All-terrain wheelchair keeps man hunting

Nonprofit helping veterans gave him chair

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PENDLETON, Ore. — Nels Hadden may not be able to move his arms or legs, but he can still take down a deer with a crossbow.

There’s no magic spell or use of the Force, just the power of technology that lets quadriplegic men and women do things that would have been impossible years ago.

Hadden was paralyzed from the neck down in 2009, when he stopped to help at the scene of a crash on Interstate 84 and was struck by another car that slid out of control on the ice. He lived in Milton-Freewater at the time and has since moved to Walla Walla.

In July, the nonprofit Independence Fund gifted Hadden an upgraded wheelchair with 16-inch pneumatic wheels and four wheel drive that will allow him to roll across uneven terrain. He can’t wait to use it to hit the beach for the first time in more than eight years.

“This is going to give some of those things back that were taken away from me,” he said.

Hadden has always been able to move about and control a cellphone using puffs and sips of air into a straw near his mouth, but his other chairs have always been designed for flat surfaces.

One of the biggest things the all-terrain chair will help with is hunting. Hadden was an avid hunter before the accident, and still is today. He may not be able to hug his children or lift a spoon to his mouth, but a Walla Walla man named Gary Parson helped him obtain a contraption that mounts a rifle, shotgun or crossbow on his wheelchair and allows him to sight it and pull the trigger using puffs of air from his mouth.

He has been hunting in the years since, and has a few sets of antlers at home to show for it. In the past, he has had to more or less park his wheelchair in one spot and hope the right animal wandered past. Now he’ll be able to move through the forest with other hunters in a manner more reminiscent of when he was younger.

“I grew up in Pilot Rock, Ore. and my family, that’s just something that we did,” he said. “It’s not just about taking an animal, it’s about getting together and joking and laughing.”

Even when he was stuck sitting in a blind not too far from the wheelchair-accessible van, Hadden has had some adventures. One night he and his nurse Miranda Amwoka were sitting in the blind when a mama bear and her two cubs walked by. The mama bear came up against the side of the blind, stuck her head in and looked right in at the two of them. Since Hadden was strapped to a wheelchair and Amwoka didn’t have a weapon, it was a pretty scary experience for both of them.

Nels’ wife, Betsy, said he has more Twitter followers than anyone in the family after he gathered a fan club of hunters interested in his exploits.

Betsy was the one who found out about the Independence Fund, a nonprofit that gives all-terrain wheelchairs and other tools to veterans injured in combat so that they can resume more of the outdoor activities they enjoyed before their injuries. Hadden wasn’t injured in combat, but he is a veteran who served nine years active duty and he was injured while acting as a Good Samaritan, so Betsy convinced him to take a shot at applying anyway. He received a letter saying that usually he would not be eligible, but there was a veteran in the area who had recently given one back because he only got to use it a couple of times before he fell too ill. The group was willing to give Hadden the used chair for free.