As dawn broke, a small army of men and women began preparing guns, checking maps for blind locations, and making sure that all their hunting gear was in order. There were hundreds of years of whitetail deer hunting experience waiting to hit the woods of the recently acquired Illinois Department of Natural Resources property named Sahara Woods in southern Illinois, near Marion.
Al Winstead with the Disabled Hunters of North America, and Jim McFarlane, Volunteer Coord with the Illinois Bowhunters Society, look over blind locations on a map prior to the first morning hunt at Sahara Woods.
photo by bill konway
NEW HUNTING LAND
This particular piece of woods and grasslands, totaling about 4000 acres had not been open to the public for years for shotgun hunting, and tales of monster buck sightings floated among the group. The hunt this opening weekend of firearms season in Illinois was not what you might suspect. These hunters, from several states were not there to take an animal for themselves, but to assist a dozen handicapped and terminally ill kids from across the country. Twelve kids with maladies ranging from blindness due to a traumatic brain injury, and paralysis to spina bifida and cystic fibrosis, were each assigned a guide, rather a volunteer, to give them an opportunity to hunt this storied area.
THE HUNTING PARTY
The kids included, Susan Marie Clark of Kansas, Bob Clark of Kansas, Logan Clark of Kansas, Ty Malear of Illinois, Chris Finley of North Carolina, William Edward Booth of Oklahoma, Bradley Head of Missouri, Tyler Craig Counts of Alabama, Kayla Lynn Black of Illinois, Tyler Rohr of Missouri, Kynan Donovan of Alabama, and Steve Horn of Louisiana. The volunteer guides were Clyde Seely, Terry Day, Damian Consodine, Craig MacKenzie, Alex McAdams, Dan Preville, Butch McQuay, Al Winstead, Jim McFarlane, John Mozingo, and Dan Carton.
Tyler Counts of Alabama is assisted by his father, Thomas as they try to harvest a whitetail in Southern Illinois on their "Dream Hunt." Tyler eventually tagged a button buck. (See lead image on home page.)
photo by bill konway
The hunt was arranged through the United Special Sportsman Alliance and it's president, Brigid O'Donoghue, and a great deal of assistance from The Illinois Bowhunters Society and their Volunteer Coord., Jim McFarlane, the Disabled Hunters of North America, and the Illinois DNR. As the sun came up for the first morning of the hunt, Gators and other 4 wheelers left the check station carrying the teams of hunters and their guides to their designated blinds. A local TV news cameraman tagged along with one of the teams for the first morning hunt as well.
TYLER'S GREAT HUNT
Al Winstead, better known as "Dartonman" on the Realtree.com forums and the Midwest Director of the Disabled Hunters of North America, was one of the volunteer guides for this hunt. His assigned boy for the hunt was Tyler Counts of Alabama. Tyler has spina bifida and lung disorders that are associated with the debilitating ailment. His father, Thomas, mother, and younger sister, all made the trip up north with him for this weekend. Thomas has been instrumental in helping his son with his hunting excursions and has developed several things that make it easier for Tyler to get out in the woods. They almost exclusively hunt from pop-up blinds, which accommodate Tyler, his wheelchair and his father, and Tyler uses a modified camera tripod to allow him to rest the barrel of his gun to get a bit of extra stability.
Brigid O'Donoghue, United Special Sportsman Alliance President, checks in with with a few of the guides and kids on the first morning of the hunt. Kids were transported to their blinds with Gators, 4-wheelers, and trucks.
photo by bill konway
Tyler's pre-scouted blind location for this hunt was only a few feet from the edge of a gravel road over looking a small bottoms area that the deer were using in the mornings and evenings to get from bedding to food, and back again. The location made access a breeze and had a good view of the area in order to see any approaching deer. One of the small details that make life easier on Tyler and Thomas is a blind that has a large rear access panel that zips open along the bottom edge. This allows Tyler to be wheeled directly in, rather than having to lift the blind over the top of him.
Although the morning hunt was uneventful, especially from the TV cameraman's point of view, with no deer passing, the first afternoon hunt proved magical. A small group of does moved up the bottoms to cross the road about 85 yards down from the blind. With help from his father, Tyler managed to squeeze off one shot from his shotgun. Although the shot was wide, Al managed to kick up a button buck that passed only 50 yards from the blind, directly in front of Tyler. Again a single shot, and Tyler filled his first tag of the weekend. After a lot of congratulations from other hunters and guides at the check station, an interview with a local newspaper writer, and a handful of photos, Tyler headed to dinner with all his co-hunters and guides, again arranged by the USSA, and told and retold his tale of the hunt at the urgings of all those in attendance. He was definitely the "Man of the Hour" having taken the first deer of the weekend.
Three delicious meals a day were provided by volunteers at a local hall where the kids, their families, and the guides and volunteers met to discuss plans for each trip afield and share tales of the hunt.
photo by bill konway
THEY ALL HAVE THE HUNTING SPRIRIT
A couple of other deer were taken this weekend by these special kids. However at the final dinner of the weekend, you couldn't tell which kids had harvested a deer and which had not. Each child had a smile from ear to ear and their happiness was easily reflected in the face of all those who volunteered. One child shot a nice buck with a crossbow and although guides took turns searching for it from about 4:30pm till nearly 1:30 in the morning, the deer was unable to be located.
One of the volunteers associated with the USSA, John Mozingo gave each kid an opportunity to "Whack" off a portion of his long beard. Each child through fits of laughter took their turn to thin out John's heavy beard. By the time it was over, John was a bit more than lopsided in the facial hair department but was as happy and laughing as much as the kids.
The United Special Sportsman Alliance lead by Brigid O'Donoghue, is a relatively new organization that is well on it's way to making "Dream Hunts" come true for hundreds of kids and their families. The Alliance which came into being only about a year ago, has already provided hunting opportunities to about 270 kids and expects to achieve 300+ hunts by the end of 2003. Elk trips are the most often requested, with whitetail, bear, and boar accounting for a large number of the trips.
Thomas Counts, Tyler's father, and volunteer Zak Konway check out the button buck that was harvested by Thomas' son Tyler on the Illinois Dream Hunt.
photo by bill konway
MORE HELP FROM FRIENDS
In addition to the efforts of the United Special Sportsman Alliance, The Illinois Bowhunters Society, the Disabled Hunters of North America, and a lot of volunteers, there were several other organizations in the background that made the adventure even better. Among them was Cheryl Sawyer, Operations Manager of Gander Mountain, (Merrillville, In. location), which donated a plethora of items for the hunt including hand warmers, knit hats, coolers, and safety vests for all those involved, and Jon Lacorte with Nikon that donated a pair of Realtree binoculars that were won by one of the special hunters.
Plans are currently under way for a similar hunt in Indiana in the fall of 2004, again with the USSA, and the Disabled Hunters of North America, along with a huge number of volunteers. Al Winstead, Midwest Director of the DHNA says, " I felt truly blessed to use my experience in the Illinois area to assist my young man in harvesting a deer, it was a wonderful weekend with overwhelming sense of joy to meet all the young people and their guides, and I would do it again in a heartbeat....and I encourage anyone with the same opportunity to capitalize on it. It will change the lives of all involved."
Author's Note: Anyone looking for help for a hunt of their own, or wishing to volunteer their time or a couple of dollars to make a "Dream Hunt" come true for a child, can contact Brigid and the USSA at [email protected] , or the DHNA at [email protected].