Fulfilling a lifelong quest to bag his first elk was a powerful experience for a northeastern Washington man, especially since he knew it would be his last shot.
Steve Kintner, 62, is in hospice care with Stage 4 cancer. The Ione man barely has enough strength to shoot targets in an arcade, yet he recently beat the tall odds for tagging a prized big-game animal thanks to a state staff dedicated to disabled sportsmen, hunter volunteers and a special permit for terminally ill patients.
“People who want to make wishes come true are a testament to the goodness still alive in the hearts of men,” Kintner said.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife program for giving special hunting permits to patients in the last 9 months of life has served three to 15 hunters a year since it was authorized a decade ago.
“One hunter who received an elk permit this fall has been admitted to a hospital before getting out to hunt,” said Dolores Noyes, the agency’s Americans with Disabilities Act program manager. “That’s how urgent these requests can be. His family is trying to rally around him to hunt in the Mount St. Helens area.”
Most patients hear about the program through hospice. But being computer savvy, Kintner discovered it on the disabled hunter page of the Fish and Wildlife website.
The former logging truck driver taught himself enough computer technology to land a job with Microsoft in the 1990s. He moved from Western Washington back to Ione to be closer to his kids in 2004, three years after the first tumor was detected in his liver.
He’s weathered surgeries and seven recurrences despite the gamut of treatments. The last resorts were making him so sick he chose to stop them.
“The cancer metastasized into my right lung last November,” he said. “ We found it in the other lung this summer. I’d reached the end of the line.”
But Kintner said he’d rather live until he’s dead that curl up and die while he’s still alive.
“I was looking for opportunities for disabled hunters on the web when I stumbled onto the permits for the terminally ill,” he said. “You have to dig for it, but it’s there.”
He downloaded an application and had it completed by his physician.
“We talk to the doctor about the urgency and to the patients about the type of animal they want to hunt,” Noyes said. “It tends to be about doing something they always wanted to do. One man put in for a bighorn sheep hunt where a vehicle could be used.
“Most of these people don’t have much time. We call it the end-of-life hunt.”
Families usually support the hospice hunters, but Kintner didn’t have relatives with the required skills. He needed outside help.
“Our office made calls to master hunters and clubs,” Noyes said.
Art Meikel of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council stepped up to lead the effort.
“Pretty soon, the assistance was flooding in,” Noyes said. “Landowners were offering access to their property. Hunters were offering their expertise.”
Meikel began sifting through the options. No hunter or destination could guarantee a successful elk hunt. Meikel had a Plan B and C, but his first choice was Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge near Cheney.
Dan Matiatos, refuge manger, said the process was smooth even though this was the first time the state had requested an end-of-life hunt on Turnbull.
“We already have our hunting plan in place,” Matiatos said, noting that 63 elk permits were issued for the refuge this year in restricted hunts scheduled over various seasons.
“It was up to the state to determine if another elk permit could be issued,” he said. “We were all for it.
“Steve would need to be driven in, but the timing fell between archery and early muzzleloader season, so no other hunters were on the refuge.”
Kintner was set up with a permit in about two weeks even though it had to be approved up the chain by the agency’s assistant director.
Within another week, Noyes called to tell Kintner that Wildlife Council members were assembling maps, scouting Turnbull’s disabled hunter area and organizing his hunt.
“My oncologist at the VA didn’t want me to go – he said I might die,” said Kintner, an Army veteran. “That’s a pretty funny thing to say to a terminally ill patient.
“What better place to die than on an elk hunt?”
His doctor in Newport loved the idea and told him to go for it.
“He told me to do anything and everything until I can’t.”
Kintner was 12 the first time he went hunting.
“It was for elk, but I never saw one,” he said.
Fewer than 10 percent of Washington elk hunters fill their tags, and Kintler was in the majority.
“I bought a lot of elk tags and hunted for elk off and on throughout my life, but never saw one while hunting. If I could have one wish, I wanted to see what it felt like to get an elk.”
Kintner’s family was up for the 5 a.m. sendoff when Meikel picked him up for the first day of hunting.
“He had a permit for any elk, any weapon, any time,” Meikel said, referring to the most liberal hunting permit available since the West was settled. “But he also had that oxygen bottle.”
“Everything that happened that day was a total surprise beyond what I could have imagined,” Kintner said.
“I liken it to being a pro-hunter on a TV show heading out to one of those big, huge ranches with thousands of acres and a stable of guides keeping track of the elk. Something like this would cost thousands of dollars.”
The first thrill was seeing having an elk tag in his pocket and seeing elk.
“We saw a lot of them,” Kintner said. “It was incredible. They were bugling and talking and moving around all day. It was everything I could hope for in fulfilling the last thing on my bucket list. I never dreamed elk hunting could be like this.”
“Steve ran through a lifetime of elk emotions – hope, excitement, seeing a first elk, a shot and seeing the big one without success,” Meikel said. “All this came with the realization that elk are crafty, uncooperative and elusive.”
Getting close enough was not easy.
“I was no help,” Kintner said. “I had to pack the oxygen bottle and could barely walk. I finally took a long shot. A clean miss, thank God.”
Despite some napping, the rigor of just being in the field all day took its toll.
“That night I concluded I wasn’t physically up to another day of it,” he said. “When Art picked me up the next morning, I told him I would probably let it go, but he said he didn’t want to hear anything about quitting.”
Jerry Hickman of the Columbia Plateau Wildlife Management Association joined the hunt as a second assistant that morning. They spooked an elk in the dim light before shooting hours as they idled into the refuge.
“It booked out of there,” Kintner said. “But it got my eyes open.”
Later, Hickman spotted a spike bull.
“All I could see was its head over a blowdown,” Kintner said.
He eased out of the pickup. Meikel handed him his rifle and the hospice hunter leaned over the hood for a rest. Two shots from his .300 Winchester magnum sealed the dream.
“We walked to the elk and I was so excited I couldn’t breath,” he said. “I had to stop and catch my breath.”
As a veteran hunter, Meikel said he relished the moment: “You never forget your first times.”
“The guys took over,” Kintler continued. “The elk was huge and I was helpless at that point except for pouring coffee for Jerry. I couldn’t even do a good job of holding the legs while they gutted it out and dragged it to the road in a sled.
“I have more appreciation for what they did before and after the shot than I can express in words. Pulling the trigger is secondary. I’m just a guy in the process of dying.”
Meikel, Hickman and Crown Foods took care of processing the elk, but Kintner took home the heart.
“I’ve always done that with my deer,” he said. “We had elk-heart steak and eggs and it was just freaking awesome. I was glad it was a yearling bull. It just couldn’t have been more delicious.
“My kids have never eaten elk until now. We’re all having quite a new experience.”
Kintner looked over some photos snapped that September day by his hunting helpers. His favorite was an image of him head-down over the elk.
“That’s me saying thanks and showing respect for the animal I’d just killed,” he said. “The other pictures with me looking at the camera are posed.
“There’s really no way to pay everybody for what they did for me. When the time comes, the clubs are going to get a bunch of my outdoor-related stuff to pass on to needy hunters and fishermen. If I can help somebody, great.”
Although his condition is dire, Kintner said he didn’t want anybody to be sad for him.
“To live 14 years fighting liver cancer is unheard of,” he said. “I’m blessed and fortunate.
“Everything else on my bucket list was done. I got my hole-in-one and broke par for nine holes.
“Getting an elk was the one wish I dearly wanted even though deep down I knew I probably never would.
“It was the hunt of a lifetime.”
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