Crisp air, pine cones underfoot, the heft of a hunting rifle - it all takes Verna Gill back nearly 30 years.
Back when she was a young mother, Gill and a girlfriend would drive a station wagon into Oregon’s Blue Mountains each fall. They carried a lunch and old 30-30 rifles, and would trek up through draws and meadows, hunting deer.
“We loved getting out and hiking,” she said. “It was something for us girls to do.”
Today, back in the Silver Valley, Gill can’t scramble up mountain slopes. In fact, after two back injuries, at 54, Gill can barely walk. When she tried hunting again a few years ago, pain shot down her legs.
“I just sat in the truck,” she sighed.
Later this month, however, Gill’s borrowing a rifle and hunting again, thanks to Idaho’s liberal hunting regulations and an unusual U.S. Forest Service project.
“I want to get out,” she said. “I love the woods, seeing the trees and animals. Otherwise I’d be home watching TV and doing little things.” Gill is one of 18 disabled people this year allowed to drive their trucks into two normally gated Forest Service gulches north of Wallace. Each person can borrow the gate keys for three days. Each brings an unarmed, able-bodied companion to help retrieve the game.
“A lot of them just like to go out and have three or four days of semisolitude out there,” said the Forest Service’s Carl Ritchie. “They come back because it’s the only place they can hunt and be alone.”
Four years ago, the ranger district decided to open Oregon Gulch and Idaho Gulch, totaling 13 square miles, to disabled hunters. Able-bodied hunters can still hike or mountain-bike in. Few do.
The district now gets more than 30 applications for the 18 slots, with winners drawn out of a hat. Most applicants are men 65 or older, with arthritis, heart problems or lung disease.
“I just can’t get out and beat the brush anymore,” said 60-year-old Earl Castleberry of Osburn. “If I couldn’t hunt like this, I’d stay at home doing nothing.”
Castleberry had open-heart surgery last June. It didn’t go well. After he’d been in the hospital’s intensive care unit for a week, his hunting partner, Kellogg locksmith Dan Blackwood, came to his bedside.
“He said ‘… you better get out of that bed, we’ve got elk to kill,”’ Castleberry recalled. “I think that’s the only thing that got me out of the hospital, really.”
For the Forest Service, the project also had an unexpected result: People stopped torching and ripping out the gates.
Ritchie isn’t sure why.
“They know people are up there hunting,” he said. “Maybe there’s some kind of respect for the disabled people’s right to have their own hunting area.”
It is illegal to shoot from a vehicle in Idaho, but the law provides an exemption for some disabled people. They must get a special permit and pull off the road before firing. Most park in a meadow, officials say.
“It’s kind of a leniency on our part,” said Dan Papp, hunter education coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Game.
“It’s very, very important to me,” said Robert Wahl, 62,
a retired boatbuilder from Priest River. “My wife and I live for fishing and hunting season. Killing the animal isn’t that important. It’s going out and being able to camp and enjoy the outdoors.”
Wahl has hunted since he was a boy in Oregon’s coastal range, shooting squirrels, pheasants and deer.
“It’s just part of your life,” he said. “It’s a hell of a lot more important to go out and see a pheasant, an owl or a squirrel, to enjoy what nature’s given us, than it is to sit in front of this … television.”
He’s watched friends in their 70s mope around each fall, their rifles gathering dust in gun cabinets.
“These guys have spent 50, 60 years of their lives hunting and fishing,” Wahl said. “And then they can’t do it. It affects them.”
Forest Service officials say the odds of bringing home meat from the two areas are thin. Of the 18 hunters per year, only two typically bag a deer. In the program’s four years, no one’s ever shot an elk.
To hunters like 60-year-old Marilyn Jolley, however, that doesn’t matter. Despite her pacemaker and diabetes, she loves to hunt. This year, her helper is her 22-year-old grandson-in-law.
“It’s getting up early, getting up at daybreak,” she said. “We’re going to sit there and enjoy it.
“I’m sure I’ll get out and walk,” she said. “I’ll take my cane.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo