Fate took their sight, or limbs, or left them with other health issues, but their love of hunting remained strong. Now, one volunteer group makes sure that love doesn’t go unrequited.
All photos by Sara Stathas
Some are blind. Some can’t walk.
Some have heart conditions. Yet they gather in the predawn darkness and ride through farmland and forest on all-terrain vehicles to hunting blinds. Guided by able-bodied mentors, they’re determined to enjoy the mix of serenity and thrills that hunting can deliver.
The nonprofit North American Squirrel Association, host of the October 2014 hunt that’s pictured, gets help from the state Department of Natural Resources to ensure everyone stays safe.
But safety’s not the only goal. Hunters want success, too.
They found it. More than 20 hunters, each guided by an individual mentor, took to some 600 acres of farmland owned by Zachary Klaus and his sisters near Galesville, Wis. In two days, they bagged 13 deer. Volunteers clean the quarry and cook lunch.
For the hunters, it’s a chance some assumed they’d never get. NASA has sponsored outdoors excursions for the disabled for more than a decade. It refuses to let blindness or other physical limitations keep hunters from a spot in the woods.
Back in October 2014, Don Krajewski (left) was on his first hunt since losing his left leg about a decade prior. He didn’t want to leave his perch, even for lunch. Joined by mentor Jim Bullock (right), one of the North American Squirrel Association volunteers who helped facilitate the outing for 20-plus disabled hunters, Krajewski bagged the first deer of the weekend.
George Wilson had hunted a few times before he went blind at age 19 due to untreated juvenile glaucoma, which destroyed both of his optic nerves. “I thought I was never going to be able to do it again,” he says. “I really did enjoy it.” Now 58 years old, the La Crosse man rekindled his childhood love of hunting. He’s joined guided hunts set up by a nonprofit, the North American Squirrel Association, which is dedicated to opening outdoors sports to the elderly and disabled. Here, he stands in the woods with his Remington 700 bolt-action rifle during the NASA hunt near Galesville, Wis., in October 2014.
No shortage of tasks awaits the many volunteers assembled to assist disabled and elderly hunters. They get them to their spots in the woods, help them aim when a deer comes into view and clean the kill in the field. So people like Jim Bullock load wheelchairs into all-terrain vehicles.
And Zachary Klaus, left, and Jerry Den Boer tend to a shot deer.
Other volunteers drive a fleet of all-terrain vehicles to transport hunters and their gear throughout the 600 acres of hunting grounds.
Jim McDowell, left, served 32 years with the La Crosse Police Department, and was widely known in the community as “CrimeDog” because he voiced the La Crosse Area Crime Stoppers messages. Now retired, he guides George Wilson, a fellow La Crosse resident who happens to be blind, on hunts. Wilson says he’s killed five deer in nine years of hunting. “I’ve been lucky in that every deer, it’s been one shot and down,” he says. “I’ve never had to fire twice.”
A chance meeting at an outdoors show led Zachary Klaus and his sisters, Barb Luckey and Loraine Beck, to their roles of hosting an annual deer hunt on their family farmland near Galesville, Wis. Klaus, a petroleum tank inspector for the state of Minnesota, had long wanted to open the land to disabled hunters. Desire became reality when he crossed paths with the North American Squirrel Association at an outdoors show in the early 2000s. “From then on, it just blossomed,” he says.
First up at 5 a.m., Jason Benrud made coffee for the hunters and guides before driving them out to blinds in an all-terrain vehicle. A welder by day, the 33-year-old Benrud also serves as co-chairman of the big-game committee for the North American Squirrel Association. He lives just 5 miles from the grounds used for the October 2014 hunt, and spent nearly every weekend that summer fixing up the deer blinds.
Now 53, Randy Hansen of Bangor, Wis. has been in a wheelchair since getting in a motorcycle crash when he was 20. He started hunting on his grandparents’ farm at age 12 and, despite the wheelchair, he’s missed only one deer hunting season as an adult. “It just slowed me down a little,” he says. Now, he helps other disabled hunters get back in the woods as co-chairman of NASA’s big-game committee. His rifle is a Browning BAR 270.
“When you see the gratitude and the fact that people really appreciate what we’re doing, that’s the reward we get,” says Jerry Den Boer, president of the North American Squirrel Association. He’s an insurance agent by day, and his volunteer work planning big-game hunts begins six months in advance. He and other NASA officials check on the handicap-accessible deer blinds and do whatever maintenance is necessary to ensure a safe, successful event.
Don Krajewski poses next to the result of his first deer hunt since his left leg was amputated a decade ago, the result of diabetes-related complications. His kill hangs next to that of another hunter, and it marked the first of 13 deer shot by hunters over a two-day stretch.