The Deer Hunter

Danielle Shives wanted to learn to hunt so much she wasn't going to let anything - including her blindness - stop her.

November 06, 2003|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

CLEAR SPRING - When the director of the Outdoor Sports Program asked Danielle Shives to come to the Izaak Walton League and talk to his group Tuesday night to help promote Junior Deer Hunting Day on Nov. 15, she had no reason to think he meant anything other than what he said. After all, it was not the first time she has been approached to speak to other kids about what it's like to be a blind deer hunter.

Danielle, who is 16, has spoken to students at her school, Clear Spring High, and last year she spoke at Clear Spring Elementary, where she showed fifth-graders the cane she uses to get around and how she does her homework in Braille.

Tuesday night, she brought none of those things. She carried instead the tawny hide of the first and only deer she has bagged, and the gun, a .243-caliber youth rifle mounted with a scope that allows her dad to line up the whitetail and then whisper when it's time to shoot.

She arrived at the clubhouse as 20 children - boys in camouflage shirts, girls in ponytails - fired air rifles at paper targets of crows, rats and squirrels. Danielle has been blind since she was 2, when she bumped into so many things her parents took her to the doctor, who in turn sent her to surgeons who removed a brain tumor, but not in time to save her sight.

She did not see the mounted ram's head on one wall of the clubhouse, the stuffed Canada goose on another, the "My President is Charlton Heston" sticker on the snack machine, the "bucks" and "does" signs on the bathroom doors, or the surprise in the corner, for her.

The clubhouse, off Route 40 past the Hagerstown Speedway, is where Danielle took the state hunter safety course three years ago. There were no children on metal chairs listening to her then. No tables littered with Snickers, bags of cheese curls and cans of Orange Crush, either. It was only her; her dad, Andy; her mom, Sherry; her brother, Ethan; Steve Palmer, the program director; and three other instructors.

Ethan, 13, is the reason they wound up in the class. When he said he wanted to go hunting with their dad, who has stalked the woods of Washington County for more than 30 years, Danielle was not about to be left behind.

She had learned to in-line skate, roller skate and ride a bike. She plays basketball and baseball, and would play soccer "but my gym teachers won't let me. They think I'll get creamed."

How hard could hunting be?

Palmer, a gunsmith, heard about Danielle and modified a rifle. An aide at her school converted the safety manual to Braille. A friend penciled in the circles on the multiple-choice test as Danielle gave answers. She was the only one in her family to get a perfect score.

On the first Junior Deer Hunting Day after the course, she was dressed by 5 a.m., ready to go. She and her dad climbed into a wooden blind an hour later, and she fired at an eight-point buck he spotted. Even though he knew she had missed, they climbed down to make sure. On the ground, a deer nicer than the first surprised them. Danielle missed again.

It took practice to keep the rifle still; it took practice to handle the kick in the shoulder; it took a third Junior Deer Hunting Day to succeed.

Nov. 15 last year was cold and rainy. Danielle's dad took them to a spot he'd been watching, a place between a field and a thicket, a stretch of land between their community of Big Pool and nearby Clear Spring.

They trudged through the rain and set up their hunter's tent.

Ethan had gone hunting the first day of early muzzle loader season and shot "a spike," a young buck whose horns have not yet branched. Danielle was so determined to one-up him that when her father spotted a doe, she refused to fire. They waited another hour until a buck, a striking five-point, appeared.

The moment didn't last long.

"You got him," her dad said.

He lugged the deer to the truck, and by the time they got home and she ran in to tell her mom and Ethan, to call Palmer and tell him the gun worked fine, Danielle was soaking wet but she didn't care.

She told her grandparents. She told her friends, although few of the girls she knew hunted. Danielle was most happy to tell the aide at school who had joked: "If you're going hunting, I'm telling everyone I know to stay out of the woods."

The word spread, and a taxidermist at Fairview Wildlife Studio volunteered his services. Because these things take time, a year passed, and Danielle forgot about it until Tuesday, when she told the children how it happened, and then Palmer brought something from the corner of the room and asked her to read it since the writing was in Braille.

The boys and girls put down their snacks, and their parents, standing along the paneling with their arms crossed, stopped talking. Everyone watched Danielle's hands move over the letters on the plaque and then up the silky fur of the throat to the eyes, ears and finally to the five sharp points.

It was not until later, when the children had put on their eye goggles and returned to the range, that she laid the mount on a table and ran her fingers over the words again and again.

A girl in the front row, a girl no older than 10 or 11, had asked Danielle if the buck in her arms was the only one she had shot.

"So far," Danielle said.

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