Evansville — In the predawn icy darkness, Jake Janes and Chad Hermanson head to their duck blind near a creek that flows into Lake Leota. Wearing head lamps, they traverse snow-covered ground as Hermanson's Labrador retriever, Cooper, bounds ahead of them, whining with excitement.
At the edge of the creek, Janes places a pole in the ground attached to a duck decoy with moving wings. Hermanson unfurls fishing line attached to plastic decoys he has thrown into the water.
The two men, both 27, are in their element. Most of their free time is spent in the woods; most of their wardrobe is either camouflage or blaze orange.
But they share another bond.
Janes lost his legs in Afghanistan; Hermanson was paralyzed in a motor vehicle crash.
In another war, Janes knows, he might not be alive. Advances in medical technology have resulted in thousands of veterans surviving injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan that likely would have killed them in Vietnam or Korea. Still young and otherwise healthy, they want to do all the things they did before they were injured — like hunting and fishing.
That's where a small Marshall, Minn., company called Action Manufacturing comes in. Tim Swenson was a longtime snowmobile and ATV dealer whose son was paralyzed in a car accident. Swenson longed to help him rediscover his favorite outdoor activities.
In 2008, Swenson developed what amounted to an all-terrain chair using snowmobile technology and wheelchair components. The following year, Swenson established his company and sold four of what he calls Action Track Chairs. Since then, sales have grown exponentially; this year the company is on a pace to sell 500 chairs nationwide. The company is building a new manufacturing plant to keep up with demand. The waiting list for delivery has stretched from five weeks to four months.
Unlike traditional wheelchairs, which cannot take people into the woods, across farm fields or through snow, Swenson's chair is rugged and agile enough to get through. For chair owners like Janes and Hermanson, that means freedom.
"A fairly high percentage of our chairs are sold to people ages 15 to 40 years old. There's a lot of military, unfortunately, that have been paralyzed or lost limbs and are now being able to be active like they used to be," Swenson said.
Wisconsin offers numerous provisions for people with disabilities to enjoy natural resources, ranging from discounting licenses and setting up special deer hunts to allowing people to hunt with a crossbow or from a motor vehicle. Judging by the thousands of permits issued by the state Department of Natural Resources for hunters and anglers with disabilities, there's a broad demand for specialized devices.
Chair sells itself
Hermanson, who was paralyzed after he rolled his pickup truck in March 2010, has become a sales representative for Swenson's company. Based in Evansville, he travels throughout south-central Wisconsin to demonstrate the chair. Among his recent customers: a man paralyzed when he fell out of his tree stand, a man paralyzed when a tree he was cutting fell on him, a man with chronic arthritis and a man paralyzed in a military plane crash in Afghanistan.
"The beauty is you don't have to say much. Once they get in the chair, they can immediately see what it can do," said Hermanson, who has used his to travel through heavily wooded areas, swamps, tall grass, plowed cornfields and snow, as well as for ice fishing.
Many of the chairs have been purchased through veteran charities such as the Independence Fund and the Semper Fi Fund. No-frills chairs cost around $10,000; the cost can rise to about $12,000 with accessories such as gun, crossbow and fishing rod holders, headlights and a vehicle carrier. The chairs go 3 to 4 mph on two batteries, which generally last through four hours of continuous use.
Though most of the Action Track Chairs sold in Wisconsin are used for hunting and fishing, they're also popular for paintball, horse therapy, camping, and visits to beaches and national parks, said Kelly Schneider, marketing manager for TSS Equipment in Cleveland, Wis., the distributor handling sales throughout the Midwest.
"We find people with every type of disability who get their life back," Schneider said. "One vet said, 'I had to rely on my buddies, so I could only hunt when they weren't working.' But now he can go out in the woods by himself whenever he wants."
Two lives changed
In April 2009, Janes was a Marine serving in Helmand province. When he stepped on a pressure plate connected to two mortars, he felt like he'd been pushed forward. He heard muffled yelling. He sat up and noticed his left foot was gone and his right foot was near his hip. His thigh was cut open, the femoral artery had been severed.
Janes knew he needed to stay calm to prevent himself from bleeding to death. He slowed his breathing, smoked a cigarette and drank some water while he waited for a buddy to pick him up. As his friend ran down a narrow alley carrying him, Janes realized he was running toward an improvised explosive device Janes had previously noticed and marked. Janes pointed it out to him.
At an aid station, Janes asked a friend for three things: Mountain Dew, Copenhagen tobacco and a satellite phone. He called his mother, only to learn that his grandfather had died that day and the Red Cross had been trying to reach him.
Janes knew from the moment he looked at his legs that his life was changed.
"Part of you is glad it's you, because that's your job," said Janes, a combat engineer who also served in Iraq in 2007-'08. "If it was someone behind me, I couldn't live with myself if someone died."
After months at Walter Reed Hospital, Janes returned to Evansville and went deer hunting with Hermanson during muzzleloader season. A few months later, Hermanson was paralyzed, and it was Janes' turn to help his friend.
"It's a different injury, but at the same time it's the same — missing your legs and not being able to feel them is pretty much the same," Janes said.
He never wanted to consider giving up hunting. For a time, that meant depending on others to reach duck blinds, fishing spots and deer stands. Now, thanks to Swenson's handiwork, Janes and Hermanson get there on their own.
Hermanson, who has a T-7 complete spinal cord injury, uses electric socks to keep his feet warm. He must constantly guard against frostbite since he can't feel his feet and legs. Janes, who usually wears shorts no matter the weather, uses several different prosthetics depending on what kind of activity he's doing.
Back at the duck blind, the men settle in. The sun rises, turning the creek golden, and the men quietly sip coffee, kibitz and scan the skies. On this day, no ducks would come close. The same for V-shaped squadrons of Canada geese.
It doesn't matter. Janes and Hermanson are outdoors, still able to do what they love.