Bonds forged, for life

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Posted: Wednesday, October 5, 2011 9:01 am

“What do you think, Ron?” guide Andy Gollina whispers.

“Yes, I think that may be us,” CEO of Savage Arms Ron Coburn replies quietly. “Okay, buddy, you want to get this into your shoulder. Can we raise this window up slightly, Andy?”

“Yes, sir. Do you want me to whistle?” Gollina responds.

“Yeah, but I don’t think he’ll do anything. I think we’re too far away,” Coburn replies, while not taking his eyes off the prize. “Okay, take it off safety. Put it into your shoulder. Nice and easy.  Now when I tell you to squeeze that trigger, you squeeze,” Coburn says. “Squeeze. Squeeze!

A deafening bang fills the cab.

“Straight down! Straight down! He went straight down,” Coburn exclaims as he jumps around the cab, throwing his hat and hands in the air.

“Nice shot, Carey!” Gollina yells. “Great eyes! Nice shot!”

“He dropped?” blind hunter Carey McWilliams asks.

“Yeah! He went straight down. Great shot buddy!” Coburn exclaims. “Wonderful shot!”

Where the blacktop ends just outside of town, autumn is in full bloom on the prairie.

The sky is a rich blue. The sage, golden.

The morning sun is still working its way up into the sky, warming the cool air with every passing minute and there isn’t a cloud in sight. Nor is there the slightest bit of breeze, unusual for Wyoming any time of year.

In the truck cab are three new friends. CEO of Savage arms Ron Coburn, hunting guide Andy Gallina and first-time antelope hunter Carey McWilliams.

Carey has never seen an antelope before. And, he never will. Well, at least not by traditional standards.

Carey is blind.

Last weekend, he became the newest member of the Helluva Hunt family.

When Carey was 10 years old he began suffering from severe headaches. Gradually they got worse and worse and began affecting his vision. One day the pain became so bad Carey had to be taken to the doctor for treatment and was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, water on the brain.

Carey was the victim of domestic violence when he was still in the womb. The accident caused water to coat part of his brain, but it went unnoticed until his skull matured and fuzed into place.

“It was very sudden,” Carey said. “I basically left fourth grade sighted, able to read, ride bikes, look at the stars. I was quite a star-gazer, I guess, and around my 10th birthday I started developing extreme headaches, very, very bad ones that started affecting my eyesight and within maybe seven to 10 days, I started where I would look at a piece of paper and the lines would get fainter and fainter and eventually disappear. I could see the page, but I couldn’t see what was on it. And then pictures I could see but eventually they started to disappear, too. It terrified me to death.

“They were able to save my life with a shunt but the pressure destroyed my optic nerve,” Carey said.

Unfortunately for Carey, that wasn’t the end of the bad news.

“Then a little bit more than a year ago, I had severe head pains and I went in for a doctor-ordered MRI and they found a mass on my brain stem that was slow growing,” Carey said. “I am going to be re-checked next week because I am developing more symptoms.”

The prognosis isn’t good. Because of the location of the tumor, there is almost nothing the doctors can do to stop its growth. Carey has been given six months to 10 years to live.

As a result, he has decided to live every moment to the fullest and has devoted himself almost entirely to hunting since his diagnosis.

“I used to be a big anti-hunter. A big anti-hunter. You would not see me going hunting,” Carey said. “And I thought about it for a while, (thinking) I have a lot of hunters in my family, its a time-honored tradition, why don’t you go ahead and give it a shot.  If you don’t like it, don’t do it again.”

On Carey’s first hunt, he had the full intention of shooting below the animal, letting it go free. In the passion of the moment, he drew down on a spike deer with his crossbow and killed it with one shot.

“I felt absolutely ashamed to begin with, but after I actually found my deer and was patted on the back a couple of times, I kind of felt a little more of a sense of accomplishment,” Carey said. “Largely people think a blind person having a gun is crazy, so not only did I do that, but I had taken an animal with my marksmanship.”

To date, Carey has harvested ducks, doves, deer, pheasant, turkey and alligator. On Saturday, he was going for his first antelope.

As the morning began, the three-truck convoy made its way from the Wyoming State Fairgrounds to one of the local ranches who open their lands for the annual Helluva Hunt.

The terrain is beautiful. Rocky outcrops rise out of the plains now and again with myriad colors changing with the morning light. Scattered groups of antelope dot the landscape every half-mile or so, with a few smaller young bucks wandering around on their own.

After about an hour, the convoy stops as the lead truck spots a good buck at about 550 yards. They give chase and are able to harvest the animal with relative ease.

Moments later, on a rise overlooking a small draw, four antelope are spotted just off the roadside. A nice buck around 14 inches is with three does less than 50 yards from the road. The second truck in the convoy lines up for the shot and, just like that, two animals are down in a matter of minutes. Everyone is excited, but now Carey is put into an awkward position.

He is suddenly the only one who hasn’t harvested an animal yet. And to make matters worse, he points out, he hasn’t even “seen” a good buck.

The doubts begin to flood in. Only one person has ever failed to harvest an animal in Helluva Hunt history. Two of the three handicapped hunters in his group have already taken animals out of this one ranch. He’s the only one left, and he’s blind. What if you miss? People will say its because you’re blind. No one expects a blind person to be able to hit their target. They’re blind. So the quick high of success by other hunters is quickly replaced by a small amount of panic and dread. Nevertheless, the hunt must go on, Carey tells himself.

After traversing up and down rock formations, and back and forth across the property, the truck rolls up to an area unlike much of the surrounding landscape.

Beyond two large stacks of freshly cut hay, irrigation sprinklers line a lush, green alfalfa field. The rolling green hills are a stark contrast to the dry, rocky plains surrounding the field and in the distance some movement is spotted.

It’s antelope alright. Five or six of them, and they’re making their way into the alfalfa field.

A good sized buck grazes with several does. But they’re a long way off.

“It’s about 350,” Ron said as he checks the distance with his range finder. “He’s a good one, but it’s pretty far.”

After weighing all of the options, the group decides to move on. This buck isn’t going anywhere. They can come back and find him if nothing else is available.

As the truck begins to roll down the road, the men pass more haystacks. Suddenly, a shadow rises out of the alfalfa. Its back lit by the morning sun and hard to make out. The crew rush to their glasses and begin to scope the animal.

“What do you think, Ron?” guide Andy whispered.

“Yes, I think that may be us,” Ron replied quietly. “Okay, buddy, you want to get this into your shoulder.”

It’s a good buck. Only at 156 yards. Perfect distance for Carey to make an accurate shot.

Ron brings the rifle around for Carey and helps him place it in the window sill. Their cooperation is far more advanced than any two strangers could have developed in such a short period of time.

Instinctively, Carey brings the gun into position. Ron wraps his arms around Carey and describes the scene.

“There’s a good buck at about 150 yards in the alfalfa,” Ron said. “He quartering away. Now he’s good. Okay, take it off safety.

“Put it into your shoulder. Nice and easy.”

In the silence, your banging pulse becomes noticeable and uncontrollable. It gets worse and worse in the moments leading up to the shot.

“Now, when I tell you to squeeze that trigger, you squeeze. Squeeze. Squeeze!”

The shock wave washes across your body inside of the cab. Anxiousness is replaced by pure jubilation as it explodes from your body in the form of laughter, cheering and jumping.

“Straight down! Straight down! He went straight down,” Ron exclaimed as he jumped around the cab, throwing his hat and hands in the air.

Pure and utter jubilation.

“My heart started going through my chest like it does every time you start getting that buck fever going,” Carey said. “I stuck the gun out the window and concentrated on my guide’s directions, so when he said squeeze, I just tried gently, slowly controlling my breath like I was taught. When it went off, it was a surprise to me and then all the cheering began and I began to wake up because I was kind of in a meditative state. That’s when I did all of the cheering and whooping and shaking, but I dropped him right there so it was a good shot. I couldn’t hardly believe it!”

“Carey was like a lot of the hunters that we get here,” Helluva Hunt co-founder Jane Sterns said. “When they first get here to the hunt, they’re kind of tentative about what’s going to happen and how they’re going to do. And, usually by the second day, when they’ve gotten more comfortable, we just watch their confidence grow. And especially after they get their antelope.”

As it turns out, it was another successful year at Helluva Hunt with all 15 participants getting their animal on the first day.

Friendships and bonds are forged out of caring and trust. Long-lasting bonds created in only a few days each year.

“I was with my two guides, and they definitely treated me like one of the guys,” Carey said, “which is fantastic because I never quite feel that type of attachment in regular life because usually the blind are shoved off in a corner. So I was made to feel like one of the guys with the BS flying out the corner of the cab, and I had a very good hunt.”

Carey said his success was merely a culmination of a mentality to keep going no matter what the odds.

“I’ve heard of different people who were hunters or outdoorsmen, then they become blind and they think they’ve got to give it up,” Carey said. “And all I’ve got to say to them is if I can take a deer, then someone who is really experienced at having eyesight should be able to do far more. So (don’t) give it up just because you are going blind or have another disability. Try organizations like Helluva Hunt and other (programs) around your area. Give it a shot.

“Life doesn’t stop just because you’re blind or just because you have a handicap. You have to adjust for it and move on.”

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