Hunters with disabilities hunt for deer, find friends
October 31, 2011
ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- Rising early before the sun on a Saturday morning was not a problem for energetic 13-year-old Tori McAfee. A huge smile stretched across her face as she put on her pink and brown camouflage hat, which went perfectly with her matching shirt and boots. Before heading out to breakfast, she balanced herself with her pink crutches as she reached for her rifle.
Like Tori, 24-year-old Justin Montgomery's eyes squinted as the bright sun peaked through his cabin window at the University of Missouri Forestry Camp. His face lit up from the anticipation of the big day. His camouflage chest strap kept him upright as he quickly rolled his wheelchair onto the uneven blacktop outside his cabin door. A mix of familiar and new faces greeted him on the unseasonably warm October morning.
"I hope to see a big buck," he announced. "But if I see a doe, I'll take it."
Tori and Montgomery were part of a special group of 24 hunters who had the unique opportunity to take part in the 2011 Wappapello Lake Mobility Impaired Deer Hunt October 21-23. No strangers to the sport, both Tori and Montgomery have been hunting since they were young.
In 2008, Tori was one of ten youth hunters invited to participate in the first Missouri Governor's Invitational Youth Turkey Hunt where she was the only participant to harvest a bird.
Montgomery began hunting when he was 11 and has already harvested six deer.
The annual event offers hunters with physical disabilities that limit their mobility an opportunity to hunt in a safe environment.
A special deer camp was staged Friday night before the hunt at the University of Missouri Forestry Camp in Wappapello, Mo. Hunters and their guides met to discuss hunting areas and strategies.
After settling in their cabins, hunters enjoyed a big dinner from Forestry Camp's Center Manager Marie Obourn and the rest of the camp staff.
"Even though this is one of the toughest events to prepare for, it is one of the most rewarding," Obourn said.
Deer camp wouldn't be complete without a campfire. Participants, family and volunteers laughed as they shared stories, tall tales and memories around the fire.
Mic Plunkett, conservation agent with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said the fellowship and camaraderie is what makes the weekend.
"Sometimes we get wrapped up in wanting the participants to kill a deer, but that's not the most important part of the weekend. It's getting together with folks from all different walks of life and having them together for one whole weekend," he explained. "My jaws hurt from smiling so much, everyone is laughing, joking, cutting up and teasing, and if we get a few deer on top of it, then that's great too."
When James Gracey, Wappapello Lake Assistant Operations manager, started the hunt 12 years ago there were only three participants. No one harvested a deer that first year.
A few years later, the Corps developed a partnership with the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Missouri Department of Conservation and the University of Missouri Forestry Camp. This partnership has attributed to the success and growth of the hunt.
"This hunt could not be possible without the dedication of our partners and volunteers who put in untold hours and commitment to pull this together," Gracey said.
Several of the participants in the hunt were paralyzed in previous hunting accidents, such as falling out of a tree stand, or an all terrain vehicle wreck. National Wild Turkey Federation Regional Director Larry Neal said his organization believes everyone deserves the right to the great outdoors.
"There are a number of hunters who have not had opportunities to get outdoors for a number of years due to a disability," Neal said. "The Mobility Impaired Deer Hunt gives them the opportunity to once again get out and enjoy their passion for hunting."
For Eric Lemons, Wappapello Lake Natural Resources specialist, seeing people have the opportunity to get out and enjoy the outdoors is one of the best aspects of his job. Lemons now heads the hunt.
"Many times a lot of the hunters tell me that without a hunt like this, they wouldn't have an opportunity to deer hunt anymore," Lemons said. "To be able to help these folks get back into nature, to accomplish the Corps natural resources mission, it's such a blessing; it just warms your heart and your whole body from head to toe just to be a part of it."
Volunteers who participate in the hunt benefit from the fellowship with the hunters as well.
"Every year there are so many volunteers that we almost have to turn them away," Lemons said. "It's such a special event and such a great time that people keep coming back."
Independent Living Specialist Tonya Winters said she enjoys helping out with whatever is needed.
"It's a blessing to come out to assist in any way that I can," Winters said. "Some of my consumers have participated in the hunt."
For some, this year's hunt was their first experience shooting a gun.
"It was fun," said 13-year-old Tiffany Lemons. "The best part was shooting a rifle."
Most of Tiffany's family enjoys hunting, and being able to hunt with them is something Tiffany had been anticipating anxiously.
"I'm excited to get out of the house and away from my cats and two dogs," she said.
This year's hunt was a success. Eight deer were harvested, and even more smiles and friends were made.
Montgomery added that even though he didn't get a deer this year, it was well worth it.
"The fellowship was my favorite part, and I made some new friends," he said.
As far as hunting goes for him, "I'm going turkey hunting in a few weeks, I'll be sure to get one then!"