The Braille Monitor                                                                                       November 2002

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Hey, Mom, the Hunter Ed Guy Is Blind

by Jim Marks

From the Editor: In his quiet, steady way Jim Marks is one of the leaders in the Federation wherever he goes. He is the director of Disability Services for Students at the University of Montana-Missoula. Those of us who know him in meetings or dispensing wise counsel on e-mail lists will discover another side to him in the following story. Here it is:

Jim Marks teaching gun safety to an eager class of young students.
Jim Marks teaching gun safety to an eager class of young students.

When a blind man stands before a class consisting mostly of preteens, holding a gun in one hand and a cane in the other, which item draws the most attention? It's no contest. The Browning 308 lever action with the 4x12 scope and camouflage cover gets far more attention than the straight carbon-fiber sixty-nine-inch cane. And that's as it should be.

Before I began my job as one of the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks volunteer instructors, I wondered if my blindness would attract a lot of attention. I envisioned students running back to their homes to blurt out, "Mom, Mom! The hunter ed guy is blind." To my surprise and pleasure, it turned out to be no big deal at all. Seems the students paid more attention to the big game rifle than the long white cane in my hands. They wanted to know about hunting and guns and the like. Blindness was irrelevant, or at least mostly so.

The kids paid little attention to the fact that I can't see, but some of the parents and my colleagues demonstrated some curiosity. Children take the blind adult at face value as an adult. Adults, on the other hand, get bogged down with the traditional stereotypes and prejudices. Once I overheard a conversation between two moms who did not know I could hear them. As I walked down the corridor with my class to another classroom equipped with an electronic shooting simulator, one mom said to the other mom the words that blind people often hear: "Wow, he sure gets around well." The praise for accomplishing the mundane exposes the fact that the speaker doesn't think much of the abilities of the blind.

On another occasion a fellow volunteer wondered aloud how it was that a blind man could hunt. I thought the question reasonable and attempted the best explanation I could. Other than these rather minor things, no one fussed at all and I was free to do my job just as anyone else would.

A great deal of credit for the success of the class goes to my instructor partner, Jim Taylor. Jim hunts with me. Our children are about the same age, and we wanted to expose them to the hunter education program during the summer months, when life isn't as crazy as it can be during the school year. When we approached the agency responsible for hunter education, they said no summer classes were available. Ever quick to snag more volunteers, the agency folks asked if we would be interested in teaching a summer course. Jim and I said "yes," and soon we found ourselves wearing the bright orange vests and official trappings of the volunteer instructor.

Jim told me that he used to be skeptical that a blind man could be a hunter, but seeing me in action changed his mind. He relates a story about our first shared hunting experience. Jim's leg had been injured while playing basketball, so he had to stay close to the pickup to take it easy. The morning was crisp and cold following a short snowstorm that had blanketed the area with new snow.

We parked our vehicle near a place where elk had been spotted the day before. The hillside was so steep that all I had to do to touch the ground was bend slightly and put my hand before me at a slight downward angle. The very steep slope was made all the more treacherous by the new snow. Jim watched as our other hunting partner and I started our climb up the hill. The partner's shoes kept breaking traction, and he slipped a number of times into my arms as I struggled up the hill behind him. When I'm in the backcountry, I use two hiking poles. These, plus my choice of footwear, made me far more stable than my partner. Jim said it amazed him the way I caught the other guy and propelled him up the slope, adding that his amazement resulted from the realization that I was a dependable contributor to the hunting party, thus shattering his low expectations for the blind. He said with a grin that, after watching me in the field, he knew I was all right, especially since the next time he saw us, we were dragging an elk. For those who may not know, the "he's all right" phrase is a compliment of the highest order in Montana-speak.

Some may ask why I am interested in hunting. To me hunting connects me to my family, culture, and past. Blind or sighted, I've always wanted to hunt. It's never been a matter of the trophy for me. Rather, hunting affords me a brief respite from my normally suburban life by giving me a taste of the ranch life I left behind in young adulthood.

I love everything about the hunt. Getting ready, with all the right clothing, gear, and possibles, excites me. Hiking to and standing on a mountain ridge before daylight scanning for the elk lifts me up. Spending time at the campsite with a cup of bad coffee and hastily prepared camp food that tastes incredibly good in that setting makes me smile. Even the not-so-fun parts of the hunt fascinate me. The death of an animal is tangible and very, very real. The work of field-dressing and hauling the downed animal out of the woods breaks a sweat like little else I do. All of this weaves together to form an experience that I absorb into the deepest part of me. I am a hunter, always have been, and always will be.

Obviously my blindness affects the way I hunt. In a nutshell, I do pretty much the same thing other hunters do with the exceptions of hunting alone and aiming the rifle independently. Even when I could see and shoot on my own, I never hunted alone. Going out with others forms a vital part of the hunt for me. While I respect those who hunt alone, I always preferred hunting with others. It's just more fun. So hunting with others presents no sacrifice whatsoever to me.

As a blind member of the party, I am not just extra baggage either. I pick up on things others miss such as the sounds and smells my hunting buddies overlook because they are so focused on seeing what's out there. Also I hunt in the places I've known since I was a kid. Even though I can't see which trail to follow, I know which way to turn and where we may encounter the game. Besides all this, I can pull more than my fair share of the load when it comes to getting the animals out of the field. Dragging a big game animal demands a strong back and heart, both attributes with which I am amply blessed.

The act of pulling the trigger and taking the life of another living being is a tiny piece of the hunting experience for me and for the vast majority of my fellow hunters. Hunting isn't about killing. It is about being in step with nature and finding a place in the natural order of things. So when my eyesight failed enough to prevent me from aiming my rifle, I let others perform this part of the hunt for me. I stand right by the person pulling the trigger. Some blind hunters adapt firearms to allow a companion to aim the rifle while the blind hunter holds and fires the gun. I've toyed with the idea of adding the equipment it takes to modify a rifle so that two people can shoot it but decided it wasn't important for me.

However, I do feel strongly that the blind hunter shouldn't turn over a hunting license to another as you would turn over a grocery list. Besides being illegal and unethical, not being part of the hunt denies one the essence of the hunt. It's important to me to be there, to do nearly everything other hunters do. Wild game makes up a large part of my diet. But I'd be lying if I were to claim it's cheaper than buying meat in a supermarket. It costs a lot to hunt, but hunters buy far more than food in the bargain. We buy an experience of which there is no equal. That's why I insist on the total experience minus the part about pulling the trigger.

Through hunter education I've been able to bring my own kids in on this experience. I tell them that they don't have to hunt and that they can decide, when the time comes, whether they want to take an animal. Both my daughter and son love to go to the woods with their dad. And I observe more than a little pride in the fact that their dad cares enough to teach them and others about hunting. Their attention in the classroom and in the field reinforces my belief that I'm doing the right thing as a hunter, parent, and instructor.

As an aside, an incident occurred involving blindness that bears mentioning. A friend told me about a reaction from someone else. "Well," the other person was reported to have said, "I suppose teaching hunter education makes Jim feel as if he can do something." My friend related this prejudice-revealing comment with the expectation that I would be incensed at the low expectation of the blind that it reflected.

Instead I reacted this way: I said that the person was right on. Instructing others about the hunting experience indeed made me feel as though I was doing something. But the accomplishment wasn't about proving that a blind person could do things. Instead, I taught hunter education as an extension of the hunt, a passing on of the privilege. Blindness was irrelevant.

In conclusion, my experiences as a hunter and hunter education instructor tell me that the National Federation of the Blind and I are on the right track (no pun intended). As blind folks we must learn to live out our lives as we choose—free of the belief that blindness is the problem. The Federation preaches a vision that with the proper training and opportunities blindness becomes little more than a nuisance in our lives. Such attitudes reach deeper in my soul than the mere words indicate. I am a hunter, and I am blind. Wouldn't have it any other way.

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