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If there’s a wheel, there’s a way

Accessible trailers help disabled hunters get back outdoors

Ken Buchholtz, president of the Bays de Noc Gobblers and chairman of the Wheelin’ Sportsmen program, makes an adjustment to the apparatus inside a hunting trailer developed to make hunting more accessible to the disabled. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

By EMMA KUKUK

Michigan DNR

ESCANABA — Michigan’s outdoors should be accessible for all people to enjoy. All too often, that isn’t the case. Whether it’s a lack of understanding or inaccessible facilities, outdoor spaces aren’t always welcoming to people with disabilities.

That’s starting to change, thanks in part to groups like the Bays de Noc Gobblers, a chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. For years, the Upper Peninsula-based chapter has used the federation’s Wheelin’ Sportsmen outreach program, which focuses on making the outdoors more accessible for hunters.

As a result, the Gobblers have become a frontrunner in providing accessible hunting. Specifically, the group developed mobile trailers designed not only to accommodate wheelchair users, but also to ensure a safe, fun hunting experience for people of all mobility levels.

Each trailer is large enough to allow wheelchair users space to move around. Inside, a sliding window gives hunters a view of the target area and allows access for a gun or crossbow with a specially equipped “sip-and-puff” trigger actuator — an adaptive piece of equipment that lets the hunter pull the trigger by taking in a breath on an attached tube.

A camera connected to the gun’s scope feeds video of the target area to a 19-inch monitor affixed to the wall above the window, allowing those in the trailer an up-close view. A joystick helps the hunter take aim.

To Ken Buchholtz, president of the Bays de Noc Gobblers and chairman of the Wheelin’ Sportsmen program, the trailers are a necessary step toward keeping Michigan’s outdoors enjoyable for everyone.

“If there’s a wheel, there’s a way, and the smile makes it all worthwhile,” he said.

Buchholtz also sits on the Accessibility Advisory Council for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and has received the DNR’s Partners in Conservation award, the Volunteer of the Year award from the National Association of Activity Professionals and the Elks Club Citizen of the Year award, among others.

But accolades aren’t the reason Buchholtz is so involved in accessibility issues. For him, the Wheelin’ Sportsmen is more than an outreach program — it’s a passion.

An idea grows

According to Buchholtz, the accessible trailer program grew from people concerned about the lack of infrastructure to support hunters with disabilities who wanted to do something about it.

The Bays de Noc Gobblers, made up entirely of volunteers and funded by grants and community donations, have four permanent accessible deer blinds and three hunting trailers available for use. In the past few years, as visibility and understanding of accessibility needs have grown, the group has even seen increased requests for these trailers from other states.

The Gobblers also go out to assisted living homes, where residents can try out the equipment and hunt — some for the first time in their lives.

“People tell me they always wanted to go hunting, but never had the opportunity to,” Buchholtz said. “When these hunters bag their game, the program also helps pay for the processing of the animal.”

For hunters with disabilities, programs like these are a much-needed tool.

“There’s nothing like enjoying the great outdoors,” Buchholtz said “There’s truly nothing like it.”

‘A rallying point’

For DNR Conservation Officer Dave Painter, the trailers too are a rallying point for the communities that use them.

After being out in the field taking pictures of a bear in spring 2010, Painter ran into a pharmacy to get the film developed. There, he struck up a conversation with a cashier, who mentioned that her 11-year-old son, Robbie, would love those pictures.

She said Robbie loved all kinds of wildlife, but he couldn’t get out into nature the way he wanted. Painter gave her copies of the bear pictures and asked if Robbie would be interested in hunting. Robbie wanted to hunt, she said, but he wouldn’t be able to hunt in the traditional way.

Robbie has muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease that results in overall muscle weakness that progressively worsens. At 11, he used a wheelchair, but it was not equipped to move effectively in the woods.

After meeting Robbie, Painter was determined to get him out hunting in the outdoors he so clearly cherished.

Painter saw Buchholtz on a local outdoors show in the U.P. and immediately saw a clear connection between the Gobblers’ efforts with the Wheelin’ Sportsmen program and his own efforts to get Robbie out hunting.

Painter contacted Buchholtz, who assured Painter the group would “make it happen.”

And they did.

The Bays de Noc Gobblers set up an accessible trailer near Crystal Falls, and Robbie shot a bear on his first hunt.

After seeing how excited Robbie was, and how positively the experience affected him, Painter went to Wildlife Unlimited of Iron County. Together, they raised $16,000 to build their own aluminum-enclosed accessible hunting trailer. The Gobblers offered gave pointers and suggestions to help improve the hunting trailer experience.

The trailers haven’t just helped individuals. They’ve also helped knit the community together.

“Quite often in hunting, we’re always fighting over something – like technique or equipment,” Painter said. “We don’t see any of that. Everyone thought it was a good idea, everyone wanted to be a part of it.”

Doctors had previously told Robbie’s mother that he wouldn’t live past the age of 15; he’s 20 years old now, and though he has lost all mobility, he still hunts. Painter controls the joystick, and Robbie tells him when to stop. With the sip-and-puff mechanism, Robbie still gets to bag his own game.

“We’ve had some fantastic hunts,” Painter recalled. “He’s still able to get out and be successful.”

Connections important

Such a connection is important to the DNR, too.

The development of devices like the accessible hunting trailers is part of a broader conversation on accessibility in public spaces.

So, the DNR has made a concerted effort to make some state parks more accessible to all visitors.

“We want to make our natural resources available to anyone of any ability,” said Michelle Coss, DNR parks and recreation fund development coordinator. “We’re trying to do what we can to remove those barriers and hesitations for people.”

The availability of accessible fishing piers and kayak launches gives visitors a chance to make long-lasting memories on Michigan waterways, and with the introduction of track chairs in state parks, visitors with mobility challenges can explore areas of the parks for which traditional wheelchairs may not be equipped.

These chairs, which are currently in use at five state parks, are just one part of the DNR’s commitment to integrating accessibility-focused designs and programs into all of Michigan’s state parks.

“Accessibility is one of our big priorities moving forward,” Coss said. “For people with disabilities, we want them to know there are things being put into place that will make it easier for them to enjoy the parks like everyone else.”

Michigan Operation Freedom Outdoors is a cooperative partnership with the DNR and several other entities that provides outdoor recreation opportunities for individuals with health challenges. Coordinators support networks that facilitate recovery through connecting with nature.