This Man Can Hunt

A terrible car accident left George Bolender a quadriplegic, but his life as an outdoorsman didn't end. It just got a lot harder.

wheelchair sportsman
wheelchair sportsman
Field & Stream Online Editors

At 3 a.m. the grandfather clock peals, each baritone chime ringing hollow and pensive. From my place on the couch, the living room feels spare even in the dark-no ottomans, no coffee tables, no rugs. There are footsteps, and the click of a dog's nails on the floor. Under a door, a seam of light flashes yellow-white, glinting in the glass eyes of four mounted deer heads on the wall. The door swings open.

"Come on in," Julie Bolender says softly. She is barefoot, in sweatpants and a T-shirt. "He's just waking up."

George Bolender is in bed, on his back, right arm crooked over his eyes to shield them from the light. Julie smiles wanly. She unhooks an overnight urine bag and pulls back Bolender's covers. First, the blue jeans. She lifts his right foot, threads the pants leg on. Now the left. She bends his knees and struggles to get the pants over his calves, his thighs. Bolender exhales. It is not easy on anyone.

Next, the morning exercises. Julie works each of Bolender's knee joints back and forth. She stretches the quadriceps, then the hamstrings. Bolender winces. "Spasms, not pain," he explains, through clenched teeth. "Not really." Attie, a young chocolate Lab, pads over to Bolender's bed, begging for attention. He drapes an arm over the edge of the mattress and rubs the dog's ears with the bone nub at the base of his wrist. Nearby, gray-muzzled Sam never cracks an eye. He is used to this.

Julie bends over her husband, hooks an arm under his shoulder, and lifts Bolender's torso off the bed. Now she can tug the thermal tops down. She pulls on superinsulated coveralls. Right leg, then left. Julie is efficient. Each movement is fluid. It is a routine as familiar as dressing herself. Next the boots. Then insulated overboots. Quadriplegics have a diminished ability to thermoregulate, and Bolender has to bundle up in anything below 50 degrees.

It is 3:50 A.M. by the time Bolender is in the wheelchair and Julie cinches the boot straps around the frame to hold his feet steady when he pitches and rolls over rough spots in the trail. Finally it's time to go hunting.

George Bolender is 46 years old, slender and quick to smile and sporting a recently grown goatee. He is thoughtful and friendly and chatty. After all, he says, one thing he has is plenty of time. [NEXT "Page 2"]

Since a horrific vehicle accident in June 1991, Bolender has been a quadriplegic. He still has control of his biceps, but not his triceps. "I can move my shoulders, but I don't have any hands. Below the nipples, I got nothing." Except for pain. At times, his legs and butt will throb with terrific pain. "Of course, you could hit my toes with a hammer," he says, "and I wouldn't feel a thing. It's weird. But that's all a part of it."

The phantom pain, the severely restricted mobility, the constant chills, the odd looks from strangers, the altered relationships, the lost friendships-they are all a part of Bolender's day-to-day life in Ontario, New York, just east of Rochester. But astonishingly, so, too, are long days in the woods. Close shots at black bears. Wild turkeys feeding inside bow range. And whitetail deer on the wall that would turn most walking hunters green with envy.

Hunting with intricately modified bows and guns, Bolender takes three to four deer a season. It's enough to provide venison for his family, a few landowners who give him access to their woods, and a local needy family. He hunts two, three, sometimes four days a week. He does it through force of will and a network of supporters that brings tears to his eyes to contemplate. Julie, one of his sons, or a hunting buddy drops him off in the deer woods. Once at his stand site, he backs the electric wheelchair up against a tree or into a blind built with a backdrop of brush. His companion cocks his bow or racks a shell into the gun chamber, and then leaves. Alone, Bolender hunts. F food. For solitude. For a connection to the wild that he refuses to sever.

"Oh, yeah. Let me tell you about that one." Bolender is a good talker, a good storyteller. He rests his chin on his forearm, draped across the top of a kitchen chair. It's early afternoon, and we've both been up since that clock tolled in the middle of the night.

"That one" is a deer anyone would want to talk about. He was in Ohio, hunting a few days of last year's gun season. The day dawned windy. Does and fawns meandered by, then, at midmorning, a nice 8-pointer came through a ravine at 50 yards. To hunt with his Ruger Red Hawk .44 magnum, Bolender utilizes a homemade pistol mount crafted with a pair of car struts to handle recoil. To adjust for elevation, he bumps on and off an electric screwdriver whose gears drive the gun mount up and down. To fire the gun, Bolender sips on a mouth tube, which completes an electrical circuit that involves a solenoid attached to a car-trunk lifter that in turn pulls on a wire wrapped around the pistol trigger. Before he could get on target, the buck heard the whining screwdriver and took off.

"There's not a thing I can do about that noise," Bolender says with a shrug, "except keep hunting."

Which he did. Seven hours later a "very big deer" started working his way up the ravine, disappeared, and then popped out of the brush. "What a beautiful sight!" Bolender exclaims. "Eighty yards, quartering away. I put the scope on his shoulder and sipped off a shot." Nothing happened.

Bolender figured the solenoid was balking. "You know, they're not really made for this kind of thing," he says. "So I tried to free up the solenoid. I beat the crap out of it with my wrists. Two more shots, and nothing. That's when the geese showed up. They were heaven-sent." With light falling, a flock of geese flew low over the trees. Their honks gave Bolender the cover he needed to "make all the noise I wanted. I uncocked the gun, pounded on the back of the solenoid as hard as I could-which isn't all that hard, of course-worked it back in the mount with my wrists, got the scope back on the deer, and sipped on the straw. All I saw then was muzzle flash. I heard him crash into the thicket. I laid my head back in the chair and almost began hyperventilating. I still remember my big puffy breaths making clouds in the cold air." The buck sported 14 points, with double brow tines, 5-inch antler bases, "and kicker points all over the place."

It was his biggest deer to date. Which is saying something. As does the George Bolender story in general. [NEXT "Page 3"]

"Unrestrained passenger," Bolender intones. "That's the term they use. Throw the keys to somebody else, thinking they're a little less drunk than you are. It's a bad idea."

It was the tail end of a long night of barhopping. His buddy was driving his pickup when they ran off the road. The next few seconds are still a blur, filled in through police reports and a fragmented memory. "We ran the length of a ditch. Went through some mailboxes. Overcorrected and went to the other side of the road." The impact of the ditch threw Bolender's friend through the rear glass, relatively unscathed. "But I'm still in the truck. Next we hit a telephone pole. Then a culvert pipe, and that's when the truck did an endo with a little flip-twist, went 50 feet through the air, and came down on the roof."

The telephone pole had bashed in the roof, and when the truck came to a rest, upside down, Bolender's head and shoulders were nestled in the indentation, between the truck top and the ditch. The rest of his body was still inside the vehicle. "I was folded in half. The only thing I really remember is waking up when they were drilling my head out. When I came to, it was three days later." Bolender's neck was broken between the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae.

After three months in the hospital, Bolender entered a rehabilitation center in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for six weeks of additional therapy. The sessions were difficult; the life they were designed to prepare him for, painful to consider. After the workouts, he rolled his wheelchair along a bank of large windows that overlooked the clinic lawn. Late each afternoon, deer would step out of the woods to feed. Hunting had been his lifelong passion, ever since he'd hunted pheasants as a child, with a cocker spaniel tied to his belt.

"So many times, I went from window to window to watch the deer." He is quiet for a moment. "I'd tell myself: It's never going to happen, George. Forget about it. It's just never going to happen." He would roll back to his room and weep.

But George Bolender wasn't out of the hunting game. Still in rehab, he heard about programs for disabled hunters. Organizations such as Buckmasters Ltd. and the NRA's Disabled Shooting Services department help support a nationwide network of clubs, organized hunts, financial-aid options, and consulting services for disabled hunters and shooters. Just a few weeks after his return home, Julie drove Bolender to Syracuse, New York, where a man built adaptive bow rigs for severely handicapped hunters. Within 15 minutes of trying out a bow, Bolender was sending arrows into a bull's-eye.

"I kept looking around at Julie, like, I just can't believe this," he says. "A light went off for me. I could see a world of possibility that I thought had been shut off forever."

He'd lost his job as a contractor and faced daunting bills and an uncertain future, but he sold a few guns to pay for a $750 PSE bow and rig. His brother-in-law, Russell Zaft, a welder, upgraded the bow with camber adjustments and an elevation screw. (Zaft has since built all of Bolender's hunting rigs.) In November 1993, Bolender killed his first deer "from the chair," he says, a small buck he took with a 20-gauge shotgun. He'd missed but two deer seasons and has not missed one since. To date, he has taken upwards of 35 deer with both bow and gun, plus a 6-foot 7-inch Newfoundland black bear arrowed from a ground blind at 14 paces. [NEXT "Page 4"]

As an archer, Bolender has handicaps far beyond his lack of mobility. While he is exempt from that most critical aspect of felling a deer with an arrow-drawing the bow while an animal is in range-it's a minor concession.

Bolender's 70-pound-draw-weight Oneida compound bow is mounted permanently to a universal joint, which is in turn mounted to a system of metal bars and plates that fit securely into the armrest mounts on his wheelchair. A 33-inch-long metal rod is welded to the bow holder at a 90-degree angle. On the end are a standard mechanical release and a small bite plate. With the bow drawn and locked into the release, Bolender aims with his mouth. As he moves his head, the bite plate, metal rod, bowhabilitation center in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for six weeks of additional therapy. The sessions were difficult; the life they were designed to prepare him for, painful to consider. After the workouts, he rolled his wheelchair along a bank of large windows that overlooked the clinic lawn. Late each afternoon, deer would step out of the woods to feed. Hunting had been his lifelong passion, ever since he'd hunted pheasants as a child, with a cocker spaniel tied to his belt.

"So many times, I went from window to window to watch the deer." He is quiet for a moment. "I'd tell myself: It's never going to happen, George. Forget about it. It's just never going to happen." He would roll back to his room and weep.

But George Bolender wasn't out of the hunting game. Still in rehab, he heard about programs for disabled hunters. Organizations such as Buckmasters Ltd. and the NRA's Disabled Shooting Services department help support a nationwide network of clubs, organized hunts, financial-aid options, and consulting services for disabled hunters and shooters. Just a few weeks after his return home, Julie drove Bolender to Syracuse, New York, where a man built adaptive bow rigs for severely handicapped hunters. Within 15 minutes of trying out a bow, Bolender was sending arrows into a bull's-eye.

"I kept looking around at Julie, like, I just can't believe this," he says. "A light went off for me. I could see a world of possibility that I thought had been shut off forever."

He'd lost his job as a contractor and faced daunting bills and an uncertain future, but he sold a few guns to pay for a $750 PSE bow and rig. His brother-in-law, Russell Zaft, a welder, upgraded the bow with camber adjustments and an elevation screw. (Zaft has since built all of Bolender's hunting rigs.) In November 1993, Bolender killed his first deer "from the chair," he says, a small buck he took with a 20-gauge shotgun. He'd missed but two deer seasons and has not missed one since. To date, he has taken upwards of 35 deer with both bow and gun, plus a 6-foot 7-inch Newfoundland black bear arrowed from a ground blind at 14 paces. [NEXT "Page 4"]

As an archer, Bolender has handicaps far beyond his lack of mobility. While he is exempt from that most critical aspect of felling a deer with an arrow-drawing the bow while an animal is in range-it's a minor concession.

Bolender's 70-pound-draw-weight Oneida compound bow is mounted permanently to a universal joint, which is in turn mounted to a system of metal bars and plates that fit securely into the armrest mounts on his wheelchair. A 33-inch-long metal rod is welded to the bow holder at a 90-degree angle. On the end are a standard mechanical release and a small bite plate. With the bow drawn and locked into the release, Bolender aims with his mouth. As he moves his head, the bite plate, metal rod, bow