Living in rural Melrose in central Minnesota, Ron Welle used to love nothing more than climbing into a stand and bowhunting for deer during the fall.
These days, Welle doesn’t hunt as much as he once did, but his passion for the outdoors — and his belief in its healing powers — burns just as bright as ever. Rather than spending his fall waiting for deer to walk past, Welle, 63, instead works to get folks into the outdoors who might otherwise not have the opportunity.
In reality, that’s an accurate description of a year for Welle — the founder and president of Midwest Outdoors Unlimited. A hunter and fishermen at heart, Welle founded his organization in 2008 to provide people with physical disabilities the chance to hunt and fish — or simply to spend some time outdoors. Over the years, Welle estimated his group has taken more than 1,000 physically disabled people hunting and fishing. Some have amounted to trips of a lifetime — for example, hunting black bears in Canada. In other cases, it’s as simple as bringing a group out on a pontoon to enjoy a day on the water.
Welle coordinates all aspects of the trips — from lodging to helping secure passports to ensuring outfitters are able to accommodate the specific disabilities of the hunters and anglers. The individuals pay their own way, or rely on donations. Of all the people the group has brought into the outdoors, Welle said he has been present for 95 percent of the trips. He relishes the smiles he’s seen over the years, but he said there’s an emotionally taxing aspect, too.
“I’ve cried more in the past eight years than I have in the rest of my lifetime and been to more funerals, too,” said Welle, a homebuilding contractor for three decades before he started the organization. “We had an 11-year-old boy with terminal cancer come on one of our hunting trips. When they leave [from the trip] and say goodbye, it has a whole different meaning. It’s not right, and it’s not fair.”
In a recent conversation, Welle discussed his background in outdoors activities, how he came to found the group and its impact on him. Here are edited excerpts:
On how the group started
I started out with the National Wild Turkey Federation and was on the state board for 12 years. The board started a program called Wheelin’ Sportsmen. [According to the federation, it “provides all people with disabilities opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.”] I volunteered to get that going. I guess I found out for myself how lucky I am. I didn’t have any family or friends who would qualify to participate. That’s how lucky I am. I just simply wanted to give other unlucky people the same chances that so many of us have to enjoy the outdoors.
On his hunting background
My dad got us into hunting when we were 10. I’ve been hunting and fishing ever since. I’ve had the opportunity to archery hunt for elk in Montana. Now, my knees wouldn’t take me where we went to back then. So I’m thankful I went when I could in the 1990s. I still love whitetail deer and turkey hunting, and I just came back from Canada on a bear hunt. I used to do a lot more archery hunting, but now my schedule in the fall is basically geared toward other people.
On his love of hunting
I go out there with the attitude that it’s nice to harvest something, but I prefer to just wonder about what I’m going to see. I’ve seen a fox chasing and catching a rabbit. That’s not pretty. Mother Nature sometimes isn’t very nice. If people think man is mean to animals, they should watch Mother Nature. I love it when everyone else is sleeping and I’m out in the field hearing Canada geese. Then I’ll see a couple of deer running by and maybe a rooster pheasant crow. Then all of the sudden there’s a turkey gobbling. Other people are in bed sleeping and I’m out hearing and seeing these amazing things.
On the rewards of helping others get outside
A couple of times I’ve come home and told my wife that if someone gave me a million dollars or the experience I just had today with these people, I would throw that money aside in a heartbeat. There’s no amount of money out there that’s going to give you the feeling you get when you see someone so happy and know you made a difference in their lives. When you see people who’ve been in a wheelchair for 25 years, or they have cancer and they know they’re dying, and they’re smiling and laughing, and I’m sitting here crying because I’ve got a hangnail — it just makes the small things seem very small.
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at email@example.com.
To learn more about Midwest Outdoors Unlimited, go to midwestoutdoorsunlimited.com.