Paralyzed veterans take part in specialized moose hunt

Posted: Monday, September 18, 2006

FAIRBANKS - Ron Hoskins looked pretty much like any other moose hunter in Alaska.

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Dressed in camouflage from head to toe, he sat in a hunting blind at the edge of the woods on a seepage channel within the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project, waiting Sept. 4 for a bull moose to appear.

For Hoskins, who has been confined to a wheelchair for 30 years as a result of a car accident, it was therapeutic. The birds and squirrels didn't know he was paralyzed and neither would a bull moose if it happened to show up within shooting distance. The fact he was in a wheelchair didn't matter. He was a hunter in the woods.

It was an hour before sunrise, but there was already enough light to spot a moose and discern if it had antlers, needed to make it legal. Every now and then, Hoskins peeked through his binoculars and scanned the landscape in front of him, more to pass the time than anything else. If a moose walked out, he would see it.

Chirping birds and chattering squirrels were all that broke the morning silence. Not a coffee drinker, Hoskins took an occasional swig from a bottle of Coke he stashed in a holder on the back of his wheelchair.

"Just being up here and having the ability to bag one or see one is awesome," Hoskins whispered over his shoulder, reluctant to take his eyes off the landscape for fear of missing one.

Just the day before, the 56-year-old Hoskins had gotten a close-up look at a cow moose while sitting in another blind.

"She just meandered up and stepped in front of the blind and just stared at us," he said. "I could have spit on that puppy."

Hoskins, a Vietnam veteran from Pennsylvania, is one of three wheelchair-bound hunters from the Paralyzed Veterans of America took part in a special moose hunt on the Chena Flood Control Project in North Pole. Through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the PVA has offered its members about 30,000 strong a chance to go moose hunting in Alaska each of the last four years.

Hunters are selected by random drawing from a pool that has grown to about 2,000 applicants over the past four years, said Doug Warren, program director for the PVA. Winners must pay their own way to Alaska and buy their own license and tags.

Tommy Baugh, 37, of Georgia, and Cory Heit, 32, of Minnesota were the other two lucky hunters who won the chance to come to Alaska. All three men were paralyzed in car accidents. Both Baugh and Hoskins are paralyzed from the waist down while Heit is a quadriplegic.

But all three continue to hunt, refusing to let their impairments take away something they loved to do before their accidents. The chance to come to Alaska was a dream come true for all three men.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Hoskins, who is also a national director for the PVA.

Early start

It was still dark at 5:30 a.m. when corps ranger Mike Insko backed a Polaris Ranger up to the wheelchair door on the VanTran. Hoskins rolled his wheelchair backward into the bed of the four-wheeler and rangers secured the chair using tie-down straps that were attached to the wheelchair and frame of the four-wheeler.

"Its quite an operation," said John Schaake, manager at the flood control project, while looking on.

A few minutes later, after a short drive along the dike, Insko turned down a trail that led to the blind on the seepage channel. He backed the four-wheeler up to a drop door on the side of the blind that also functioned as a ramp and he and Tim Gallagher, who was serving as Hoskins hunting partner for the day, pushed him into the blind.

"This was the hot blind last night," Insko said, handing Hoskins his rifle, a .280 Remington.

Though the PVA hunters have killed only one small bull in four years, the hunts have been a huge success, said Warren. Even if they don't bag a moose, hunters can go back home and say they had a chance to, something that most hunters in the Lower 48, paralyzed or not, can't do.

Even for an able-bodied individual, though, it's not an easy hunt.

"Its physically exhausting," said Heit.

But it makes them feel just like every other hunter, as does sitting around at lunch rehashing the mornings hunt or trading stories in the blind, which is the whole point.

"When you're part of a group doing something, you can share experiences," Heit said.

Opportunity knocks

Alaska could be more friendly to disabled hunters, according to Heit, the quadriplegic.

In New Mexico, where he drew an elk tag last year, the state devotes five of 1,000 elk permits to disabled hunters, he said. In his home state of Minnesota, disabled hunters who draw a deer tag can shoot either a buck or a doe.

Heit said he spent years searching the Internet for an opportunity to go moose hunting somewhere but couldn't find an outfitter who would take him. When he stumbled across the PVA hunt, Heit called Warren to inquire, even though he had never been in the military.

He was pleasantly surprised to find out that military service wasn't required to be a member of the PVA and that he could apply for the hunt as an associate member. While the PVAs No. 1 priority is health care for veterans, the organization is dedicated to helping all paralyzed men, women and children through its programs.

"If we don't give them the opportunity they wont get the opportunity," said Hoskins, a member of a PVA trapshooting team that includes five nonveterans.

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