Saturday, December 5, 2009
My MS Story Chapter 20- Sometimes I am the predator. Sometimes I am the prey.
Young Bambi: What happened mother? Why did we all run?
Bambi's Mother: Man was in the forest.
I forbade my children to watch that movie. I was OK with more realistic films like The Wizard of Oz, Gremlins, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Hunting is one of the many physical activities that has been limited by my disability, but it is a particularly significant one for me.
If you didn't know any better you might envision hunting as a bunch of heartless, drunken idiots wandering around the woods in orange clothing, carrying high-powered rifles. It's not your fault. These hunters do exist, and most television and movie writers (guardians of our culture) have chosen to paint us all with that broad brush.
For me, hunting is a family affair- more precisely, a male family affair. Sure, my mother and grandmother both dabbled in hunting a bit. I took my wife a couple of times. She actually shot a grouse once, but never showed much interest after that. This is what the men in our family do in the fall- my father and my two brothers. Our newest generation of hunters (my son and my 3 nephews) is batting .500. Two boys are interested in hunting and two are not. The times, they are a changin’.
We take our hunting seriously, and we work hard at it. It is an opportunity for us to catch up with one another- male bonding I suppose. There is a social aspect to it as well, sometimes involving alcohol. Getting drunk in the evenings was certainly more common when we were younger, back when we owned that hunting camp. Below is a photo of Andy with a deer in front of the camp. But we (almost) never allow the drinking to interfere with getting up early and going hunting, and we never have that first sip of alcohol until the guns are put away for the day.
Hunting provides me with a means for connecting to the land and to the many wonders of nature, and also to my ancestry and my heritage. In many ways the hunting that we do today is not all that different from the type of hunting that our forbearers pursued for the past couple of hundred years (power wheelchairs, ATV’s, and precision optical scopes aside). The primary difference is that if I am unsuccessful, which I often am, then my family won’t go hungry. Today we treat the land that we hunt on and the game that we pursue with respect. We were taught this by our father, who was taught by his father, who was taught by his father...
Now that the hunting season in Maine has ended for another year, this is an appropriate time for me to reflect upon and share with you how my hunting life has changed since my MS diagnosis.
The first two years of hunting with MS (fall of 2001 and 2002) were not hugely different from my healthy years. At that time I considered the changes in my walking ability and my hunting ability to be significant. These changes, however, were relatively mild compared to what would come later. I couldn't walk as far in the woods as I used to walk, but we still went to the same locations as we had always gone and employed the same hunting strategies we had always employed.
In the fall of 2003 I noted a significant drop-off in my hunting ability. I encountered a lot of difficulty walking in the woods because I couldn't easily lift my legs up over obstacles like stumps and logs and rocks. I was relegated to hunting in the open areas, such as logging roads and fields. I stumbled often and even fell a couple of times. That’s not a good thing when you are carrying a loaded gun.
I did have some success in 2003 though. We try to shoot bucks when we can, but late in the season if we have a doe permit (which, like a moose permit, is based on a lottery), then we will try to harvest a doe. My friend Dean and his father took me to a spot where they knew some does were hanging around. With just one day left in the season I was able to shoot a doe. I didn't know it at the time, but that would be the last deer I would shoot (to date). Below is a photo of me with the doe.
In October of 2004 I went on my first moose hunt. In Maine, hunters enter a lottery for the small number of moose hunting permits, and my name was finally drawn (the only moose permit I’ve ever won). This was my coming out week too- showing my cane to my extended family for the first time. On the second day of the hunt we came upon a mature bull moose, at a close range, and I didn't miss. Below is a photo of me with the bull. I wish we would've removed all of that cabling and rope lying on top of the bull’s body before we took the picture. We used an elaborate, field engineered cable and winch system to get this 750 lb (field dressed) bull out of the woods. Maybe somebody clever can Photoshop those cables away for me.
That same November I began to deer hunt from an all terrain vehicle (ATV) for the first time. The good news was that it allowed me to get around to a lot of locations in the woods that I couldn't have accessed otherwise. It certainly didn't allow me to venture deep in the woods where I used to hunt. Those days were gone forever. The bad news about deer hunting from an ATV was that it made a lot of noise and undoubtedly alerted the deer to my presence.
Although I could no longer walk in the woods, the bio-kinetics of my condition at the time still allowed me to safely climb a ladder into a tree stand, or so I convinced myself. Instead of being a stealthy ground hunter, I became an ATV and tree stand hunter. It was not ideal, but I still felt as if I was a legitimate hunter, and I could shoot a deer at any moment. Below is a picture I took from my tree stand.
Later that fall I was thrilled to have my son, Zach, shoot his first grouse at the advanced age of 12. He was getting a little old for his first hunting success, and I was growing concerned. What would people think if he became 13 or even 14 years old without his first kill? See the picture below.
Fall 2005, 2006, and 2007 were very similar to 2004 in terms of my hunting abilities. Instead of the cane I was using two forearm crutches. I fashioned a special holder on the ATV so that I could bring my crutches with me. I still managed to climb up into tree stands in ’05 and ’06, but got stuck halfway up the ladder in ’07, and so I grounded myself.
In the fall of 2008 I started to have some difficulty getting into and out of the ATV. One time I fell as I was trying to get off. That season was pretty much a bust for me. It rained a lot, and I just wasn't able to schedule much hunting time due to work conflicts. I owned my iBOT in the Fall of 2008, and planned to hunt from it, but that didn't really materialize. I harbored mixed feelings about the hunting season just completed, as well as my hunting future.
I recently finished up the Fall 2009 season, and again I didn't shoot anything. I mounted an ATV only once, and it was a major chore for my friend to boost me in and out of it. I was able to spend time hunting with my brothers, Andy and Tom, my two friends both named Mark, and a few other hunters who were very motivated to help me out. I know that any one of these folks would rather have seen me shoot a deer than shoot one themselves. That's just the kind of people I'm lucky enough to know.
I essentially gave up on the ATV idea and decided to hunt from my iBOT. But I must say, this year I became re-energized about hunting. I had an enjoyable season.
The iBOT has a four wheel drive mode, which allows me to go places a normal wheelchair would never go, but of course not as many places as the ATV allowed me. The iBOT, however, is pretty damn quiet compared to the ATV. I used a brace to hold up my gun and provide for a more steady aim, despite my weakening arms. I went deer hunting eight times this fall, usually for only part of the day. I think it was just bad luck that I wasn't able to harvest a deer. On four of those hunts I went alone.
“What would you have done if you had shot a deer, alone?" asked my lovely and sensible wife.
“That's what cell phones are for,” I replied, knowing that my brothers and friends would have been more than happy to help me take care of a deer, if I had been so fortunate.
I worry about how much longer I’ll be able to hunt, but I have an inspiration. A gentleman that I've met online, Don, is more disabled than I am and is still out there chasing deer. Check out his website at http://www.afarcry.info/. If you spend enough time at Don’s website you may come across a picture of me with my bull moose.
I always find the end of each hunting season to be somewhat emotional. As I gather up all the things and put them away for another 10 months, I reflect back on all the hours I just spent in the woods. I'm usually ready for each season to end though, because it's a lot of work and it's time to get back to other responsibilities. For me, the end of hunting season is a great segue into the Christmas season, which the child in me still thoroughly enjoys.
But last weekend, as I was putting away the hunting gear, I found myself pondering a question that I hope is premature, but I just can’t know for sure.
Was this hunting season my last?