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Accepting New Challenges

Disabled get a shot in the wild of the outdoors world

By: Paul A. Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

BARABOO, Wis. (MCT) - Ken Berg of Greenfield, Wis., raised his bow and pointed it out the window of his ground blind. A white-tailed deer was moving toward him as the early evening light began to soften across the Sauk County landscape.

Berg barely breathed and tried not to even blink. Hunting deer with archery equipment is challenging enough; to do it from the ground requires special stealth and patience.

The deer, a doe, grazed slowly forward, approaching Berg's shooting range of about 25 yards. He waited ...

In the foreground, mixed brown grasses and some sumac brushed with early October red. In the background, a dozen buildings and a storage tank, crumbling and ready for demolition.

An unusual hunting environment? Absolutely. But not nearly as unique as the hunters.

Berg was one of 26 members of Adaptive Sportsmen, Inc. taking part in the group's annual bowhunt at Badger Army Ammunition Plant near Baraboo. Held the first weekend in October, the event brings together a spirited group of physically challenged hunters in a celebration of their abilities and the Wisconsin outdoors.

"Best weekend of the year," said Berg, 63, who has had diabetes for 20 years and requires walking aids.

Adaptive Sportsmen, Inc. is a not-for-profit foundation based in Greenfield. Founded in 2003 by John Mitchell of Greenfield, the group has 200 members.

The organization strives to provide recreational opportunities for the disabled. Hunting, fishing, archery, snowmobiling, trapshooting, ATV riding, you name it.

Its members bear the broadest possible range of disabilities, resulting from birth conditions to diseases to automobile accidents and more.

"We exist to help people focus on what is possible," said Mitchell, 54, and a tax consultant by day. "The first step is always awareness."

Current president, Mitchell leads the group by example. He was the youngest Milwaukee resident to survive the polio epidemic of 1955. He's gone from an iron lung machine to steel leg braces to a stronger-than-steel will to help others overcome their physical limitations.

Mitchell serves on the DNR's Disabled Advisory Council and is chairman of the board at Independence First in Milwaukee.

"It's always heartwarming to see our group get together and learn from each other," said Mitchell. "Each of us has something to teach about how we were able to get something done."

The group uses the state's two greatest resources - the outdoors and its people - to help those with disabilities enjoy all the benefits of living in Wisconsin.

Badger is, to use an understatement, "different." Just miles from Devil's Lake State Park, the 7,354-acre property is a sprawling mix of retired industrial complex and oak savanna, wetland and upland forest.

The property was developed in the early stages of World War II to produce munition needs such as gun powder, rocket propellant and sulfuric acid. The complex grew to include housing for up to 8,000 production workers and their families, a school, a recreation center, a child care facility, a hospital, cafeterias and 24 miles of railroad. The plant was active through the end of the Vietnam War.

About 5,600 acres are forest and field. It's a time of transition at Badger. With help from man, nature is reclaiming the land. Some 600 buildings still dot the landscape, many falling down and windowless.

There are chemical storage tanks, clay borrow pits and bluebird nesting houses. Above ground pipelines, landfills and restored prairies.

"Part of it feels like an old western town," said Mitchell.

But there are deer at Badger. Lots of deer.

The October hunt starts in September when Mitchell and several volunteers meet with the staff at Badger to cut brush, place plywood for wheelchair traffic and set hunting blinds.

The hunters stay at Camp Gray, a church camp nearby, where they live in a dormitory that reminds Berg of his time in the Navy. There's story-telling late into the night, jokes and hijinx.

"But none of us sleep in top bunks now," said Berg.

There's also the food, prepared by volunteers, that includes steak for dinner and ham and omelets for breakfast.

"That's better than the days in the service," said Berg. "In fact, you won't find better food at a 5-star restaurant."

Mitchell and his sister Mary, treasurer of the group, have recruited a dedicated group of volunteers to assist with fund raisers and events. Over 50 volunteers assisted with this year's hunt.

"It's as good if not better than hunting myself," said Brian Graham, 49, of Racine. "The date is etched in stone on the calendar each year."

Like most of the volunteers, Graham is an avid outdoorsman who willingly gives time to the group he could otherwise be spending in his own tree stand.

This year he assisted Heather Degenhardt, 16, of Blue River who hunts from a wheelchair.

Area businesses also donate food and vehicles to help the hunters get around at Badger.

The group doesn't get together without breaking barriers and creating new experiences.

For Bob Rude of Menomonie, it was going vertical in his wheelchair on a specialized lift. In a matter of seconds the mechanism hoisted him higher than a basketball hoop. Draped in a camouflage cover, he looked down from an instant hunting blind. And smiled.

It was the first time he'd been off the ground since learning to live in a wheelchair many years ago.

"I don't think he stopped smiling for the length of the hunt," said Mary Mitchell. "He was like 'Can I have that next year?'"

The hunt also featured Cal Popp of Fond du Lac shooting the group's first 6-point doe. Well, he thought it was a doe until it was recovered and it was a buck.

Richard Weight of Hartford also harvested a 9-point buck. For the record, he never mistook the gender.

When the hunt wrapped up on Oct. 5, four deer had been taken. Two bucks and two does, one by Berg. After waiting for just the right moment, Berg placed a perfect shot from his ground blind and he put his tag on a good-sized doe. He promptly turned around and donated it to fellow club members.

"We are in this together," said Berg. "It really helps all of us find ways to look forward, not back."

© 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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