- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

GROTON, S.D. (AP) - Brock Abeln, a 28-year-old from Groton, grew up in a family fully vested in the outdoors, and his parents gave him a bolt-action Browning .270 Winchester short magnum hunting rifle as a Christmas gift in 2002.

“We bought him that gun and had his name engraved on the bolt,” said Neal Abeln, Brock’s father. “That made it his, and he still loves that gun.”

However, Brock’s life changed forever the following summer on July 11, 2003, when a tree he was cutting at work twisted when it fell, struck him in the back of his neck and severed his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down. He was only 17 at the time.

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Although the accident left him paralyzed, it didn’t diminish Brock Abeln’s drive to hunt. If anything, it only fanned the flame of his passion for the outdoors, the Aberdeen American News (http://bit.ly/1y82cZw ) reported.

“I’ve always loved the outdoors, and now I’ll do whatever I can to get out there,” Brock said. “For me it’s just being out in the middle of nowhere, hearing all the sounds, seeing all the sights. It’s nice to sit there, relax and not worry about the normal stuff, like getting sick or getting a bed sore.”

Immediately after the accident, Brock Abeln spent some time at Craig Hospital, a rehabilitative center in Colorado, where he was shown a gun apparatus that could be aimed and fired by someone without arms or who is a quadriplegic. From there, the decision was made to modify his Browning .270 WSM so that he could operate it from his wheelchair.

“We took the normal stock off and had a gunsmith make a stock for it that would fit into a mount that’s bolted right onto my chair,” he said.

Now, after his parents or a caregiver help get him in place and all set up, he is able to aim the gun all on his own. A joystick that controls two rods driven by windshield-wiper servos allows him to adjust for wind and elevation. The rods are powered by his wheelchair’s battery, and he fires the gun by blowing into a tube that trips a solenoid firing mechanism.

“The gun has a muzzle brake on it to help reduce recoil,” said Neal, who rotates the bolt between shots. “But even after it’s mounted, it will still rock him pretty good when he shoots.”

The recoil isn’t noticed by Brock, who said the mount helps steady the gun, if anything.

“It is really stable,” he said. “It’s kind of nice because you don’t have the little bit of wobble that you have if you were normally shooting the gun. I never got to take my .270 deer hunting before my accident, but man oh man does it shoot - flat as can be.”

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And, apparently, Brock Abeln’s rifle is pretty accurate, too, judging from the deer and elk photos he has posted on his website, helpme4x4.com. He started the website as a way of telling his story and as part of his quest for a Sportsmobile, a handicap-equipped four-wheel drive vehicle that he said would allow him to go hunting and enjoy other aspects of the outdoors even more.

Brock said that his outdoor adventures are largely dependent on the weather and sometimes he can’t go hunting because his current vehicle is a rear wheel-drive van. The “lumber wagon,” as he calls it, can’t handle the snow and ice that usually accompany deer season, and the pedestrian suspension system and low ground clearance can also make travel difficult on some back-country roads.

“If one of those rear tires starts slipping, well, that’s it,” he said. “It would just be nice on some days to go drive around the country roads, if nothing else - anything to get out of the house.”

He said there are even Sportsmobile models set up to accommodate an overnight stay - something that would allow him to enjoy a weekend away to the Black Hills or just help cut down on the time involved it takes to go hunting.

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Neal Abeln said preparing to take Brock hunting takes extensive planning, all of which could be wasted if the weather doesn’t cooperate.

“The big part is the routine we go through each morning of exercises and stretching,” Neal Abeln said. “If we’re going hunting, on top of that routine are all the clothes and layering. It takes several people to get him dressed and ready. We have to make sure all the wrinkles are out or he can get pressure sores. He can tell if something is wrinkled underneath.”

Neal said he and Brock hunt from a blind and drive as close as possible before unloading, another reason the two wheel-drive van isn’t the best-equipped hunting vehicle for his son’s purposes.

A blind helps conceal movement, but like many people who suffer from spinal cord injuries, Brock has trouble regulating his body temperature. That makes the blind a necessity, as it keeps him out of the wind.

Neal said that finding places to hunt also presents a big problem, largely due to mobility factors and blind placement. Acquiring permission to hunt on private land is still tough, and handicap-accessible public areas are few and far between.

“I only know of one public handicap hunting area in northeastern South Dakota,” Neal said. “There’s a big one out by Pierre, but I’d like to see more of those areas available, maintained and made accessible. That would help Brock and other handicapped hunters a lot.”

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Aside from all the challenges, Brock - along with his parents, caregivers and friends - remains determined to make the most of the outdoors. He’s even started archery hunting with a crossbow that mounts to the gun bracket.

“I haven’t shot anything yet with the crossbow, but we’re trying,” Brock said.

Brock has a friend who is a mechanical engineer who is working on refining the firing mechanism for the gun apparatus, hoping to make it more reliable and possibly even fit more firearms. Abeln said he hopes to buy a .22 someday and use it just to plink away at targets during the spring and summer.

“After an accident like mine, there are some people that are on a vent and go home to get taken off of it,” he said. “It can be pretty easy to give up. That’s not me. I’ve been through it all, and I’d rather fight for every inch.”

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Information from: Aberdeen American News, http://www.aberdeennews.com

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