CAMP RIPLEY -- When Dennis Bolstad, a Vietnam War veteran, was discharged from the Navy he went to gunsmith school in Colorado "just so I'd have something to do."
Today Bolstad has plenty to do and doesn't sit idle for long. The 52-year-old Backus gunsmith has invented several devices for hunters who can't handle a gun the conventional way. His latest invention uses two poles and a weight to balance a gun in a metal sling. All a hunter must be able to do is get the gun to his or her shoulder, aim and pull the trigger.
Bolstad outfitted a woman in a wheelchair with his gun sling at the recent Broken Wing Pheasant Hunt near Pine River. The woman's wheelchair was placed on a platform mounted to the front of an ATV. The ATV drove through the fields and the woman, sitting on the same level as a hunter on foot, shot at pheasants with the aid of the gun sling. Five pheasants later the invention was deemed a success.
Bolstad, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when he was 19, says he won't patent the invention and probably won't even build too many of the devices. That's because everything needed to make the sling is available at a hardware store, and assembly is easy. Pre-drilled angle iron is used for the horizontal beam and an adjustable IV pole from a wheelchair makes up the vertical beam. The counter weight is a leadshot-filled pipe, allowing the hunter to balance it according to his or her specifications.
Brainerd's Tony Bruno is a veteran of the Disabled Veterans Deer Hunt, now in its 10th year at Camp Ripley. Bruno served three tours of duty in the Navy on 11 different ships. If it wasn't for the Vets Hunt he said he might not hunt at all. "I can't walk fast and I can't walk far," he said.
"Everything sold to handicapped people is about five times more expensive than it should be," Bolstad said during lunch break Wednesday afternoon at the 10th annual Disabled Veterans Deer Hunt. "I wanted to keep this a cheap as I could. I won't sell it. If somebody can make it himself, so much the better."
Bolstad said he will post the invention along with directions for assembly on the Internet. He's invented several other devices for handicapped hunters, including a bite release for people who can't squeeze a trigger, and a Velcro-covered forearm for people who can't maintain a solid grip on a conventional forearm.
Bolstad had one of his new gun slings ready to go at Camp Ripley in case a fellow veteran needed one, but as of Wednesday noon there were no takers. But certainly in the coming years a hunter will, illustrating what the Disabled Veterans Deer Hunt is all about -- getting hunters back into the field despite their physical limitations.
Tough going on first day
Thirty-eight veterans, ranging in age from 51 to 85, took part in this year's hunt, which started Wednesday in miserable weather. Skies alternated between drizzle and rain, making any amount of time on a deer stand an uncomfortable proposition. Though some hunters came in early from the morning shift, the report that a doe had been shot provided the inspiration to get back out in the afternoon.
Now in its 10th year, the Disabled Veterans Deer Hunt gives veterans who might otherwise not hunt a chance to get into the woods. Staffers at Camp Ripley set stands in prime locations, and the success rate for the hunt averages 25 percent.
Seventeen portable stands, donated by U.S. Qwest, are wheelchair accessible. They consist of a plywood platform mounted on a trailer bed. Some hunters opt to sit on chairs or on truck tailgates. All have escorts who trail and gut downed deer and provide any other assistance the veteran might need.
Twenty-six new hunters, from as far north as Grand Rapids and as far south as Marshall, took part this year. All completed a four-hour firearms safety training course and orientation courses with the DNR and Camp Ripley military staff before the hunt. Time was spent on a firing range to become familiar with their guns. Some veterans use their own, others use guns supplied by the Little Falls and St. Joseph chapters of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. Ammunition is donated by Federal Cartridge.
By dusk Wednesday only one more deer had been added to the meat pole. But a forecast for better weather on Thursday gave hope. The day dawned clear and temperatures warmed quickly, yet the morning hunt brought in just one button buck.
"They're starting to see more deer and they're on the move," said John Nixon, a volunteer cook from the Clear Lake American Legion. "A few guys saw some big bucks. The woods are drying and the diehards will be here until dark. They could easily have a dozen by then."
If they don't you won't hear any complaints. Veteran deer hunters know there's more to life than getting a deer.
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