Whitetail Heritage: Hunting Down Antlers

By: Karen Raber

I would never have guessed that the term “deer hunting” would one day evoke pleasant memories. If someone had asked me a year ago to rate my interest in hunting on a scale from one to ten, I wouldn’t have thought twice and pinned it at zero. But this year was different.

It was the first chilly Saturday morning in October, a perfect morning for the Whitetail Heritage hunt. I had agreed to attend the event and then write a story about it, but this morning I wondered why I had said yes. Stifling the desire to renege, I headed out. As with most of my assignments, I went completely unprepared for the blessing that would be mine in the end. The blessing would be an experience bringing beauty to my life and opening my eyes to a unique world of people. I don’t enjoy hunting, but I do enjoy people, and I found a whole crowd with some of the most inspiring personalities and with equally inspiring stories. The event I had almost dreaded ended up blessing me and, yes, even changed my views on hunting a bit!

After a half-hour trek on Ohio backcountry roads, I arrived at the Pilgrim Hills Mentoring facility, where a wide-open field had been prepared for the event. It was only 9:00 am, but already a plume of smoke was rising on the morning air that smelled of bar-b-que. “Byler’s BBQ” was lettered on the side of the food truck, and their busy crew was already preparing lunch. The sun was shining through the autumn chill; the scene was idyllic. An enormous tent dominated the space in which an enthusiastic crowd was milling about. Hm, where to start… Quelling the urge to leave, I walked toward the multitude.

It was just as I had been told; the event was put on by avid deer hunters who unselfishly gave the opportunity to hunt to others who faced difficulties in life. Applications for the hunt had been submitted in the preceding months, and a committee chose those whom they felt were most qualified.

Choosing who would get to hunt wasn’t an easy task; so many applicants qualified. Finally, it was narrowed down to twenty-one, more than the committee had ever accepted before. These included children as well as adults experiencing a broad spectrum of adversities. Some were diagnosed with big names like Demyelinating Neuropathy and Friedreich’s Ataxia, which confine them to their wheelchairs. Others had Down syndrome, had endured severe burns, or were deaf, blind, or paralyzed. Some had lost loved ones and were struggling through grief and sorrow. But all of them wanted to hunt deer, and most of them would never be able to do so unless some type of special event was planned for them. And that event was today!

Nerves were tight, and excitement ran high. Maybe today they would be the ones to harvest some antlers and feel the rush their friends talked about! And the entire event was all about them. The goal was to give them the most enjoyable hunting experience they could imagine.

It would be hard to exceed the excitement of Jonathan Miller, a bright, sweet nine-year-old, and Aaron Mast, a spunky twenty-two-year-old who both have Down syndrome. Jonathan had never gone hunting and was elated when his application was approved. But the hunt had seemed a long, long way off. Now here it was, the morning of the hunt, and his mother had gone to wake him early, only to find that he was already dressed and sitting on his bed. There just wasn’t any point of wasting time snoozing when such excitement lay ahead!

Aaron, on the other hand, had qualified for the Whitetail Heritage hunt last year, and had gone out with his guide and cameraman early in the afternoon. Deer activity had been sparse at first, and Aaron’s guide kept nodding off, occasionally emitting soft snoring sounds. Aaron couldn’t fathom feeling drowsy and woke his guide with, “You will scare the deer away with your snores!” After a bit, a nice deer appeared, and Aaron was elated. But unfortunately, at the worst moment possible, Aaron couldn’t stifle a desperate urge to sneeze. Kerchew! The deer didn’t wait to investigate; it showed its little white flag and disappeared. But Aaron hoped this year would be different.

The committee of Whitetail Heritage had outdone themselves with preparations for the day. After talks by several individuals, including a game warden, each hunter was paired with a guide (one of the afore-mentioned avid hunters) who would take them to their stand, and a cameraman who would record the actual hunt. Then they were fitted with camo hunting clothes, which would be their very own. They were also given a small duffle bag with binoculars and other gear, beef sticks, and, of course, a book. It’s my personal hunch that even avid hunters occasionally need a book in the tree stand.

After this, they were fitted with crossbows, all of which were provided for the day by Ten Point Crossbows. The bows came in all sizes and colors; one even had pink bowstrings. Adorable, dark-eyed Arianna Dillon, nine years old, was matched with this one. Arianna has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, but a wheelchair cannot confine the size of a smile, and Ariana’s was a contagious size!

Following the outfitting, the hunters were taken to the shooting range at the edge of the field and each given some practice shots. This was interesting, indeed. How would a blind person be able to shoot a target, let alone a deer? It turned out that a secondary scope—in some cases, a smartphone—was set up at a right angle on the crossbow, which enabled the guides to assist their hunters in finding the target. Once the crosshairs were on the bulls-eye, the hunter was given the command to pull the trigger, and the arrow hit the target with a resounding “thwack! Never mind that the arrow and target weren’t seen; the sound of the arrow on impact and the cheers were like music. They had hit the mark!

Michael Troyer was one of these hunters, but Michael hadn’t been born blind. When he was four years old, his parents began to notice changes in his vision and took him to see a doctor. He was diagnosed with a cystic brain tumor, already the size of an orange. After unsatisfactory results from cancer treatments, the doctor felt they should pursue surgery. When Michael first awoke after surgery, everything seemed fine, but soon afterward, optimistic and happy little Michael could no longer see! Everything had turned black. The faces of his parents and siblings were only a memory. What a hurdle for a such a young child to grasp and work through!

Michael is now ten years old, and more cystic tumors have made an appearance. Continuing treatments have kept Michael’s family on the move and, at times, separated. Since the Troyers live in Indiana, some very kind people from Ohio helped Michael apply for the Whitetail Heritage hunt and arranged for him to attend. The Troyers stayed at a nearby cabin where, the evening before the hunt, Michael’s mother was rocking his baby sister when she noticed a book lying on the side table. She picked it up and began to read. The book was about praising God. She looked at Michael and said, “You know, Michael, that’s what we need to do.

We need to praise God more in our difficult days!” Dear Michael and his mother inspire me.

And then there was twelve-year-old Felicity Williams. She isn’t blind, but deaf. I was amazed to see that both her father and a friend serving as her guide were deaf as well! It was a beautiful thing to see―their hands speaking as fluently as our tongues! What’s even more interesting is that Felicity’s parents are both deaf, as are her grandparents. Felicity couldn’t hear her arrow hit the target, or people’s compliments, but she could see the arrow and the smiles of encouragement around her.

After target practice, it was lunchtime! What a delectable spread Byler’s BBQ put out for us all! Grilled chicken, pulled pork, hot noodles—perfect for warming up, and a tasty treat for all the families there. Salads, puddings, and homemade ice cream appeared with what seemed effortless efficiency and were quickly cleaned away afterward. Thank you, Byler’s! Your generosity was amazing!

After lunch there was a gun raffle, and the hunters were introduced to Porky, the dog who would track out any missing deer that evening. Then Sam Miller, one of the hunters, shared his story. Perhaps his was one of the most tragic stories, but also one that inspires each of us to rise above circumstances and choose to make the best of them. Here’s Sam’s story:

Sam was one of the dark-haired twin boys born to an Amish family in Lodi, Ohio, in 1976. At the tender age of three, Sam was diagnosed with cancer, and although his treatment was considered successful, the cancer was back by the time he turned six. While his body was weak and frail from chemo treatments, he contracted spinal meningitis, and before they could reach the hospital, he was in a coma. The doctor said there was little hope. The only option was to triple the dosage of a medication that had never been used for a case this serious, and if Sam awakened within twenty-four hours, there might be a chance of helping him. Twenty-four hours later, on the hour, Sam revived out of his coma. He recovered from the cancer but was always considered the weaker of the twins. His brother was able to do things long before Sam was, but by the time Sam turned twelve, he had caught up with his brother physically.

Soon after his twelfth birthday, his family moved to Kentucky and had been living there for six weeks when they were in a car-versus-buggy accident. The accident was so horrific that the splintered wood and debris on the road could no longer be recognized as a buggy. Sam was carried to the side, covered with a sheet, and pronounced dead. The accident was broadcast over the radio, and when some non-Amish neighbors heard the news, they notified Sam’s relatives in another community of the accident. Several of them packed up and came for his viewing and funeral, only to find Sam in the hospital in critical condition. A paramedic at the scene had tried to resuscitate Sam one more time, and Sam had started breathing. The prognosis didn’t look good, however. He was in a coma once more, and doctors predicted that if he lived through it this time, he would always be brain-dead; a vegetable.

Again, the doctors were surprised. After nine and a half weeks, Sam woke up as if from sleep, his mind as sharp as it had been before. But now a new trial assailed him. He was paralyzed from his neck down. The grief of feeling that his life was robbed from him was overwhelming, and many times he wished he could go to sleep and never wake up. But as time went on, Sam decided he could sit in a corner and pout or make the best of things. Sam chose to make the best of things. Little by little, the feeling in his arms and hands came back, and even though he was in a wheelchair, life seemed better. Several years after the accident, Sam’s family sought out an alternative medical doctor. This doctor asked Sam, “What is one thing you would choose to do if you could?” Sam answered, “Go deer hunting!” It was a dream that Sam had little hope of ever happening. And it didn’t happen until 2018, when Sam had his first opportunity to attend the Whitetail Heritage hunt.

I was beginning to realize something that made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t nearly as thankful as I should be! Here were people who had met with some unfathomable difficulties; some had been born with only four of our five senses while others, like Sam, had endured horrific physical and mental suffering. I had all five senses fully intact and was as mobile as I wished to be. What was I doing with these blessings? I knew two things I wanted to improve in: I wanted to cultivate a constant attitude of gratefulness, and I wanted my life to bless others.

After Sam’s poignant account, it was time for guides, hunters, and cameramen to regroup and head out! What scrambling and last-minute well-wishing as eager hunters and their crew departed! Each of the twenty-one hunters had been designated a hunting spot that was contributed for the day by generous landowners, many of whom also served as guides. The hunters were taken out with trucks as far as possible and then either hiked the rest of the way or were transported with ATVs. Most of these spots had hunting blinds and were located on property closely monitored for deer activity. Since many of the guides owned the land themselves, they were familiar with the deer habitat, and chances for the young hunters to shoot a deer were great.

Then came the patient waiting for the rest of us. I sat in a circle with many of the mothers who shared their stories with me. Several times I felt my eyes grow wet. I marveled at their calm strength, their acceptance. One mother had pulled her small son out of a campfire and stop-drop-and-rolled with him to extinguish the flames. She hadn’t thought he would live, the back of his head having sustained such terrible burns, but little Austin had.

Another shared how they had been miraculously chosen to be the adoptive parents of a tiny baby boy. Jeremiah was a bright and happy child and progressed physically despite his diagnosis of Demyelinating Neuropathy. But as he grows older, his diagnosis has kept him from getting stronger, and over the past few years, he has lost some of his mobility and strength. She and her husband keep encouraging and loving him, and help him to see the positives.

One parent told me how two of their children had run and played like any other youngster but as they grew older, they could no longer keep their balance and fell frequently. At the age of eleven or twelve, they were diagnosed with a rare disease and have been confined to their wheelchairs ever since. They are now in their twenties, and when people express sympathy, they respond with a smile and say with calm acceptance, “That’s just how it is.” How inspiring!

None of the mothers in the circle had had the same experience, but all of them had something in common. They all understood the pain and the trials of parenting when things were tough. I also spoke with Dads who were just as caring and involved with their children as the mothers were. Dads, I decided, were the steel and action in caring for children who depended on them, while Mothers provided the soft touch and words. All of these children, I realized, were blessed immensely with the parents God had given them.

Slowly the hunters trickled back in from their hunt, and everyone rushed to each new arrival to see and hear what had happened. The scenes of these young hunters climbing out of the vehicle with enormous smiles and the excitement of their families were firmly stamped in my mind.

Little Jonathan was among the first to come back. The deer he had bagged was tiny, but that didn’t dampen his spirits. “Mom,” he said, smiling from ear to ear, “I thought maybe we could take it home and make some hamburgers.” My mind conjured up a mental image of five hamburgers on a plate, and I felt like hugging him. What did it matter that there wouldn’t be stacks of burgers? It was his first deer, and they would taste all the better for that reason! His mother was beaming at him, and replied, “That sounds just fine me.”

Michael Troyer had harvested a doe, and while his father stood smiling, his mother put her arm around him, congratulating him. Baby sister, on her mother’s hip, laid her little head on Michael’s. Suddenly, I choked up and wildly blinked back the tears. Michael hadn’t even seen his deer. He didn’t know anything about it other than what his guide had told him. But what he couldn’t see was made up for in his family’s touches and words. Love, approval―and excitement―were things he could feel.

Aaron Mast’s hopes were well-rewarded. He had bagged a doe, and with animated gestures, he showed his parents how the hunt had gone. As he got to the best part, he said, “Then I pulled the trigger, pwhoo, and I got it!” There hadn’t been any snores or sneezes this time!

Austin Kurtz’s smile was among the biggest. He had bagged a nice nine-point buck. Since Austin’s buck was the largest one harvested, he was awarded a shoulder mount from Whitetail Heritage. Great job, Austin!

Out of the twenty-one hunters, eighteen had harvested a deer, an incredible success ratio that can be attributed to landowners who gave their best stands for the event. All of the hunters were allowed to choose what type of meat they wanted from their deer, and Whitetail Heritage covered all of the processing costs.

While we were enjoying the action, Byler’s had prepared supper for us all; french fries and burgers this time. As the guides and hunters came back, they ate supper with each other, the fries tasting of sweet success.

At last, the hunters were all grouped together with their deer for a final picture. To me, it’s a picture that speaks of far more than deer hunting. It’s a picture of overcoming odds, smiling in the face of adversity, and praising God in the difficult days. Thank you, hunters, for your example! I want to overcome, and smile, and praise, even though my trials differ from yours. Together we can hunt down our discouragements and hold them by the antlers. And we can smile because we are praising a God who is in control!

 

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