Dave Guzzi wheeled his chair down a gravel path to a wooden platform amid the heavily forested Minnesota River bottom in Bloomington.
Hunting partner Jayme Welsh quickly set up a ground blind, Guzzi wheeled inside and Welsh handed him his crossbow.
Though he was in the heart of the Twin Cities, not far from traffic-choked freeways, ball fields and manicured suburban yards, Guzzi — disabled from an accident — was deer hunting on a blustery September afternoon, just minutes from his home.
“They got a deer here last week,’’ he said.
The platform that Guzzi, 55, of Burnsville, used last week is one of three new ones recently added to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, 14,000 acres of woods, water and wildlife that stretches from the Mall of America to Henderson.
“I’ve been trying to get these built for 15 years,’’ said Guzzi, volunteer outreach coordinator and an active member of Capable Partners Inc., a Twin Cities-based nonprofit that for 28 years has provided hunting, angling and other outdoor recreation opportunities for disabled people.
It has about 300 members, half of whom are disabled and half able-bodied volunteers. There are no paid employees.
“Without Capable Partners, there wouldn’t be access to the outdoors for people like me,’’ said Guzzi. “There’s no other group that I’m aware of that has outings 12 months of the year.’’
The group also has pushed for increased access for disabled hunters and anglers. The three new hunting platforms in the Minnesota Valley Refuge are evidence of their success.
Guzzi not only helps guide other disabled hunters and coordinate hunts, he is a familiar face at the State Capitol, where he monitors and testifies on legislation that might affect disabled hunters and anglers.
Life changed forever
Guzzi grew up in St. Louis Park in a family that hunted and fished.
“I spent every waking moment thinking about fishing and hunting, and dreamed of living in the wilderness,’’ he said. He also was an avid backpacker and downhill skier.
Then in 1996, as he was preparing to paint his house, he fell from a ladder.
“I was on the roof deck stepping onto the ladder,’’ he said. It slid and he fell. “It was only about 8 feet, but it’s not how far you fall. I landed on top of the ladder, right in the middle of my back.’’
The spinal injury cost him the use of his legs.
“It was devastating,’’ Guzzi said. “But you either lay around and mope and be depressed or get up and do something. I chose to get up and do something. Besides, I had two young kids to raise — I couldn’t afford to sit around and mope.’’
As an able-bodied hunter, he had volunteered for Capable Partners. Now he needed the group’s help to feed his outdoors passion.
Today, besides participating himself, he helps coordinate outings and guides fellow hunters. He helped mentor young duck hunters on Youth Waterfowl Day, and on Sunday, he called ducks for other hunters at another wheelchair-accessible blind at the Minnesota Valley Refuge in Eden Prairie.
Many Capable Partners members live in the Twin Cities area, and providing local hunting and fishing opportunities is key to keeping them active, Guzzi said.
“It gets me out of bed everyday,’’ he said. “It’s what keeps me going.’’
Jim Hale, 68, of Plymouth, a lifelong hunter and angler, launched the group in 1982. He was inspired to help disabled people get outdoors after lying in a hospital bed himself for weeks following back surgery in 1980. “It came to me that I just needed to do something to help [disabled] men and women,’’ he said.
Guzzi didn’t bag a whitetail during his outing last week. “We didn’t see a deer,’’ he said.
But he plans to get out plenty more times this fall. And as leaves and temperatures drop, his chances of bagging one will improve.
For Minnesota Valley Refuge officials, the archery hunting platforms are meant to expand hunting opportunities for disabled hunters.
“The idea is to provide as much hunting opportunity as we can on the refuge,’’ said Chris Kane, wildlife refuge specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “One of the things we’re mandated to do is provide wildlife-dependent recreation, and hunting is considered one of those compatible uses.’’
There are few places disabled hunters can bow hunt for deer in the metro area.
“This seemed like a perfect fit,’’ Kane said.
Plus, in the past, officials have had to pay sharpshooters to thin deer herds on the refuge — deer that hunters would gladly take. The areas where the blinds are located generally have been closed to hunting in the past.
“They’ve been seeing deer, including some nice bucks,’’ Kane said.
So far, two deer have been taken from the three sites.
The cost to the budget-strapped Fish and Wildlife Service was minimal. Capable Partners paid for the materials for the wooden decks and gravel pathways. Hunters don’t have to be members of Capable Partners to use the blind areas, but the sites must be reserved. (Tuesday’s government shutdown closed federal wildlife refuges to all users, including disabled hunters.)
An outdoors connection
An able-bodied person must accompany a disabled hunter, and is allowed to archery hunt, too. Welsh, 47, of Champlin, a longtime friend of Guzzi’s, accompanied him last week, but didn’t hunt himself. Instead, he helped Guzzi into his wheelchair, then set up the blind for him.
“You need a helper, primarily for safety and to help if you get a deer,’’ Guzzi said. “And it gives you a chance to hunt with a hunting buddy.’’
Allowing the able-bodied helpers to hunt with disabled hunters is only fair, he said. “Otherwise, his only motivation [to help] is guilt,’’ quipped Guzzi.
Able-bodied hunters might take their access to the outdoors for granted. Not so for disabled hunters, Guzzi said.
Last October, he participated in the Governor’s Pheasant Opener at Marshall, Minn., and hunted pheasants from a special mechanized all-terrain chair.
“I shot my first wild pheasant in 17 years,’’ he said. “I started crying.’’