“You should cancel that trip,” the doctor said flatly. “It could be too strenuous for someone in your condition.”
The trip in question was a spot-and-stalk bear hunt on Vancouver Island and my “condition” referred to a recent diagnosis of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), a neurological malady that progressively paralyzes the body by destroying nerve cells responsible for voluntary muscle movement. I’d been a very active, avid outdoorsman since childhood, but at age 45 I had to face some hard facts — I’d become disabled.
In the early stages of ALS at that time (May 2006), I used a cane to walk but could still safely handle a rifle.
My wife and I agreed that the psychological benefits of pursuing my passions 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.
ALS eventually put me in a wheelchair and robbed me of the arm strength needed to handle a rifle, so I thought my days afield had ended. Little did I know the best adventures were yet to come. In 2008, Ron Wagner, my lifelong friend and hunting buddy, vowed to “do whatever it takes” to keep me in the hunt.
Knowing that Ron would keep his promise inspired me to research the internet for disabled shooting devices that would meet my specific needs. I bought an aiming device and a trigger control.
The Trophy Shot scopecam mounts on nearly any optic and displays the scope’s-eye view, crosshairs and all, on a 2.5-inch color monitor. The screen allows both of us to view the sight picture as Ron aims the rifle for me. The BT-100 trigger control from BE-Adaptive (www.beadaptive.com) is designed to activate the trigger via cable when the shooter bites down on it. Since I still had limited use of my hands, I found it more comfortable to hold the control in my lap and squeeze it with my fingers. Later, the folks at BE-Adaptive made me a release with long handles that my atrophied hands could grip more easily.
Ron and I became adept at shooting as a unit. The ability of both hunters to see the scope monitor contributes to our teamwork. While I trust Ron to hold the sights steady on the target, he trusts me to wait and squeeze the trigger at the right time.
“It’s easier to hold the rifle steady for you than if I were shooting,” Ron once told me. “Since I’m not sure exactly when you’ll squeeze the trigger, I don’t tense in anticipation of the shot.”
I named our group (Ron, my wife, me and everyone else who gets involved in our hunts) “The A-Team.” We’ve learned that hunting as a team brings rewards we can’t derive from individual achievements.
“The guys back home say it’s nice of me to give up my own hunting time and help you. I try to explain, but they just don’t understand,” Ron says. “I’m not giving up anything. I’m sharing the hunt with a friend even if I don’t squeeze the trigger. I’d rather take a four-point buck with you than shoot a ten-point by myself.”
When other hunters ask about the specialized gear and how we use it, Ron can’t resist a bit of joking. “When we take a deer, Andy gets all the credit,” he says. “If we miss, it’s all my fault.”
Last year my hands became too weak to use my plier-handles-style trigger release, so I bought a TM-100 mouth-activated trigger mechanism from BE-Adaptive. Since this device’s switchbox is designed to mount on a gunstock, I asked Brian (the manufacturer) to extend the wires because we need maneuvering room when my point man aims the rifle for me. Powered by a 12V battery, the “sip-activated” mechanism trips the trigger when I inhale on a rubber tube.
Until then, our shooting sequence had always gone like this: Ron would flick off the safety, lock the crosshairs on target and say, “Whenever you’re ready.”
Then I’d start squeezing my manual trigger release and the gun would fire after a 2- to 5-second delay — an agonizing eternity when you’re aiming at a live animal and trying to hold a rifle steady, even when supported by shooting sticks. My new trigger setup has greatly improved my reaction time.
We baptized the new system on a trip to Montana in November 2011. Watching the scopecam monitor, I saw the crosshairs settle on a deer’s neck. Ron calmly said, “OK, Andy, whenever you…”
The whitetail dropped in its tracks. Ron looked at me, mirroring my grin, and said, “You shoulda got one of these triggers a long time ago!”
Then he said he’ll never mount this device on a semi-automatic rifle for fear of what might happen if I got the hiccups.
I’m not sensitive about terms that describe my condition. You can say “mobility-impaired,” “disabled” or “crippled” without offending me; however, I dislike the expression “confined to a wheelchair” because my wheelchair actually liberates me by providing a means to get out and keep hunting.
Some of you might recognize my name from the pages of Sport Fishing magazine, where I worked as Senior Editor from 1999 to 2011. Unfortunately, I can no longer handle a fishing rod or go out in a boat. But I still enjoy hunting, and if you’re interested in reading about the adventures of a disabled sportsman, I’d feel honored to share a few stories with you.