Like many men from rural southern Illinois, Jim Dawe started hunting as a boy with his dad. For nearly five decades, he collected scores of trophies without accidentuntil 2005. Now 63, the retired U.S. Army first sergeant recalls the November morning he set out on his property, as he often did, hoisting his compound bow and climbing the steel ladder to the 12foot platform to await his quarry. But this time Dawe began feeling uneasy, lightheaded. Preparing to descend, he slipped from the ladders top rung and fell backwards to the ground, breaking his spine. Without cell phone or the ability to move, he was stranded for 14 hours until neighbors found him. He spent the next several months in a hospital.
I didnt know if I was going to live, let alone hunt again, he says.
Dawe did survive, but not unscathed; hes paralyzed from the waist down. But he can still bag an 11point deer, thanks to Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, on the northern edge of the Ozark foothills west of Marion, IL, not far from Dawes home. For the past 24 years, the refuge has hosted a whitetail deer hunt for the disabled the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Its something we really look forward to, says Dawe, who has participated the past four years.
His hunting partner Ron Reed lost a few toes to diabetes, which makes walking difficult. I always say, Between the two of us, weve got one good leg, quips Dawe. But hes a hell of a friend. He carries my gear. He really works his butt off.
As do the volunteers who organize the program.
If we need any help, Reed says, we just call em up. Theyll help track a deer, field dress it … theyll even load it up for you at the end of the day.
Managed entirely by the refuges volunteer program, the hunt would be impossible without the individuals who work so tirelessly. They maintain blinds and mow areas around them to facilitate access; they camouflage the blinds before the hunt; and they help any way they can during the hunt.
Everyones assigned their own blind, and they have to stay there, but the area is idealtheres a lot more deer there than the rest of the refuge, says Robert Bush, a retired coal miner who has led volunteer efforts since the event began in 1988.
Bush conceived of the special hunt after the refuge manager asked for a favor. He knew I liked to deer hunt and asked if Id take a handicapped guy out with me, he says. So I did, but we couldnt find a good place close to the road. We didnt get any deer and were both a little disappointed.
Bush suggested the refuge could improve access for disabled hunters; the refuge manager put him in charge; the program was born. And its just been growing ever since, says Bush.
Crab Orchard Refuge has provided fertile ground to nurture its growth. Much of its terrain suits the program. Flat roadbeds that date from World War IIwhen Dawes former employer, the U.S. Army, owned the refuge land and manufactured munitions on itoffer plenty of wheelchairfriendly acreage.
The refuge also encompasses much cropland, thus emphasizing the value of hunting as a management tool. The hunt helps keep deer populations healthy while protecting farmland, says refuge park ranger Neil Vincent. We benefit, and so do the hunters.
Bush says the success of this mutually beneficial arrangement wouldnt be possible without Vincents willingness to accommodate the volunteer effort. Everything weve ever asked for or needed, theres never been any hemming or hawing, says Bush. Neils been able to provide.
With the hunt growing in popularity, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources now runs a lottery to determine 25 individuals who participate each year. Dawe has been lucky to have been drawn the past few consecutive years. Still, hell soon prepare his application for the next onethe refuges 25thand is as giddy as a kid about to hunt with his dad.
I sure hope I get to do it again, he says.
For those of us who can, lets keep our fingersand toescrossed for him.
Ben Ikenson is a New Mexicobased freelance writer.