the climb was a day of rest, a day to acclimate to the elevation before going on. “It was becoming more important emotionally to be there for each other,” Erica clarified as she described how the team bonded through physical and mental hardships. “We would tell jokes, play games, sing songs, anything to get your mind off the pain. But as it became harder to breath, we would talk less just to save our energy. I would even give my team members back rubs at camp because the terrain was getting more difficult to get my wheelchair through and I was relying more on them to push, pull and carry me.”
As they ascended, the scenery changed from lush foliage and wildlife to drier, tundra and alpine desert like conditions. It got colder, with more rocks and boulders showing up in their path. Eventually, they’d face snow and glaciers as they neared the summit, and as the elevation increased, the falling temps exerted its power. “We started out in tanks and shorts and ended up with every layer of clothing we brought,” Erica explained, “That made the going really tough.”
The next couple of days put Erica, her chair, and her team through a true test of strength. The alpine desert-like terrain gave way to the steepest and narrowest trails they had yet to contend with, and the team was at a point where they were no longer able to assist Erica. The porters had to take over. “I had to put a lot of trust in people I didn’t know,” she went on, “It was more draining emotionally because I didn’t have my team around me and I only knew about 20-30 words of Swahili… so it was very hard for me.”
||I cried from the intense pain of being so cold… When we reached camp, I went straight to my sleeping bag without dinner. It was the sickest I had ever felt in my life.
Headaches, nausea, and complete exhaustion began to take hold of each member of Erica’s team. Everyone moved slower, each step being thought out before being carefully placed. “They say about 60% of the people who attempt to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro actually make it to the summit, and by this point we had already seen four people being carried down on stretchers. That was an intimidating feeling,” she confessed. “I had to (continue). You’re up there on the side of a mountain… when you are that far, there is only one direction to go. Up!”
And at the end of day five, they waited, tired and cold, for the porters to set up the tents which would be their living quarters for the night. They had to camp across the rocky slope of the mountain. (This was not Erica’s favorite camp to say the least.)
The push to the summit…
The dawn of day six was spectacular. It also shed light on the most challenging day of hiking. The camp stirred at 6:30 AM with temps plunging into the single digits. “At this point I was cold all the time,” Erica made clear. “I had on almost every piece of clothing I brought and I still felt the cold ache in my bones. Every time we stopped, one of my team members had to sit on my lap to help keep me warm.”
After 11 hours of arduous climbing, they finally reached the camp that would be their last stop before attempting to summit the next morning. But it was still an hour before sunset and the team began to debate whether they could continue on or not. “We’re doing it!” Erica said with a rush of excitement. And with a renewed surge of adrenaline, the team pressed on…
Sometime around 5:30 PM on January 31, 2010, Erica Davis made history as the first paraplegic woman to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, along with her fellow challenged athlete, Tara Butcher. “My team carried me out of my chair to the point of summit to take pictures near the celebrated summit sign,” Erica boasted, “and warmth filled us as the realization of what we accomplished surged through our tired and freezing bodies.”
They relished the moments as they watched the sun set from the summit of Kilimanjaro. “It was awe-inspiring!” Erica shared, “Being a Christian and looking around at the beauty God had created… here I was on the roof of Africa.”
There was only one small problem now. The climb wasn’t over. The sun had just set and they had to get back down to camp, in the dark, with temps falling well below zero. “I cried from the intense pain of being so cold,” Erica remembered. “When we reached camp, I went straight to my sleeping bag without dinner. It was the sickest I had ever felt in my life.”
The next morning, Erica woke up with the worst headache she had ever had, “The first couple of hours of the climb down, I was not quite with it because of the pain in my head. But in a sense my job was done… all I needed to do now was ‘hang on’ and let the porters do the work.” The way down was on a different trail than the one they came up on. And when they reached the bottom, a day and a half later, the native porters bid their farewell with a celebration song and dance for the team. “The porters were what made this climb possible, and we couldn’t have done it without them!”
This project has been made into a documentary titled, Through the Roof, by Captured Life Productions. Proceeds benefit the Challenged Athletes Foundation. For more information about the documentary, go to: Through The Roof.
Next up for Erica…
Erica continues her rigorous schedule training and competing in races, participating in fundraising events, and being an inspirational speaker. She has her sights set on making it to the Paralympics in wheelchair ballroom dancing, hand cycling, or triathlons in the years to come. Erica also hopes to compete with the USA Wheelchair Curling Team. To get updates on future adventures or to support Erica, visit her site at: Go With Erica.
Up, Up and Away!
By Ashley Olson
In June 2011, I was the second wheelchair user to ride the first ever accessible hot air balloon in the United States through Up & Away. There are only four in the whole world and are located in Austria, Italy, England and now California. The basket was made by a company called Lindstrand Balloons in England. Some hot air balloon companies will say that they are wheelchair accessible but this only means they have crew members to pick a wheelchair user up and place him or her in the balloon basket. This is not only inaccessible it is dangerous. Plus, one’s viewing is restricted when the basket goes up to the chin. Up & Away in Sonoma County offers a truly wheelchair accessible hot air ballooning experience.
At a little before 3:30am I left my home for the two hour journey to the Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa where we were to meet at 5:30am. It was pitch black and I wondered when the last time I was up at this hour. It was peaceful though as my car flew on the highways virtually alone, picturing people fast asleep in cozy beds. Mike, the owner of Up & Away, and his crew were right on time. There were a few vans to carry everyone and the equipment over to the open field where we would take off but only one was wheelchair accessible. It was a fitting blue and called the Pegasus Project. I was loaded in first. A chair lift appeared from within the van and I rolled onto the platform with ease. In seconds I was level with the van floor and backing myself into the van. One of the crew reminded me to watch my head because there wasn’t much clearance. After getting into position behind the driver, my chair was then strapped down on four sides and I was secured with a seatbelt. I was certainly not going to move anywhere.
We arrived at the open field with the sun just warming up for the day. The Friday that I happened to be flying was the start of three consecutive days where ballooners gathered to take the skies together. On this day there were about 24 balloons but 33 were expected to show for Saturday and Sunday. Mike had 4 balloons that day. The process of that many hot air balloons being set up on one field and taking off was quite a site. First the basket is taken out of the trailer and then the balloon is unpacked and laid out flat. Once the balloon is secured to the basket high powered fans are turned on to start blowing up the balloon and when it’s basically entirely filled up, the burners are fired to bring the balloon and basket to their upright position.
Many of the ballooners knew each other and came by the accessible balloon because none of them had seen one. One side of the basket was entirely transparent and flipped down to become a ramp. I got a little assistance from one of the crew members transitioning from the grass field to the ramp but was positioned inside in seconds. Four straps like in the car secured my wheelchair to the floor of the hot air balloon basket. A four strap seatbelt was used to support my upper body and is used for a safety precaution but is not necessary, which I found out at the end. Directly to my right was the transparent ramp which was now a wall of the basket and in front of me was a window; both were excellent for viewing.
Lift-off was instantaneous and light as if given the power to levitate. Mike stood in his own area to fly the balloon. To fly one must have a pilot’s license and adhere to the rules of the sky. Mike has been flying hot air balloons for well over a decade and he was confident in his ability to do so. His lovely wife Patty and old friend DeDe joined me in the passenger side of the basket. As Mike fired the burners and more fuel feed into the balloon we continued to climb deeper into the sky, reaching about 1600 feet.
Suddenly the question “Am I afraid of heights?” popped into my head. I didn’t think I was but as I looked to my feet I could see the transparent wall to my right, which revealed the world below me. My heart leaped into my throat for a moment and I felt my pulse speed up. I took a deep breath and released my fears of falling. I looked out again and the image of the glass elevator from Charlie & the Chocolate factory came to mind. I felt weightless and almost invincible flying so high with the wind floating all around me. Then I heard the voice of little Jenny praying from the movie Forest Gump, “Dear God, please make me a bird so I can fly far…” At that moment I realized I knew what it feels like to fly. On the balloon trailer Mike displayed a quote from da Vinci that expresses this feeling beautifully, “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” I briefly glanced over at Mike and smiled, happy that I figured out his secret, his way of touching the divine while here on earth.
I felt like a bird up there and sang to myself, “I’m like a bird, I love to fly away…” (Nelly Furtado). The ocean fog was slowly creeping in between the hills and mountains and shined like silky white satin. Flying conditions have to be just right for a hot air balloon and cannot fly in fog so we admired the beauty of it but also hopped it would stay in the bay which it did. In fact, it was perfect day to fly with ideal atmospheric conditions. We stayed up for about an hour, moving around with the current of the wind. Mike steered the balloon with ropes, which reminded me of sailing, and controlled how high or low the balloon would go. We danced around the other balloons and even saw some “kiss” which means two balloons and sometimes even the baskets touch. A couple balloons drifted just above roof tops in a neighborhood and one landed in a court. A goldfish and panda balloon were the only special shapes. The landscape, horizon and balloons mesmerized me and the air felt and smelled so sweet.
My time in the sky went by so fast. I told Mike I didn’t want to come down and he chuckled and said it wasn’t a matter of choice so much but a matter of fuel. “Hot air balloons should be solar powered” I proposed. Mike was already steering us towards the airport we started at and communicating with runway control tower and his crew about landing. “Permission to land?” “Permission granted.” As we got closer to the ground, Mike instructed me to secure all my media. Once the basket was in arms reach for the crew, they helped to guide it to the desired landing spot. There was a tiny bump when we hit the ground but padding behind my head cushioned it, a nice added touch to the already accessible balloon. On the ground the crew quickly got to work, unhooking me in seconds and disassembling the balloon. About twenty minutes later we were back in the van heading over to where our cars were parked. For a little over 5 hours, parking in the short term lot at the airport cost $6.
Following ballooning was a champagne brunch at the Kendall Jackson Winery in the Sonoma County Wine Country. Underneath bright green trees were several picnic tables. I parked near them so I wouldn’t have to travel far over the thin tanbark ground. Some of the crew then whipped out table cloths and place-settings for everyone while the rest set up the buffet on a folding table and coffee and tea on wine barrels. While we waited for the food to be ready we were offered juice or mimosas. A sweet young lady came up to me and asked if I wanted her to prepare a plate for me and I thanked her but said I could do it.
I grabbed one of the custom hand-painted plates and went through the buffet. Mike’s wife Patty was serving up a slice of egg and cheese quiche and there was also coffee cake, watermelon and chocolate dipped strawberries. As I was savoring the flavors of my warm quiche and listening to all the happy chatter of the other guests I thought, wow, what an experience. Then Mike presented us all with a certificate for flying with a special message. He followed this with a toast thanking all of us and reading a quote that was printed on our glasses, “The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with his warm hands. You have flown so high and so well, that God has joined you in your laughter and sent you gently back into the loving arms of mother earth.” I was impressed by the speed of the production as well as the details involved and brunch was the cherry on top of a well-thought out and executed day. After brunch we were also given the option to do a free wine tasting, which I passed on but did buy a bottle and wander around the beautiful grounds.
Mike and Patty at Up & Away do this every day from about February to November and is always based on weather conditions. Mike gives you a call the day before and gives you a weather update, including what to wear and makes sure you received his email with directions. A power wheelchair will not fit in the Up & Away accessible van and it is too heavy for the basket. However, there is a wheelchair that can be provided for you that works. The cost of this experience is $235 for adults and discounted fares for teens, children and seniors. There are no additional service fees or taxes.
The one potential problem is access to an accessible restroom. The Sonoma County Airport has what looks to be an accessible restroom with grab bars but after using it I found that the stall itself is extremely small making it hard to close the door. My manual chair is approximately 26” wide, a fairly small chair, and I really had to wedge myself between the toilet and the wall to close the door. One could still technically use the restroom or if possible, wait until getting to the winery.
If you seek unique experiences then an accessible hot air balloon ride is available to sweep you off your feet in a beautiful part of California. I’ll never forget my day with Up & Away in the sky so high in align with the divine.
Ashley Olson is the creator of WheelchairTraveling.com, a complete resource for making adventures accessible. As a wheelchair traveler herself, Ashley understands the extra planning needed to make trips accessible. On her site, you will find updates on travel destinations worldwide; reviews on lodging, transportation, and equipment; and lists of wheelchair travel websites. Log in or register on her website to share your personal travel destination or search resources to create your own accessible adventure! You can also find WheelchairTraveling.com on Facebook and Twitter.
My Outdoor Buddy
By Chad Waligura
Outdoor Buddies Kansas – The year was 2003. In the tiny town west of Wichita, Kansas, a man named Merle Heldenbrand was quietly working to start a local chapter for a group called Outdoor Buddies, a non-profit organization based in Colorado that provides hunts for physically challenged persons. That fall, he took three disabled hunters out and all three got a deer. Merle did all the skinning and gutting by himself. Every year after, the number of hunters steadily increased for his hunt, and pretty soon he was taking guys turkey hunting in the spring as well. In 2010, Merle had seven volunteer guides at his call, each one chomping at the bit to help on every event that they could. (He typically has two hunters per week during turkey season and two every three days of the rifle deer season.)
Merle has also guided a few bow hunters over the years. He even guided his first muzzleloader hunter last fall, a young man from TN, who scored a huge 8 point Kansas buck, the kid’s first deer ever! “I have to replace all my pop-up blinds every three years or so,” Merle told me, “and I write a monthly column for the Outdoor Buddies newsletter once a month. At least they want me to send them something once a month, you know, to keep disabled hunters up-to-date on our hunts.”
Inspiration borne from heartbreak…
Don Young was one of Merle’s lifelong friends. They’d grown up together in the rural town of Kingman, getting into the usual mischief that boys get into together. When they were older, Don worked as an oil well pumper and Merle for Exxon Mobile. One day, while Don was driving through an unmarked intersection just south of town, a high school kid t-boned Don’s truck on his side, ejecting him out the passenger’s side window. Don lay dying on the road as the teen-aged boy involved in the crash rushed to Don’s side to give him CPR and call for help. That young kid saved his life.
(Some time later, Don would confide to Merle that he wished the boy would’ve let him die.)
Don was alive, but he’d broken his neck at the C-1 level. (Known as a hangman’s break… this is the same injury that Christopher Reeve suffered.) Don was paralyzed from the neck down. “All he could move were his eyeballs and chin,” Merle said remorsefully, “when he was life-flighted to Wichita from the wreck.”
That accident happened in 1996. Don was sent to Craig hospital in Denver for 11 months (January through November) of rehabilitation as soon as his neck was stable enough after surgery.
||Merle had been watching his friend slowly go downhill. The light in Don’s eyes was slipping away as he came face to face with the grim realities of life as a high quad.
During the time that Don was away, while back in Kingman, Merle thumbed through a Colorado Outdoors magazine that he subscribed to. He noticed a tiny article about a man named Sid Sellers and a group called Outdoor Buddies that helped disabled hunters get back into the field. Sid was partnered with the director of therapeutic recreation at Craig at the time, Sam Andrews, who would later tell Merle that “He saw the need for a group like OB after watching so many people sent home from rehab with no direction.” So when Merle saw the same thing happening to his friend Don after he returned home from rehab, he remembered the article and raced home to find it. ‘Man this is wild,’ Merle thought to himself while going over it again. ‘I wonder if they could do anything with Don?’
At that moment, Merle was having a wild idea of his own. He found Sid Sellers’ number and called him. He told Sid about Don and what he wanted to do. There was silence on the other end as Sid paused, thinking. They’d never taken anyone with as high a break as Don’s. “I don’t know if there’s anything we can do for him,” Sid reluctantly admitted, “but bring him out and we’ll see what we can do.”
Upon hanging up, Merle hopped in his truck and headed straight over to his buddy’s house. When he got there, he first approached Don’s wife Carol with the idea in the kitchen. “Carol, I have a crazy idea,” Merle exclaimed. He went on to explain how he discovered Outdoor Buddies and his conversation with Sid.
Surprisingly, Carol was for it. She didn’t know how it could be done, but she knew Don needed help. “But you’ll have to convince Don,” she replied.
Merle had been watching his friend slowly go downhill. The light in Don’s eyes was slipping away as he came face to face with the grim realities of life as a high quad. There’d be no cure, no way out. From time to time, he’d get belligerent with the people closest to him because there was nowhere else to vent his anger. Merle walked tepidly down the hallway, alone, toward Don’s room. He could hear the ventilator pumping methodically even before he reached the doorway. It was still shocking to Merle to see one of his childhood friends in this condition. Don lay motionless, his eyes trained on Merle as he entered the room. He noticed a peculiar look in his friend’s eyes as Merle stood still, politely, by the door. “Hey Don,” Merle said softly, staring at his buddy, “You want to go elk hunting?”
Don paused, his thoughts began to spin as he waited for his next breath of air from the vent machine… “You kiddin’,” he sputtered out before the air was gone. Ever since the accident, Don’s speech had been difficult to understand, so much so that anytime they were in public people avoided speaking to Don because they couldn’t understand him. (This is something that still bothers Merle to this day.) But Merle understood perfectly. He took the time to listen. Don paused again in between breaths, still thinking… “You bet!” were the next words to tumble from his mouth.
Merle beamed! He explained to Don about how he had found Outdoor Buddies, about talking to Sid Sellers and setting up a meeting that summer with Sam back at Craig hospital. Don listened intently, and after his friend promised that they weren’t going to try to leave him at Craig, he agreed.
Way back during their first conversation Sid had with Merle, he told him about a man in Nebraska named Bob Bowen who built gun mounts for ‘high-quad’ hunters that can be controlled by joystick. After watching Don operate his power chair with a similar device, Merle came up with an idea to superglue a straw and whiffle ball to the joystick so that Don could work it with his chin. He thought it might work, but they wouldn’t know for sure though until they got to Colorado and tried it.
On to Colorado…
It just so happened that another of Don’s childhood friends, Dwaine Robey, currently lived in Colorado, and not too far from Craig hospital. When Dwaine found out what was being planned, he offered his house for as long as they needed it. The trip was set.
A month later, Merle, Don, Carol, and two nurses that Don needed for his ‘round-the-clock’ care loaded into Don’s van and headed west. Merle drove the whole way. Meanwhile, Sam was getting the room ready at Craig where they would practice shooting once Don arrived.
After 13 hours, Don’s van rolled into the emergency entrance at Craig and parked. Sid was standing outside. Merle helped Don unload and Sid hustled them right off to an elevator that lead to the basement where a bench, an air rifle, and a target were set up, ready and waiting. Sam and Dwaine were there too, waiting to get started with Don. It was the first time all four men were ever in the same room together.
“Don would get so frustrated,” Merle recalled, “when he first tried shooting. That was hard for me to watch. There was my hunting buddy and I knew how good he used to be. Now he was struggling just to aim. It had to be maddening for him.” Don struggled mightily with the air gun, trying to maneuver it with the whiffle ball extension that Merle had glued onto the joystick. But his friends kept after him. They weren’t going to let him give up. Three hours later, one of Don’s shots struck the paper. The room went silent. “Boy, when he hit that fist bull’s-eye, his eyes lit up. I’ll never forget the look on his face. And it got brighter every time he hit it.” Don had found something he could still do. It was one small thing, but it was something.
All the men watching in that room knew what was possible now. Sometimes just knowing is enough.
They planned on staying a week, but after only three days, they were packed up and on their way back to Kansas.
Before they left, though, a return trip was planned for an elk hunt that fall at Estes Park, CO. Merle ordered a brand new rifle from Bass Pro Shops as soon as they got home and had it sent directly to Bob in Nebraska who would start on Don’s gun mount right away. Merle also took measurements from Don’s chair to pass along so he could custom fit it for Don.
When the rig finally arrived, Don was beaming again. Carol phoned Merle right away and he came over to check out the rig. He and Don talked about how and where they could try it out. They were both excited to see it in action.
The next day, they went to a farm on the outskirts of Kingman so Don could practice with the rig, test fire his gun and get used to the joystick Merle had glued his “assistive” device to. When they got out there, Don rolled out onto his van lift after Merle attached the mount to his chair. They figured that would make a fine shooting platform someday. With the stock sawed off the rifle, Don could see into the scope w/o having to lean forward. He began trying to get the crosshairs on the Hereford cows that were grazing about in the pasture. Once he could do that, Merle replaced the rifle with a 22 so Don could practice shooting targets. The two spent many hours in the field that summer, getting the unit on and off, lowering the lift and moving Don in position for a shot. The first attempt took about 4 minutes Merle said, “But by August we had it down to 50 seconds.” They were ready to go hunting.
The day after Thanksgiving, the town of Kingman faded away in the rear windows of Don’s van. Once more, Merle, Don, Carol and the care nurses were on their way to Estes Park. Dwaine had a suite waiting for them at the Holiday Inn for when they arrived. Spirits were high. Their guide for the hunt, Larry Davis, came over that evening to meet Don and tell him a little bit about what to expect the next day. Unfortunately, more than their spirits were up that night. Don suddenly spiked a high fever due to an infection and immediately had to be flown back to Wichita for medical attention.
The next morning, Merle began the long drive back to Kansas, alone and disheartened.
Don spent the next 6 weeks in the hospital fighting an infection that was caused by a deep pressure sore. When he finally got out, he was so weak he could barely sit up for a few minutes before passing out. Still, he was determined to start shooting again. Merle would say, “Don would tell us when we went out, ‘If I pass out, just lay me down for awhile and raise me back up,’ and then he’d keep going. There was no give up in him anymore. He was going to be ready for next year.”
As summer turned to fall, once again Don’s entourage prepared for the trip. Thanksgiving was coming quickly, and they were leaving the day after just like before. Dwaine even had the same suite reserved at the Holiday Inn. “Don had that sense of purpose in his eyes again. He was really excited when we got there.”
The next morning, Don was up and raring to go. He felt good. Merle loaded Don into the van and headed off to Estes Park. When they arrived after a short drive, all the struggles from the past year melted away. It was mountain cold, overcast and a light snow was beginning to fall. Only two good friends who loved hunting remained. Another disabled hunter followed them. They were both on this cow elk hunt, but Don had first shot privileges. As they both were admiring the scenery, Merle drove Don’s van down a narrow jeep trail. A call burst in over the radio. “Hey what was wrong with that one laying right by the road?” came a voice from the truck behind them. Immediately, Merle hit the brakes. They’d passed right by a big cow elk. The crew immediately sprang to action. Someone loaded Don’s rifle onto his mount as Merle lowered the ‘shooting platform’. “Hurry up! She’s coming by,” the voice came over the radio again. All Merle could do was watch now. The rest would be up to Don. He was in position.
The only thing that needed to happen now, did. Like it was meant to be, the cow stopped when she got exactly even with Don and stood there looking at him. Merle could see the barrel of the gun going up & down, back & forth as Don worked the joystick. He could hardly believe what was happening. When Don puffed, the gun roared and the elk crumbled, simple as that. In a half second, it was over. All three men in the van were stunned silent. “Want to see her!” came Don’s voice through the respirator. He was grinning ear to ear.
The smile on Don’s face (he was grinning from ear to ear) lasted the whole way to his elk. Merle and Don’s two nurses pushed and pulled his electric chair through the sage brush 150 yards to his prize elk, respirator and all, tubes catching on the brush, going over the rocks. “When we got to her, the party was on,” Merle recalled emotionally, “We called Carol and Dwaine’s wife back at the room and you could hear them screaming when they heard the news.”
The next morning, when Merle went into his friend’s bedroom, Don was beaming again. “Where do we go next?” Don asked. “Where?” Merle answered with a wry smile. “We go after a bull.”
Don’s smile lasted the whole trip back home to Kansas.
He passed away on January 10th, just over a month later.
[Don’s inspiration lives on in the hearts of his friends Merle and Dwaine. In 2000, Merle started an Outdoor Buddies chapter in Kansas in memory of his hunting buddy Don. Dwaine Robey became president of Outdoor Buddies, Colorado, after Sid Sellers passed in 2006.]
King of the Hill
Brad Skramstad was born in Minot, North Dakota and moved to Kalispell Montana during his teen years. In June of 1995, he suffered a spinal cord injury from a fall while working at a local plywood manufacturer. After months of hospitalization, several surgeries and an exhausting rehab, he faced the challenge of living life as a quadriplegic. This is his story…
The early years…
Brad Skramstad, who grew up bird hunting with his dad and older brother in North Dakota, relocated to Montana with his family when he was fifteen years old. Hunting had always been a large part of his youth. He used to fetch birds for his dad when he was too young to shoot, then killed his first deer at age fourteen because that’s the minimum age you could get a license in ND. The next year in MT, Brad put a tag on his first mule deer, shot a bear and bagged an antelope. This made the transition of moving a lot easier. Hunting in Kalispell was just as popular as it was back home.
Sometime during his twenties, Brad caught the bug for big game hunting. He made friends that shared his passion for elk hunting, starting putting in for state sheep and moose tags every year and got involved in the RMEF (Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation).
Brad’s life was right on track. He found a wonderful wife, had children, a good job and a zest for life. He’d just turned 40 years old and made a promise to take his twelve year old daughter on her first hunt that fall. Then came a fateful day that would change his life forever, June 19, 1995. That was the day something went horribly wrong at work. Brad fell into a deep pit and broke bones in several parts of his body, the worst of which were the ones in his neck. “I was going in and out of consciousness so I don’t remember much,” he recalled, “but I knew something was bad wrong. I couldn’t feel my legs, and they had a lot of trouble getting me out of that hole.”
When they did get Brad out, he was taken straight to the nearest hospital where he stayed a week in ICU. There, a neurosurgeon stabilized the C-6 fracture in his neck with screws and a titanium plate. Then he was shipped to Spokane, WA, for rehab as soon as the break healed. Brad was still in pretty rough shape though. “I still had broken bones in my body when I got to Spokane,” he said, “That plate in my neck was coming loose so I had to go to a different hospital so they could re-operate on my neck and set the bones again. Then it was back to rehab as soon as I recovered. I was pretty much in a state of shock.” Life as Brad knew it had totally changed. He was now a C-6 quadriplegic staring at an uncertain future.
While in rehab, Brad met a vocational therapist name Rick Villalobos who was into shooting and guns. When he found out that Brad loved to hunt, he arranged a few trips to a rifle range so they could work on shooting again. Brad and his therapists tried and tried, but he couldn’t figure out a way to shoot the gun. He even tried pulling the trigger with his thumb, but that didn’t work either. (Brad knew he could do it, but it’d never be the same as before. Such is the plight of all paralyzed hunters.)
Three months after his injury, the rehab gave Brad his release and sent him home. A week later, he was on a moose hunt with his brother Dennis. “I couldn’t shoot or anything, but I wanted to go along so badly,” Brad admitted, “I’d been cooped up too long and needed to get out. It was early October and I wanted to be in the woods.”
The follow year, Brad tried deer hunting out of his brother’s truck. He didn’t have enough stability to keep his rifle steady and wasn’t able to pull the trigger, but at least he was out there doing what he loved. “It was frustrating. Real frustrating!” he confessed. “I went a lot of tough years of trial and error trying to figure it out.” It was during these years that a miraculous thing happened for Brad. In 1997, he had a tendon transplant where a piece of tendon from his bicep was transplanted into his hand in order to give him more grip. It was done so he’d be able to hold a cup or pick things off the ground, but a peculiar result of the procedure was that Brad discovered he had more strength in his index finger. He thought he might be able to pull the trigger with it too.
Two years later, Brad shot a doe. A year after that, he drew an elk tag, a deer tag and an antelope tag all for the Fall season. To get ready for these hunts, that summer he bought a SR77 gun rig by Blackberry Technologies to mount on his chair. Not surprisingly, Brad was chomping to get his big game hunting career going again. It was the one thing besides his family that kept him going every day.
All Brad’s patience and determination was about to pay off. That season, he took a nice bull elk, a mule deer and an antelope. He was back!
A hunt for the Ages…
It was just an ordinary night when Brad’s wife and daughter came into his bedroom and told him “congratulations.” The word sent his thoughts racing. “What? For what? Did I draw a moose tag?” he wondered aloud. It had to be moose he thought since he’d been putting in for 28 years already. “Not quite,” his wife answered. Immediately the wheels started churning in Brad’s head. “A sheep!” A rush of excitement ran through his body, leaving it a tingling mass as he lay there thinking over the possibilities. It had to be sheep since it was the only other tag he’d applied for. Brad hadn’t built up as many points as he had for moose is all. It’s the last thing he thought he would ever draw. Another fateful day in June had just found him.
Brad lay awake in bed most of that night, staring at the ceiling, sheep tag on the way, trying to figure out how in the world he was going to make it happen. He’d never heard of a quad hunter even attempting to take a bighorn sheep. They roamed the high mountains, places not easily accessible to someone in a wheelchair. The only reason he’d kept putting in for the tag after he got injured was because he thought he’d have it figured out by the time he drew the tag.
That night, Brad recalled a story that one of his sheep hunting friend once told him. He told Brad that during the rut, sometimes rams would come down out of the high country in order to breed the ewes. ‘And if they could get lucky and catch one lower down,’ he thought, ‘it might just be doable.’ Now, Brad would get a chance to find out for himself.
The next day, Brad called friend and outfitter Dan Eckstrom who hunted in unit 210 that Brad had drawn for.
He explained his situation to Dan, told him what he could and couldn’t do since his SCI, and talked about sheep hunting. Dan had that special ‘can do’ attitude that Brad was looking for. They discussed Brad’s abilities and possible strategies for the hunt. Dan told Brad that what he’d heard about rams during the rut was true, that sometimes a ram will come down to breed, and maybe low enough to take a shot from a vehicle if they got really lucky. Dan and Brad hit it off right away. Dan told Brad to sit tight and he’d call him when the sheep rut was starting so he could come in to hunt. There was no use coming before then. It was November 8th when Brad got the call.
Brad had his bags packed and was ready to roll. He and his buddy Dennis headed out early the next morning, leaving on a quest that as far as they knew nobody had ever attempted. The L Diamond ranch where Dan guided waited for them 150 miles away. “It was exciting!” Brad recalled, “We all felt like something big was happening.”
He and Dennis arrived at the ranch and met Dan for the first time. That night, Brad went to bed nervous. He knew if he didn’t get a ram that he’d probably never get another chance. And a five day hunt can start zooming by if you don’t get anything the first two days. He could hardly believe that he was about to go on an actual sheep hunt!
Dan knocked early the next morning. They’d be hunting the Rock Creek drainage in the mountains that day, riding the highest mountain roads and looking for any rams that might be big enough, or close enough, to take. The weather was ideal for sheep hunting, clear and cold, which made for great glassing. They found nothing that entire first day.
On the second morning, they located a nice ram way up in the mountains. Since he was too far to shoot at, they kept easing on down the road to look for another sheep. They could always come back later and check on him. After seeing nothing for the rest of the day, the thought of that first ram was starting to grow on them. Dan decided they better go back and see if he might’ve come down. And… well… he had!
||He could see the ram almost straight up the shear mountainside. Just one more step and he could get the crosshairs on him. It was all he could do now to keep from shaking.
During the day, the ram had come down with a ewe, but he wasn’t quite in gun range yet. They stopped parallel to the ram and waited to see what he would do. As Brad got ready, which meant getting out on his lift and raising his rifle up as high as it would go, he could hear the ram chasing that ewe around above him. Rocks tumbled down the side, bouncing all around them. “Talk about blood-pumping excitement! That got it going,” Brad said. When he raised his rifle up as far as it could go, the scope barely cleared the van’s roof.
All the while, Dan was watching the ram and judging his size. He told Brad it was a good one. He also told Brad to get ready because he was coming down!
Brad could barely catch his breath. He could see the ram almost straight up the shear mountainside. Just one more step and he could get the crosshairs on him. It was all he could do now to keep from shaking. Brad peered through the scope, totally focused on the shot. He wouldn’t waste any time looking at his horns or anything else, just the vitals when they came into view. He wasn’t going to miss this chance if he got it.
The ram stepped out on a ledge some 200 yards away, broadside. Brad was ready with his Browning A-bolt 308. He didn’t have time to admire this magnificent animal. One shot into his shoulder and the ram rocked back and forth, stumbled slightly, then came tumbling end-over-end all the way down the slope, crashing with a thud behind some timber. Brad watched in fear of the ram busting his horns up during the fall. “The first thing I yelled to Dan when he went over to check on him was ‘Did he break his horns?’” recalled Brad, remembering how it had all happened so fast, “I was still in shock of what I’d done, what we’d done. Dan yelled back that he was OK! He was just as excited as I was I think. After we took photos, Dan loaded up my ram and drove it around to everyone he knew to show them what kind of trophy bighorn that his quadriplegic hunter had taken. That was a great day.”
Brad volunteers his time helping the Flathead Valley Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) and as a volunteer district chair in Montana. This year marks his 10th year of committee service. He also helped organize and underwrite the costs of Jack Creek Preserve Youth Camp. Jack Creek Preserve is dedicated for the use of youth conservation and archery hunting. Youth from across the country were able to participate in the 2006 camp. From there, Brad went on to help with various wildlife conservation projects in Montana like fence removal, habitat improvement and acquisition.
He is currently a member of Safari Club International, National Rifle Association, Paralyzed Veterans of America and a life member and habitat partner with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Brad’s passion for the outdoors and hunting never waned after his injury. The only that changed was the adaptive equipment he now uses to hunt. After several years of trial and error, Brad has taken elk, deer, antelope, wild turkey and a bighorn sheep. He is currently waiting to draw a Montana moose tag after 28 years of applying.
George Bolender – The First Award Winner
The Streamlight Challenged Hunter of the Year Award was the first nationwide recognition program established to honor physically challenged hunters. It’s based primarily on what each recipient has done to help others get back into the outdoors, and the very first winner was George Bolender, a C-5 quadriplegic from New York.
According to the award’s voting committee, “It takes a tremendous amount of courage to face a disability and to get oneself back into the mainstream of life, but a select few do not stop there. They feel obligated to reach out and help others just as they had once been helped.” George was one of those few.
George and his friends have since started their own organization, called New York Outdoors Unlimited, which hosts group hunts and helps challenged hunters with finding any adaptive equipment they might need. Check out the site and contact George if you’re in the area. No doubt there’ll be a wealth of info there when it’s completed.
The Challenged Hunter Award honors one heroic disabled citizen each year. With that said, Buckmasters’ American Deer Foundation and Streamlight were proud that they could announce George as their very first recipient. At the age of 43, George Bolender of Ontario, New York, was nominated by his wife, Julie; his son, George Jr. along with his close friends Joe Kirkpatrick and Mike Roy and his personal attendant Shelly Smith.
George became a quadriplegic (paralyzed from the neck down) after a serious automobile accident in 1991. But he refused to let himself be out of the hunting game. While still in the rehab hospital, George learned that there were special programs for disabled hunters. Organizations such as Buckmasters and the NRA’s Disabled Shooting Services help support a nationwide network of clubs, organized hunts, financial-aid options, and consulting services for disabled hunters and shooters.
After a six-month stay, George was released and came home with one thing on his mind: being able to hunt again. He’d lost his job as a contractor and faced daunting bills and an uncertain future. It would take more than a year to develop a plan and to figure out a means by which to shoot. He sold a few guns for money and solicited his brother-in-law, Russell Zaft, a welder, to construct a gun rig that would attach to his chair. (Zaft has since built all of Bolender’s hunting rigs.)
By 1993, George was back in the woods again, taking his first deer as a “challenged” hunter, a small buck, with a 20 gauge shotgun. But he wanted more. During the summer of 1995, he couldn’t help but pick up his old compound bow and find a way to be able to launch arrows from it again. Following a lead, Julie drove George (since he was unable to drive) to Syracuse, New York, to meet a man who built adaptive bow rigs for disabled hunters. Within 15 minutes of trying out a bow there, George was sending arrows into a target’s bull’s-eye.
“I kept looking around at Julie, like, I just can’t believe this,” he says. “A light went on for me. I could see a possibility that I thought had been shut off forever.” George went home with a rig that day, and that fall he harvested two deer by bow & arrow.
Since that fateful season, George has taken upwards of 35 deer with his both bow and gun, plus a 6-foot 7-inch Newfoundland black bear that he arrowed from a ground blind at 14 paces.
||I kept looking around at Julie, like, I just can’t believe this. A light went on for me. I could see a possibility that I thought had been shut off forever.
Throughout these endeavors, George could not stop thinking back about how hard it was to find the equipment and info he needed to get back to hunting, not to mention the people to build it for him. He began passing all his success stories to others, assisting the challenged sportsmen that he knew find the parts and components they needed to put together their own gun and bow rigs. In some cases, George even took care of the fabrication if the person needed his help on that.
Because of his willingness to help, George has been recruited by many organizations to help with aiding disabled hunters, two of which are the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and New York Bowhunters in addition to his New York Outdoors venture. Through these groups, George is in contact with challenged hunters all over North America, mainly by email and telephone, daily. He not only assists people getting equipment, he also provides encouragement and valuable mentorship.
What else is George doing when he’s not getting himself or others ready for the hunting seasons?
Well, you might find him putting together one of the many disabled hunts or accessible archery shoots that he hosts every year. You see, George is also president of the Outdoors Unlimited Buckmasters’ Chapter which holds an annual fundraiser banquet that benefits disabled hunters. But if you’re looking for him after the New York archery season has already started, you better be in the woods, because that’s where George will be, silently perched upon his camouflaged wheelchair like a Marine Corp sniper, with his bow at full draw, waiting. He will be looking for deer, but sometimes his thoughts will focus on someone else and how he can help get them back into God’s great outdoors.
|Disabled Sportsman Magazine
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