An improbable encounter in the remote wilderness brings lasting rewards to a young amputee and his mentor.
by Bob Radocy
Early last September, two days before the start of Colorado’s archery elk hunting season, my good friend and hunting partner Bruno and I were scouting on the Uncompahgre Plateau in the southwestern part of the state. We are both older guys who have been bowhunting together since the early 1980s, and we had surrendered many years’ worth of preference points to draw access to Unit 61, a coveted hunting locale that’s famous for its population of large bull elk.
We had found a convenient overlook on the edge of a beautiful, jagged ridge from which we could survey the canyons to look for elk. We were literally in the middle of nowhere, 30 miles from the nearest outpost of civilization. It was about an hour before dark, the weather was perfect, and the country before us was vast.
We were several hundred feet above the canyon floor, overlooking huge rock outcroppings interspersed with aspen, dark timber, and dense oak brush—good elk bedding habitat, but tough for bowhunters who carried only traditional equipment. Everywhere were shades of green, but by the end of the month the country would be ablaze with gold, orange, and crimson shades as the aspen and oak burst forth with color.
Our truck was parked on a gravel road, around the corner and out of sight. We were out of sight too, totally concealed in tall oak brush, looking intensely for antlers in the dimming light. We were no more than 10 to 15 yards from the road, which we could hardly see. We heard some noise, and very quickly a pickup truck veered over and parked alongside us on the road, just feet away. Three kids and a dad piled out of the truck with binoculars. They had to be locals, because this place was not marked at all. They knew where they were.
It was an awkward situation, because they could not see us in the brush and did not know we were there. They could not see our truck either. We were worried about revealing ourselves suddenly and surprising them. We were in remote Colorado, remember; we did not want to alarm anyone. Bruno was able to maneuver out to the road and show himself, waving in a friendly manner while he shouted out a greeting. The family initially was startled but recovered quickly from the surprise. I then walked out and introduced myself as well.
We learned they were a hunting family—bowhunters, like us. The older boy was about 12. He had a younger brother about nine and a sister about six. We started to exchange some friendly conversation when Jace, the older boy, noticed my left arm. You see, I’m a left below-elbow amputee. I wear a prosthesis and hold the bow with that arm, and draw right-handed with my natural hand. I lost the limb in a car wreck when I was 22, so I have operated with an artificial limb for a long time. As it turned out, prosthetics became my life’s work. My company has been developing innovative upper-limb devices for more than 40 years.
I held up my prosthesis and asked Jace, “Ever see one like this before?” He grew wide-eyed and pointed to his younger brother, Jaron. Their father, Tony, said, “Son, show him your arm.” Jaron rolled up the sleeve on his dark hoodie to show me that he was missing his right hand.
I calmly asked him what had happened, and Jaron told me he had caught his hand in a meat grinder two years earlier while helping the family butcher an elk. Ever since, he’d been unable to shoot a bow with his dad and his siblings. He’d never tried archery with a prosthesis. In fact, Jaron wasn’t using a prosthesis at all. He had been introduced to some prosthetic technology after his accident, but it had not worked out.
Now, I’m not sure about divine intervention or serendipity or providence, but I can tell you that all of us experienced a very special moment—one that will not be forgotten. Here is a young man who has been in a terrible accident, has not made a successful adaptation to a prosthesis, and wants to shoot a bow and arrow again; and he runs into me, a complete stranger who wears a prosthesis, has been designing prosthetic technology for decades, and is an experienced bowhunter. And we are in the middle of nowhere under a sky filling up with the first light of thousands of stars, under the Milky Way.
This moment was the first of what would be several gifts we would all share with each other.
It was getting late, so we exchanged contact information. It turned out that Tony was the district wildlife manager (DWM) in charge of Unit 61. Who would have thought? Back at our camp, Bruno and I talked over the encounter. We both agreed that even if nothing else came from this elk hunt, our long-awaited trip to Unit 61 was already very worthwhile and fulfilling.
Two days later, about noon, we were resting in camp when Tony pulled up with his family. We were reintroduced to Jace, Jaron, and Brynna, and we met Tony’s wife, Brianne. We talked about prosthetics and bowhunting, and I demonstrated to Jaron and the family how I handled and shot my custom, hunting-grade recurve. I even hit the target a couple of times. All was good, and Jaron was very excited.
I told Jaron and the family about some alternative technology that my company had developed that I felt would work for him, and I encouraged them to seek out prosthetic rehabilitation assistance at the nearest Shriners Hospital, in Salt Lake City. I’m a prosthetic component designer, not a certified prosthetist, but I enjoy being a guide, mentor, and role model for others with a hand-absence challenge. We agreed to reconnect later in the season to continue Jaron’s quest to shoot a bow again.
We didn’t harvest any elk during that trip. Early September was very hot and dry, and the elk were totally nocturnal. We could not get anywhere near a good bull. Toward the end of the month, Bruno and I returned to the Uncompahgre for the last week of the season. After a day or two of hunting, we got another visit at our camp from Jaron, his siblings, his dad, and his grandparents.
We picked up right where we had left off and talked more about Jaron’s future. Then he and his family delivered the second gift. The previous night, well before dark, they had seen a herd of elk and a bear coming to water at a little pond not far from the ridge where we had all met back in early September. This was the kind of information you can only get from local hunters, especially when they are part of a DWM’s family. Bruno and I had bear licenses as well as elk licenses, so after we finished visiting with the family, we packed up, hiked in, and located the hideaway pond. We built a couple of ground blinds, then decided to return the next evening.
The wind wasn’t favorable that night; it flooded the area with our scent, and we realized that cramming two hunters into this small location would continue to be unproductive. I returned alone the next evening, while Bruno hunted elsewhere with another friend. I got into the ground blind early. The sun was warm. This spot was above the pond along a side hill, well concealed with a good view and shooting vantage over the pond. A favorable breeze kept my scent up and out of the pond. All was quiet. But no elk bugled.
I thought the evening was another bust, but I gave myself 15 more minutes until I packed up and hiked out. Then out of the corner of my left eye, a bear slowly walked into the pond, completely unaware of my presence. He was cloaked by the thick brush until he stepped into the open ground around the pond, about 20 yards directly in front of me. I waited for him to get a bit closer, and as he walked past me at ten yards, I drew back my bow and released an arrow.
We had the second gift.
Bowhunters tend to be a cohesive group, dedicated to wildlife conservation and the shared skills and values that make up the experience. Back home after our incredible trip to Unit 61, I reached out to another bowhunter to help Jaron reach his goal of getting back into the sport.
Although I knew the Shriner’s facility in Salt Lake City would provide Jaron with excellent prosthetic care, it was nearly a six-hour drive one-way from the family’s home. That wouldn’t be easy to manage, especially at this time of year. While bowhunting season was over, rifle hunting season was just getting started, so Tony would be extremely busy in his capacity as wildlife manager for many more weeks.
It so happened that a prosthetist I know, Brian Karsten—a longtime colleague, and a fellow bowhunting enthusiast—operated a clinic in Grand Junction, only a couple of hours from where Jaron’s family lived. When I told Brian about my encounter with this young amputee, he was touched. I asked if he would be willing to work with me and the family to get Jaron into a special device called a prosthosis, which would enable him shoot a bow—and, in turn, might give Jaron greater confidence in prosthetic technology more generally. I pledged to donate the product, which would need to be custom modified for Jaron. Brian agreed to perform the fitting and adjustments at no cost.
In November, the family drove to Grand Junction for an appointment with Brian. By the end of the day, Jaron was able to hold and pull a bow using this new prosthetic equipment and to shoot an arrow for the first time since his accident. Jaron was so excited that he used money that he had earned in 4-H to buy himself a brand-new compound bow.
This was the third gift.
And the final gift? That was Jaron’s willingness to let me share this story, in the hope that it might inspire others—challenged with a hand injury, or absence, or other physical challenge—not to give up, but to chase their dreams, whatever they may be.
Bob Radocy was the founder and CEO of TRS and is now executive vice president of Fillauer TRS. He is a former Paralympian and winner of the inaugural Cybathlon, an international assistive-technology competition, in 2016.