The sun was just peeking out over the top of the barn as I tied the laces on my shoes. Running was an early morning ritual for me and US Navy medical chaperone Tommy Neuens. Our trek leading us around Ron & Lisa Raboud’s beautiful British Columbia ranch.
This was my second year on this mountain, there is something magical that happens when you are here... The sound of the early morning breeze whispering through the Aspen trees, feeling the warm rays of sunshine erase the chill from the air, watching the wildlife making their way to their bedding area for the day.
This is no ordinary ranch, this is one of the homes to the non-profit, Wounded Warrior Outdoors therapeutic outdoor adventures. The mountains here will change your life, just as it has changed the lives of others for years.
Dave Wabnegger of Otter Lake Outfitters, offers exclusive access to 3,600 square miles of Crown Land, which equates to roughly 2.3 million acres to provide active duty servicemen and women an adventure that is not only memorable, but life changing.
Disability is as much a mindset as it is a physical limitation…
In 2010, Navy SEAL LT Dan Cnossen was on this same mountain, walking the same path that I ran every morning. Dan was using the steep uneven terrain to push the boundaries of what his current limitations were and rediscover just how much he could really do. You see, he had been recently wounded in action sustaining injuries that had resulted in the loss of both of his legs above the knee. Dan was on this mountain to challenge himself to learn how to function in the outdoors, doing whatever it took to climb the mountains in pursuit of a black bear.
The success of filling his black bear tag was not Dan’s true reward, it was the beginning, a place of realization, a place where the mountain taught him that despite his injuries, there was nothing that he couldn’t do and no place that he couldn’t go. Over 30 surgeries later, on March 7, 2014, Dan competed in the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi representing Team USA in Nordic Skiing.
There is no better therapist than Mother Nature, no hospital facility more motivating or challenging than the great outdoors and no better place to be than hunting camp. Ron typically does not know who will be attending the adventures that WWO provides to over 50 servicemen and women each year until a couple of weeks before the trip.
Each of the WWO guests are current wounded in-hospital patients at either Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Bethesda, Naval Medical Center San Diego (Balboa), or San Antonio Military Medical Center (Brooke). Warriors are selected for participation by medical staff at each hospital, each being paired with the adventure that provides them the greatest therapeutic potential. Some injuries are evident and some injuries are invisible.
This group was notable as they had all been on a WWO adventure in the past at other locations, but this was their first black bear hunt. WWO mentor and lead Kansas turkey guide, Vietnam Army Veteran JL Hendricks, US Navy Hospital Corpsman Javier Esparza, USMC Jed Morgan, USMC Darryl Charles II, USMC Jacob Delagarza and medical chaperone, US Navy Hospital Corpsman Tommy Neuens.
Gary Monetti, Lisa Raboud, her son Sam and Laurel Barbieri awoke every morning before the sunrise to ensure that everyone smelled the delight of a home cooked breakfast as soon as they rose for the day. In my family, when we care about someone, we feed them and I can honestly say that all of them treated us to a home that is full of love and good cooking. Working from dawn till midnight every single day to ensure that everyone was too full for another bite. You can see and feel the love that comes from these folks.
The first morning out, I hunted with USMC Darryl Charles II, we call him Chuck for short, guide/outfitter Colton Wabnegger and Ron Raboud. Chuck is a young, energetic handsome man with a smile and laugh that is infectious. He has a HUGE personality and loves the theater and ballroom dancing. We hit it off instantly with lots of shared laughs, maybe someday he will teach me to dance.
Our day was nothing short of non-stop excitement. I have hunted a LOT of black bears and I have tried year after year to call in a bear with my predator call without luck. Chuck brought us luck and lots of it on this first day.
We spotted the bruin just off the side of the mountain, it wasn’t a shooter bear but my curiosity and desire to call in a bear overcame me and I decided to give it a try. The bruin came in to my call just as if I had perfectly scripted it, getting so close that Ron threw a rock at it to detour its path towards us. What a rush for everyone. Chuck’s first bear experience was surely one he would never forget.
While we were calling in bears, we received word that Army Veteran and WWO mentor JL Hendricks had some luck on the mountain and had successfully tagged a stunning chocolate bruin with his guide Trevor. JL lives a life dealing with pain having taken shrapnel in his legs during the Vietnam War and to this day, his wounds have not healed. JL serves as a tremendously positive mentor for active duty WWO participants.
Back on the mountain, Ron spotted a hungrily grazing bear that was in a perfect location to make a stalk for Chuck to get a closer look at. Chuck literally had to crawl towards a horse fence so that he would have a resting position to take a possible shot. This is the part where the therapy comes in. You can’t replicate this in a hospital.
Chuck was deployed with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine regiment “3/7” for short, their nickname “The Cutting Edge.” During deployment, the marines of 3/7 faced daily attacks clearing some of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan. The marines in 3/7 are noted as encountering the most contact with enemy forces since Vietnam. Due to his injuries sustained in combat, Chuck is a single above the knee amputee, crawling anywhere is no easy feat, let alone in the mountains of British Columbia. Like the true warrior that he is, Chuck reached the fence without hesitation, set up on the bruin and decided that he would hold out for a larger bear. This gave me the opportunity to take some stellar photos of Chuck on the gun, bear in sights.
Spring bear hunting is all about putting in countless miles in pursuit of a grazing black bear, so after passing on our second bear of the day, we didn’t waste any time getting back on the trail, putting miles on our ATV and using our Swarovski optics to search the seemingly endless valleys for another bruin.
The mountains of British Columbia are nothing short of spectacular and I am somewhat of an amateur photographer, so when I see a captivating landscape, I want to stop and take a picture of it. Yes, this can be annoying, but what I have found is that by taking some time and slowing down, often times what you are looking for isn’t too far away and had you zoomed by, you may have missed your opportunity all together. A good lesson in patience. As patience would have it, as I snapped photos of Chuck with the snowcapped mountains in the backdrop, Colton spotted a BIG bruin feeding on the mountainside some 500 yards away.
The stalk was on, Chuck was determined to navigate the steep uneven terrain in order to reach the feeding bruin. These mountains are very unforgiving for anyone but Chuck did what he does best, he climbed the mountain and made his opportunity happen.
Stalking a bear in thick brush is a little like looking for a needle in a haystack. Up close, everything looks different than it did from afar. Moving up the mountain swiftly and as quietly as we could, we managed to make it within 40 yards of the feeding bruin without being detected. Taking a rest, Chuck took the 40 yard shot on the massive bruin. Just as his shot rang out, a young sapling went tumbling to the ground, earning Chuck the nickname, “Lumber Chuck.” The bruin ran away completely unharmed by the deflected bullet that took out the tree instead of making its way to the bruin.
Patience and persistence…two of life’s best lessons best learned on the mountain, and persist we did. With a little over two hours of daylight remaining, we made our way back to the ATV and once again resumed our search for a bruin.
Fourth time is a charm, we spotted a bruin feeding through the Aspen trees and once again made our stalk over to the hungrily feeding bear. Chuck set up in the prone position and waited out his opportunity for the bruin to give him an open broadside shot.
This day was about more than Chuck tagging a black bear, it was about overcoming the mountain, beating any preconceived limitations. We all have them, some are physical and some are mental. The hunt is what drives us to endure, adapt, improvise and overcome all obstacles that get in our way of success. The hunt teaches us all lessons that we can reflect upon anywhere in regards to nearly everything in life.
The mountain teaches us all valuable life lessons, both human and animals alike. Kruger, my 10 month old Rhodesian Ridgeback accompanied me, Jordie and Deb Cook on the second day. The four of us (Kruger included) set out to be an extra set of eyes glassing the landscapes for a bruin.
Jordie and Deb have volunteered for WWO for many years. Last year, they were able to spot USMC TJ Tejada's black bear so that we could come and make the stalk. After TJ shot his bear, we were unable to get him to his bear via his wheel chair. TJ is a double leg amputee and at the time was not using his prosthetic legs. All of us cleared trail so that Jordie could literally carry TJ on his back and do a proper recovery. There isn't two nicer people out there with bigger hearts.
The last day of TJ's WWO trip, he used his prosthetic legs for the first time ever and walked to the car. I saw TJ earlier this year walking on his prosthetics. I can honestly say that in part because of Jordie and Deb, TJ's life was changed that day on the mountain.
Jordie is on a sprint boat racing team called “Fat Buddy Racing Team." This is a sport where people have carved out systems of channels into an ordinary farmer’s field and filled it with water to race speeds boats in. The night before a race, a map is handed out outlaying various turns that the driver must complete for time, without crashing. Jordie is the driver and Deb is the navigator traveling at speeds of 80 plus miles per hour in a field filled with water.
Jordie and Deb are too crazy people who love to drive fast, and there I sat in the truck with Jordie at the wheel. It was time for Kruger to have a grown-up dog experience so he was kenneled and strapped down in the back of Jordie’s truck. Oh boy…he was one unhappy puppy, crying and howling much of the morning.
Just when Kruger had settled down and was dealing with his kenneled fate, we got the call that USMC Jed Morgan had shot a bruin and it needed tracking and therefore, they needed help. Jordie knows the roads of those British Columbia Mountains like the back of his hand, navigating every turn like the pro that he is. Poor Kruger was in for the ride of his life.
When we reached the location where Jed had taken aim on his bruin, Dave let out the hounds to give chase. This was a great opportunity for Kruger to have a puppy lesson, so we began the blood trail and immediately went to work, also tracking the wounded bruin.
As Kruger did his job tracking, all became quiet and I was alone, on the mountain, trailing a wounded black bear without a gun. Feeling a bit unnerved, I pulled Kruger off of the trail and returned to the vehicles. If you have ever hunted with hounds, you know how crazy things can get once your dogs are turned out. A short time later, we located the younger two of Dave’s four hounds, two were still unaccounted for and still on the trail of Jed’s bruin.
Jed is a quiet man. It takes a huge effort to get him to talk, so since we had nothing but time waiting for the hounds to locate his bear, I took the liberty of chatting his ear off. I honestly think he only spoke just to shut me up. Ha ha ha.
Jed is a Marine Rifleman and the injuries that he sustained in combat attributed to the loss of both of his legs above the knee and much of the use of his right hand. I read on facebook where Jed’s wife AnnaGrace, stated that he is not only a devoted husband but a man that leads by example of what it means to truly have conviction, sacrifice and perseverance despite all obstacles and all circumstances. Jed and his wife AnnaGrace are expecting their first child, a daughter any day.
It is really remarkable how quick hounds navigate through the mountains and in a short amount of time, the remaining two hounds had located Jed’s bruin. This was Jed’s first hunt and he had not only successfully harvested a spot and stalk bruin in some of the steepest roughest terrain in the world, the bear that he tagged was an old warrior, just like him and the biggest of the trip. On the mountain, it takes a team. I am looking forward to meeting the rest of the Morgan family and have high hopes to do some more hunting with Jed in Oregon.
US Navy Hospital Corpsman (medic) Javier Esparza is arguably one of the funniest people I have ever met with a huge personality that captivates everyone around him. Javier loves his wife and their two sons and having spent a short amount of time with him, it is evident that they are his world.
Our guide Cody and his father Dan have been serving as guides since the inception of the WWO program and knows the mountains well which came in handy as Javier, who is from Florida, was eager to climb seemingly every mountain in Southern British Columbia.
Cody, Javier and myself are all the same age, so our in truck, the humor was off the charts. I am not sure that I have laughed that hard in my lifetime. Javier did not end up tagging a bear on this trip but that was not due to lack of effort. He has a heart of gold that is tough as nails. He was relentless in his pursuit with a couple of close calls along the way.
USMC Jacob Delagarza also went home without filling his tag on a black bear. Unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity to spend time on the mountain with Jacob on this trip. Jacob has a reputation for being a strong leader who always set a good example, putting the needs of others always before himself, no matter what the situation is, Jacob is always there for his junior Marines, literally teaching them how to survive in combat.
Jacob was wounded in action resulting in the loss of his left leg, and has received not one but two Purple Hearts while serving our great country, one in Sangin Afghanistan and the other in Fallujah Iraq.
Jacob is a hero and devoted husband and father Priscilla and their two children.
The last day of the hunt, USMC Medical Chaperone Tommy Neuens perseverance paid off where after waiting out a short rain storm, he was able to tag a beautiful chocolate bruin. Tommy is an outstanding man that accompanies many WWO participants on outdoor adventures ensuring that they have swift medical treatment should they require it.
“Doc” Javier Esparza and “Doc” Tommy Neuens are men that have saved the lives of our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters while in combat. Their love for our country and desire to save the lives of these servicemen and women knows no bounds.
The last day of the trip, USMC Darryl Charles gave me a very special gift.
The story behind the shirt:
The year was 2010 and Darryl was stationed in Sangin Afghanistan with USMC Female Engagement Team Member Sarah Bryant. Sarah was/is a legit Marine that always had her team members backs, Darryl included. Sarah is a true warrior. After Darryl returned stateside due to being wounded in action, he saw this shirt and bought it thinking fondly of Sarah.
When he gave me the shirt, he compared me with her, a true warrior and gave me the compliment of my life by saying that I too am legit…one of them.
It is an honor for me to share the mountain with Darryl and the other servicemen and women through the WWO program. The memories made, the camaraderie that is shared here and the true brotherhood that these men share cannot be broken.
The challenges that are encountered through the WWO program provides the perfect place, on the mountain with Mother Nature to break any preconceived physical or mental limitation, pushing yourself to the next level, reaching higher than one thought possible. WWO is about offering therapeutic benefits while sharing our outdoor world with the deserving servicemen and women that have sacrificed so unselfishly to protect us all.