Freedom to hunt
LANSING – When state wildlife officials expanded efforts a number of years ago to make deer hunting more available and accessible to hunters with disabilities, they realized early on that some of those hunters needed a little assistance from able-bodied helpers to pull it all together. Plus, the Nov. 15-30 time frame wouldn’t work because many of those potential helpers would be busy hunting themselves.
So the Natural Resources Commission approved a hunt for mid- to late October, when more sportsmen and women might be available to assist.
Jonathan Edgerly, a natural resources specialist at Fort Custer Training Center, the state-operated National Guard facility near Battle Creek, thought he had the perfect venue for a holding an event for hunters with disabilities. The deer herd on the base needed thinning and – because of the amenities, including barracks and mess hall – Fort Custer would offer the perfect situation to hold a deer camp for guys who might not be able to go to camp in November. He enlisted partners from the conservation community and created the first “Freedom Hunt,” which was attended by eight hunters.
Seven years later, the only thing that has changed is that a lot more hunters are involved. This year, Edgerly said, was a rousing success, with a record 47 hunters in on the Oct. 17-20 hunt.
“Everything went well,” Edgerly said. “We got some, missed some, saw the big one that got away, and everyone’s excited about next year. That’s what we aim for; we’re just looking to have a good deer-camp experience.”
Participants, who apply to be part of the hunt, must qualify under fairly strict criteria. Only those who have been issued a permit to hunt from a standing vehicle, have been deemed 100-percent disabled or unemployable by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or are legally blind or have a permit to use a laser-sighting device, are allowed.
The hunters are spread out over some 3,000 acres of the 7,500-acre fort. Each is assigned a volunteer guide, who assists the hunter in taking his position. In some cases the guide stays and sits with the hunter throughout the hunt. In others, the guide might sit in the vehicle or even go back to the mess hall and await a cell phone call when the hunter is ready to call it a day.
“They can hunt as much or as little as they want,” Edgerly said. “Most guys stay over at least one night. Some guys are die-hards, got to get a deer, and get out there all day. Then there are guys who will go out for an hour.”
Some 200 volunteers are involved in the hunt, Edgerly said. “We have some people who come early and set up blinds or trim shooting lanes, some work in the kitchen, and some come after the hunt and take down blinds or clean up.”
Most of the hunters use pop-up blinds that have been donated by equipment manufacturers, though some local Boy Scouts built two wheelchair-accessible blinds this past year. Brian Woodward, a 54-year-old quadriplegic who works in information technology for Ford Motor Company, used one of them.
“I got to break it in for them,” said Woodward, who was an avid hunter when he broke his neck in an auto accident in 1983. “It’s pretty cool.”
Woodward uses a joystick to maneuver his shotgun – which is mounted on an adaptive device and equipped with a camera that gives him a view of the sight picture – and a straw, on which he inhales, to pull the trigger. Woodward killed a deer from the blind, the second he’s taken in the seven years he’s attended the Freedom Hunt.
Edgerly said he was hoping to attract veterans when he started the Freedom Hunt – the name was coined by a disabled vet on the steering committee, he said – but never intended to limit it to them.
The Department of Natural Resources, a sponsor of the Freedom Hunt, is expanding its outreach to veterans and others with disabilities, too.
Operation Freedom Outdoors is a partnership the DNR has formed with a number of conservation organizations and groups to create top-notch outdoor recreation opportunities.