Bowhunters unite to help physically challenged

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Shouts of "Uffda!" rang throughout the Northwoods last weekend.

But the quaint Scandinavian expletive wasn't an expression of surprise. It was praise for the United Federation for Disabled Archers (UFFDA), a nonprofit that has been helping outdoors people with physical challenges since 1994.

This year marked UFFDA's 22nd annual bowhunt at the Boy Scouts' Camp Wilderness.

UFFDA President Dan Hendricks has a wickedly good sense of humor, so it was a stroke of genius when he envisioned an organization of dedicated bowhunters who would make their sport more accessible for any person with a physical disability—and then named it UFFDA.

UFFDA's headquarters are in Glenwood, but Park Rapids has fully and generously embraced the program.

"These hunters give up a week of hunting, putting up blinds for disabled guys. They are a very, very special group of people. I may have struck the match, but these people keep the flame alive," Hendricks said of the numerous local volunteers.

In a spirit of camaraderie, UFFDA brings able-bodied and physically challenged hunters together for guided deer hunts. The event is held the first weekend in October.

About 30 bowhunters with disabilities are selected each year and assigned their own personal guides. Many of the outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen are from Minnesota, but they have also arrived from across the U.S., Hendricks said.

"Most are from Minnesota, but we have no limitations," he said. "We'll take anybody."

Special preference is given to UFFDA members who have never hunted before.

The entire event is provided at no cost to the hunters. They are only responsible for their travel expenses, bowhunting license and desire to pursue whitetail deer in northern Minnesota.

A full four days before the hunt begins, volunteers arrive at Camp Wilderness to prepare hunting sites and met all of the hunters' special needs. There's a corps of 20 to 30 volunteers who have been involved since the beginning, Hendricks said. They set up blinds and a target range, get groceries and prep cabins.

Initially, the hunts were held at the north end of the camp, but over the years, local landowners began offering their property for hunting.

"The people aren't only volunteering their land, they are guides," said Hendricks.

Each year, the Park Rapids Chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association presents a significant donation to support UFFDA's mission. In recent years, they've contributed $1,500 annually.

"The chapter feels it's very important to promote the opportunity to hunt for disabled people and it fits right into our mission of safety, education and opportunity for all people—able bodied or disabled, youth or old," said Russ Johnsrud, chapter president.

Nei Bottling of Bemidji contributes Gatorade, pop and water every year.

"The ladies of the area keep us fattened up with cookies and cakes," added Hendricks.

Saturday's UFFDA banquet at Camp Wilderness is the social event of the year, claims Hendricks.

"Del Cannon is legendary for his cooking," he said, prime rib on the menu.

Tyler Shepersky tagged his first-ever deer at this year's hunt, nabbing a 4-point buck from 50 yards.

The 12-year-old from Menahga was born without muscles in his legs, "so I'm in a wheelchair permanently," he explained.

His guide, Blake Johnson, offered to take Shepersky out hunting on his property. They hunted on Rick Knobloch's land as well.

"He was awesome," Shepersky said of Johnson. "He told me, wherever you hunt, it depends on the wind because you can get busted by the deer. And you have to be super quiet."

"My heart was beating pretty fast," Shepersky said when the first buck came into sight. "I was lying down. I shot it from 20 yards."

Shepersky won UFFDA's 2016 Big Buck Award for shooting the only two bucks of the hunt. He received an engraved Schrade Uncle Henry hunting knife from Delaney's Sports.

"I had lots of fun. The day I shot those two deer will be a day I'll never forget," Shepersky said.

"The community has done such a wonderful job of assuming responsibility for this event," Hendricks said. "I love these people. They are my brothers and sisters."

A spin-off bowhunt is held in Wisconsin the following weekend, where another 30 bowhunters venture into the woods to fill tags.

"We really are changing lives," said Hendricks.