Shadows all but covered the land, and a sunset serenade of coyotes replaced the daytime calls of songbirds.
Shooting time was about gone, and John Norton’s deer rifle leaned in a corner, unused for the day.
But Norton was smiling.
“I always say this is all great even if I don’t see a deer,” he said. “It’s just a a pleasure to be out here.”
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At the age of 71, Norton long ago learned game needn’t be taken for hunting to be fun. That he’d spent about two decades thinking he’d never hunt again added to his appreciation of getting outdoors.
“In ’76 I did a deep dive into the shallow end of a pool and broke my neck,” he said, then detailing the long rehabilitation that left him walking, but with difficulties. “I figured I was done hunting. Then I read about these guys. I wouldn’t be hunting without them. Most people don’t understand what this means to me.”
“These guys” are a group of volunteers have hosted the Marion Muzzleloader Deer Hunt for People with Disabilities for 17 years. This year’s event was held the past two weekends at the lake about 50 miles northeast of Wichita.
The hunt is sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism; and the Marion Lake Association, and it hosts eight hunters per season.
From idea to reality
The hunt began with a conversation between hunt founders Marv Peterson and Neal Whitaker as they constructed a fishing dock for disabled anglers at Marion in 1997.
Peterson was a game warden and Whitaker worked for the Corps of Engineers and found his agency hosted such a hunt in Oklahoma. Planning began for an event for hunters with ambulatory disabilities.
“We had no clue what we were doing,” Peterson said. “At the time, I don’t think anybody was doing these kinds of hunts in Kansas, or hardly anywhere.”
They decided to have the hunt during the special September season for hunting with muzzleloaders. The limited range of the rifles that shoot black powder helped with some safety concerns.
They needed warm weather, since many disabled people chill easily due to circulation problems. The 600-acre waterfowl refuge at Marion Reservoir was opened for the hunters to have privacy and a chance at deer that aren’t as skittish due to not being hunted.
The first year, only one hunter signed-up: Bill Brown of Newton. Organizers decided to postpone the hunt a year to get more participants. Brown, who died this year, worked with hunt coordinators on the special needs of disabled hunters.
The next year, four disabled hunters showed interest, including Norton.
“I’d never hunted for deer or shot a muzzleloader, but I figured what the heck, it sounded like a good chance to get back out,” Norton said. “I called Marv and he had me come up and he taught me how to shoot a muzzleloader so I went and bought one.”
Muzzleloaders, and instructions on how to use them, are available to hunters who need them at the event.
Norton says he has been fortunate to be on every hunt. A few years ago, Wildlife and Parks began drawing names to choose the hunters because interest was growing.
Better opportunities and technology
Now there are probably about 20 hunts, and even more fishing events, held for disabled participants across Kansas every year. They range from a few able-bodied buddies hosting someone to dozens of disabled veterans hosted by outfitters and a variety of businesses.
The high numbers of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has helped bring attention to the need for such hunts.
Technology also has played a part in helping thousands get afield annually.
About 40 years ago the Paralyzed Veterans of America started to help those severely wounded in southeast Asia and disabled citizens. The group was one of the first to understand how recreational programs could help the disabled to enjoy a healthy lifestyle.
“The equipment that’s come down the road in the last few years has allowed a lot of guys to get into the field who couldn’t have otherwise,” said Ernie Butler, Paralyzed Veterans’ director of sports and recreation. “There aren’t many sports these day where there is not adaptive equipment.”
Butler mentioned more than a dozen sports, including most kinds of shooting and hunting, that his group, with 32 chapters nationwide, offers to disabled veterans and civilians.
“We even have a national bass tour,” said Butler, “a series of tournaments hosted by local chapters.”
A Wichita area hunter can attest to the advances in hunting equipment for the disabled.
Carl Hall, a past all-conference baseball player at Wichita State, thought his hunting career was over when an auto accident left him a quadriplegic in 2010.
But in 2012, Hall shot his first buck with the help of the Dugan family on their ranch in Barber County.
A special rifle rest fastened to Hall’s wheelchair allowed him to aim a rifle by moving a lever with his chin or lips, then suck through a plastic tube to pull the trigger.
Two years ago, things got even easier with an attachment that connected an iPhone to the rifle’s scope. No longer would Hall struggle to get the rifle’s scope perfectly lined up with his eye.
“Now it’s like watching a little television and it allows me to just sit back and use a joystick to move the rifle and take aim,” said Hall. “Now I almost feel guilty things are so easy for me.”
Laws and regulations also have changed to make it easier for disabled Kansans to enjoy hunting.
Wildlife and Parks allows youth and disabled hunters to participate during special early seasons for deer and turkey, to up their chances for success. Several state parks and wildlife areas offer special hunting blinds for those with disabilities. Anyone driver who qualifies for a disabled placard on an automobile qualifies for any Wildlife and Parks special season or opportunities.
More than just a hunt
Still, most of what makes these events possible boils down to manpower and dedicated assistants.
Marion hunters are taken directly to hunting blinds by volunteers. Whether a volunteer stays in the blind is up to the hunter. Two-way radios stay with the hunters so they can be in constant contact with the base camp at a Corps of Engineers campground.
“There’s no way I could do any of this without their help,” Norton said from his blind. “I couldn’t walk out here and I sure couldn’t load a deer up and get it out of here.”
Torey Hett, a paraplegic who has been a hunter and a volunteer, said many volunteers have been involved for years. Local residents often drop by to visit with the hunters and their guides. Several meals, including an old-fashioned fish fry, are provided supportive residents.
What happens at the campground, Hett said, is more important that what happens afield.
“A lot of it is really the camaraderie that makes it special,” he said. “The hunters get a chance to share with other disadvantaged hunters. It gives them a chance to just share a normal life together with all kinds of people. Some really great friendships have been made here. It doesn’t matter if they get a deer or not; they are going to have a great time.”
Norton didn’t get a deer that afternoon. But as daylight faded, and it was time to be picked up by Whitaker, Norton admitted he was eager to get back to camp, to sit around a campfire and swap stories and jokes with his hunting buddies.
“If you can’t tell a better story than the last guy talking,” he said, “you just don’t belong here. It gets pretty lively, and I love it.”
Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.