CRAWFORD, Okla. Dale Renfro's spirits were high on the predawn ride to the cattle ranch, a combination of youthful exuberance and the habitual optimism that accompanies hunters afield.
When turkey guide Andrew Sleeker steered his white pickup down a sandy trail along the edge of a creek bottom, revealing an ensemble of Rio Grande gobblers making racket in the high limbs of cottonwoods and hackberries, Dale turned to his father, "Big Dale," with bright eyes and a wide grin that made words pointless.
Roughly an hour later, an inquisitive Rio hen yelped from the top of a hill about 60 yards from the ground blind where Dale, his father and Sleeker were hiding. When a pair of gobblers topped the rise a few minutes later, strutting and gobbling as they approached, everything appeared to be falling into place.
Dale eased his .20-gauge through a slit in the blind and rested it on shooting sticks. But the turkeys had other plans.
Despite the pleadings of Sleeker, a three-time Oklahoma turkey calling champion, only the hen approached within shotgun range. After several minutes and myriad nervous glances at a pair of decoys, she waddled away from the small clearing among the shinnery oaks and sage brush, followed by one gobbler and then the other.
It got worse. After heading back to camp for lunch, Dale returned to the ranch with his dad and Sleeker. They situated themselves in the blind, now in a new location about 100 yards from the morning hide, and waited.
They hadn't been in the blind more than an hour when Dale's stomach started churning, his face turning pale with each passing minute. Soon Dale's father and Sleeker were trying to convince the 12-year-old turkey hunter to call it a day.
"I'm not leaving until I get my bird," Dale said.
As the heat of the afternoon intensified, Dale got sicker. But despite his father's and Sleeker's repeated suggestions to head back to camp, rest up, and return the next morning, Dale held firm in his conviction
"I'll be okay," Dale insisted. "I want to get my bird,"
Still waiting for the turkeys to show up, Dale was getting sicker. He fought it as long as he could but eventually vomited in the blind.
"We're going now," his father said.
The sickness overcame Dale's desire to stay, and the group packed up their gear. Sleeker picked up Dale and his dad in his truck and started up the dusty trail toward the gate. Just as they rounded a bend, Sleeker spotted two Rio gobblers strutting in the middle of the narrow path.
Overcome with excitement, Dale forgot about being sick. Sleeker threw the truck in reverse and started formulating a plan of attack. They'd park the truck, sneak through the scrubby trees along a small rise, and try to get in position to call in the turkeys.
Dale may have forgotten about being sick long enough to stalk through the woods, but sneaking up on the gobblers would present a bigger challenge.
Dale has cerebral palsy, and his ability to walk doesn't match his relentless desire.
Dale Renfro was one of 15 hunters taking part in a turkey hunting weekend in northwest Oklahoma with Oklahoma Outdoor Outreach. The non-profit foundation's mission is "to assist disabled, chronically and terminally ill individuals with opportunities to enjoy outdoor sporting activities."
Incorporated in 2007, Oklahoma Outdoor Outreach annually plays host to a turkey hunt in the turkey-rich landscape around Crawford, Okla., a small community at the crossroads of two section-line roads about 40 miles north of Interstate 40 and 20 miles east of the Texas panhandle.
There are no convenience stores or motels in Crawford, so for the past several years the group has made camp each spring at the old Crawford High School gymnasium, an old brick building that serves as home base for turkey-hunting forays into the surrounding countryside.
After the school closed in the 1990s, Gerald Montgomery, Crawford High Class of 1947, bought his alma mater at a fire-sale price and then spent a sizable sum installing a new roof. Montgomery and his wife Carolyn live in part of the old school, and for the past few years they've been donating the space to Oklahoma Outdoor Outreach as its base of operations for a weekend of turkey hunting.
Many of the hunters, along with the numerous volunteers that assist the organization, sleep on cots and in tents situated on the gym's basketball court. Others set up campers in the defunct school's parking lot.
"Everybody's together here," said Tim Slavin, president of Oklahoma Outdoor Outreach. "We eat together. We sleep together. We just all pile in here and have a good time sharing the experience of the great outdoors with one another."
Slavin's light-bulb moment for Oklahoma Outdoor Outreach came during his recovery from knee surgery.
"I sat around watching deer hunting and turkey hunting shows," said Slavin. "And I thought, 'This sucks not being able to walk.' I saw one show where they took people in wheelchairs hunting, and I knew I wanted to get involved."
Slavin worked with the National Wild Turkey Federation's Wheelin' Sportsmen program for several years before deciding to form an Oklahoma-based group in 2007. He and a few friends started organizing, incorporated as a non-profit foundation, and started raising money to fuel the program's mission.
"We broadened the spectrum from hunters with disabilities to kids and adults with disabilities as well as with chronic and terminal illnesses," Slavin said. "We set our first year's budget at $7,500, and we raised $32,000 that first year."
Memberships in the organization cost $25 and help defray costs such as food, cooking equipment, hunting gear and other sundry necessities for playing host to numerous hunters and their families. The group also raises money through auctions, raffles and cookouts. In addition to turkey hunts, the Oklahoma Outdoor Outreach conducts two deer hunts every fall and day camps for groups such as Oklahoma Children's Hospital.
Area landowners donate the use of their properties for turkey and deer hunting trips.
"When the kids come in here carrying their first deer or turkey, how much better can it be?" Slavin said. "The first time I did this, once the weekend was over, I cried all the way on the drive home.
"Not everybody gets it," Slavin said. "To be able to do this, you have to be committed, and you have to get it."
Thanks to a corps of volunteers, Slavin said, numerous kids and adults who probably wouldn't be able to go hunting now enjoy activities that many sportsmen take for granted.
"We're an all-volunteer organization," Slavin said. "Without all these volunteers, none of this happens. We all have jobs, kids, lives, houses and yards that need to be mowed. We just try to take a few days and make this happen."
Some volunteers have no experience with assisting disabled hunters. Others, like retired Garvin County, Okla., Sheriff Bill Roady, have know-how that comes from real-life experience. Roady's son Monty died two years ago at age 39 after battling transverse myelitis. But the Roadys spent countless days afield despite the hardship of hunting from a wheelchair.
"Tim called me and said he needed someone to help out who had some experience taking hunters in wheelchairs," Roady said. "That's how I got involved with this organization."
According to Sleeker, who has donated his time and turkey hunting expertise to the group for the past three years, Oklahoma Outdoor Outreach's mission goes beyond the stated mission of assisting hunters.
"When these hunters come in here, they can be themselves," Sleeker said. "They're not worried about being different from anyone. And when they go out and have success, they get this great sense of accomplishment."
Dale Renfro has been attending the group's hunt for the past three years.
"It's amazing," Dale said. "You get to go out and see the animals and spend time in nature. You come out here and have a good time and tell stories. The best part is just meeting everybody and spending time with my dad and my mom and my grandma and grandpa. I take every chance I get to go out hunting. I'd do it every day of my life if the season was longer and I didn't have to go to school."
Many participants arrive shy and withdrawn and leave uninhibited and outgoing.
"There's a kid here this weekend that, when he first started coming to these hunts, he'd have his head down and wouldn't talk to anyone," said Van Parker, the group's vice president. "Now he's out there in the parking lot in his wheelchair playing keep-away with a football. Now he's a kid."
Rio Grande riches
To turkey hunters arriving from eastern and southern areas of the U.S., the landscape of northwestern Oklahoma looks like a different planet. It's rare to see a tree over 20 feet tall outside of creek and river drainages.
A mixed-grass prairie ecosystem, the countryside consists of rolling sand hills, red shale hills and wooded bottoms along intermittent streams that flow into the Washita and South Canadian rivers. Upland areas are covered in prairie grasses such as big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, side-oats grama and buffalo grass. Brushy vegetation consists of shinnery oak, sage grass and sand plum, while bottomlands are dominated by cottonwood, elm and hackberry trees.
At first glance it's a desolate landscape, a place where tumbleweeds are more common than automobiles on the area's wide-open, empty roads.
But despite its barren appearance, the area is rich with game, including white-tailed deer and quail -- and Rio Grande turkeys.
Formerly a well-kept secret, the word is getting out on northwestern Oklahoma's Rio riches. Campgrounds at public hunting lands in the area are filled with hunters from faraway locales.
"We hunted public land the other morning," Sleeker said, "and we saw cars with license plates from Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas, Texas. We even saw one from Virginia. This is the place where people from across the country come to hunt Rio Grande turkeys."
In addition to abundant Rio turkeys, hunters are attracted to vast amounts of public land. The USDA Forest Service owns the nearly 31,000-acre Black Kettle National Grassland, which is administered as the Black Kettle Wildlife Management Area by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The ODWC's nearby Packsaddle Wildlife Management Area covers roughly 17,000 acres.
The area also features historical and cultural riches, including the Battle of the Washita National Historic Site. The site protects and interprets the area along the Washita River where Lt. Col. George Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Chief Black Kettle on Nov. 27, 1868, an important chapter in the cultural collision between white settlers, Plains Indians and the U.S. government.
Dale Renfro's turkey hunt wasn't turning out the way he'd planned. He had no delusions about it being easy, but it wasn't supposed to be like this -- sneaking up on a turkey with a leg that doesn't work like it's supposed to, trying to shoot the bird off-hand because there wasn't time to grab the shooting sticks that help Dale steady his turkey gun.
Sleeker helped Dale out of the truck. Dale, his father and Sleeker immediately slipped into a stand of short, brushy trees to get into position on the two strutting Rio gobblers Sleeker had spotted in the dirt road.
They had to move slowly. Cerebral palsy makes it difficult for Dale to move the muscles on the left side of his body. And after a long, hard day in search of a gobbler, they didn't want to waste their last best chance for Dale to bag a bird before sundown.
With the sun sinking below hills to the west, they found a hiding spot among the scrubby oaks on the cattle ranch. Sleeker yelped and clucked on a mouth call, and the gobblers responded with booming gobbles. They started coming toward the hiding spot, and Dale raised his shotgun and waited.
The gobblers were in range, burning red heads stretched on long necks in search of Sleeker's calls. Dale leveled his 20 gauge and fired a single shot, rolling one of the gobblers in a small clearing next to the dirt trail.
All signs of Dale's earlier sickness were gone. He let out a war whoop that echoed through the sand hills. In his rush to check out his newest trophy, Dale stumbled and fell in a sticker patch. It didn't seem to faze him.
"I got my bird!" he yelled. "I stuck with it, and I got my bird. I didn't give up."
Sleeker, an avid turkey hunter who chases gobblers across the country, said he'd never seen a hunter with more persistence than Dale.
"A lot of hunters, especially young hunters, would've picked up and taken it to the house at the first hint of getting sick," Sleeker said. "Not Dale. He wasn't about to give up. It just goes to show what kind of heart he has."
Success had a different meaning for Dale.
"You know what this means?" he asked Sleeker and his dad. "It means I get to sleep in tomorrow morning."