When a group of women with physical challenges were instructed on the basics of rifle shooting and archery, they accomplished much more than shooting skills.
The number of women becoming involved in the shooting and hunting sports is increasing and I am among them. In November 2010, I participated in a pheasant hunt for disabled hunters sponsored by SCI-Badgerland , Adaptive Sportsmen, and others. Initially, I went to get help setting up a system for me to shoot because my high spinal cord injury makes it challenging for me to hold and handle a firearm. I was impressed with the positive determination of the instructors and had one of the most rewarding experiences that day in the field.
I noticed that I was the only female with a disability who participated that day. With more women getting involved in the sport, why weren’t more with physical challenges also participating? All I knew was that I was having too much fun not to share this and I began thinking about it.
I contacted Peggy Farrell, Director of Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW) based in Stevens Point, WI. Twenty years ago, they held their first workshop designed to build female camaraderie through outdoor activities. I asked if she would be interested in helping me develop a shooting sports workshop for women with physical challenges. She responded with an exuberant, “Yes! Let’s get the wheels rolling right now.” So we did.
We designed a workshop that would provide instruction on the basics of rifle shooting and archery, with adaptations to meet individual needs. The goal was to create an environment in which the women would feel empowered by learning a new and exciting sport, be able to test their skills through practice in a supportive and safe surrounding, and come away with an appreciation for firearms and bows.
With the help of our sponsors, SCI Badgerland, Wausau Police Benefits Association, Whitetails Unlimited, Columbus Community Hospital, BOW-WI, and Columbus Sportsman’s Association, the first Becoming an Outdoors Woman Shooting Sports Workshop for Women with Disabilities took place in June 2011.
The workshop was held at the Columbus Sportsman’s Association (CSA). With dedicated instructors from SCI-Badgerland Chapter, CSA, BOW-WI, and the Department of Natural Resources, nine extraordinary women spent the day on the shooting ranges. The day was a learning experience for all, full of laughter, teamwork, empowerment and camaraderie. After the instructors explained safe firearm handling, the women and their volunteers were divided into two groups. Then it was off to the ranges where the real fun began.
The instructors brought in an impressive array of rifles including a 7mm-08 youth model, a .308 bolt action, and an AR-15. “As they learned the basics on a small rifle, they were excited to try the big guns,” instructor Amy Burns noted. “I was amazed to see the women’s faces light up as they progressed through the program. There were great exhibits of empowerment the women got from their new learned skills.”
“It was definitely time for me to try something new and enjoyable, and to be able to do it even though I needed some assistance,” said Helen Peplinski who has multiple sclerosis. “It really encouraged me and lifted me up as I usually feel all I do is take care of everyone else but me.”
Betty Merten, who has spinal bifida, surprised herself with her own shooting ability. “After coaching by Bill Martin, the next round I shot I managed a pattern–even my brothers were impressed with when they saw it,” she said.
One instructor brought a Ruger revolver and a 9mm Glock handgun. This was a timely addition because Wisconsin recently enacted the Right to Carry Concealed Weapon Law. Having the opportunity to safely handle a handgun removed hesitations and it quickly became one of the preferred items to try.
The commitment to safety was a key factor in dismantling fears and building confidence. Monica Kamal (T4 spinal cord injury) is now eager to learn more about shooting guns. “Learning safety was constantly demonstrated by the instructors. The more I listened, the more I understood how uninformed I was about guns and ammunition,” Kamal explained.
On the archery range, the women received instruction on lightweight Genesis compound bows and a Parker crossbow equipped with a Vortex Optics scope. Extra props like balloons, different styles of broadheads, and a hunting blind enhanced the learning experience.
“I was amazed at how my body felt when I got setup with a strap to help support my trunk, allowing me to function with the proper technique Gerry Kraus was teaching me,” Melissa Madole (T1 SCI) commented. “I could actually feel muscles in my back working in ways they don’t normally get used. It was energizing.”
For others, it was a matter of using the right equipment and troubleshooting from the instructors. Chari Meir struggles sometimes with strength and fatigue, but she explained how she got help overcoming it. “I have progressive MS and I get frustrated when I can’t do something. When I tried the bow, I couldn’t do it. I was frustrated. The instructors wouldn’t give up though, and Brian Austin got the crossbow and I shot some balloons. That was fun.”
The level of commitment and passion for the sport demonstrated by the instructors was what made this workshop a success. They listened to the women, learned about their needs, and responded with respect and patience. Together with the volunteers, they established a supportive arena for the women to learn, progress, and overcome.
Anne Marie Austin shared her favorite memory, “Watching Kathy Ducat, a legally blind athlete, shoot her first arrow into the target and pop the balloon, then overcome her fear of guns by shooting the biggest rifle at the shooting range. The smile on her face was priceless and her courage was inspiring.”
Instructor Ray Anderson concluded with a reflection most of us shared, “The day was a complete and awesome learning experience. The positive, can-do spirit and the attendees’ resolve were amazing. I feel I learned more than I gave. I was honored to be included.”
Learn To Hunt Event
As an extension to the workshop, and with the generous support of SCI-Badgerland, up to four women could join me on a BOW Learn-to-Hunt whitetail deer event in October.
“After the workshop, I knew I wanted to get involved in hunting,” Helen Peplinski explained. “My brain has been doing the same thing for 28 years, tending to my family’s needs, which includes taking care of my 19-year-old son who was born with spinal bifida. Then six years ago, I was diagnosed with MS. I love being outside in the woods and fresh air. This hunt is just what I needed at just the right time.”
After dealing with the personal struggles of a divorce and relocating over the past two years, Monica Kamal had her own reasons for going. “I needed to prove to myself I could be in nature without a life companion and still enjoy it. It was something new to try with a mentor in a safe setting to see if I liked it, and to overcome obstacles of facing the cold and being out in the country in a wheelchair.”
I was getting excited about this hunt. Over the prior five months, I had hunted turkey, dove and teal, and, most recently, deer with a crossbow. I hadn’t taken a deer yet, and was looking forward to hunting with a rifle. Most of all, I wanted to share this growing outdoor passion with these women.
We took Helen and Monica through a condensed hunter safety class at CSA. Then, we were paired with our mentor hunter who helped us get set up with a rifle and needed adaptations. We went to the range for shooting practice to determine our shooting distance for a successful clean kill shot.
The land we were going to be hunting, just outside Cross Plains, belongs to Lee Swanson who was supportive of our hunt and graciously took me around the 400 acres.
On to the Hunt
We met at 5:45 a.m. and went with our mentors to our blinds. Helen Peplinski and Beverly Bradley took the Ford Ranger up the hill into the woods, while Monica Kamal and I left with Irene Pawlisch, Gerry Kraus and Diane Lueck, for the valley that stretched between two wooded hill lines.
It was a cold 25-degree morning, great for deer hunting, but not for someone with the challenges of regulating body temperature. We talked about how to prepare for the cold since it was the one issue that most concerned both women.
After three hours, we saw no deer. At 10:00 a.m. we decided to come in to warm up.
The afternoon temps were a pleasant 55 degrees, and we went to our blinds again around 2:30 pm. We were ready to see some deer–and we did.
“Not long after we got back, Bev pointed out a doe,” Peplinski recalled. “But she was too far away, so I just watched as she disappeared into the woods.” Later on, Bev and I saw a beautiful 8-point buck about 50 or 60 yards to the left of our blind. Unfortunately, we were not set up to take a shot in that direction, so again I watched. He was so close and we were not ready. The doe came back, but did not presented a clear shot.
After making some adjustments to the Blind Ambition bale blind I was trying out, Kraus pointed at a buck that came out of the woods across the valley about 250 yards from us. He walked a short way, and then disappeared into the cover of the tall prairie grass. He did not emerge again.
About an hour before sunset, I spotted three does poking out of the trees into a clearing about 375 yards away. As our light dimmed, one moved in, but the closest it came was 310 yards, which was too far and now too dark.
BANG! A shot echoed and I looked at Lueck and said with surprise, “That was Monica.”
Pawlisch and Kamal waited for the doe to come closer and watched until it was time to decide to take the shot. “I had the doe in sight and it seemed the correct opportunity,” said Kamal. “I aimed, and took the shot. I missed.”
My hunt didn’t result in the harvest of a deer, but that is part of the hunting experience. It was, however, the culmination of a day filled with exploring, learning, sharing, and bonding for the hunters and mentors, alike. For Kamal, it gave her a renewed respect for hunting and for what she had overcome, while Peplinski found the nurturing and encouragement she so needed for herself. Since their experience, they both have continued to pursue shooting and hunting opportunities on their own.
On behalf of BOW-WI and the hunters, I thank the mentors for their time and SCI-Badgerland Chapter for their support which made this hunt possible.– Dawn Ziegler, SCI Badgerland Chapter member