Outdoor Buddies Make Lasting Memories

By Dennis Smith. This article was originally published in the Loveland Reporter-Herald, you can view the article here.

(Picture on Right) Doug Connor is pictured on his last antelope hunt, with a huge grin and his tricked-out rifle. The Smith family met him through Outdoor Buddies, a program that helps people with disabilities hunt, and found him to be a remarkable guy. (Dennis Smith / Special to the Reporter-Herald)

“I complained I had no shoes ’til I met the man who had no feet.”

When I recently found out Dennis Hansen had spent about 12 years volunteering with Outdoor Buddies back in the ’80s and ’90s, I asked him if he’d be kind enough to share some of his experiences with me.

My sons and I had helped the group with an antelope hunt three years ago and found ourselves going back every year since. It’s become the highlight of our hunting season.

Over breakfast at a Perkins restaurant last week, Hansen told me how he’d served variously as an archery instructor, hunting/fishing guide and all-around handyman with the group, setting up archery ranges, building goose blinds, rigging fly rods, baiting hooks and that sort of thing for mobility-disabled men, women, children, war vets, and others with disabling injuries or diseases.

“It was enormously gratifying and inspirational,” he said, “but could be emotionally taxing too.” He admitted being moved to tears on several occasions, and remembered being almost overwhelmed by a tsunami of emotions ranging from incredible admiration to waves of survivor’s guilt the first time he was assigned to guide a young man with no legs on an elk hunt.

“This kid insisted on doing as much as possible by himself,” Hansen said. “He had a special permit from the Colorado Division of Wildlife allowing him to shoot from a vehicle, but he wanted no part of that. When we spotted a small herd of elk across a meadow, I got the truck as close as I could without spooking the herd and, stealthy as a Ninja, the kid slid head first out the passenger side door and belly-crawled across 30 yards of fallen pine cones, cactus, tree limbs and rocks, cradling his rifle in the crook of his arms the whole way. He pulled himself along by his elbows, closed the distance to under a hundred yards, steadied his rifle on a short, homemade monopod and squeezed off a perfect shot.”

Hansen remembers being stunned to the core at watching the whole thing unfold. He was wiping tears from his eyes as he recounted the story.

Last year, the boys and I were paired with the victim of a severe, neuromuscular disease. Doug Connor greeted us with an infectious grin from a motorized, high-tech wheelchair mechanically locked behind the steering wheel of a radically modified van that he operated by way of levers and buttons.

His rifle was a marvel of engineering technology, too. Euphemistically called a “sip and puff,” its trigger was pneumatically activated by breathing through a length of surgical tubing connected to an electronic switch on his wheelchair.

One of us would support the rifle for him on a special monopod, while another flipped the switch on his wheelchair at his command.

“I’m hot!” he’d declare with that infectious grin. Then he’d line up his sights, inhale through the tubing, and release the trigger with a deliberate puff of breath.

It was a tricky process but after some practice and good-natured coaching, Doug declared us “rifle ready” and off we went in search of antelope, Doug driving his crazy van over the prairie roads, laughing all the way.

After we prepped and packed his antelope for the trip home, we sat around camp with him sharing jokes and hunting stories and promising to do it all again next year.

We didn’t know it then, of course, but that was Doug’s last antelope hunt. He died later that fall, never knowing how much he had taught us.

Dennis Smith is a Loveland outdoors writer and photographer, and his freelance work is published nationally. Smith’s Home Waters column appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. He can be reached at Dsmith7136@msn.com.