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OUTDOORS: Options Deer Hunt: Lending a helping hand

RYDELL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Minn. -- Bob Platt had barely settled into his stand when he spotted the deer trotting across the field toward the edge of the woods where he was waiting.

RYDELL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Minn. -- Bob Platt had barely settled into his stand when he spotted the deer trotting across the field toward the edge of the woods where he was waiting.

He let the doe get to the edge of the trees about 40 steps away.

"It didn't appear to notice me at all," Platt said. "I put the crosshairs on her shoulder, and that was the end of it."

The 71-year-old hunter didn't even get a chance to finish his lunch.

Platt, Ada, Minn., was the first hunter to shoot a deer Thursday during the 13th annual Options Deer Hunt at Rydell National Wildlife Refuge in Polk County. Sponsored by the Options Interstate Resource Center for Independent Living in East Grand Forks, the hunt gives people with disabilities the opportunity to go afield with the assurance they'll have help with whatever they need.


About 20 hunters from across Minnesota gathered at Rydell for this year's Options hunt, which began Thursday afternoon and concluded Saturday.

According to Randy Sorenson, executive director of Options, a core of about 40 volunteers keeps the show running smoothly, helping out with everything from preparing food in the refuge Visitor Center to transporting hunters to and from stands set up across the 2,200-acre refuge.

Sorenson said the volunteers even will field-dress, process and wrap deer for participants who want that. Some hunters, despite their disabilities, still prefer to do it themselves.

And at day's end, or when hunters need a break from the cold, they gather at the Visitor Center to eat or swap stories. Chicken ala king and mashed potatoes were on the menu Thursday night, and hunters Friday were set to dine on pork chops.

And just like hunting camp, no one goes hungry.

"That's the key -- to make it like a northern Minnesota hunting camp," Sorenson said.

But at the same time, the Options hunt allows participants to exchange information and trade experiences.

"The hunters learn from each other," he said. "It's nice to have some people with experience with disabilities, and people who have never hunted with disabilities."


The Min-Dak Border Chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association donates money for food and liability insurance, and the Mentor (Minn.) Fire Department also contributes financially. And this year, Sorenson said, Wilderness Taxidermy in Thief River Falls donated a free head mount for a hunter who shoots a trophy buck.

Overcoming disability

Platt, the first hunter to shoot a deer, said he's been a paraplegic since a grain elevator accident in 1955. He fell about 20 feet off a ladder and landed on a sawhorse.

The fall severely damaged Platt's spine, but he learned to walk again. He ran his own business for 32 years, operating a repair shop where he fixed everything from outboard motors and chainsaws to guns and shoes.

"I was busy enough to work 16 to 18 hours a day," he said. "I did all of the work myself. I've been fortunate. I did the things I enjoyed."

For years, Platt said, he was able to walk without a cane. But he has to think about every step he takes, and as he's gotten older, Platt said his mind no longer moves fast enough to keep him balanced.

As he proved Thursday afternoon, Platt still knows his way around in rifle, which in this case was a .243 Stevens Model 200.

"A cheapo, but I make it so it shoots good," he said.


Platt, who participated in his first Options hunt last year, said he enjoys the event because of the people he meets and the volunteers who are willing to help. Thursday, for example, a volunteer was there within minutes after he shot his deer.

"When I shot, one of the guys came with the four-wheeler," Platt said. "I flagged him down, and he dragged the deer out and gutted her. Those are things I can't do anymore. I could still get down to gut the deer, but I can't get back on my feet.

"That's what this handicapped hunting is about. The people are here, and they help you without making you feel helpless."

Management tool

Dave Bennett, manager of Rydell refuge, said the hunt also is a management tool to help keep deer numbers in check. Hunters can shoot either a buck or a doe, but they must purchase all of the required licenses and abide by Minnesota hunting regulations.

"They're treated the same as anyone else," Bennett said.

Because the refuge is only 2,200 acres, Bennett said deer frequently wander between the refuge and adjacent private lands.

In other words, there's no guarantee hunters will shoot a deer. The success rate for the Options hunt is about 50 percent, although it can be as high as 70 percent during years when the weather is nice.


"You can come here one day, and there's 300 deer," Bennett said. "You can come back the next day, and there's 20."

Bennett said the Minnesota State Council on Disability recently honored Rydell with its Sports Innovation Award for the refuge's efforts in hosting the Options hunt and helping people with disabilities enjoy the outdoors.

Sorenson nominated Rydell for the award, and refuge staff will receive the honor Nov. 6 during an awards luncheon in St. Paul.

"It makes me proud because that's what Rydell stands for," Bennett said. "Everything we do here is accessible, and that's something we want to stay with. It's a privilege to provide folks the opportunity to get outside."

All in the family

Cory Heit, Fergus Falls, Minn., was one of the hunters enjoying that opportunity Thursday along with his dad, Gary, and nephew Mason Wallgren, Fargo, who was celebrating his 7th birthday.

Now 34, Cory Heit has been paralyzed since breaking his neck and two vertebrae in a 1989 car accident.

An avid hunter before the accident, Heit still is an avid hunter as a quadriplegic.


Thanks to equipment his dad developed, Heit can balance and aim the rifle and pull the trigger without assistance. The chair mounts to a pivoting arm that extends from the front of their ATV. That allows Gary Heit to turn the chair in the direction his son needs to shoot.

As it has so many times before, it worked like a charm Thursday, and Heit shot a small doe at about 180 yards.

For Heit, it was his second deer in four Options hunts.

"The opportunities have to be right for someone physically challenged to hunt," Heit said. "It's just having a good group of people and having the opportunities -- whether it's friends, family or volunteers."

Gary Heit says he's proud of what his son has accomplished in the outdoors. Cory has hunted everywhere from New Mexico to Alaska, and he's taken three elk, two antelope, two bears and numerous white-tailed deer.

"I kind of brag about him a little bit," Gary Heit said. "It's just fun being with him, being part of it with him.

"When he wants to go hunting, we go hunting."

Thursday afternoon, Gary Heit had just finished field-dressing his son's deer and loading it onto the trailer for the ride back to the Visitor Center-turned-deer-camp.


He clearly was enjoying the moment.

"I'm out with my son and grandson, and we harvested a deer," he said. "It's a great fall day."

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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