In January of 2001, Ralph Barten checked into the hospital for a two-day back surgery, but during the second day of the procedure, something had gone terribly wrong. When Barten woke up from the surgery, everything was black in his world. He has lost his sight and would never see again.
During that day eight years ago, Barten had lost his eye sight, but it turned out that wasn't the only thing he would lose. When returning home, he started to find out that many of his buddies, who used to join him on a deer stand or swap hunting stories with, would no longer associate with Barten, now that he was blind.
"After I went blind, almost all the friends I had, or thought I had, they act like I got the plague," Barten said. "They can't handle my blindness. So guys I've hunted with for 30 years, don't do nothing with me no more, because I went blind. They say it bothers them too much."
Fortunately for Barten, who lives in northern Wisconsin in Ladysmith, there were guys like Bill Brown that have entered his life. Brown, who owns and operates Papa Bear's Northwoods Store, on highway 12 between Baraboo and Wisconsin Dells, met Barten when his sister helped represent Barten in a lawsuit against the hospital.
Over the years, Brown and Barten have talked hunting, and other subjects. Brown even started selling the wooden walking sticks and deer antler lamps that Barten makes in his home in Ladysmith, at the Papa Bear's store.
When it came time to apply for a 2009 Wisconsin Spring Turkey Hunting Permit in the fall of 2008, Brown had the idea of inviting Barten down to the Baraboo area to go on a spring turkey hunt. Once Brown dialed up the phone to offer Barten the opportunity to hunt gobblers this spring, Barten didn't wait long to accept the offer.
"I was pretty excited," Barten said. "Like I say, I don't get a lot of offers anymore since I went blind."
TIME TO HUNT
Barten ended up drawing a tag for the second of Wisconsin's six spring turkey hunting periods, running April 22 to 26. On the day before the hunt, Brown made the trip up to Ladysmith to bring Barten down to Baraboo for the hunt.
Brown found out just how much Barten was looking forward to the opportunity when it was time to roll out of bed early on the first morning. Brown figured he would have to get up and help Barten get ready for the day's hunt, but that wasn't the case at all.
"I just get out of bed and I hear this, ‘clunk, clunk, clunk,' coming up the steps," Brown said. "Here is Ralph fully dressed and he's like, ‘I'm ready to go.' And I'm standing there in my skibbies. I hunt with this guy for the first time and he's already put me down. I'm not ready to go. That totally blew my wife and I away, when he was standing at the top of the steps, like, ‘OK, I'm ready.'"
Brown too eventually got ready to go, and the two hunters made it out to the hunting blind. The plan was to call a turkey in close to the blind. Brown, who would be sitting behind Barten, would then help him get his shotgun lined up for the shot, by whispering in his ear, and telling him when to pull the trigger.
On the first day, an opportunity presented itself when a pair of jakes came into the decoys. It would have been a great opportunity for Barten to bag his first turkey, but he was going to hold out for a big tom.
"We had two jakes in the decoys (the first) morning," Brown said. "Here's a guy who has never turkey hunted before and he's passing on a jake."
"He says there is two jakes there and one of them has about a four-inch beard," Barten said. "It's like deer hunting. I want a bigger rack. I want a nice long beard, like a nine-inch beard, 10-inch beard."
Later in the first morning, Barten did get a shot at a tom. Trying to get a shot at a turkey can be difficult for a hunter who can see, so trying to get a blind hunter lined up for a shot is much more difficult.
"It was kind of chaotic in the blind," said Brown of what it was like when he was trying to get Barten lined up. It was finally time to take the shot, which was a bit longer than they wanted, and unfortunately, it was a bit off the mark, as the tom ran off unscathed.
During the next four days of the hunt, there were some close calls, but no more shots were fired and Barten returned to Ladysmith without a turkey.
"Killing and getting an animal really isn't a big deal anymore. I love to get an animal, don't get me wrong. But to be able to have somebody still take me out and enjoy life, that's what it is all about," Barten said. "I think Bill is having just as much fun as I am."
STILL GOING HUNTING
Even though Barten has lost his sight, and many of his hunting buddies, thanks to people like Brown, hunting and fishing has still been a big part of Barten's life. Since losing his sight eight years ago, Barten has shot a handful of deer, including one at 165 yards. Because he had sight for the first 47 years of his life, he knows what a big buck looks like and said he can picture the animals in his head when he hears them approaching.
"When I first went, a person told me, ‘you can picture stuff.' I thought he was nuts, but you can. If you see a turkey and you know what a turkey looks like, there is like a picture that will pop up and you can picture it in your mind," Barten said. "I was lucky that I got to see for 47 years. So I have all that in my mind. I know what they look like and stuff, so when Bill says what it is, I can picture it."
Barten also said his ears have become more important to him in the hunting woods, and in his daily life.
"Last year, I went with a friend on a disabled deer hunt, and I shot a 5-pointer. I heard the deer before he did. I told him, I tapped him, and I said, ‘there's a deer coming to the left. I don't know what it is, but there's a deer coming," Barten said. "He says, ‘nah.' And he looks to the left and he says, ‘oh yeah. There's a buck coming.'"
Another outdoor hobby Barten likes to continue doing is ice fishing, although some people still doubt that he can catch fish without being able to see a bobber signaling a bite.
"I had to go to the doctor and was sitting out in the lobby, and they asked me, ‘what are you going to do this afternoon? I said, ‘I'm going ice fishing.' Well a guy speaks up and says, ‘you can't ice fish.' And I said, ‘well, why not?' And he says, ‘because your blind man. You can't see a bobber.'
"I said, ‘you don't need to see the bobber. You hold the ice pole and you can feel them hit.' He says, ‘there ain't no way in hell. If you can't see the bobber, you can't fish.' Then I wanted to tell him about my hunting. If he don't believe me about fishing, he'll never believe me about hunting."
Another highlight of Barten's hunting career came earlier this spring during a disabled pheasant hunt when he used his shotgun to bring down a pheasant.
"The owner said he's owned the business for 40 years, and I was the only blind guy he's ever had. He has lots of people in wheelchairs and stuff. And he told me, he says, ‘if I wouldn't have seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it,'" Barten said. "When I got that pheasant, it was like winning the lottery. There was about 75 hunters that day, and they were coming over and patting me on the back and hooting and hollering. It was great."
Barten says the key to a successful hunt is a having somebody with him who will not only help get him lined up on his target, but who will tell him about everything that is going on, even if it is a squirrel scampering on the forest floor.
"If you have somebody there who just sits there and says, ‘OK, get ready, pull up, shoot,' it ain't no fun," Barten said.
"But if you got somebody like Bill telling you, like (the first day), down the field, there was seven hens and a gobbler down a couple hundred yards. Then six deer came out, and he's telling me all this. Well I can picture all this. The deer running around and he's telling me about it. Alright, this is cool.
"Then you're hoping that gobbler comes your way. As long as you know what's happening. If you're deer hunting, you can get buck fever just as well as anybody. It really kicks in when you get the deer down and you can grab the rack."
Like any hunter, Barten gets plenty excited when it is time to take a shot at a game animal. He says his heart will get pumping when he knows an animal is close, but often it is his hunting partner that helps him that really gets excited.
"My friend, he shot a lot of nice deer and elk and stuff, and he will put his hand on my shoulder. He'll be telling me, ‘here comes the deer,' and he'll start shaking," Barten said. "And I will look at him over my shoulder and say, ‘what you shaking for?' He says, ‘I don't know. I get more nervous helping you than I do when I shoot on my own.' He really gets excited and gets the buck fever. That is what's so much fun."
HELPING THOSE WHO HELPED HIM
In the days after the surgery that stole Barten's eye sight, a major turning point came in his life. At the age of 47, Barten was laying in his hospital bed, still trying to figure out just how he was going to live the rest of his life without being able to see a thing.
While laying there, on the television in his room was a show about young kids that had terminal cancer. All the kids were playing and having fun, and while they weren't playing, they would each tell their story. It was at this point, where Barten realized things could be a lot worse for him, so he decided he wouldn't stop living life once he got out of that hospital.
"I'm sitting here, feeling sorry for myself, and here are some kids with something that's terrible. A lot worse than blindness. Blindness sucks, but I won't die from blindness," Barten said.
"So now I tell kids, they're my heroes, because I believe today, that is where I got my strength. I don't know what would have happened if I wouldn't have seen that show."
Since young kids with cancer helped Barten return to his life, he has made it his mission to repay those kids. Barten and his wife Jo went online and eventually got hooked up with Child's Wish, an organization that helps kids with a terminal illness. They eventually decided that the best way Barten could help Child's Wish, would be to give the kids, who attend a big camp in July, some of the items that he makes with pieces of deer antlers. Some of those items include necklaces, walking sticks and zipper poles.
"I was like, ‘sure, I can make some.' Well I thought some would be like 30 to 60. Well it was 600," Barten said. Not wanting to let the kids down, Barten started going around and asking people if he could have any of their small shed deer antlers or racks they had laying around the house. Slowly, he started to get enough antlers to make enough gifts for all the kids that would be at the camp.
"Last year, I had 30 necklaces, 60 walking canes, and I had over 1,000 zipper poles," Barten said.
To get one of the items that Barten made, all he would charge the kids was one hug.
"I come out of there with so many hugs. I got hugs from moms, grandmas, aunts, little kids," Barten said. "My wife and I, after that day, we come out of there more rich, and we never made a dime, and we gave it all away, but we came out of there more rich than we ever would in our whole life."
Barten continues to make items for the terminally ill kids that attend the yearly Child's Wish Camp, so there is still a need for extra deer antlers for him to work with. If anyone would like to help donate any of their small deer antlers that they have lying around the house, they can drop them off at Brown's Papa Bear's Northwoods Store. All you have to do is say they are for Ralph, and Brown will make sure they get to him.