Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB) is a rare genetic disorder that causes the skin to be incredibly fragile. Often referred to as “butterfly children,” kids born with EB live with skin like a butterfly wing, which can blister and tear easily. Ashlee Lundvall had the honor of hunting with 13-year old, Ella, who doesn’t allow her EB to prevent her from enjoying the great outdoors. This is a story of hunting with a butterfly.
Since 2014, I have been involved as either a hunter or a volunteer with the Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt. This year, 2020, was no different, but this year I would be filling the role of hunt mentor. In Wyoming, thanks to the Hunter Mentor Program, I fulfill the requirements to mentor a hunter who doesn’t have her own hunter’s safety card. When I was matched up with Ella, I knew immediately that we would have a lot of fun together. We both know what it’s like to adapt to a world this isn’t always accessible to us, but we face these challenges head-on with determination, strength and a sense of humor. This hunt was the highlight of my year.
Anyone who knows me well, knows that I love gear. I firmly believe that with the right adaptive equipment and support system, anyone, regardless of their ability level, can get outdoors and hunt. When I began evaluating my upcoming adventure with Ella, I spoke with her and her dad, Joe, several times on the phone to come up with a plan. In the end, I decided to take as much equipment as I could fit in my vehicle so that we would be prepared for any situation.
In order to ensure that Ella could get to where she needed to go, I borrowed an Action Track Chair from the Wyoming Disabled Hunters program. As a board member, I was allowed to check out several pieces of equipment, and this all-terrain tank was the foundation of it all. I made sure to get the model with a custom gun rest and attendant control so that Ella could be as independent as possible while still allowing Joe to drive the chair from behind if needed.
The day before our hunt, I took Ella and Joe out to the sight-in range to begin practicing with the new equipment. Ella and I drove all around in our ATCs, mastering different terrain and natural obstacles to prepare for being in the field. Ella was a natural, and before long we were dubbed “the tank twins.” I knew we were off to a great start.
Once we knew the ATC would work, we began to assemble to rest of the hunting set-up. We started with a shooting mount from Be Adaptive, a company that specializes in equipment for hunters and shooters with disabilities. This device mounted directly to the ACT, and it not only held the rifle for Ella, but it also took away a lot of the recoil of the rifle. We tightened it down with a few zip-ties for added support before moving on to the trigger.
Ella is able to use her thumb for shooting, but I wondered if we could make it easier for her by using a Mechanical Bite Trigger in a new way. With the help of my good friend, Jen Barcklay, we were able to mount the trigger device to the side of the ACT armrest, which allowed Ella to depress the trigger button with her arm. This gave her more mobility, strength and control of her shots.
The last step was to allow Ella to see through the scope of her rifle without have to lean forward and get down on the gun. For this, we utilized the Nite Site Viper. Originally designed for night hunting, this device allowed Ella to sit back in the ATC and still see what is on her scope blown up through the screen of the Nite Site. This also made it easier for Joe and Ella’s guide, Wade, to assist her in adjusting her rifle if needed.
Once we had everything in place, Ella climbed into the ATC so that we could make adjustments as needed. Right away, we realized that in order for Ella to be able to see efficiently, she needed to be elevated. I hadn’t thought about this possibility, so we had to think on the fly. One box of shotgun shells and the cushion off of my manual wheelchair later, Ella was seated just where she needed to be. She fired several shots downrange, and we all started grinning when we realized that this accumulation and mishmash of equipment, zip-ties and duct tape was going to work after all! We were ready to hunt.
Friday morning, Joe and Ella loaded up in Wade’s truck pulling the ACT trailer, and I followed behind in my SUV with the additional equipment. We drove to the cattle ranch Wade manages, and he told us about our plan for the day. Driving in, we noticed several nice antelope bucks, and my excitement level shot through the roof. We parked near a watering trough where the animals sometimes gathered, and the first unloading process began.
Once Ella and I were both safely mounted in our tanks, and her rifle equipment was in place, we left on our first stalk of the day. The ACTs are amazing over rough terrain, but it isn’t exactly a smooth ride when tearing through sagebrush and giant dirt ruts in the road. I kept looking over at Ella to make sure she was handling the jostling and bouncing, and I could tell by the determined look on her young face that she was one tough young lady.
We headed up the road to see if we could sneak up on the bucks we had previously seen, and after just a few minutes, we crested a hill and realized that they were just to our right within shooting distance. Ella immediately swung her chair into position and started making adjustments to her rifle. By the time she was ready to fire, the last buck just disappeared over another ridge. We were all shaking a little from the adrenaline of our first encounter so early in the morning, and it was a useful practice to show us what to expect on the next one.
We continued the same procedure multiple times that morning. I would back my ATC into the trailer and remain there to keep an eye on Ella’s setup, while Wade, Joe and Ella rode in the truck. We would head off to a different part of the ranch, and with no windows in the trailer, it was always a surprise for me when that door dropped and I could see where we had ended up. After unloading the chairs and getting Ella situated, we would head out on our stalk. Time after time, we would travel for hundreds of yards through rough terrain, just to have the antelope spot us and take off running in the opposite direction.
Most people would have become very frustrated by this monotonous routine, but not Ella. She was determined to harvest a buck, and we were all determined to help her do it. I knew that Ella had to be in pain, and the cloudless sky meant that the sun was beating down on us relentlessly, but she never complained. She just loaded up and made ready to do it all again later down the road. Her perseverance finally paid off.
We had stopped for lunch and several more stalks before preparing to call it a day. We were all tired, hot and filthy from the dust, but Wade had 1 more place he wanted to try, so we loaded up and once again headed down the trail. Out of the corner of his eye, Wade spotted a group of antelope. We stopped below the rise separating us from the herd and unloaded for what would be our final stalk of the day. I had been trying to stay behind Ella to minimize our visual footprint to the animals, and Joe and Wade stayed on either side of her as she crept up over the hill.
As Ella was preparing her rifle, I could tell something was immediately wrong. There were no crosshairs visible on her screen, which meant that something was wrong with the scope adapter. We adjusted straps and knobs, turned the camera back off and on again, and finally realized our mistake. In all of the bumping in the trailer, the rifle had been shifted and was pointing way too high. What we were seeing through the Nite Site was the sky! After readjusting the rest, Ella was able to get on one of the bucks in the herd. Once she was situated, she used her arm to slowly depress the trigger mechanism. The rifle barked sharply and we all watched as the shot just missed the buck that was slightly quartered away.
I feared the worst, that the antelope would scatter, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The antelope looked at Ella and started walking straight at her! She chambered another round quicky, and then, she waited for the buck to stop. Not only did he give her a closer shot, but he also turned broadside and froze long enough for her to get off another shot. The buck made the tell-tale buckle before running 100 feet and piling up on the ground.
The celebration commenced! Ella started shaking uncontrollably, we were whooping and hollering, and there was a suspicious wetness in the eyes of each adult. “I got him, I got him!” Ella repeated over and over. She had put in the work both before and after the hunt, and it paid off beautifully. We headed over to her downed antelope, and Ella was able to get touch her first big game harvest. I haven’t been so proud of anyone as I was in that moment.
We returned to the main ranch where a welcoming part awaited Ella. All of the other hunters, staff and volunteers were so excited for her. The grin never left her face as she shared her incredible day over and over again. She headed to the meat pole with her buck and worked through the processing and taxidermy forms. What an amazing day!
I could write for pages on the remembered moments throughout that weekend. Seeing Ella take charge of her hunt and harvest successfully. Watching as Joe purchased her a puppy through the live auction the next day. Beaming proudly as Ella was given the Roosevelt Award for her perseverance and never-give-up attitude. I will never forget a moment of it.
When I thought of a butterfly, I always visualized a fragile animal that had to be handled with extreme care. What I now see is the resilience of a beautiful creature as it deals with the fluctuations in seasons and its own life cycle. How it never gives up but reemerges in a new form in order to adapt to its ever-changing environment. Ella is a butterfly, and I will never look at them the same way again.
Info about the Gear
Action Track Chair: $12,443.00
Mobility Shooting Mount: $609.00
Mechanical Bite Trigger: $236.00
Nite Site Viper: $999.00
Ashlee, thank you for providing these details about Ella’s antelope hunt! I really enjoyed learning more about all of the equipment and the process that you followed with such patience and precision…what a beautiful story and a blessing that God brought you and Ella together. You are such a gifted mentor and talented writer. Thank you for sharing with us.
Thank you, Gina! Ella was such a joy to hunt with- I am glad I was able to share it!