Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MEXICAN WHITETAILS

Now they call me Speedy Hahnzalez

Opening day of deer season. Low, gray clouds scudded across the sky as a harsh November wind shook our ground blind. The previous day had been balmy and comfortable, but then a nasty cold front roared in. “The deer are all bedded down,” I thought disappointedly. “There's no way they'll be out in this weath--”
“One coming in on the right!” murmured my guide, Ruben Serna. Raising his binoculars for a better look, Ruben said, “Eight points, but it's a cull buck.”

Sunday, July 7, 2013

DEMISE OF ELVIS

My quest for a pronghorn took me to Wyoming in 2009.


            The hum of tires on pavement lulled me to sleep as my friend, Ron Wagner, drove our rental van out of the Denver airport and north on I-25. I had been snoozing for a while when I suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder. “Andy, look.” Ron said. “Antelope!”
            Seeing my first antelope brought me out of a slumber to begin living the dream of our Western adventure. We saw more than 100 pronghorns on the two-hour drive to Cheyenne, where we stopped for dinner and a good night’s rest in a hotel. When my head hit the pillow, I couldn’t believe I was finally in Wyoming.
Ron and I grew up in Pennsylvania and had always dreamed of a hunt out West. In 2008, with ALS eroding my body, I knew it was time to quit dreaming and start making definite plans. Encouraged by our success in hunting whitetails as a team, I told Ron I was ready to try for mule deer and antelope. “Just say when and where, buddy,” he replied. “I’ll be there for you.”
After reviewing license costs and hunter success rates for several states, I decided on Wyoming as our best bet. Hours of research on the Internet and about a dozen email inquiries led me to an outfitter who eagerly accepted the challenge when I explained my disability and the way Ron handles the rifle for me. I booked a deer/antelope combo hunt for October 5 to 9, 2009, and applied for our tags according to the outfitter’s instructions.
Coordinating travel plans required an exercise in logistics because Ron lives in Pennsylvania and I reside in Brazil, but we worked out a good solution. My wife and I flew from Rio de Janeiro to Atlanta and met Ron and his wife in the airport; from there we all flew to Denver and picked up a rental van. By the time we reached the hotel in Cheyenne, my wife and I had been on the go for more than 24 hours.
The next morning we enjoyed an unhurried breakfast and got back on I-25 to continue north to a truck stop near the town of Douglas. There we met outfitter Pat Phillipps and followed him on a 90-minute drive to the hunting camp. On the way we saw more antelope and our first mule deer. (Man, they have big ears!) Ron and I—typical Easterners used to hunting whitetails in thick woods—were impressed with Wyoming’s vast openness and the number of game animals we could see from the highway.
Ron, Pat and I held a strategy meeting over dinner the first night in camp (Sunday). We told our guide that we weren’t looking for record-book trophies, but we wanted respectable examples of mule deer and pronghorns. We would trust Pat’s judgement in deciding which animals to take. We also recognized that my condition would make open-country stalking quite difficult, so we might not have the luxury of being very choosy.
After receiving my antelope and deer tags, I had applied for and received a Disabled Hunter Permit. Provided to qualifying individuals free of charge by the Wyoming Game and Fish Dept., this permit authorizes the holder to shoot from a stationary vehicle.
Ron rigged my equipment on Pat’s custom-built .243 with 4x scope, and we began our hunt under cloudy skies on Monday morning. We had ample room in the back seat of Pat’s Dodge Mega Cab pickup to maneuver and shoot out either side. The rifle’s chamber remained empty and the bolt open until we decided to shoot.
Clear skies and excellent visibility made Tuesday the best day to hunt antelope. We soon located a small herd in an oat field. Although used to farm machinery, the skittish speedgoats wouldn’t let the pickup get closer than 250 yards. Our guide shadowed the group and finally gave us a good opportunity at half that distance. We waited patiently for the dominant buck to present a broadside shot.
The big boy, whom Pat dubbed “Elvis,” kept chasing two young bucks away from his does. Pat showed his knowledge of antelope behavior by predicting their actions with an entertaining play-by-play commentary.
“Elvis is gonna chase off those other bucks...He’ll try to nick that one in the butt with his horns...Don’t worry, he’ll come back into range because the does stayed put...Here he comes...Now he’ll walk up to a doe, tilt his head back and say, ‘Look at my shiny horns.’ He’s in the clear now, so let him have it when he turns. The range is 120 yards.”
Pow-Whopp
We heard the bullet hit, then watched Elvis stagger and fall. With all due respect to Long John Baldry, we laid some serious boogie-woogie on the king of rock and roll!
When I touched that antelope’s horns I felt a rush of emotion at having finally fulfilled a longtime dream. Sharing the moment with a great friend made it even more significant. About an hour later I had the pleasure of watching Ron bag a fine speedgoat for himself with a 200-yard shot.
Our Wyoming adventure taught me that dreams can indeed come true, but nobody delivers them to your doorstep. Despite my disability, I was inspired to keep planning hunts and putting forth the effort to achieve my goals.
Here’s a slideshow of our antelope hunt.

DID YOU KNOW?
Covering 97,814 square miles, Wyoming ranks as our tenth-largest state yet hosts a lower population (about 576,000) than any other.
Wyoming’s pronghorn population is estimated at more than 500,000.
The North American pronghorn makes a truly unique trophy because natural selection has eliminated all of its close relatives, leaving Antilocapra americana as the only surviving member of its family.
Formed by a hairlike substance, an antelope’s horn sheath grows over a small, bony core. Unlike cattle, goats or African game such as kudu, pronghorns shed their horns annually. Don’t plan on searching the prairie to collect sheds, though. Unlike hard deer antlers, the thin-walled, hollow antelope horns decompose quickly.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

LOOKING BACK

My aide Ricardo and I enjoyed a great hunt last April at Rincon de Luna lodge in the mountains near Cordoba, Argentina.
Remember the new mini camera I mentioned in an earlier post?
Ricardo strapped it to the pickup’s roll bar, facing back, for an interesting perspective of our adventure.
Enjoy the video!


Saturday, May 25, 2013

OUTDOOR LIFE INTERVIEW Part 3 of 3

I’m proud to say the May 2013 issue of Outdoor Life magazine includes a short piece about me in the “My Outdoor Life” section. The editor, Andrew McKean, “interviewed” me by emailing a list of questions, which I answered in writing. We covered much more than Andrew was able to publish in the half-page article, so I’ve put up my lengthy answers here in three posts. Here’s the third part.

Q: Talk to me about the sorts of adaptive technology you've incorporated in your hunts. Is there any particular device that is especially noteworthy or groundbreaking?
            A: Although I can’t hold a rifle, two devices keep me actively involved in the hunt. Both are made by BE-Adaptive, and I encourage all disabled outdoorsmen to check out their adaptive shooting gear (http://www.beadaptive.com).
            The Scope Cam System fits on nearly any riflescope. A mini camera mounts on the eyepiece and sends the image to a small video monitor, providing a scope’s eye view—crosshairs and all—for me and my point man (who handles the rifle). We both follow the sight picture as the point man aims, and I decide when to shoot.

            I squeeze the trigger with a sip-activated control. I inhale on a tube to trip a solenoid that pushes a bar against the trigger.
          


Q: I want to talk about the teamwork that you build around every hunt. What are the ingredients of the "A-Team"?
            A: For the first couple years after my diagnosis, I needed help getting dressed and getting in/out of vehicles, but once I was settled in the blind I could safely handle a gun and hunt by myself. I called Ligia and Ron my “pit crew” because they performed these tasks with impressive efficiency. Ron would hunt in a nearby stand and keep tabs on me via two-way radio.
            In 2008, when I told him I could no longer handle a gun, Ron said he would “do whatever it takes” to get me out hunting. Ron’s pledge inspired me to research the Web and find the adaptive shooting gear I mentioned. We first used the gear on a hunt in South Carolina. When we returned to the lodge one evening with a pair of whitetails we’d taken, all the other hunters congratulated me. I kept saying, “It was a team effort.” Then I began referring to Ron, Ligia and myself as The A-Team.
Our South Carolina double, October 2008


            Since then The A-Team has grown to include the many people who have helped me enjoy hunts in the USA, Argentina and Uruguay.
            Our most important ingredient is communication at every phase: deciding what, when and where to hunt; coordinating travel plans; at the hunt site, discussing strategy and logistics—a guy in my condition can’t just go out there and wing it. Communication when preparing to shoot is critical. Even though I can usually see what he’s doing, I ask my point man to tell me when he chambers a shell, closes the bolt or flicks off the safety. This communication helps reinforce safe gun handling, but it can lead to funny moments like the time we saw a deer we wanted to shoot…Ron put the trigger tube in my mouth and then said, “I’m taking off the safety. Don’t breathe!”
            The point man and I must form a mutual trust. I trust him to hold steady and aim true (which I confirm on the Scope Cam), and he trusts me to be patient and activate the trigger at the right moment.
            To join The A-Team you must be a safety conscious, ethical hunter; have a positive, can-do attitude; know how to fully appreciate a day of hunting whether we see game or not. And you damn well better have a good sense of humor because we’re here to enjoy the experience.
            Ron summed up A-Team philosophy when he once told me, “I’d rather shoot a four-point buck with you than take a ten-point by myself.”
The A-Team in Argentina, 2010

Friday, May 17, 2013

OUTDOOR LIFE INTERVIEW Part 2 of 3


I’m proud to say the May 2013 issue of Outdoor Life magazine includes a short piece about me in the “My Outdoor Life” section. The editor, Andrew McKean, “interviewed” me by emailing a list of questions, which I answered in writing. We covered much more than Andrew was able to publish in the half-page article, so I’ll put up my lengthy answers here in three posts. Here’s the second part.

Deer hunting with Andrew McKean in Montana


Q: There's a lot about you that impresses me, but one of the most remarkable details is that your passion for hunting hasn't dimmed. Post-ALS, where have you hunted? Any remarkable or memorable hunts in the mix?
            A: I refuse to let a minor setback like an incurable, fatal illness diminish my passion for hunting or my zest for life.
            I’ve done more hunting in the six years since my diagnosis than in the 16 years prior! As explained earlier, I went through a long stretch when opportunities to hunt were scarce and I had other demands on my time. Shortly after my diagnosis I jettisoned from my vocabulary phrases like “some day” and “maybe next year,” and started taking advantage of as many opportunities as possible. Since 2006 I’ve hunted in British Columbia (black bear on Vancouver Island); North Carolina (whitetail, squirrel); Georgia (whitetail, turkey), South Carolina (whitetail, turkey, wild hog, squirrel); Florida (alligator, hog); Alabama (whitetail); Texas (fallow deer, axis deer, hog); Wyoming (pronghorn, mule deer, prairie dog); Idaho (black bear); Montana (whitetail, mule deer); Argentina (red stag, European boar); Uruguay (feral hog).
            As I answer this question I look around my living room and see antlers, skulls, hides and dozens of photos on display to remind me of wonderful days afield. Three hunts stand out for three different reasons.

June 2006, Vancouver Island black bear

            I had booked this hunt with Vancouver Island Guide Outfitters a year in advance, when my symptoms were just beginning to show. My doctor issued the diagnosis of ALS just one month before I was to embark on the adventure, so I asked his opinion. “Bear hunting? Don’t go. It could be too strenuous.”
Ligia and I agreed that the rewards of taking the trip would justify all efforts involved. It would be far worse for my health to simply give up and stay home. The only ones who regret our decision to go on that hunt are the doctor—we found a new one—and the original owner of the 7-foot black bear skin that now adorns our wall. I had a fantastic time, saw some gorgeous country and realized that even a guy with ALS can, and should, get out to try new experiences. This trip’s success encouraged me to plan more hunts.

December 2008, South Carolina squirrels

During Christmas week at Bang’s Paradise Valley Hunting Club in Ehrhardt, South Carolina, my good friend Ron Wagner and I took a break from deer hunting to shoot some squirrels. We invited nine-year-old Klay Elixson, who was in camp with his grandfather, to join us.
We had a hoot that morning as the three of us took turns using my adaptive shooting gear to pick off bushytails. More importantly, that outing led to a lasting friendship. Since then, Klay always comes to see me when I’m back at Paradise Valley so we can spend quality time in the blind hunting deer, turkeys, hogs, and especially squirrels.

October 2009, Wyoming pronghorn and mule deer

When I told my friend Ron Wagner that I’d like to try hunting out West, he immediately replied, “Just say when and where. I’ll be there for you.”
Research on the Internet led me to an outfitter in Wyoming who accepted the challenge of guiding a disabled hunter. Ron and I, along with our wives, had a fun, action-packed trip. We marveled at the landscapes and saw plenty of game every day—new, exciting game for us Eastern boys.
We shot pronghorns and prairie dogs early in the week, and on the fourth morning of our hunt, Ron helped me take a mule deer. Another dream came came true when I gripped that muley’s antler and inhaled the invigorating, snowy air.
That adventure taught me that, yes, dreams come true, but nobody delivers fulfilled dreams to your doorstep. I was inspired to keep planning new adventures and put forth the effort to make my dreams become reality.

Q: And why do you continue to hunt even though it takes such a physical toll on your body?
            A: Although he encouraged me to pursue my interests, my dad was no outdoorsman, so hunting never came easily for me. If I wanted to go, I was on my own, or I had to find neighbors or cousins willing to take me.
            I never took hunting for granted, and I learned to cherish my time in the woods. Now, when I see a sunrise, hear a red stag roar, breathe in the scents of the woods, feel the adrenaline rush that only hunters know, I forget any discomfort I may have endured to get out there.
             During a bear hunt in the Idaho Rockies, as the guide was driving Ron and me in his Mitsubishi 4x4 over a terribly bumpy logging road, he noticed that my head was getting jolted around quite a bit. “Do all these bumps bother your neck?” he asked. I laughed and asked, “If I say yes, what can you do about it?”
            My philosophy is, “If you wanna play, you gotta pay.”
            But I do need to pace myself on a trip, typically hunting only mornings or afternoons.
            Researching and planning the next hunt keeps my mind engaged in positive activity—a crucial factor for anyone with a physically debilitating illness. Cancer patients receive chemotherapy, so I decided to treat my ALS with camotherapy.
            Besides, what else is there to do? I never learned needlepoint and I’m lousy at checkers.
In the Idaho Rockies, June 2010

Saturday, May 11, 2013

OUTDOOR LIFE INTERVIEW Part 1 of 3


I’m proud to say the May 2013 issue of Outdoor Life magazine includes a short piece about me in the “My Outdoor Life” section. The editor, Andrew McKean, “interviewed” me by emailing a list of questions, which I answered in writing. We covered much more than Andrew was able to publish in the half-page article, so I’ll put up my lengthy answers here in three posts.


Hunting with Andrew McKean in Montana, November 2011.

Q: You grew up hunting in your home state of Pennsylvania. What species did you cut your teeth on?
A: As a young kid I loved fishing and observing nature, but I had a late start hunting. In the eighth grade I began running a short trapline for muskrat, opossum and raccoon. At 15 I started hunting small game such as doves, rabbits and pheasants, but I especially enjoyed hunting squirrels—and I still do.

Q: Tell me about your life in Brazil. What prompted your move there, and tell me about your writing and editing work. What titles did you work for and what positions did you hold? How did you manage to produce content from another continent? Were you able to continue to hunt from your Rio base?
A: While working on my master’s degree in educational media at Temple University in Philadelphia, I met a classmate named Ligia and we eventually got married. When Ligia completed her Ph.D. in 1990, we moved to her hometown: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Ligia continued her career as a university professor while I found freelance work as an English tutor, translator, photographer and videographer. I also began submitting articles—in Portuguese—to a Brazilian fishing magazine called Trofeu Pesca.
In 1995 Trofeu Pesca hired me as a full-time writer/photographer, a position that let me travel and fish throughout Brazil. A year later I left that job to begin publishing my own fishing magazine, in Portuguese, entitled Pescando. My many roles there included publisher, editor, photographer, marketing manager—heck, I even delivered bundles of magazines to sell at local tackle shops.

Ligia in a cover photo I took in 1996

In 1998 I received an offer I couldn’t refuse when Doug Olander, editor in chief of Sport Fishing magazine, invited me to move to Orlando, Florida, and join his staff as associate editor. Ligia, who has always encouraged me to pursue my dreams, gave her wholehearted support. I accepted the job, we made the move, and by early 2000 I’d been promoted to editor.

One of my Sport Fishing covers

In 2001 Ligia said she’d like to move back to Rio to help care for her aging parents, and I readily agreed. I resigned my position, we moved back to Brazil, and I spent the next 18 months freelancing for American and Brazilian fishing magazines.
In 2003 Sport Fishing rehired me as senior editor with the agreement that I’d work out of my home in Rio. I was responsible for writing several regular departments (Gear Guide, Game Plan) and one or two feature articles per issue, as well as editing freelancers’ submissions and proofreading my fellow editors’ work. Although I live in Brazil, I could produce content for our predominantly American readership because I traveled often to attend trade shows and cover destinations in the US, Caribbean and Central America.
Hunting took a back seat during this phase of my life. There’s no legal hunting to speak of in Brazil, and from 1990 to 1998 I couldn’t afford to travel internationally just to hunt. In 1995 a Brazilian friend asked me, “What do you miss most about the States? The food? Your family?”
I answered, “I miss the leaf-loam smell of a hardwood ridge mixing with the aroma of burnt gunpowder on a crisp October morning.” The puzzled look on his face told me that no matter how I tried to explain, he’d never understand.
From 1998 to 2001, when I lived in Florida, my work at Sport Fishing kept me too busy to go hunting. But don’t cry for me: “Busy” means I was living the dream, traveling to the world’s premier saltwater fishing destinations, from Alaska to the Azores. And our condo had lakefront access, so I did a lot of bass fishing in the evenings and on weekends.
My hunting bug emerged from hibernation after Ligia and I moved back to Rio in 2001. I was traveling to the States four or five times per year, so I started tweaking my itineraries to allow quick side trips to get together with friends and hunt small game in Pennsylvania, waterfowl in Maryland or hogs in Florida.
I “discovered” Argentina in 2004 when I visited Brazil’s neighbor to hunt doves. The outfitter told me about his country’s big-game hunting, and I returned in April 2005 to take my first red stag and a puma in La Pampa. I was thrilled to find hunting opportunities close to home (4-hr flight vs 10 to the US), but then—on to the next question.

 

My red stag and puma in La Pampa, Argentina, April 2005

Q: When were you diagnosed with ALS? Can you describe early symptoms, and the state of your physical and mental health over time?
            A: Physically: My body is going to hell in a hatbox.
Mentally: I’m determined to enjoy the ride.
I had always pursued an active, athletic lifestyle. In June 2005—when I was 43 years old, stood 6 feet four inches, weighed 185 pounds, was working out at the gym four mornings per week and playing several hours of beach volleyball a week—I began having persistent twitching (called fasciculations) in my shoulders. Over the next few months I lost my normal quickness and leaping ability, which made me flub routine plays in volleyball. My arms and legs started seizing up in agonizing cramps. I lost smoothness in my step and my gait became a stilted shuffle. I frequently lost my balance. I consulted a general practioner, who referred me to a neurologist, who conducted many exams over the following months without issuing a clear verdict.
            In September 2005 I lost my balance while crossing the street, took a hard fall, and shattered my right collarbone so badly that the ER doctor asked if I had been thrown from a motorcycle. Despite the pain, my sense of humor remained intact. When the doctor explained that surgery would be necessary to reassemble the bone fragments, I asked if he could install a recoil pad under the skin.
            I began using a walking stick in early 2006. In May 2006, after many more tests, my neurologist diagnosed my condition as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). This malady destroys nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement. When they stop receiving signals from nerves, the muscles weaken and gradually wither away. There is no known cure or effective treatment for slowing the disease’s progress.
            Having ALS compares to donning a full-body suit of wet cement. At first your arms and legs feel very heavy. As the cement dries, your limbs stiffen and eventually become immobile. The rate at which ALS progresses varies greatly from one patient to another, but statistics show that most ALS patients die of respiratory failure within two to five years of diagnosis. I feel fortunate; somebody must have dumped slow-drying cement on me because I’m approaching seven years and still have limited use of my legs, arms and hands.
            In late 2006 my balance got so shaky that I needed a four-legged walker. When I brought home the shiny, polished-aluminum walker, the first thing I did was wrap it in camo tape because I knew I’d be using it in the woods.
On a deer hunt in Georgia, November 2006

By early 2008 I was in a wheelchair and my arms had become too weak to raise a rifle. In 2009 I started using a rigid cervical collar because my neck became too weak to hold up my head. My speech has become labored, slurred and difficult to understand.
            As ALS robbed my strength, daily physical tasks became increasingly difficult. We hired two personal aides who trade off in three-day shifts to give me round-the-clock assistance. They help me bathe, dress, eat.
            Mental health…ALS only affects motor neurons, so all my senses still function. Although I can’t lift my arms or stand on my own, I can feel pressure, pain, heat, cold.
            My vision, hearing, sense of smell and, especially, my cognitive processes, are as good as ever. I’m alert and aware of what’s going on around me. And I get kinda cheesed off when strangers think they need to speak to me LOUDLY AND SLOWLY.
Through it all, I’ve maintained a positive attitude. I never let myself fall into the “Why me?” trap. Rather than complaining about my condition, I look for ways to overcome my challenges. I don’t waste time lamenting what I can’t do; I focus on what I’d like to do and find ways to make it happen.
            About a year after my diagnosis I noticed that no matter how much I ad-libbed, ALS insisted on following the script of progressively eroding my muscles. I was fighting what was cruelly destined to be a losing battle. I realized that having ALS is like having a disagreeable roommate in college: You can channel all your energy toward fighting him (which makes life miserable for everyone) or you can make the best of it and learn to live with him. At that point I quit fighting ALS and decided I would live with it as well as I could.
            As a writer, I respect the power of words and avoid negative terminology. I have ALS, but I’m not a victim of the disease. I don’t suffer from ALS. I especially dislike the phrase “confined to a wheelchair.” Confined? My wheelchair gives me freedom! Without it, I’d really be confined, unable to get outside.

Friday, March 29, 2013

NEW CAMERA


This one gives me some cool options for recording hunts and other events.
            I don’t consider myself a technology buff, but I recently bought a Veho VCC-005-MUVI mini camcorder. I already own one each of the smaller-than-your-thumb VCC-003-MUVI and VCC-004-MUVI-ATOM micro camcorders, and they’re useful for no-hands recording when clipped to a headband.
            Although quite compact (measuring 3 by 1.8 by .74 inches), the VCC-005 is a bit too large to comfortably strap to my head. I like this camera because it comes with a remote control and waterproof case, opening up a world of possibilities.



            My aide Ricardo Meneses and I tested the camera here in my ninth-floor Rio apartment, where hummingbirds and bananaquits regularly flit in and out the window to drink from a feeder hanging in our living room. We also improvised a bird bath, which the bananaquits use every day.
            First we put the camera on a tripod by the bird bath:

            Then we put it in the water. I added some slo-mo when editing this video:

Nature is all around us, and adventure is where you find it—so get out there and start looking!