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Originally printed in the December 2014 Outdoor Buddies Newsletter.
Reprinted with permission.
For many years I have been honored to participate in shooting events with Outdoor Buddies members and supporters. Hunting for pronghorn with them in early October in northern Colorado was a new experience. Outdoor Buddies is a volunteer organization founded by representatives of Craig Hospital, the world-renowned spinal cord and brain injury hospital located in Denver, and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Its mission is to provide outdoor adventure experiences to mobility-disabled outdoor enthusiasts.
Volunteers donate what they can so I offered to provide ammunition, a rifle and a scope. I had none of these items but, as the saying goes, I know people. I called some industry colleagues who helped me and described my needs: Jason Morton at CZ-USA, Dave Domin at Leupold and to Jackie Stenton at Fiocchi USA, who has never refused a charitable request. Jason recommended the CZ Model 557 Carbine in 6.5 x 55 Swedish Mauser caliber. Dave promptly sent the superb VX-2 3-9×40 mm scope and the exquisitely compact RX-1200i TBR rangefinder. Jackie provided an array of Fiocchi 6.5 x 55 ammunition.
Having only a few days before the hunt to sight in the rifle, I called Doug Hamilton and his son, Mitch, at the Family Shooting Center at Cherry Creek State Park. They are deeply engaged in an array of charitable causes involving veterans and disabled shooters. Mitch mounted and bore-sighted the Leupold scope on the CZ and got me to the head of the line for a shooting station. The CZ’s performance right out of the box was impressive. At one hundred yards all my groups with each Fiocchi load was no greater than one inch and a few 3-shot groups were less. Good enough, I figured, knowing no one was going to take a long range shot.
The Pronghorn Hunt
We gathered for the hunt 5:30 on a chilly Saturday morning at a campsite boasting large tents, half a dozen or so campers, hot coffee and a lot of doughnuts. A halfmoon hung like a flare in a gray-black cloudless sky drenched with stars sparkling like diamonds. Gusts of wind penetrated my several layers of heavy clothing like daggers. Dwaine Robey, Executive Director, and Larry Sanford, President, orchestrated the dozen hunters and twenty or so volunteers with the precision of directing Swan Lake. If I needed anything, Larry said, “We’ll fix you up from duct tape to marbles.” I was comforted.
I would hunt with 14-year-old Stetson Bardfield and his dad, Shai, an army helicopter pilot, and our driver and guide, David Cox. David is a seasoned hunter who has dedicated hundreds of hours to causes such as Outdoor Buddies hunts. Young Stetson has two prosthetic legs and disfigured arms and hands. Larry asked Shai how his son shoots, inquiring not about his son’s accuracy but what kind of prosthetic device, if any, the young man needed. “How does he pull the trigger?” Larry asked.
Still dark and icy cold, we climbed into David’s fourdoor pick-up. Pick-ups and cars drove off into the darkness, their headlamps pinpricks of light dotting the terrain like oversized lightning bugs. Shai carried Stetson on his back to the front passenger seat, adjusted his son’s prosthetic legs and seated him securely.
We drove north on a dirt road for several miles, pulled off, and, for Stetson’s use, removed a battery-powered machine called an Action Trackstander from the trailer.
The machine is a self-propelled chair on steroids, with tank-like treads, a wheel on each of two bars that extend in the front and two in the rear to stabilize the machine and to enable it to navigate hills up and down as steep as forty-five degrees without tipping over frontward or backward. The seat can elevate Stetson to a full standing position. Affixed on the left side of the handlebar was an adjustable gun mount. Funding for two Action Trackstanders, which cost about $17,000.00 each, was provided via a grant with funds donated from the Out Of The Box Foundation and Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Coors.
Stetson exited the pick-up and, aided by his dad, maneuvered to the tracker and got buckled in. Watching Shai lovingly and patiently help his son would bring tears to a statue. It did to me, at any rate. The three of us walked along with Stetson as he silently motored to the north, soon to be bathed in the light of a stunning sunrise. After a short time we approached a herd of pronghorn perhaps 600 yards distant. They were spread out as if in single file and seemed unperturbed by our slow advance. We were upbeat because Stetson had a doe license and several doe were standing or bedded down. A few bucks stood as if on guard. The largest buck watched us and slowly ambled to the north, perhaps to draw us away, then turned and walked directly toward us. According to the rangefinder, it got within 150 yards.
I was thrilled. I had never seen a herd of pronghorn at such close range or seen such magisterial behavior of a buck. We glassed the area to our right and saw several doe still bedded down. We approached to within 200 yards. Stetson positioned the tracker so he had a straight line of sight. He and his dad tinkered with the rifle in the gun rest and adjusted the Leupold scope. Apparently the time consumed and the considerable motion alerted the herd, for they trotted off and down a hill about a half mile away.
I asked Stetson how he was doing. “Good,” he said. “I’m having a lot of fun.” I told him he was a remarkable young man. “Thank you,” he replied, as if embarrassed by my praise. His attitude was transcendent; he never complained, he never had a frown, and he had the most beautiful smile, framed by his young face and blonde hair, appearing more akin to a Rubens cherub than a 14-year-old going out on a hunt with his dad.
During the next five hours, this scenario regrettably repeated—positioning the tracker, adjusting the devices, movement by the dad and Dave, minutes of movement — and each time the pronghorn loped away toward the horizon. We kept pressing on, because the hunt demanded it; although every hill, every patch of rock and loose dirt were challenging.
Perhaps a Touch of the Divine
Then, an intervention occurred; divine, perhaps. I will not quibble. The tracker’s battery registered low, requiring us to travel to a charging station some miles away. Being around noon, the consensus was to return to the camp, have a lunch, and resume the hunt afterwards. On the way to camp we spotted a herd of a dozen pronghorn not too distant from the road. Persistence in hunting, as in all things, is the best path to success. We agreed to hunt them. Of necessity, we hunted from the pick-up. That made the difference. David navigated to within a few hundred yards of the herd, waited, and drove closer.
The pronghorn were unperturbed. Dave drove closer and stopped. The pronghorn ran off, except one doe. The rangefinder measured it at 228 yards. Shai handed him the rifle and loaded it. Stetson rested the rifle on the lowered window and then adjusted it for elevation. We adults showered Stetson with our wisdom and instruction. I had sighted in the CZ at two inches high at 100 yards. “Shoot an inch high behind the shoulder,” I recommended.
Stetson pressed the trigger.
The pronghorn shook, walked ten steps and collapsed. Stetson made a perfect shot. Perfect. His face beamed like a searchlight. I was moved beyond words, trying to fathom the enormity of his accomplishment. For these moments, his life’s unfairness was irrelevant. For a moment his world was reduced to a few inches in diameter and Stetson triumphed.
Greater than the Sum of Its Parts
We abled folks get our rewards by helping others who deserved to be helped. David told me this kind of hunt “fills his heart with joy, watching a father and son spend precious moments and build memories of a day in the field.” David marveled at what these Outdoor Buddies guests have to overcome. He confided that he wonders if he’d have the grit to do so. I wonder also. If he never hunted again, David said, he would have sufficient joy as long as he could work with Outdoor Buddies. “They are truly hunters,” he said.
Dozens of volunteers-invested hundreds of hours to bring this hunt to reality and give deserving folks such as Stetson the opportunity to make a shot. One volunteer told me he had been blown up in Vietnam, had 15 surgeries, lungs full of asbestos and had one third lung capacity. “This is my one week-I come here to help,” he said. “I’m in all kinds of pain and I feel great.” Laughing masks lots of pain. Dwaine and Larry emphasized repeatedly, “rehabilitating means doing something; getting outside, showing you can get up a hill and navigate through mud.” Outdoor Buddies rehabilitates. It’s not about taking game, it’s about engaging in the fight; life’s fire center, as Teddy Roosevelt wrote.
Reliable Meats and Big Game Processing in Fort Collins donated processing the hunter’s meat. Hotel rooms were donated by Dariusz and Zosia Czyszczon, (spell that fast ten times!) proprietors of the Comfort Inn in Fort Collins. An avid hunter, Dariusz supports Outdoor Buddies because it helps disabled hunters and expands their passion for the outdoors. His Comfort Inn is a few minutes from the shooting area. “They get physically and mentally tired,” he said. “They need a break and we are here.” Some hunters must stay more than one day to meaningfully participate and, without Dariusz, could not afford to do participate. A man of great character, Dariusz said, “I want to give back.”
On my drive back to Denver I pondered why I felt so good. I hadn’t hunted and my back hurt. Answers seeped like quicksilver into my aging brain. I realized, yet again, I was so blessed-so lucky-just plain lucky-through no achievement or effort of my own-to be born into this country, to have good health and to be in a position to be useful to others. My life has been enriched by being involved. Stetson’s smile was my reward, for it captured the soaring human spirit.
How to Help
Wonderful organizations always need help. Get involved. Seek out the Outdoor Buddies or start a chapter. The organization is run by volunteers. The unavoidable reality is that money is always needed; as are donations of materials, equipment, even coffee and cookies. Nothing is free and everything has a cost, including noble effort. Contact Larry or Dwaine through the website. There is no higher calling than helping those who cannot help themselves accomplish their dreams. As the lyricist Ira Gershwin wrote, ‘Who could ask for anything more?”