Wyoming Disabled Hunters helps people get back to sport they love

Hazen Jensen used to rifle hunt before the disease withered his muscles.

A genetic illness not many people have heard of, or can pronounce, eroded his mobility over time and forced him into a wheelchair.

Spinocerebellar ataxia attacked and at 50 he hadn’t hunted mule deer in years. Until last week when following up on a friend’s encouragement Jensen participated in the Wyoming Disabled Hunters’ eighth annual event in Cody.

Jensen’s hereditary illness compromises movement on many bodily fronts over time. Jensen replaced hunting with a new activity, demolition derby driving, a sport where he could sit. But this resumption of hunting was rejuvenating.

The day before the hunt began, Jensen of Basin, was introduced to a crossbow.

“Something new,” Jensen said.

Hunting was not something new for the 13 men on this hunt. Most were longtime hunters leading lives damaged by jarring accident or tragedy.

“It’s a turning point in my life,” said an excited Tony Lunday of Willard, Utah, who has multiple sclerosis. “I can still do it. It’s beautiful.”

The most remarkable aspect of Lunday’s testimonial was that he hadn’t even started hunting yet.

Wyoming Disabled Hunters was founded in 2008, its purpose summed up in one component of a mission statement: “Don’t let a disability prevent you from doing what you really enjoy.”

There is no such word as “can’t” in the Disabled Hunters’ lexicon, even if one’s main method of transportation is a wheelchair.

It is a non-profit organization dedicated to uplifting morale, strengthening resolve and tossing aside obstacles.

Other such hunting groups, whether aimed at making dreams come true for ill children, or to assist the readjustment of wounded veterans from overseas conflicts, exist amidst rising societal awareness that a disability doesn’t have to be disabling.

Rick McLaughlin, 60, of Tishomingo, Okla., has dealt with cerebral palsy for 40 years, but has traveled to hunt whitetail deer in Arkansas and Minnesota.

“This is my first time in Wyoming,” McLauglin said. “Hopefully, it’s not my last because I’m falling in love with it.”

Hunters, accompanied by companion guides, flooded the countryside near Cody last week, taking to newly erected blinds. Two hunters pursued elk and 11 were after mule deer.

It was sub-freezing in the mornings, hunters dressing in layers, but all 13 hunters scored.

Alan Brackett, 55, a North Carolina visitor, said a bunch of does walked in front of his blind and “a big guy came from behind us.”

From 125 yards, the buck wandered into the picture.

“He was angled away pretty sharply,” Brackett said.

Wielding his 7-millimter Magnum, Brackett plugged it.

At the end of each day, hunters gathered at the Bull Moose Retreat on the South Fork, successful shooters swapping tales as their animals were butchered to become steaks and burgers before they headed home.

Lunday spied his deer near Heart Mountain, the buck obscured by grass so high only his head was visible. The deer moved and Lunday and guide followed along a fence line.

A harem of does shielded the buck, but then the females split. Lunday shot at 200 yards.

“One shot,” he said.

The deer collapsed after walking just six feet.

“The memories of this are a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Lunday said.

Including guides, drivers, cooks and others, some 100-plus volunteers helped out.

The crux of the event for the hunters, said organization president Corey McGregor of Cody, “is giving them back their independence. They have their injury. Everyone has challenges. We focus on the life-changing aspect of it.”

One day after test-firing his crossbow, Jensen harvested a mule deer with an arrow after initially missing a buck at 42 yards.

“I was kicking myself,” Jensen said.

He hoped for a second chance. It came when a buck moseyed into range at 25 yards.

“Smoked him,” said a beaming Jensen.

Smoking also may have been part of the process of getting his estimated 100 pounds of meat home.

In the end, Jensen learned important things on his trip. He could still hunt after all, and was just beginning to shoot a bow.

“New hobby,” he said.

For McGregor, it was another Wyoming Disabled Hunters triumph of the spirit.

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