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Extraordinary perseverance

Quadriplegic hunter fills deer tag 21 years after accident

Alex Johnson, Stanley, left, is a quadripalegic who harvested a deer with the use of a rifle mounted on his wheelchair. At right is Tim Johnson, Alex’s father. Submitted photo

STANLEY – Twenty-one years ago Alex Johnson suffered an injury that resulted in paralysis from the neck down. Earlier this month he filled his deer gun tag. His story is remarkable.

“It’s about character, tenacity and perseverance,” said Wayne Johnson, Stanley.

Johnson’s brother Tim is Alex’s father.

“He was just 15, at a rodeo in West Fargo,” recalled Tim Johnson. “He was bucked off a horse and landed on his head and broke his neck. He’s totally paralyzed from the neck down.”

The shocking accident resulted in Alex Johnson ending up at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, a facility that specializes in spinal injuries. Despite not having use of any of his limbs he was able to finish high school.

“After that I moved out to California for rehab programs. I ended up in Los Angeles and San Diego, eventually graduated from the University of Southern California,” said Alex Johnson. “It was a little different type of venture.”

Character. Tenacity. Perseverence.

In 2016 Alex Johnson moved back to North Dakota, to the Stanley area with his parents to “live the North Dakota life.” That life included memories of hunting prior to his fateful accident.

“We heard about a guy in Denver who mounted a rifle on a wheelchair. We looked into it and got one for him,” said Tim Johnson.

However, there were many more obstacles to overcome. During the Johnson’s first attempt at whitetail deer hunting a year ago they had to contend with cold weather, too cold for Alex Johnson.

“We used a framework blind with a tarp on it and we couldn’t keep it warm enough,” said Tim Johnson.

There were other difficulties too. Wet, soggy ground made moving a wheelchair virtually impossible. So, it was back to the drawing board.

“Last year was a trying one,” remarked Alex Johnson. “This year we got everything done, got a blind built that is a lot easier to hunt out of.”

The new blind was larger and insulated so it would retain heat better than the previous blind.

“It worked great,” said Tim Johnson. “We were able to take Alex out in his van with the lift on it, pulled up beside the blind and let him out. We built a deck by the door of the blind to set the ramp on so he could roll right in.”

Of course, the blind had to be placed in a suitable location where deer were likely to be seen.

“We both kind of chose the spot,” said Alex Johnson. “I knew kind of where I wanted to be so they cleared out a spot and made it happen.”

“It was in the Lostwood area where there always seems to be deer coming into a tree row,” said Tim Johnson. “Opening day we had some deer come in but didn’t have our system down. We were two guys fumbling around in an 8×8 shed.”

Alex Johnson has limited use of his arms but not his fingers. His father had to load the rifle for him, lock the bolt and get it ready. Then, seated in his wheelchair, the rest was entirely up to Alex.

“I guess the way I hunt now isn’t the way I used to,” said Alex Johnson candidly. “This year everything fell into place and it ended up working out for us.”

Alex Johnson had use of a joystick to aim the rifle, moving it up or down, left or right. Because Alex Johnson is unable to use his fingers to pull the trigger, a completely different method was used.

“Once you get the target in your sights, once you are ready, you blow a little bit into a tube that activates a little solenoid that pulls the trigger,” explained Alex Johnson.

“Some does came in and then this buck started walking across the field,” said Tim Johnson. “He was able to get sighted in on him, less than 100 yards, and knocked him down. It was exciting. It was very exciting.”

Tim Johnson took some time getting out of the blind to the location where the deer dropped, having to put a coat on and such. It was also getting dark, just a few minutes before the close of shooting time at sunset. When he arrived a the spot where the deer was went down it was not there.

“He walked over the hill and behind a rock pile. I saw his tracks in the snow,” said Tim Johnson. “It was starting to get dark. I tracked him for several yards and then my flashlight went dead. I knew where he was going.”

Tim Johnson called his brother Wayne for his opinion on what to do next. Both men came to the conclusion that it would be best to wait for morning light to pick up the trail.

“The next morning we tracked him at first light and there he was, maybe another 250 yards,” said Tim Johnson. “No coyotes or anything had got to him.”

“We were all pretty excited,” said Alex Johnson. “I gotta thank my dad and uncle Wayne for helping with the blind and recovering the animal. It isn’t quite as easy at it used to be.”

Tim Johnson was elated with his son’s successful hunt, saying it was rewarding for him and Alex.

“He’s wanted to do this for a long time and we finally got it all together and made it happen,” said Tim Johnson. “Hopefully it will be an annual event.”

Perhaps more than that. Alex Johnson says he might try to hunt some coyotes and is considering a similar set-up to his wheelchair mounted rifle that would allow him to shoot a crossbow.

“I used to bowhunt when I was younger. I’d kind of like to get back into that,” said Alex Johnson. “This year was a good success. It’s been a wild ride.”

Character. Tenacity. Perseverence.

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