When Renee Walden talks about her late son Ryan, she often speaks about him in the present tense, like he's by her side having a conversation.

"I think about him every single day, but I also feel like he's with me much of the time, especially when I'm enjoying nature," Walden said. "I feel him a lot. It's like we're together and he's still here."

She feels him, she said, when she's hiking in the woods at her cabin in Aitkin, Minn. She feels him when she sees a soul-stirring sunrise or sunset. She feels him when she spies a bald eagle.

"When I see an eagle, I'll say out loud, 'Hey Bud, how are you?' " Walden said. "I just know he's there with me."

Walden, 49, of Shakopee, is the new Minnesota ambassador for Hunt of a Lifetime, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit group whose mission is "to grant hunting and fishing dreams to children age 21 or under who have been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses." Walden's son, Ryan Carkhuff, died of brain cancer in 2010. He was 19. Roughly two years before, Ryan, who loved to hunt and fish, went on an elk-hunting trip to Colorado through the organization.

"Ryan chose my dad and brother to accompany him, but I can tell you the organization was beyond wonderful with him, and I've never forgotten that," said Walden, who in 2018 will be attending sport shows and other events across the Midwest promoting the foundation. "It gave him something to look forward to when he needed it the most. I knew in my heart I needed to take on this challenge and give something back. I wanted to raise awareness about the organization, but I also wanted to keep my son alive in my heart. I want to make him proud."

Growing up

Walden grew up in a family of hunters, anglers and trappers. Her son, primarily under the tutelage of her father, quickly became immersed in the culture. "When Ryan was only 2, my dad would take him hunting and fishing and he would sit still the whole time and not make a peep — this was obviously very unusual for a child his age," Walden said. "It's hard to explain how close my dad and Ryan became. They forged a deep bond during their excursions."

At age 10, Ryan got into a snowmobile accident, which paralyzed his right arm. Still, Ryan's passion for hunting and fishing never diminished. He learned to do everything with one arm.

"Ryan was the bravest soul I've ever met," Walden said. "He never, not once, complained about anything. He was an old soul. We made modifications for him so he could still partake in his passions … and came up with a lot of creative solutions."

Cancer diagnosis

Five years after his accident, Ryan's "good arm" grew extremely, and noticeably, weak. Eventually, surgery was done to determine the problem. "They found a tumor that was attached to his brain stem," Walden said. "I went from praying, 'Please God, don't take both his arms' to 'Please God, let my son live.' "

The incurable brain tumor traveled down his spinal chord and affected his entire body. Aggressive radiation and chemotherapy followed. During one visit, a Mayo Clinic social worker said Ryan, who eventually went into remission, was a candidate for either "Make-A-Wish" or "Hunt of a Lifetime."

"Ryan perked up when he heard 'Hunt of a Lifetime,' " said Walden, laughing. "He didn't know what it was and neither did I."

Colorado hunt

Through the organization, Ryan could have hunted any species nearly anywhere. He chose to hunt elk. All expenses, from travel to lodging to gear, were paid or furnished.

"Oh boy, he really wanted to hunt elk," said John Hergott, Ryan's grandfather. "He was so excited to go. There was one thing about that kid — he always wanted to be outdoors, even when he wasn't feeling good. If we weren't hunting ducks, it was deer or squirrels. We were always on to something else. When it came to hunting big game, he was damn sharp on rifle size and ammunition. He knew everything."

The hunt took place on a picturesque 125,000-acre ranch in Colorado. Hergott said the elk outfitter "took a liking" to Ryan right away. "Everybody liked Ryan, he was just that type of kid," Hergott said. "But the guide loved him, and his story. He really wanted to get him close to an elk."

He did. On the fourth day of their hunt, Ryan killed a bull elk — a 5x5 — at 300 yards. After the guide field-dressed the animal, he christened Ryan by rubbing blood on both his cheeks.

"He said, 'Now, you're an official elk hunter,' " said Hergott, retelling the story. "Ryan's eyes got as big as watermelons. Oh God, that hunt was the joy of his life."

Minnesota chapter

As Minnesota ambassador, a volunteer position, Walden said her goals are to grow the Minnesota chapter, raise money so more kids can go on their dream trips, and form a banquet committee for an eventual fundraiser. "What I hope most is to create awareness and make people think about these kids and their dreams," she said. "I would also like to change minds about hunting, because not every kid wants to go to Disneyland.

"I am afraid I won't find enough people to come on board and that I will fail. I'm trusting my God will come though and bring me the help I need."

To get involved with "Hunt of a Lifetime" in Minnesota, contact Walden at reneewalden@huntofalifetime.org.

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Reach him at torimccormick33@gmail.com.