Mother Nature provides us with all sorts of opportunities to get outdoors and pursue Whitetail deer, wild turkeys, and even certain predatory animals. Unfortunately, Mother Nature isn’t an equal-opportunity employer. The game changes drastically if you suffer a physical handicap. After my friend Dan, a wonderful hunting partner and fellow retriever trainer lost a leg due to diabetes, his hunting options narrowed considerably.
When my youngest son sought to earn the Boy Scouts of America’s highest rank of Eagle Scout, there were stringent requirements. The Scouts don’t award this rank easily. It is by far the most challenging rank because you must demonstrate active leadership in many areas. Although it eventually requires the scout to lead a team in constructing a community service project, the potential Eagle Scout must do everything on his own, from conceiving the project idea, planning the design, figuring out a budget and eventually fundraising to cover the cost of the project. Scout leadership is involved in each step, making sure that the project is viable and worthy of the rank.
I asked my son if he had any ideas on what he’d like to do for a project and he surprised me with his answer and his lack of hesitation in giving it. “I want to find a public hunting area that needs a handicapped-accessible blind so Dan and anyone in his position can still get out and hunt,” he said. In my mind, the biggest challenge would be getting governmental approval. It turned out that was probably his least-challenging task! The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was as enthusiastic as my son was about providing more opportunities to non-ambulatory hunters.
After presenting his idea and getting the go-ahead from his troop’s Eagle Scout committee, my son, Jay, submitted a plan to the local council. He had to document the community need that he would like to fill. A timeline, a list of materials and a budget all had to be well thought-out and included in the plan. The council was interested in the sustainability of the project, concerned that the project could fall into disrepair with no plans for maintenance. Jay did some legwork with the Michigan DNR and got assurances that they would take all responsibility for keeping it in top shape.
After getting the go-ahead from the Scout council, he sat down and started sketching a box blind. The internet was full of information about ramp incline angles, doorway clearances, and other aspects required for accessibility, but the window height for a hunting blind was information that couldn’t be determined via Google.
With tape measure in hand, Jay visited two wheelchair-bound hunters and spoke with them about his project. They each practiced drawing imaginary bows as Jay measured and calculated. They then switched to imaginary rifles, and he again measured and calculated.
Although he had what he thought were pretty good measurements, he didn’t want to mess up this important part of the plan. He contacted the DNR headquarters and asked if they had any recommendations. They didn’t have an answer but gave him directions to an accessible blind that was about an hour’s drive away. Jay asked if I’d like to go. I generally don’t need an invitation to get outdoors, and it was a fun trip. The blind we visited had been in use for about 10 years. The windows were about where Jay’s calculations wound up, but he decided that a lower window would ensure that the opening would be fit for all.
Once his construction plans were finalized, he made a trip to the local big-box building supply store to price supplies. He was trying to develop a budget so that he knew how much money he would have to raise. He arrived home with a forlorn look. “It would have been cheaper to go plant some trees somewhere. I don’t think I could ever raise this much money,” my son said.
My heart sank as low as his. While scout parents can contribute, the scout needs to be able to fund the majority of his project elsewhere. I urged him to hit the road and start asking for donations.
“Did you happen to talk to the store manager while you were there,” I asked him. He had not. I told Jay, “This is probably the first hard lesson that you’re going to learn from this scout project. You have to think about things that you haven’t had to think about before. If it were me, I’d be looking at any business that caters to hunters, but I would sure ask every person that I come across that might help. That goes from the local pizza shop owner to the management of the biggest business that you can think of.”
My son was listening and contemplating. The next morning Jay looked sharp in his class A scout uniform. He shouted, “Wish me luck!” as he headed out the door.
He arrived home later in the afternoon with a much different look and attitude. “The very first place that I stopped at was a fastener supply business,” he reported. “They agreed to donate 100% of the fasteners as well as the steel roof! The best part though was the owner was an Eagle Scout and told me to come back if I didn’t get enough donations and that he would fund it. He also gave me a money donation.”
Jay told me that from there, he headed right back to the big box store where he did his initial pricing and asked for the manager. The store manager requested his list and then handed it to an employee. “Please go pick this list and put it all on a pallet. This scout is about to do something great,” the manager said.
With everything secured from concrete to the roof, I jokingly chided him, “I guess you don’t have to talk with the pizza shop owner.” Jay smiled and said, “Dad, the guys helping me make this blind are going to work up a hunger. I got seven pizzas donated for the workday!” It was apparent that Jay had learned to think through the process and try to cover all the bases.
He proudly told me about a concrete company that would not donate by making a fresh run to the site, but if he had the forms ready, they would give him advance notice and he could have the leftover cement from a job. Anytime the phone rang during the next two weeks, Jay would race to be the one to answer. The call finally came and three boy scouts that had read all they could about pouring a concrete slab headed toward the build site. I laughed when I saw the slab. It looked great and I expected to see some initials carved into it, as boys are almost obligated to do. Instead, it read “BSA TROOP 122.” It would have been easy to carve J.A. into the wet mix. Instead, the credit went to the troop that helped Jay to be where he is today.
After all the planning and hard work, the accessible blind was built by a crew of nine young men that will someday be leaders in our nation. It sits on a wooded fence line facing a winter wheat field that the Michigan DNR plants.
Shortly after the blind was finished, I decided to make the drive out to see if it needed any maintenance. As I drove toward the desolate area that held the blind, I noted that it was a nice spring day with sunshine and the promise of even better weather yet to come. I slowed my vehicle as I approached because there were two turkeys in the field near the blind. I was excited but then grew even more excited when I realized that the two turkeys were decoys and the van in the nearby parking space had handicapped license plates.
My hunting partner never got the chance to use that blind because his health diminished enough that it kept him from being outdoors. But because of him, we learned that state officials eagerly want service projects that benefit the public as well as the enterprising Boy Scouts that need to do them.
Many State Natural Resource departments encourage youngsters seeking their Boy Scout Eagle rank to consider service projects that will benefit hunters and anglers. Past Eagle Scout projects have included several accessible public hunting blinds throughout the United States. They’ve also included the construction of state-of-the-art concrete fishing platforms along with rebuilding fishing platforms to benefit handicapped fishing enthusiasts. In addition, almost 100 oyster cages have been built to allow oysters to grow before being released for public fishing; wood duck nesting boxes have been built and installed to help rear waterfowl; and a major fencing project at an archery range at a summer camp for children was undertaken.
Whether you have a scout in your family or not, surely you know someone who aspires to attain the highest rank that the Scouts BSA offers. I urge you to keep this in mind. Together, we can help level the playing field for all hunters and fishing enthusiasts while giving great ideas to our future leaders.
Today, Jay is working as a registered nurse on the West side of Michigan. He sports an Eagle Scout sticker on the back of his vehicle and is proud of what the Scouts have helped him achieve in life. He is just as proud of the hours of enjoyment that he’s provided to hunters that need a little bit of help. He says, “I love being outdoors and getting the chance to see a big deer or a strutting Tom. I can’t imagine what it would be like if that were taken away. I urge any scout that I speak with to strive to become an Eagle Scout. I tell them about my community service project and stress that there’s always a need for one more accessible hunting blind.”