CAMP RIPLEY — Bud Grant and Bob Lessard were here for the veterans.
And the deer? Very much secondary at the Physically Disabled Veterans Deer Hunt. And that’s saying something. Lessard, and Grant in particular, are avid deer hunters and Camp Ripley boasts some massive deer.
Must be all those acorns.
That fact wasn’t lost on Grant the hunter. Or Lessard the practical joker.
But, as it turns out, Grant started this whole thing.
“I’ve known him since the first day he was coaching the Vikings. He’s kind of a practical joker,” Lessard said of the stoic face of the Minnesota Vikings during the team’s heyday of the late 1960s and the 1970s.
Yes, don’t let that straight face fool you, Lessard said.
“The weather is so nice,” Grant said between jokes and jabs with Lessard on Wednesday morning at Ripley, temperatures already creeping into the 70s. “You know the deer won’t move around much. And the bucks are all laying around. There’s acorns everywhere. They don’t have to move.”
Ah, all those acorns.
“Last night (Tuesday), we go to bed and he (Grant) has taken a bunch of acorns and put them in my bed,” Lessard, 80, said of the latest in a long line of pranks between the two. “This morning (Wednesday) I put a bunch of acorns in his dress clothes (for Wednesday’s post-hunt banquet). And what he doesn’t know is he’s going to find acorns everywhere. He thinks it’s over. But he’ll probably be seeing them a year from now. It’s a running war.
“He’ll be finding acorns forever.”
Grant, the legendary coach of the Vikings, and Lessard, the former state senator and a namesake of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, hunted together Wednesday in the 20th annual event. Longtime hunting and fishing buddies, Grant served in World War II and Lessard in Korea, but both were participating in the Ripley hunt for the first time.
“I heard about the hunt and think I called Dennis (event coordinator Dennis Erie) and asked him how you qualify,” Grant, 84, said of what prompted his first trip to Ripley. “I’ve had two total knee replacements, a stint in my heart ... (and Erie said) ‘Yeah, you probably qualify.’ And I said I have a good friend (Lessard) who would qualify, too. So they invited us.
“It’s an opportunity for the guys to hunt with assistance,” Grant said of the importance of the hunt, which drew 60 hunters with physical disabilities, many in wheelchairs. “I’m a disabled hunter and it’s a disabled event, but I have no battle scars.”
“Anything we can do to help the vets,” Lessard said. “Getting deer is just a bonus. Just to be with the disabled vets. It’s what it’s about. It’s why Bud and I are here. I’m here to hunt but the big issue is support for the vets. It’s bigger than hunting.”
Still, they didn’t take the hunt lightly. Grant, Lessard and guide Marty Skoglund, environmental program manager at Camp Ripley, were in the field well before daylight Wednesday, hunted all morning and, after a quick lunch, were back in the field until dark. They didn’t bag a deer, but Lessard got a memorable up-close look at another Camp Ripley resident.
As darkness fell, a good-sized black bear stuck its nose in the blind, just feet from Lessard, who was alone in the blind at the time. Grant and Skoglund were in a stand about 100 yards away. Both bear and hunter were startled and the bear fled to a tree next to the blind. There, hanging about 15 feet above the blind, the bear growled at Lessard, and Lessard, sticking his head out of the blind, playfully growled back. That lasted for about 15 minutes, Lessard said. In all his time in the outdoors through the years, Lessard said it was his closest encounter with a bear. That experience, and his experience with the hunt and the disabled veteran hunters, made for a memorable trip.
“It’s only my second time here (Camp Ripley). I made a tour out here in the 1980s. It’s an experience to me,” said Lessard, who left Wednesday night. Grant hunted Thursday morning, too, in the two-day event. “I can’t quite grasp how big it is and all the different entities here. I’m as much interested in the facility as deer hunting. Everyone should go through here.”
Said Grant: “It’s great that they let some people hunt here.”
A record number of disabled vets from around the state hunted in this year’s event, a month before the official state firearms deer opener. To qualify, participants had to be physically disabled veterans who had difficulties hunting in the regular season because of physical limitations. Participating veterans have served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. The event, held in conjunction with the Deployed Soldiers Archery Deer Hunt on the northern end of Ripley, was sponsored by the St. Cloud VA Health Care System, Minnesota Army National Guard/Camp Ripley and the DNR. Event supporters included the American Legion and Auxiliary, Disabled American Veterans and Auxiliary, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Auxiliary, Veterans 4 Veterans Foundation and Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Despite overly balmy weather, at least by deer hunting standards, the hunters bagged 11 deer through Thursday morning, Skoglund said.
Skoglund, who joined Grant in the field again Thursday morning, said they saw three deer Thursday, but again nothing that warranted a shot.
“We saw a few deer, but Bud was just in his element,” Skoglund said of Thursday morning’s hunt with Grant. “He loved to be there.
“It brought a spark of life to the program,” Skoglund said of having Grant and Lessard on hand for the event. “A level of excitement I hadn’t seen in a long time. And they (the disabled vets) weren’t looking for more than to say they shook the hand of Bud Grant or Bob Lessard. It was a spark of life.
“I think they (Grant and Lessard) look forward to participating into the future. I know Bud is interested in the turkey hunt (in the spring). I think they’d like to be a part of that and potentially Trolling for Troops (in June).”
Grant talked passionately about his military experience and of this experience with the disabled vets at a gathering of hunters Tuesday night and spoke again at Wednesday’s post-hunt banquet, where he was presented with a print of a disabled vet shooting a deer.
“He had so many honorable things to say about the military,” Skoglund said. “He almost got choked up. It was quite touching for him.”
And then, again, there were the acorns.
“Bud was picking acorns out of his clothes all morning,” Skoglund said with a laugh Thursday.
“They (Grant and Lessard) are always going to try to get each other. They’re 80-plus years old and still having fun.”