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Photo by Layna Hendrich of PhotographyLayn

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Hunt of a Lifetime- Extreme Wheelchair Hunting

Since I was introduced to hunting in 2009, I have always envied Russ' stories of being up in the mountains listening to the elk bugling, stalking the bulls, and strategizing to make that perfect shot. While I was very thankful for the opportunity to hunt in a blind in a "wheelchair accessible" area, and I had greatly enjoyed it in my archery hunts in the past, I dreamed of the full-fledged, all-terrain hunting experience.

When I drew my first bull tag this spring, I soon realized that my crossbow would not give me the yardage I would need to make an accurate shot on a bull elk in the area where I would be hunting. Once I knew I would have to shoot a rifle, the panic set in.

My first experience shooting a rifle was when Russ and I were dating in 2005. He told me he couldn't marry me until he knew I could shoot, so off to the range we went. When Russ set me up on the shooting bench and handed me his .30-06 rifle, I didn't know enough to realize I was in for quite a punch from the recoil. After taking the first shot, I knew my shoulder stung, but I was cocky after making a decent mark on the target and didn't hold it tightly for my next shot. Needless to say, shot #2 nearly knocked me off of the bench and bruised my shoulder badly. If you add my poor balance from my spinal cord injury and my daily dose of clot-preventing blood thinner, I quickly realized that shooting a rifle was not only a bad idea, but also a dangerous one.

Fast forward to 2013, and you can start to understand why I was nervous about my impending elk hunt. Fortunately, one of our Wyoming Disabled Hunters board members, Myles Haines, had struck up a friendship with a local Cody company, The Best of the West. BOTW is known for their long range rifle system with Huskemaw scopes, which can be seen in action on their hunting shows on the Outdoor Channel. They heard about my dilemma and asked that I come in to the shop to talk about a possible solution to my rifle problem, as well as the possibility of filming my hunt for their show.

When I went in to meet everyone, I was quickly put at ease by their kindness, confidence, and knowledge of their product. The rifle systems they produce are built with muzzle breaks, which minimize the recoil until it is virtually non-existent. You can actually spot your own shot through the scope because there is no movement after your shot. I was able to handle one of the rifles and see how the scope worked. I was told, with practice, I would be able to shoot at long range accurately and with minimal recoil. Sounds too good to be true, right?

Getting comfortable with the rifle at The Best of the West.

 I left the shop that day skeptical but slightly optimistic. We made plans to go to the local shooting range to try out the rifle, and Russ arranged to use his lunch break to go as well. We met back at the shop so that he could be introduced to the staff and crew, and we headed out to the range with Latt, a pro staffer, and Nate and Matt from the camera team. I was nervous and excited at the same time.

I was used to hearing people talk about making shots at 300 yards and under, so when they said they would start me at a target at 550 yards, I laughed a little. Surely I was about to make a fool of myself. What would make me cry first- the pain of the recoil or the humiliation of missing the target? So I put on my ear protection, got comfortable at the shooting bench, and listened to Latt as he instructed me on the rifle and scope. Once I was ready, I took a deep breath, released it slowly, and squeezed off my first shot.

I felt nothing- absolutely nothing. Addison hugs me harder than that rifle kicked. I was shocked. And I had only missed the target by about four inches. Latt showed me how to adjust the scope for the slight wind/snow we were experiencing, and the next shot was a bull's eye. At 550 yards. With no recoil. A fluke, right? We spend the next two hours having the time of our lives shooting at long range targets with different rifles, including Latt's 7 mm Mag. By the end of the morning, I was hitting within four inches of the target at 1120 yards (for those of you that don't shoot- that's really far- visualize 11 football fields...). And Russ got in on the action as well. We both left the range that day as believers in the BOTW rifle system. I had just shot for two hours and my shoulder didn't feel any different than when I had started. I was ready for my hunt.

I had been fortunate enough to draw my bull elk tag in Area 45, and our organization had been working with John & Carolyn Alm with Paint Rock Canyon Enterprises on the Hyatt Ranch. The Alms founded Camp Paintrock, which allows 72 “underprivileged, at-risk, but high-potential” ninth graders from the Los Angeles inner city area to spend five weeks during the summer at the ranch. They are amazing, incredibly generous people, and WDH is very grateful to bring our hunters, including many Wounded Warriors, to Hyattville to hunt. The ranch staff have built several accessible hunting blinds on the ranch, and the housing accommodations are also accessible.

Russ and I, along with Latt and Nate, arrived at the ranch on Wednesday night. We came in after dark, so we didn't get a good look at the place until the next day. We settled in for a quick night's sleep before leaving the next morning under cover of darkness. We met Terry Jeffers, who is a contract employee for the ranch, and would be our guide for my hunt. Terry has been involved with the ranch for over 14 years, and he knows the land like the back of his hand. He also knows the elk herds that live on the ranch and can predict their movements- at least as well as you can predict the movements of wild animals!

We set up in the first blind Thursday morning. There were several elk trails leading down to a creek, so we hoped to see some action. The blind was large- 8'x 12'- so we had adequate room for the five of us and the portable shooting table. We waited for a few hours, but never saw a thing. Terry mentioned that some cows had been moved down off of the mountain a few days before, and that it may have upset the elk herds. I mentioned to him that I was comfortable being outside the blind, and that I was willing and able to be anywhere on the ranch that he thought we could get to. Terry's response- "That changes everything." When I told him I was also comfortable taking a shot anywhere between 500-800 yards, he said, "That really changes everything." And so my extreme wheelchair hunting experience began.

We headed back to the ranch house to have lunch and restock with plans to be picked up by Terry around 4:00 p.m. We spent the afternoon drooling over a massive bull elk on the side of a hill across from the ranch house. Russ had spotted him through his binoculars, but he was in the ranch's safety zone, where we can't hunt. Smart elk! This just got us even more excited to head out, and when Terry arrived, we were ready to go.

We headed out on a different trail this time, out in to the heart of the ranch. We drove for a while and then Terry stopped the truck, and the guys bailed out to do some spotting. After seeing a small herd, we loaded back up and headed to where we could get into a better location. We all unloaded this time, and Terry tied a tow rope to the front of my chair. With Russ pushing and Terry pulling, we started off cross country. Nate started filming and Latt hauled all of our gear. I held on for dear life and tried not to look too crazy with the huge grin splitting my face. This is what I had always wanted, but had never dreamt possible.

Once we got close to our location, I got out of my chair and onto the ground. We wanted to be out on a rock ledge looking down on the elk, but once we left the cover of the juniper trees, we would be exposed. Latt crawled forward to get the rifle set up, and I followed him, pulling myself with my elbows while Russ pushed my feet. We got out on the ledge and starting getting comfortable. I had never shot lying prone on the ground, only from the shooting table, so this was a new position for me. The guys started spotting, and before long, they found a bull elk with a few cows. I got him in my scope and realized that although he was a decent 5x5, he had broken off his two front tines on one side. I felt comfortable letting him go, especially since he was the first bull we had seen. He hung out for a few more minutes, and then he and the cows ran up over the ridge and disappeared. We heard other bulls bugling, but never saw anything within range. It was starting to get dark, so Terry left to go and get the truck. We stretched out on the rock ledge for a while and just enjoyed listening to the bugling. There were several bulls blowing by this time- we think they might have caught our scent and were making their displeasure known. It was such an amazing moment; this was what Russ had told me about, and I was actually experiencing it for myself. I could have ended everything right there and been happy, but fortunately, my hunt was only just beginning.

We headed back home for dinner. Now that Terry knew that I had been serious about being hauled around, he had plenty of ideas for the next morning. I was a little sore, but it was so worth it. I fell sleep that night with a feeling of pure contentment. We headed out the next morning in John Alm's Toyota Land Cruiser, which quickly lived up to its legendary off-road reputation. Over the next few hours, we repeated a cycle of events. We would stop at a location, unload, and start off towing me in the chair. When we would get close to the elk, Russ and Terry would either drag me or carry me between them. Once we were within view of the herd, I would scoot or army crawl to where Latt would have the rifle set up and see if I could get the right angle for a shot. I learned several things very quickly:
  • Elk are very unpredictable creatures
  • Shooting prone on the ground is much different that shooting from my chair at a table
  • When there are large bull elk involved, grown men start talking in very high-pitched voices
To be honest, after doing this multiple times, and never feeling comfortable enough to take a shot, I was getting frustrated. My legs were not cooperating, and I couldn't hold my shooting position for very long without my muscles spasming.  I was determined to only take a shot if I was completely sure of myself, but I saw that possibility slowly slipping away. This was the hunting experience I had always wanted, but what if my body just couldn't do what I needed it to do? I felt so bad about all of the work my hunting team had put into making this work for me- I knew I had to keep trying. I was getting sore, and I was pretty sure I had separated something between my shoulder blades. Add that to the cactus I had crawled through and I could have called it a day without feeling completely ashamed, but I really wanted that bull elk.

Terry had one more spot that he thought might be a place where some of the elk might be. We headed that way in the Land Cruiser and unloaded. This time, Russ decided that carrying me piggy back might be our best option to cover the most ground. I don't think he realized how far we would have to go. Latt, Nate, and Terry went ahead of us to get everything set up and see if they could find the herd. Russ loaded me on his back and we started after the guys. We quickly realized just how far he would have to carry me. It's hard to explain to people what it's like to tote dead weight- especially when the person is over six feet tall. And let's be honest- I don't think anyone is worried about me being anorexic. Luckily, I married a very burly man, and we made it a lot farther than I thought we would before my arms gave out. At that point, Russ lowered me to the ground and he and Terry drug/carried me closer to the ledge. The guys had spotted several bull elk running around in the juniper trees below, I scooted/crawled the remainder of the way in order to stay out of view, and after resting for a few moments, got set up with the rifle.

Below me, multiple bulls were moving in and out of the trees. They were fighting, chasing the cows, and generally making complete fools of their male selves. What woman in her right mind wouldn't take a shot at that? For once, my body cooperated and after several attempts, I was able to settle in to a comfortable position. Unfortunately, the bulls were moving all around and in and out of the trees. I would follow one in my scope only to lose him again, and I was starting to get confused about which bull I had been following. To further complicate things, I had several pairs of eyes spotting bulls from their own, separate locations, and each was frantically whispering that a bigger one was to the left, or a real beast was to the right. It was hunting at its finest.

I finally focused in on a nice 6x6 with great symmetry. He might not have been the biggest bull down there, but he was a beautiful elk and he was staying out in the open. Latt verified my yardage, and I sighted in on him. I tightened my grip on the rifle, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. The bull stopped broad side, and I pulled the trigger. I watched through the scope as he went down. I started to chamber another round if needed, but he died quickly, which I am always thankful for. 545 yards with no recoil- I was beyond thrilled.

And then the celebration began. Everyone had invested so much to make this hunt possible for me. There were some tears, a lot of laughing, and smiles all around. The relief was palpable- I didn't realize just how much I had wanted it to be a successful hunt until that moment. I felt like I had been wrung out like a dish cloth, but it was so worth it. It had been the perfect combination of the right terrain, the amazing rifle system, and my awesome hunting team. We headed down to the elk for pictures and video, and then my four burly guys somehow managed to load the 800+ pound bull into the back of the Land Cruiser. It was the most redneck thing I have ever seen. Terry in the driver seat, Russ in the passenger seat holding my wheelchair frame, Latt, Nate and I in the back seat holding the rifle, my wheelchair cushion, and the camera, with a bull elk in the trunk, head hanging out over the tailgate with his rack tied up on the roof. It was amazing. We headed back to the ranch house in great spirits., thankful for the successful harvest and the bountiful meat it would provide.

Russ, Me, and Latt

Nate, Terry, Me, and Latt
Words cannot express how thankful I am for everyone involved in this hunt. To John and Carolyn Alm, for being so generous with their land and vehicle. To Terry, for hauling me all over the mountain and being willing to share his knowledge of the land and the elk. To Latt, for allowing me to use his amazing rifle, teaching me how to shoot it effectively, and coaching me through the entire process. To Nate, for following us on our insanely wonderful hunt and getting some amazing footage and proof of all of the craziness. And to my amazing husband, Russ, for being my best friend and partner in crime through all of our adventures together. He never doubted that I could do this, and it was his confidence in my ability that pushed me to finish when I wanted to give up. He would haul me to the ends of the earth without complaining, and I couldn't ask for a better man.

I never dreamed that a hunting experience like this would be possible for someone in a wheelchair. I am exhausted, incredibly sore, bruised, and scraped, and I will be picking cactus out of my body for a while, but it is such a sweet pain. I haven't worked that hard for something in my entire life, and it was all worth it. It just goes to show you that with the right support team, awesome adaptive equipment, a little creativity, and a lot of man power, you can do the seemingly impossible. I am officially ruined for life on any other type of hunting. Once you have experienced Extreme Wheelchair Hunting, you can't ever go back. It was definitely the hunt of a lifetime.





For more information on hunting with Wyoming Disabled Hunters, visit our website at www.wyomingdisabledhunters.org, or call Corey McGregor at 307-899-0790.

To learn about The Best of the West long range rifle system and Huskemaw scopes, visit www.thebestofthewest.net. The footage from my hunt will appear on the Outdoor Channel sometime next year. I will post more information as it becomes available.

If you know an eligible child in the LA area, please visit www.hyattranch.com for more information on Camp Paintrock.

3 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Ashlee we share your excitement in your wheelchair elk hunting experience during the Hyatt Elk Hunts jointly sponsored by the ranch owners (Alm's); Terry Jeffers; and Wyoming Disabled Hunters organization. It was for results like you described (sometimes only once in a lifetime) that Larry Frandson worked to get these elk hunts primarily for disabled veterans and those who might qualify I'm another category. This could not have happened without the Alm's sharing their land and facilities so generously. Or without Terry providing the backbone and having the stamina to "make each years's hunts better" .
    He like Larry work tirelessly to make these what often becomes that lifetime special moments you never forget and can't quit talking about! This is just one way a group of people can say to a veteran or disabled person "You are special and deserve this experience!" You have explained how being flexible and thinking "outside the box" does achieve excellent results. Kudos and much appreciation Terry & Larry for all your hard work on the past 2012 * present 2013 Hyatt Elk Hunts!

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  3. This story had me riveted, and I don't even hunt! :D Loved the details and the awesomeness of your "team." :) Go, Ashlee!

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