Missouri Deer Hunting: Opportunity for All
By Sarah Kendrick
Each year, deer hunters with disabilities and volunteers from across the state reunite to share laughs, stories, and hunt deer.
I arrived at the Mark Twain Lake Disabled Hunt on a frigid November morning prepared to have my faith restored in humanity. It may sound t dramatic to be true, but having attended the hunt the previous five years, I knew what I was in for: a day of smiles, stories, and one happy deer camp. Upon arrival, I was promptly dispatched to a holding tent. Volunteers, layered in coveralls and hunter orange, shivered around a space heater with hands jammed in pockets. They waited for a telltale rifle shot.
A few hundred yards away, James Dean, of Union, and his son and hunting buddy, James Dean II, were also shivering in a blind, waiting for a chance to take that rifle shot and harvest a deer. However, when I joined them I was met with warm smiles and a lot of enthusiasm.
“I found out about this hunt through a Mark Twain Lake brochure,” said Dean. “I was walking with a cane then, and I knew it was only a matter of time.” Dean was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997 and is now in a wheelchair. He has participated in the Mark Twain Lake Disabled Hunt every year since 2004.
“It’s just been amazing. I have M.S., and I don’t want to burden anyone taking me hunting. I don’t get a deer every year, but if I see deer, it’s a bonus.”
Mark Twain Lake Disabled Hunt
The Mark Twain Lake Disabled Hunt is the longest-running hunt of its kind in the state. It is hosted and administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and hundreds of volunteers. Hunters are transported to accessible deer blinds by a team of volunteers and picked up when they are ready to return to camp, or when they harvest a deer.
Participants and volunteers are provided with meals and the option to sleep inside the group campground’s canvas-sided pavilion, which features a massive stone fireplace at its center. The fireplace houses a roaring, cheerful fire all weekend, and the pavilion serves as the hunt’s headquarters — a warm area where the hunts are organized, stories are told, and reunions shared. Nearly all disabled hunts in the state are restricted to participants who require the use of a wheelchair, but the Mark Twain Lake hunt also welcomes hunters who use other mobility aids, such as braces, crutches, walkers, or canes. This accommodates hunters like Bill Harrison of St. Ann, who broke his back and cannot walk far unassisted. He is touched by the volunteers’ dedication. “Most of the volunteers here are hunters themselves — that’s phenomenal,” said Harrison.
“They’re willing to give up a third of their hunting season every year.”
Shelly Howald of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bob Kendrick, of Monroe City, have organized the Mark Twain Lake Disabled Hunt since the first hunt in 1988, when one hunter with disabilities from Monroe City was taken hunting. “When I was young, one of my father’s friends was paralyzed,” Howald explained. “I saw that he couldn’t do what we could do outdoors. This hunt gives me an outlet and an opportunity to help others participate in outdoor activities that I wasn’t able to do with a friend.”
Kendrick works year-round to drum up financial and volunteer support for the hunt, recruit locals to build accessible blinds, and plant food plots. He works especially hard to provide a consistent source of good-natured teasing and laughs throughout the weekend.
“When the hunters arrive, the word ‘disability’ disappears. They’re just hunters,” Kendrick said.
Managed hunts for people with disabilities are held in most regions of the state, providing opportunities for more than 200 hunters annually. These hunts are held on public lands owned by the Missouri Department of Conservation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Managed hunt partnerships between the Department and these federal agencies, with the help of countless volunteers, provide high-quality deer hunting experiences for all Missourians — with or without disabilities.
Many Department-owned conservation areas also provide accessible hunting blinds or hunting access by reservation, as well ADA-accessible facilities to accommodate waterfowl hunting, archery, shooting, fishing, picnicking, and other outdoor activities. Find an area near you by visiting the Department’s Conservation Area Atlas online at mdc.mo.gov (click on Conservation Areas) or by calling your regional office.
The Power of Volunteerism
While I shivered in the volunteer tent, I spoke with volunteers who ranged in age from 11 to “old enough.” I was taken aback when the kids told me their ages, because it was hard for me to imagine myself volunteering on a frosty morning at that age. Josh Underhill, 13, of Monroe City, was already a seasoned volunteer, having helped with the hunt since he was 9 years old.
“I like hunting, and I want these hunters to experience the same thing I get to,” Underhill said. Nathan Mehrer, 14, also of Monroe City, is a first-time volunteer, but he says he’s attended the hunt nearly his whole life. “I just want to let other people enjoy what I enjoy. It’s a family thing for me.”
The hunt marked Kenny St. Clair’s fourth year as a volunteer. He was motivated to help after his daughter was born with a disability. “I do it because I love hunting and helping people. A lot of people have helped me along the way. My daughter was born with a heart defect, so it’s a way to give back. We enjoy being out here with volunteers helping out.”
The theme of family is very strong at the hunt. Diana McKinney, the proudly self-proclaimed first female cook at the hunt, bustles around the makeshift outdoor kitchen prepping onions for huge vats of coleslaw.
“This is my Christmas,” said Diana. “I really enjoy it. It touches my heart, and there is no greater feeling.”
Nearby, Tera Kisar, of Monroe City, works amid the steaming fryers with her father, cooking meals for the hunters and volunteers.
“My grandpa was the head chef out here for 14 years. I’ve worked out here for as long as I can remember,” Kisar said. “I plan on bringing my kids [to the hunt], too.”
Multiple opportunities exist for hunters with disabilities in Missouri, but the demand grows. Kendrick encourages more communities to start disabled hunts.
“We have volunteers who would be willing to skip our hunt for a year or two to help other communities organize and set up their own disabled hunts,” he said. “We could help folks build blinds and give them pointers that we’ve learned through the years.”
Missouri’s disabled hunts are a testament to the spirit of Missouri’s outdoor community. This is evident not only in the hunters who don’t allow a disability to hinder their passion for the sport, but also in the countless hours of volunteer support that make these events possible.
When asked why Kendrick continues to organize the hunt, he doesn’t hesitate. “I see what this hunt does not only for the hunters, but for the helpers, and it’s powerful…. You can’t walk away from that.”
Sarah Kendrick is the outreach and marketing supervisor for the Conservation Department’s Wildlife Division. She lives in Columbia.
For more information about participating in or volunteering at a managed deer hunt for people with disabilities, contact your regional Conservation office, or see the 2014 Fall Deer and Turkey Hunting Regulations and Information booklet available at hunting permit vendors, or on our Deer Regulations page at mdc.mo.gov/node/3610.
Smithville Lake Disabled Hunt
By Bill Graham
Nearly two hundred miles away on the same chilly morning, the Smithville Lake Disabled Hunt is underway. This hunt is the largest disabled hunt in Missouri, offering 65 disabled blind locations, and is a partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Clay County Parks and Recreation Department, and the Conservation Department. The Kearney Boy Scouts provide breakfast on Saturday, echoing the citizen involvement of all disabled hunts in the state.
“This hunt helps us manage our deer herd at the lake in the parks and refuge areas that are off-limits to regular hunters,” said Derek Dorsey, park manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
All disabled hunts in Missouri allow relatives, friends, or volunteers to assist hunters at the blinds. Volunteers become good friends with hunters, and the event becomes an outdoor reunion for participants.
“I love this hunt,” said hunter Wally Parker, 53, of St. Louis County, who participates in several managed hunts in Missouri. The former Marine lost a leg and some mobility in his arms in a motorcycle accident. “I thought my hunting days were through. Then I found these hunts.”
An 11-point buck bagged at this Smithville Lake hunt was the biggest deer Parker has taken in recent years. Volunteer Bill Davidson, of Lathrop, helped him bag the buck. Davidson said his father had a disability, so volunteering at the hunt holds extra meaning for him.
“I just enjoy it,” Davidson said. “I’ve been coming out and helping for eight or nine years now.”
William Hall, 32, of Wardell, enjoys a chance to hunt and renew friendships. He has participated in several of the hunts statewide for those with mobility challenges.
“This is a better hunting opportunity,” Hall said. “We don’t have the deer numbers at home that you do up here. This is my fourth year here, and I’ve made some good friends, and it’s good to see them every year.”
Lending a hand to hunters is a privilege, said volunteer Pete Eisentrager, of Independence.
“It’s an opportunity to spend time with these guys and give a little back,” Eisentrager said.
Dave Blanford, 66, of Kansas City, began deer hunting in 1978. More than a decade earlier, paralysis prompted him to begin using a wheelchair.
But that didn’t keep him from the outdoors and deer hunting. His brother, Colonel Blanford, helped him set up in a blind at Smithville Lake. Dave Blanford cradled his bolt-action rifle and surveyed the corn stubble and brushy draws in front of the blind.
“This is peaceful out here,” Blanford said. “You’re out here with the birds and the trees, and it’s peaceful.”
Bill Graham is a lifelong outdoorsman and Department media specialist for the Kansas City and Northwest regions. He enjoys the outdoors whether wielding camera, rod, gun, or hiking stick.