Photos by Julia Wolf
LOYAL, Wis. — Outdoor terrain can be difficult to navigate. Those with physical disabilities face additional challenges when venturing into nature. “If it rains, I’m stuck,” says Tom Garbisch, a hunter through Same Difference Disabled Hunt.
Same Difference, and programs like it across the Midwest, pairs hunters who have a variety of disabilities with non-disabled guides who help them with the hunting tasks they are unable to complete on their own. These tasks include helping the hunters get to their hunting spot, dragging their game out of the woods, and helping them aim the gun.
The programs work within state guidelines to allow people with disabilities to have a tailored hunting experience. This can include allowing hunters that meet state definitions of disabled to hunt from a vehicle or use a crossbow, activities that are normally illegal or restricted for non-disabled hunters.
Leo Heath, co-founder of Same Difference, started the program along with Kevin Oldham after a similar program in the Willard, Wisconsin, area began reducing the number of days available for people with disabilities to hunt through their organization. Heath and Oldham decided to start a program local to Clark County, Wisconsin, to maximize the opportunities of local hunters with disabilities. “If the state was going to give disabled people nine days to hunt, we were going to give them nine days to hunt,” Heath says.
Currently, Same Difference serves about 20 hunters each year.
Hunting like everyone else
Garbisch says hunting was a big part of his life prior to his injury that left him paralyzed, and hunting through Same Difference allows him to continue the hobby. “It’s important for people to get back to what they used to do before they were hurt,” he says.
For Debi Delie, the hunt gives her the opportunity to continue what she loves to do: spend time outdoors. When her friend, Garbisch, suggested she try hunting, she decided to give it a go.
“It’s important for people to get back to what they used to do before they were hurt.” —Tom Garbisch
Delie highlighted the way the handicap hunt allows people to do what they can while getting help with the aspects of hunting they struggle with. “I can’t hunt on my own. I can’t drag a deer. I can’t track a deer,” she says.
She recalled with disgust that one of the first people she told about her new hobby asked if they tie the deer to the tree for her, too. “We don’t want it handed to us,” Delie says. “We want to hunt just like everyone else.”
Joe Passer has also been hunting his whole life and agreed that navigating hunting locations can be difficult from a wheelchair, but doing as much as he can on his own is important to him. “I usually get wherever I’m going by myself,” he says. Like Delie, the guides help him pull his animals out.
Delie also noted that the people from Same Difference are also willing to go to great lengths to make sure people can hunt if they want to. A few years ago, they set it up so she could go hunting a week before she had open-heart surgery.
“I started out just deer hunting,” Delie says. Since then, her guide has taken her turkey, pheasant, and squirrel hunting outside of the program. “My ultimate goal is to do a bear hunt,” she says. For Delie, the hunt has given her more than just the chance to overcome her issues with mobility and get outdoors. “My guide from the disabled hunt became one of my great friends.”
Those friendships are important for stretching the impact of the hunt beyond the deer hunting season, the only hunting season Same Difference pairs hunters and guides for.
Doing what works
Many of the hunters involved in organizations like Same Difference use special equipment to help them in their hunt. Garbisch uses a motorized gun mount that he controls with his mouth. When he is ready to pull the trigger, he bites down on a switch made out of a lever from a bike. Garbisch says it is possible to buy gun mounts similar to his homemade version, though “they’re quite expensive.”
“We don’t want it handed to us. We want to hunt just like everyone else.” —Debi Delie
Delie also modified her hunting setup to make it fit her needs. She uses a special gun rest that swivels 360 degrees and a youth gun, which is a shortened version of a regular-size firearm. “We actually had to modify the youth gun,” Delie says. They shortened it an additional two inches. “You do what works.”
Heath says Same Difference does have a few gun mounts hunters can borrow to help with the cost of getting into hunting, especially when additional equipment is needed. He also worked with a few of the other volunteers for Same Difference to build blinds for the hunters that can’t make it into the woods. The blinds camouflage the hunter and are big enough for the guide to sit with them.
Preparing for the hunt
Heath says the process of organizing the hunts starts well before Wisconsin’s October hunting season. Starting in April and May, he and Oldham begin talking to landowners to get permission to hold a hunt on their land. By June 1, they must have the list of landowners’ names submitted to the Department of Natural Resources.
As the time for the hunt draws near, they begin to line up guides to sit with the hunters. Heath said finding enough volunteers to help the hunters is one of the most challenging parts of organizing the hunt.
Then a few days before the hunt, Oldham and Heath, along with four or five other volunteers, go out and set up the blinds in the fields. He said they try to keep the blinds out of the fields before that so they are out of the way of farmers.
Organizing the hunt takes the better part of a calendar year and requires the cooperation of landowners, volunteers, and the state. All of that work is going into more than just helping people with disabilities get a trophy buck, it’s helping people create memories.
“My guide from the disabled hunt became one of my great friends.” —Debi Delie
Heath says the stories hunters tell him is what keeps him involved in the organization. The hunters in the program agreed that the stories, friendships, and lighthearted competitions are some of the best parts of hunting.