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Deer hunter overcomes disability to shoot a buck with specialized crossbow equipment

Mitchell Benson of Moorhead shot this deer with a crossbow mounted on an apparatus that attaches to his wheelchair Oct. 8 near Karlstad, Minn. Benson's younger brother, Matthew (left), helped him with the hunt. (Submitted photo)

It had to happen sooner or later, Mitchell Benson figured: A deer would walk within shooting range and he'd be able to activate the trigger of his crossbow.

He figured correctly. When a small buck walked into view late Sunday, Oct. 8 on a food plot his family had planted and cared for south of Karlstad, Minn., Benson made the opportunity count.

So ended a quest that began some two years earlier, when Benson was able to deer hunt for the first time since a May 2006 accident left him paralyzed from the neck down.

In the process, Benson proved once again that his disability couldn't keep him from enjoying life and the hunting opportunities so many people take for granted.

All it took was a little bit of help from family, caregivers and his friends in the Two Rivers Sportsmen Club, a Kittson County nonprofit that launched a raffle drive in 2014 to raise funds to purchase the crossbow and specialized mounting apparatus Benson would need to get back into hunting.

His stubborn streak took care of the rest, he says.

"Persevering wouldn't be my word," Benson, 34, of Moorhead said. "Mine would be stubborn. I'm willing to try and try and try. I knew eventually we'd probably get a deer.

"I didn't know when. I just knew circumstances have to work out sooner or later, right?"

Assisted by family and a caregiver—his disability requires him to have 24-hour care—Benson hunted with the high-tech equipment in 2015 and 2016 but didn't shoot a deer.

"The first year we hunted, I fired once, but I got a little bit of buck fever," he said. "It was at dark on the last day I was going to be able to hunt, and I got a little too eager, and I lined up and I completely missed."

Road to triumph

The journey to Benson's hunting triumph began May 26, 2006, when he fell out of a moving vehicle on Interstate 29 near the Reynolds, N.D., exit.

"I was hanging out the window of my buddy's pickup as we were going down the road and I slipped," Benson said.

A 2002 graduate of Stephen-Argyle Central High School, the Stephen, Minn., native had earned an automotive technician degree from Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls in 2005 and was working for a Grand Forks construction company at the time of the accident.

"I don't really remember falling or hitting the ground," Benson said. "I tumbled for a while, and when I came to a stop, I came to, and I was awake, and I just kind of knew I couldn't move anything."

Benson says he doesn't remember the ambulance ride to Grand Forks, but he woke up in Altru Hospital. He later learned three vertebra in his neck and three vertebra in his back were broken.

"I don't (halfway) do anything, so when I did it, I really did it," Benson said.

In July 2006, Benson went to The Courage Center in Plymouth, Minn., where he spent the next nine months learning to live with his disability. He needed 24-hour care and moved to Creative Care for Reaching Independence—a Moorhead facility known as CCRI, for short—on April 5, 2007, his 24th birthday.

He chose CCRI from a list of facilities he'd been provided.

"It caught my eye," Benson said. "I thought, 'What better thing?' That's all I want is as much independence back as I can get."

Benson has lived at CCRI ever since, enrolling at North Dakota State University in 2008. He graduated with honors from NDSU in the fall of 2014 with a business administration degree and started an internship at CCRI on May 26, 2015, the ninth anniversary of his accident.

Benson now works part-time at CCRI and has spoken to elementary students about disability awareness and to college officials about what they can do to make their schools more accommodating for people with disabilities.

"I work for CCRI, but they're also the organization that provides my care," Benson said. "I'm able to do so many things because of the staffing I have with me."

Helping hands

Growing up in a hunting family, Benson says he had his sights set on someday returning to the outdoors and had been saving up to buy the equipment he'd need to hunt again.

Then, in June 2014, Benson was attending his youngest brother Matthew's wedding when someone asked him at the reception if he missed hunting.

"I said, Oh yeah, I've been trying to save up for this hunting apparatus for awhile now, but not having a job and having this disability, I wasn't able to able to save very quickly," Benson recalled.

Several members of the Two Rivers Sportsmen Club were at the reception, Benson said, and his conversation set the stage for the raffle. The club sold tickets for a Ruger 10/22 model .22 rifle to raise nearly $4,000 to purchase the crossbow and mount apparatus.

Manufactured by a company called Be Adaptive Equipment, the mount, which attaches to the wheelchair and adjusts with a joystick, allows the user to operate crossbows, rifles or shotguns with a sip and puff straw that activates the trigger.

Benson looks through the scope with an iPod Touch, which he says is attached with about $5 worth of low-tech plumbing equipment and an old iPhone case.

By comparison, a factory-made mounting unit would have cost about $100, he said.

"It's good to have friends that can make things because it turns out to be a lot cheaper," Benson said. "I'm very fortunate to have a lot of people that can make things work."

In the field

For this year's hunt, Benson said his brothers Michael, 37, of Manvel, N.D., and Matthew, 27, of Stephen took turns hunting with him in the fish house their dad, David, had converted into a hunting shelter with windows large enough to accommodate the crossbow.

He hunted the weekends of Sept. 16-17 and Oct. 7-8, and caregiver Trisha Twite of CCRI accompanied him every day.

Benson's younger brother was in the shelter with him Oct. 8, and prospects for shooting a deer were dimming with the daylight when they spotted two deer walking onto the food plot from the woods to the north.

Benson saw the fawn first.

"I'm like, 'OK, hopefully the next one will be a little bigger,' " he said.

When the second deer appeared in his field of view, Benson was able to zoom in the iPod to see it was a small buck standing about 40 yards away. He waited for a broadside shot and sipped the tube to trip the crossbow trigger.

"As soon as it turned, I was like, I'm taking it," Benson said. "I fired and right away, we heard the 'thwak,' so I knew I'd hit it, but then it ran off to the north."

Then came the waiting to ensure the deer was dead. They called Matthew's father-in-law, Jeff Anderson, and brother-in-law, Nathan Anderson, of Argyle, Minn., and Benson's parents, David and Debbie Benson of Stephen, who drove up to share the experience and help find the deer, as did friends Brian Krantz and his dad, Randy, of Karlstad.

Long story short, Benson had made a clean kill. His brother, Matthew, said it was gratifying to be a part of the hunt after so many hours of trying for a deer and overcoming the blips and equipment glitches that occurred along the way.

"It was a lot of time in the stand, that's for sure," Matthew Benson said. "He was talking about how his heart was racing for three or four hours even after he had shot the deer.

"It was really an awesome thing to be a part of, that's for sure, to get to see what he was capable of doing, getting back out and doing things that a lot of people aren't able to do in that situation."

Looking back on the hunt, Mitchell Benson says he couldn't have done it without the help of his family, his caregiver, the members of the Two Rivers Sportsmen Club and other friends, who made the effort to get him back out doing what he enjoys.

"I don't know if you could actually put it into words how much it means," he said. "There's a lot of things I can do on my own, but so many more I can't without the help.

"They're so excited I'm able to experience these things."

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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