Call of the woods sails past barriers

Hunting: Russell Wolfe no longer has the use of his legs, but he's determined to continue with a sport he loves. The state lends him and other disabled people a hand.

September 15, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

The middle of September, as hunting seasons approach, has held a certain magic for Russell Wolfe each year since he was 12 years old and growing up in Pennsylvania.

Wolfe took his first deer, a 130-pound doe, in the hilly farm country between Pittsburgh and Erie and has hunted since with bow, muzzleloader, rifle and shotgun.

Maryland's bow season for white-tailed and Sika deer opens today.

"I've always liked to hunt, but I don't care if I harvest an animal at all," said Wolfe, 30, who now lives in Millersville. "It's about being with nature, being in the peacefulness of the woods -- you go out there and lose all your troubles."

But on Dec. 31, 1996, after 10 years in the Army and active duty during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, trouble found Wolfe in a tree stand while he was bowhunting alone in Fort Meade.

"It was 40 to 45 degrees out and drizzling rain," Wolfe said. "The tree stand collapsed, and the safety belt didn't hold."

The fall broke Wolfe's back and left him paralyzed from the waist down.

"I don't know why the stand collapsed. I don't know why the safety belt didn't hold," said Wolfe, who dragged himself out of the woods and flagged down a passing motorist for help. "But it happened, and I don't dwell on it."

Instead Wolfe has become a medal-winning athlete and continues to hunt from a wheelchair.

The Department of Natural Resources estimates there are more than 10,000 hunters in Maryland who are physically challenged, and more than a dozen tracts of state hunting lands have been made accessible for their use.

"Disabled hunters are telling us, `We don't want our own sites.' They're telling us, `You just get me a way in, and I'll take it from there,' " said Robert A. Beyer, deputy director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division.

"These are very independent people who just want the chance to hunt."

"I do everything everybody else does when they go hunting," said Wolfe, "though I can't go into real thick areas because they are inaccessible.

"I prefer the sport of actually pursuing game. I scout the ground just like everyone else -- except it takes me three or four times as long as it would a person who walks," he said.

Once he has chosen his ground, Wolfe, camouflaged and his scent neutralized, sets up in a blind and waits, while life in the wood settles in around him.

"I've seen more deer from the ground than I ever saw from a tree stand," he said. "I've had them come within 15 feet of me, and that's an accomplishment."

Wolfe hunts most often at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, but other disabled hunters have similar opportunities across the state.

Jeff Ruark, assistant manager at Rocky Gap State Park, said the Allegany County tract is popular during the two-week firearms season in November and December, when disabled hunters use a nine-site loop.

"At Rocky Gap, we have a structured program where we create the opportunity," said Ruark.

"But the regular forest habitat is still there, and it is still pretty much the same hunting experience as having to walk deep into the woods."

Over the past five years, DNR has been upgrading its lands to improve access for disabled hunters, fishermen, campers and day trippers.

For hunters, there are special procedures and permits that facilitate access to hunting grounds, allow hunting from vehicles or the use of telescopic sights or crossbows.

Last year, DNR issued more than 3,700 special permits to allow the use of crossbows or hunting from vehicles.

"There are different hunters with different disabilities -- respiratory problems, mobility and vision, for example," said Ruark.

"We try to give them large areas where they can choose the type of hunting they want to do."

Before his accident, Wolfe was an Army staff sergeant specializing in preventive medicine and nuclear/biological chemical warfare. He also was a distance runner, a weightlifter and a fisherman and hunter.

At the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Puerto Rico in June, Wolfe won gold medals in archery, air guns and weightlifting, a silver in slalom and an award for overall outstanding performance.

"And I caught a 225-pound marlin, too," Wolfe said. "And maybe that's why I only got a silver in the slalom.

"After fighting that marlin for 45 minutes in the morning, by the time I did the slalom in the afternoon, my arms were like Jell-O."

His performance in the wheelchair games, he said, was a far cry from that December morning in 1996 when he dragged himself 300 yards out of the woods at Fort Meade, knowing he was severely injured and unsure whether he ever would be able to run, fish or hunt again.

"On my drag-out, I told myself three times I would not give up hunting," he said. "Every year, that is what I look forward to."

Wolfe keeps in shape by lifting weights and practices his shooting skills several times a week, in addition to physical therapy at the VA hospital in Baltimore.

Last weekend, he was out scouting a piece of ground he intends to hunt with his 11-year-old son, Steven.

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