Daybreak revealed trees and trails to the young hunters, though the woods remained quiet for them. Most could not hear crows cawing or squirrels rustling dry leaves outside camouflage blinds. But silence dimmed no hopes.
The hunters knew that white-tailed deer were on the move somewhere in the late-October woods at the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation, and a buck or doe might appear within gun range at any moment.
Timmie Gunn, 13 (in October 2010), watched as sunrise slowly turned dark shapes into tree trunks and a valley outside his blind.
“There’s a trail down there where the deer cross; it’s a good spot,” said Chris Capps, a Missouri Department of Conservation outdoor skills instructor serving as Timmie’s guide and mentor. “We may see some turkeys this morning, too, and maybe even a bobcat.”
Timmie turned to his stepfather, Eric Pettit of St. Peters, who repeated the message to make sure his son understood via lip reading and the cochlear implants that aid his hearing.
“Bobcat,” Timmie repeated. He smiled, raised his binoculars to his eyes and gazed into the woods.
Getting Everyone Outdoors
This special hunt for youths with hearing impairments is a cooperative effort by the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Boy Scouts of America and volunteers organized by Scout leaders at H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation near Osceola.
“We’re giving these kids a chance to do something that most of them have never had the chance to do before,” said Craig Jones of Kansas City, a Scout leader and deer camp organizer. “We also do it because they’re just great kids.”
The annual deer camp for hearing-impaired youths began in 2004 and is held in conjunction with the statewide early youth deer-hunting season for hunters ages 6 to 15. It is rooted in the Conservation Department’s commitment to help all people discover and enjoy the outdoors.
The partnership with the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation began when a former conservation agent took a special interest in helping those with hearing challenges. That led to an annual outdoor fun camp in August at the Scout reservation for youths and their families. The camp attendees fish, paddle canoes and target shoot with guns and archery equipment. Volunteers at that event decided if they were going to teach the youths how to shoot, they should also help them learn to hunt.
The 4,200-acre Scout camp borders Truman Lake and has plenty of deer roaming in the rugged, wooded hills. But there’s also another advantage: Hunters and volunteers use Scout cabins for sleeping, a mess kitchen for meals and the main office as a daytime rendezvous point.
Most of the time, though, the hunters are tromping in the outdoors and enjoying all the deer camp trimmings. That includes shooting practice, which is held at the reservation’s firing range on the Friday eve of the youth season.
Fetlework Blitch, 11, of Nixa, sat down at a bench on the firing line and hefted a boltaction .243 rifle to her shoulder. The rifle and several others were provided for campers by the Conservation Department’s outdoor skills education program. Fetlework peered through the scope and then chambered a cartridge with help from Capps. After firing a few rounds, she was on target and ready for deer.
Her hearing difficulties have not limited Fetlework’s hunting abilities, said Vernon Blitch, her father. His daughter is adopted from Ethiopia. Fetlework has taken a wild turkey with a shotgun, and she is learning to shoot with archery equipment.
“I like seeing the animals, and I like being outdoors,” she said, “and I like to eat them.”
Good food and friends are a key component of this deer camp. A barbecue on Friday night was topped off with cherry and apple cobbler baked in Dutch ovens in the cook pit. Halloween treats and a bonfire add to the fun. Hunters, parents and guides gather around logs burning in a massive steel fire pit that includes the words “Missouri School for the Deaf.” The pit was donated by professional welder and hunt volunteer Wayne “Cuz” Hoenshell of Garden City.
“It’s the kids and seeing them so happy that makes us do this,” Hoenshell said.
Sign language is the norm for telling hunting stories and jokes at this deer camp. Each young hunter is accompanied by a parent or guardian, and they serve as signing interpreters if needed between hunters and guides.
Supporting Parents as Mentors
Deer camp is also a chance for parents to get outdoors with their child in a manner that many would not attempt without some extra support and guidance, said Karen Jones, who mentors young women hunters and helps organize the camp along with her husband, Craig.
“It’s more than just them getting a deer,” she said, “it’s the whole outdoor experience. This camp has evolved from just a hunt to also a bonfire, a Halloween party and a Saturday evening visit to a corn maze.”
Volunteers make the varied activities possible. Some cook meals, while others operate a crafts, games and snack area for hunters who have bagged their deer or simply want to quit hunting for the day. A few volunteers stand ready to help field dress deer, bring them into camp and process the meat to send home with family members.
The first deer camps were for students from the Missouri School for the Deaf in Fulton. Later, students from the Kansas School for the Deaf began attending. Now hunters include students with hearing impairments who attend regular private or public schools throughout Missouri.
Craig Jones believes their deer camp model can be copied by others, too. “The hardest thing is finding a location,” he said. “Otherwise, all you need are volunteers, time and effort.”
Since this is a real, working deer camp, effort is required from everyone—including the young hunters.
A 5 a.m. wakeup call rousted Timmie and his fellow hunters out of warm cabin bunks and into chilly, pre-dawn darkness. Pancakes and eggs at the mess hall helped knock some sleepiness from their eyes, though, and the walk to their blinds put them wide awake.
The hunters generally harvest two to five deer each year at the reservation. It’s not a large tally, but not bad for brand-new hunters.
Value of the Hunt
Capps made sure Timmie had a prime center seat in the blind with good visibility in all directions. Pettit checked his son’s Rossi .243 single-shot rifle, a birthday present, to make sure the safety was on, and he helped him load a cartridge.
Morning brought squirrels digging for acorns beneath the leaves, a red-tailed hawk gliding over the treetops and the rise and fall of the wind. They could hear distant shots fired by other hunters on private property.
But no deer appeared before Timmie’s blind, and only one missed shot was fired by his fellow campers.
That did not discourage most hunters as they gathered for lunch. “I had fun,” Fetlework said. “I plan to go back out.”
After lunch, most guides and guardians in deer camp were thinking about naps, but Timmie was ready to head back to the woods. So, with fallen leaves crunching underfoot, the trio hiked back to the blind.
Again, hours passed and no deer appeared.
Timmie grew restless.
Then, suddenly in late afternoon, things changed.
“There’s one coming in,” Pettit said, “to the right.”
Capps started to raise his field glasses and then realized he didn’t need them, the deer was close.
“Oh my,” he said, “it’s a big one. Get ready.” Timmie saw the deer moving and tried to get the rifle shouldered and ready to fire, a process that was still underway as a very large buck deer with huge antlers sauntered nervously past the blind, probably within 30 yards.
The deer moved past the blind and through the trees, and then stopped for a moment at a distance. But before Timmie could find a good aiming point and fire, the buck slipped out of sight.
He did not speak but turned to his father, smiled hugely and pounded lightly on his chest to signal his fast-beating heart. Then he turned to gaze into the woods again, more anxious than ever, a deer hunter.
The smiles are what Jones and the other volunteers seek. “Even if they don’t get a deer,” Jones said, “we want them saying, ‘I had a ball.’”
Anyone interested in the deer camp can contact Craig Jones at 816-254-1013. The hunt is limited to 15 participants on a first-come, first-serve basis.