From Iowa Department of Natural Resources
-- Roger Erpelding had always wanted to go hunting. For years, he listened to the hunting stories his brothers and brother-in-law would tell and wished he was along for the adventure. The 57-year-old Windsor Heights man, blind since birth, finally got his chance in 2006 when he shot a doe with the help of a guide during a special youth and disabled deer hunt, southeast of Earlham. It was one of his proudest moments when he served a grilled roast from that deer to his family for Christmas dinner.
The Whitetail Challenge is a doe-only deer hunt for youth and disabled hunters offered by Ron Mason Jr., and Steve and Penny Radakovich, who as partners operate North Branch Wildlife Group, a guide and outfitting business on 1,000 acres of their adjoining properties in Madison County. The area, which Mason Jr. says looks more like Montana than Iowa, has welcomed youth and disabled deer hunters on the last weekend of the special youth and disabled deer season since 2003.
Working with his guide Dave Hyler, who was shouldering and aiming the gun, Erpelding squeezed the trigger. Hyler called the organizers to say a deer was down, and volunteers were dispatched to track it down.
"It was happy times," Erpelding said. "Dave was excited and I was excited. I had always wanted to hunt. It was wonderful to say this is something I did. It was my doing." He participated in 2007, but did not harvest a deer.
Erpelding said if he is available, he will be there again.
"I really enjoy it, I really do. You come out here and you don't want to go home again. It's a wonderful experience," Erpelding said. He said he is so thankful for the event and that it is run so well. "Just top notch, they are A-plus. Can't thank them enough. It's just beyond words," he said.
Preparation key to event success
Work begins at least two months ahead of time. Organizers send out invitations, line up entertainment, recruit volunteers, set up deer blinds and assign teams of volunteers to work with hunters who are disabled or have limited mobility.
The Whitetail Challenge begins accepting applications in July and all participants must submit an application. Information is available online at http://www.millcreekranch.net/menu.htm or by calling Mason Jr. at 515-834-9111. They have not really turned anyone down, he said.
It takes three or four volunteers for each disabled hunter to make the event happen, plus volunteers to cook and feed the hunters, volunteers and any family members along. In 2007, there were 60 volunteers for four youth and 12 handicap hunters.
Mason Jr. said the group works hard to keep the cost down by holding fundraisers to help offset expenses. "It's a lot of work, as you can imagine," Mason, Jr. said. "It's extremely rewarding. It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done."
There have been 65 participants in the hunt, including a boy who started as a shy 9-year-old in a heavy motorized chair who has shot three deer since the event began, as well as the 57-year-old Erpelding and just about everyone in between.