Special hunt thrilling for participants, volunteers

They have limited abilities and that qualifies them to participate in the limited deer hunt at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

Hunters and their helpers. The hunters include Craig Vorhees, Aaron Cross, of St. Cloud, Jeremy Carlson, of Svea, Keegan Maclennan, of Willmar, Mike Oldfield, of Spicer, Brian Gieseke, of Spicer, Calmon Peterson, of Blomkest, Bob Lungstrom, of New London, Jim Gustafson, of Pennock and Pierce Heinze, of Grey Eagle. Contributed photo.

It’s a time of year these men look forward to, and a time of year the volunteers put every effort possible into assuring they have a good time. That includes getting them to and from the hunting blinds, doing everything possible to give them the opportunity to shoot a deer, to feeding them a hot meal at noon that’s been prepared by the wives of the volunteers.

This has been going on for 16 years according to Dave Peterson, executive director at Prairie Woods. “Last year we weren’t able to do the hunt. Ironically we had to cancel it because of snow. The one week of the year we had snow, and we had to cancel it.”

Debbie Nelson, Tammy Gjerde and LeAnne Wangen volunteer their time to make a meal for the participants and the volunteeres. Contributed photo

He went on to praise the work of the volunteers, among them Ryan Newville and Dave Muetzel. “They have been doing a fantastic job. For 16 years now these guys have been incredibly dedicated to making this happen. They proposed the idea working with Mark Mertens and a handful of other folks. There’s a great group of volunteers that are involved, and Ryan and Dave coordinate that and make that happen.”

The hunt has evolved from when it first started, Muetzel said. “The first year Mark (Mertens) was out there behind some straw bales as his blind.” Newville remembers that well. “The first year Dave took Mark out hunting, and they had straw bales for a blind. The second year there were two hunters, and Joe Wangen helped Dave with that, and I joined. On the third year we had four hunters and that’s when I became part of the hunt and have been doing it ever since.”

In addition to helping the hunters, they also repair blinds, make new blinds, and maintain the trailers they use to take the hunters to the blinds. Newville said they built the trailers themselves. He said the trailers go right down to the ground so they can wheel the disabled hunters up into them, get them strapped in and haul them out to the blind. “We do a lot of stuff maintaining everything. We get a lot of stuff every year and get together to do all the work.”

They look forward to it every year, he said. “The main thing is the day of the hunt when we take people out and bring them back for the noon lunch and get to hear all their stories about all the deer they saw.” He added, “They get so excited. One year we had a hunter that slept in his hunting clothes the night before, he didn’t want to take them off.”

Muetzel said he got started with Mertens, and once they got the approval from Prairie Woods, they hauled the hay bales out that first year, and it just got better and better. “We have to thank all the volunteers. If it wasn’t for them we couldn’t do it, no way. The women do the cooking, and it’s a special two and a half days.”

Last year’s hunt was Nov.13, 14 and 15. “If anybody wants to come out and join us (in 2016) out there just to see what it’s all about they’re welcome to come.”

There is a volunteer for every hunter that goes out. Last year, there were actually 10 limited hunters and two youth hunters so there were 12 volunteers to take them out. “We’ve been at right around 10 hunters every year for the last eight years.”

Peterson said Muetzel and Newville have built 10 blinds, and each blind is a production in itself.

“Each blind has evolved so it’s really a high-quality hunt. I don’t know anything else in the state that would rival it, and just the fact that each hunter has an able-bodied person in the blind that help with the deer if a deer is taken….”

The guys have had pretty good success, he said, noting Prairie Woods has an abundance of deer. “It’s incredible to hear in the state that people are thinking there’s a shortage of deer. That’s not the case at Prairie Woods.”

In fact, he said, some of the surrounding farmers have asked the DNR in the past for some help, some relief by feeding the deer in the winter because they’ve been coming into feed lots and just taking over. “There are many deer, and this special hunt helps to control the deer population at Prairie Woods. There are 12 blinds now, and these guys built them, Ryan, Dave and some of the other volunteers.”

Craig Vorhees wheeling out of one of the special trailers that carried the hunters from the barn to the blind. Contributed photo.

Prairie Woods is the physical host for the hunt, and they provide the barn and the property, he said, but the volunteers really do all the work. “They developed the blind, they raised the funds, and each year there’s a raffle. It’s quite a body of work, and it’s evolved over time, and now they’re in the 16th year; it’s really amazing.”

Muetzel said when they first started he thought it would go two to three years and fade out, but it’s getting better each year. “That’s great.”

You don’t actually have to be in a wheelchair to participate, he said, you just have to be limited and have a doctor’s slip saying you can shoot out of vehicles. “They have to qualify by sighting in each year to make sure they’re able to shoot targets and hit their deer.” He said the hunters come from St. Cloud, Litchfield and all over. “As far as I know we’re the only ones who do this.” They really enjoy this, he said.

Muetzel said a lot of the guys that participate in the hunt also help to sell raffle tickets and things like that to make it happen. And just who hunts can vary from year to year. “We have some hunters that have been able to hunt a series of years in a row, and they’re part of a tradition, and this year there’ll be some new hunters and some that had participated in the past that are not able to do so this year or decided not to hunt.”

Newville said the only money they raise is through the raffle tickets, which usually brings in $3,000 or so and that goes for building the blinds, the trailers, upkeep, food for the days of the hunt, plus they donate some of that back to Prairie Woods. He said they’ve put cement in front of the barn which helps keep the barn cleaner. They’ve also donated to Prairie Woods for its archery program. They’ve had 4-wheelers and Rangers donated to help take people out in blinds. “The furthest blind we go out is by the shooting range so we actually drive them around and bring them in from that side. From the barn it’s probably a mile and a half.”

It’s dark when they bring them to the blinds since they go out before sunrise, then about 11 a.m. they bring them back to the barn for lunch, then back to the blinds at 1 p.m., then pick them up just before dark. “They’re so excited about it they can’t wait to get out and hunt again if they didn’t get a deer that day.” The women make different hot dishes, soup and other things. “It’s usually the volunteers’ wives, and they bring out all the food. They prepare everything so we know where it’s coming from, and we know it’s good food.” There’s enough food for everybody, he said, nobody goes hungry.

Muetzel said they appreciate the donations they get, and that includes some food, water and other items. And this year, at the last minute, they received a $2,000 donation from the Lake Lillian Sportsman’s Club. He said Mertens is really the man who kind of got the ball rolling the first year because he wanted a place to hunt in the woods rather than sitting alongside the road in a van trying to get a deer 200 to 300 yards away. “He came up with the idea of talking to the county commissioners, asking if he could get out in the woods and try it. It took off from there, and it’s been going ever since.”

Prairie Woods belongs to Kandiyohi County, and everybody that lives here, said Peterson, and it’s great these guys are doing all the work. All Prairie Woods does is provide the facility, he said. The special hunt has helped make some improvements at Prairie Woods too, he said, noting the barn is more accessible now than it was because of the nice concrete apron that was poured to make it easy for someone to pull up with a wheelchair-accessible van, load onto the pavement and wheel into the barn. Some of the lighting at Prairie Woods has been improved as well. “Ryan talked about how they’re in the blinds before sunrise. It’s dark at the farm site, but there is better lighting now which makes the process a little bit easier and of course that benefits everybody who uses Prairie Woods before light or after dark.”

The trails are closed during the hunt. Peterson said they put up signs to warn people. “Some people will still hike on the roads, but we really do not want them on the trails. That’s a dangerous thing to be doing during deer hunting season anyway, and there is hunting on lands adjacent to Prairie Woods as well.” Some of their ski trails cross property lines with permission from adjoining landowners. “We don’t have any control over what they do on their property, and we don’t know who’s hunting that land, so during deer hunting in general we close the trails and really discourage people from walking the trails. They can walk the road if they would like to do that and that’s still a nice walk.”

Larry Nelson, another volunteer for this hunt, said he absolutely enjoys doing this, and that it’s his fourth year volunteering. “They were looking for volunteers, and I thought it was the right thing to do, give back to the community.” Nelson, who is a hunter himself, said the guy he takes out can’t talk; he can only show emotion through his arms. “He gets real excited, and you can tell what he’s thinking.” He did shoot a deer, he said, and he tried going down the hill in his wheelchair to get to the deer. “We had to stop him, he got so excited.” At a following meal, this man brought a shadow box he made and filled with a picture of the deer he shot, what he used to kill the deer with, and his hunting license. “He was so proud of his shadow box.”

They also have a fellow that’s blind and comes out to hunt. “He’s got a red dot scope, and his chaperon will tell him, up, down, over, and tells him to pull the trigger as soon as the target (red dot) hits the deer.”

Hunters and helpers pose for a photo after a successful hunt. Contributed photo.

Nelson said once they take the men out the first morning, they come back and prepare and serve themselves breakfast. “It’s wonderful.” Also, he said, the wives of the volunteers do an awful lot for the hunt by making and serving all the food for the hunters and volunteers. “They should have a big thanks for that.” They have a good time doing it, he said, and they serve close to 25 to 30 people those two days.

The hunt is Nov. 13 and 14, plus half a day on the 15th. “I want to thank all the volunteers,” said Muetzel. “They bring their own 4-wheelers, buy their own gas; they spend a lot of time too and without the volunteers we couldn’t do it.”

#disabledhunters #PrairieWoodsEnvironmentalLearningCenter #volunteers

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