“It’s getting harder and harder to find places to hunt, and it’s even worse if you’re in a wheelchair.”
The sun broke through a layer of November clouds. Tips of tall evergreens stretched toward the sky, swaying gently in the wind. A brisk breeze filtered through the trees and shrubs, rustling the autumn leaves, and making them flicker shades of bright yellow, orange, and reddish-brown. It was a gorgeous New England fall morning all around, and a special one for Mark D’Antonio.
D’Antonio held his shotgun in his hands and high hopes in his head that he’d get a deer before sunset. Today was his chance to hunt at the South Post of Fort Devens, a sprawling hunter’s paradise located 36 miles northwest of Boston. Out there, by the Nashua River, the forest goes on and on, for thousands of acres, punctuated by grasslands, ponds, marshes, and wooded swamps. The South Post is primarily used for military training, but once every fall, over the span of three days, it is opened to disabled sportsmen like D’Antonio, during the annual deer season for paraplegic hunters in Massachusetts.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find places to hunt, and it’s even worse if you’re in a wheelchair,” said D’Antonio. “I look forward to this all year.”
D’Antonio is 54 years old and works in home construction. A brash-talking builder with a deep, raspy voice and a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee, he’s been using a wheelchair since 2000, when he became paralyzed after falling from a roof in Wellesley. That fateful moment in time is burned into his memory forever: He was up on that roof, working fast, rushing to finish the job. One wrong step. That was all it took. His life was never the same.
Despite the loss of the use of his legs, “I can get around pretty good,” said D’Antonio, flashing a wide grin. He still loves to ride his Harley (he stashes his wheelchair in the sidecar) and hunt and spend time outdoors. After his accident, D’Antonio didn’t hunt for three years, until he heard about the state’s three-day hunting season for paraplegic sportsmen.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife established its first hunt for paraplegic sportsmen in 1972. Since then, it has evolved into an annual event that draws a diverse group of disabled hunters, ranging in age from their early 20s to their 70s. Up to 30 hunters participate each year, and altogether they usually bag about seven to eight deer over the course of three days.
D’Antonio was one of 26 disabled sportsmen who participated in the most recent hunt, which took place November 1 to 3 at the South Post of Devens and a handful of other locations throughout the state.
D’Antonio left his home in Natick, a suburb west of Boston, climbed into his silver 2004 Chevrolet Silverado and drove 45 minutes north to take part in the hunt. He arrived at Devens before daybreak, and proceeded to drive past the South Post guard shack, a trailer-like building with beige corrugated steel walls and a brown roof, and a sign on the front door that says “RANGE CONTROL.”