The Paraplegic Sportsmen of Massachusetts

With the help of a handful of dedicated volunteers, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has been holding events for disabled hunters for 40 years. Mark D'Antonio, who has been paralyzed since an on-the-job accident in 2000, is already getting ready for next year's hunt.

Mark D'Antonio was one of 26 hunters who participated in a special deer hunting season for paraplegic sportsmen in Massachusetts. He hunts with a Remington Model 11-87 shotgun.     Photo: Katie Hunt

“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.”

He then drove about four miles down the asphalt roads of the vast Army Reserves property, though woods and open fields. His truck whizzed past military vehicles parked in the distance and past the government-issued signposts warning about the dangers of ticks.

The South Post of Devens, a sizeable patch of woods crisscrossed by paved roads, is home to firing ranges, a drop zone, a hand grenade range, and a sniper qualification course. Machine guns can occasionally be heard during military exercises and target practice. Despite the occasional noise from the ranges, the South Post is densely wooded and teeming with white-tailed deer—up to 24 deer per square mile, according to some estimates. It’s also home to wild turkeys, raccoons, porcupines, skunks, foxes, beavers, otters, and other wildlife.

Military installations like Devens are perfect venues for disabled hunters, because the paved roads allow people in wheelchairs to access different parts of the woods more easily, according to Trina L. Moruzzi, a wildlife biologist who coordinates the annual hunt.

“The point of this hunt is to provide an opportunity to these sportsmen, who happen to be in wheelchairs for one reason or another, that they couldn’t normally get,” said Moruzzi. “It’s been a real success over the years ... it works out really well.”

Moruzzi and a group of volunteers act as a pit crew of sorts for the hunters. They scout out several spots in advance, help them set up, and make sure they are at least half a mile apart. If a hunter shoots a deer, the volunteers help locate the animal and retrieve the body so it can be tagged. They also handle the field dressing.

At Devens, Moruzzi and the other volunteers corralled their pickup trucks atop a hill, facing sweeping views of the woods below. Off in the distance, on the horizon, stood the majestic peak of Mount Wachusett, the mountain Henry David Thoreau once called “the observatory of the state.

Once all of the participants were in place, the volunteers spent most of their time patiently waiting to hear from the hunters who were scattered around the woods. They unlatched the tailgates of their pickup trucks and sat down and chatted with one another, and passed around a plate filled with chunks of venison and slices of cheddar cheese.

“We typically are within listening range of a shot, and if we hear a shot, we wait a bit then go and check on the hunter,” said Moruzzi.

Some hunters situate their wheelchairs on a 4x4 piece of plywood on the ground. Others, like D’Antonio, prefer to stay in their vehicle and shoot from there. (D’Antonio drove his Silverado to his selected spot. He sat in his truck and rolled down the driver’s side window, and held his Remington Model 11-87 shotgun steady.)

In the first hour of the hunt, D’Antonio spotted a deer. He peered through the scope mounted on his shotgun, pointed the barrel in the deer’s direction, and squeezed the trigger. The deer fell. D’Antonio put his gun down and grabbed his cell phone to call the volunteers. Then, without warning, the deer clambered to its feet and sprinted away.

“He got up and took off,” said D’Antonio. “That was a heartbreaker.”

When it comes to hunting, D’Antonio is no novice—he’s been hunting since he was 16 years old. But even veterans can learn a thing or two from Mother Nature. “It’s a learning experience,” said D’Antonio, flashing a smile as he shook his head. “I’ll never put my gun down again, until I have the deer in the back.”

By the end of the third day, the hunt was over, and a total of four deer had been taken by paraplegic sportsmen across Massachusetts. Two does were harvested at Devens, but not by D’Antonio. He didn’t mind. He enjoyed having the opportunity to hunt at the South Post, and was happy that he got to take aim at a running deer. “I love getting out there, ya know?” he said.

The next three-day deer hunting season for paraplegic sportsmen in Massachusetts starts on October 31, 2013. D’Antonio is already looking forward to it. “It’s one of the highlights of my year,” he said. “It’s like I’m a 10-year-old waiting for Halloween.”

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