SWANTON — This was supposed to be a story about a wild turkey hunt. About camouflage and quiet mornings, about sunrise in the woods, about squinting and straining so your senses could pick up the slightest movement in the bushes, or a nervous blink somewhere off in the shadows.
It was supposed to be about a group of volunteers who go to extremes to bring the opportunities of the outdoors to those less mobile than the rest of us.
But Blake Walters changed all that. A few minutes with him and this turned out to be the best kind of hunting story — one that is really about people.
On the drive west along State Rt. 2, the news spewing from the radio was consistently grim. The marathon bombers had planned to kill more, the families tortured in grief at the funerals for the victims of the Boston tragedy, a child brutally attacked in India, chemical weapons used in Syria ... it just went on and on.
A rainy, cold, and dreary day had already caused the spirit to dwindle, and with this barrage of information on so much hate and mayhem and chaos going on all around us, it was more than enough to make you give up on the world.
But then there was Blake.
This 13-year-old who uses a wheelchair. Cerebral palsy swiped much of his motor skills, so Blake won’t run the bases, win a cannonball contest off the diving board, or play junior varsity tennis.
But talk to this kid for five minutes, and you feel like you are the one that is disabled or handicapped. You realize you don’t have anything close to what he has, in terms of his gusto, his enthusiasm, his zest for everything he is exposed to. This kid is effervescent.
Blake doesn’t whine or complain about needing to use a wheelchair or what might appear to be barriers. He doesn’t blame others for what he can’t do, but he’s certainly all-in on what he can do, and he has stretched those boundaries to places and situations where you would never expect to see a kid in a chair.
A successful mule deer hunt in the rugged terrain of eastern Montana — Blake did that when he was 9.
A whitetail hunt with a crossbow on a bitter January day a few years ago, when the thermometer could do no better than 4 degrees — Blake did that, and he took a nice doe with a tricky shot from inside an old chicken coop he was using as a blind.
Then last fall, a tough all-day hunt in Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge that seriously tested the patience of a young hunter, but ended with a buck taken late in the afternoon — Blake put venison in the freezer with that one, too.
This weekend, Blake and a number of other hunters with a lot more challenges than the rest of us have been on the grounds of Toledo Express Airport, taking part in a wild turkey hunt put together by the Maumee Valley Chapter Wheelin’ Sportsmen of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
“I just like the feeling of being out there in the woods and seeing everything that’s all around you,” Blake said in anticipation of the event, an annual effort of the Wheelin’ Sportsmen of NWTF, which hosts close to 400 such hunts each year nationwide, teaming able-bodied guides with hunters with disabilities. This is Blake’s fifth time in the hunt.
“Turkey hunting is frustrating, because you sit for a long time, trying to get the birds to come out, and then they don’t stand still for you,” Blake said as he looked across the table at his father, Rick. “But I really enjoy it, and I’m thankful to everybody that helps me, including you, Dad.”
So then there is Rick, another reason to sweep all of the evil and hate in the news out of your mind, and just celebrate the good in people.
Rick’s father Terry loved to hunt and fish, and he took his son along. The family even moved from Ohio to Montana and then Idaho for a few years when Rick was young, after his dad had fallen in love with the wealth of outdoors opportunities in the American west.
But after returning to Ohio, Rick’s dad was involved in an industrial accident in 1997 that left him paralyzed. So Rick and others saw to it that Terry could continue to hunt. A machinist friend crafted an apparatus that could attach to the wheelchair and allow Terry to steady the firearm, aim it, and fire it.
“I had it in my head that I was going to do whatever I could so that he could still go hunting,” Rick said. “My dad had spent so much time taking me outdoors that it was my dream to see him still be able to hunt. It was a challenge, but we made it work.”
Blake now uses a firearm stabilizing system similar to the one custom-made for his grandfather.
So a paralyzed father, and then a son with a disability — yes that is accurate — but if you are looking for a “poor me” part of the story, Rick isn’t the guy to serve that one up. With the strength of 10 men, the will of a hundred, and the humility of a thousand, he plays the hand he has been dealt.
“It’s like God had a plan,” Rick said. “He knew what was going to happen when Blake came along, so after all that we went through with my dad, we knew what we were doing. We had experience at it.”
Skip Markland, a regional director for NWTF, said that whenever he encounters a situation where volunteers need direction on how to properly assist a hunter with a disability, and safely transport them into the field, he relies on an expert — Rick Walters.
“Every time I ask him, Rick always calls the people and helps them out,” Markland said. “It’s just so refreshing to know that there are people like that out there. Rick did this when his dad was using a wheelchair, and now he does it for his son, and anyone else he can lend a hand to.”
Ray O’Lenic has assisted with the local hunt each year, and he said the volunteers always leave the event emotionally and spiritually enriched.
“If we can’t push the chair out into the woods and we have to lift them up and carry them, then that’s what gets done,” he said. “We’re the ones that end up feeling blessed by the whole experience. I can’t think of anything we’ll ever do that’s more rewarding.”
The annual wild turkey hunt at the airport is called the “Terry Walters’ Ultimate Team Up,” named for Rick’s father, and Blake’s grandfather. Terry passed away two weeks before the first event for hunters with disabilities that bears his name.
Blake was very young when his grandfather died, but Blake said he remembers his grandpa comforting him when Blake would be upset about something. Now a philosophical young teenager, Blake expects that hunter in heaven to be part of the team that will call in those wary jakes and toms during the airport turkey hunt.
“I think my grandpa is very proud, and he hopes that I am going to get one,” Blake said while glancing at his dad and further cementing that three-generation bond. “Every time I go out in the woods, I think about my grandpa.”
Blake planned to be up at 4 a.m. today, eat his breakfast in an airport hangar by 5, then sit in a hunting blind before the sun cuts a slit in the horizon.
After that, he will wait for that first rustle of leaves or flutter of wings to tell him the turkeys have arrived.
He will have the opportunity to hunt because dozens of good people put together such an event, and other good folks will carry him into the woods, and a talented and good-hearted machinist somewhere decided to donate his time and skill and put together a rig so the kid could be steady with his aim. And Blake was born to good people who consider him a blessing, not a burden.
So can a kid that needs assistance to walk or feed himself, and needs shoulder straps to hold him upright in his wheelchair, can he really change the way we look at the world?
Maybe he already has. Blake Walters has shown us there is still a lot of good in people. That’s the real story, wherever he goes.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.