Hunter Baughman likes to crack wise. On hunts when someone says his feet are cold, he quips, “Mine aren’t.”
A childhood illness, bacterial meningitis, required amputation of both Baughman’s legs below the knees, his left hand and digits on his right hand. Busting jokes breaks the ice, makes others know he’s comfortable with who he is and that he would like to be treated like anybody else.
“I love doing that,” he said. “I used to tell my mom … she’d be talking about something costing money that I wanted. ‘Well, you never bought me shoes all my life, why can’t you buy me that?’”
Not one to complain, the 27-year-old is living a full outdoors life and helping others get outdoors. He doesn’t let anything get in his way and inspires most everyone he meets. The people close to Baughman describe him as extraordinary, but he brushes that off.
“I was so young when I got it – it was all I ever knew,” he said. “Learn how to deal with what you’re given and do it. That’s still my outlook.
“It’s boring on the couch, and there’s no reason why you can’t just do whatever you want to, as long as you put your mind to it. God is big in my life. Church is big. If it wasn’t for the good Lord, I wouldn’t be here.
“The more you get to know me, you just see me as normal, or I hope you do. Normal, that’s it, nothing else.”
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Despite a late night and a long drive, Baughman made it to deer camp when the first hunters were coming in. The youngest, Gabriel Mangus, 8, beamed with a buck on the ground. Baughman was among the first to congratulate the wheelchair-bound youth on his first deer.
The hunt was put on by Dream Catcher Outdoor Adventures, a non-profit organization providing outdoor activities to the disabled or terminally ill. Baughman, who hunted and fished all his life but wanted to do it more, was among the first hunters taken out by Dream Catcher’s founders Bobby and Cathy Bowers. They say he’s come a long way since those days in 1999.
“He was really shy and backward. You can’t believe it now,” Cathy said. “His dad did a lot of stuff for him and he wasn’t as independent. I think some of his experiences with us helped motivate him to go forward.
“I think just getting around some of the other guys kind of motivated him, let him know he could do whatever he wanted to do.”
Doing keeps Baughman busy. He’s well-known for his successes on the Arkansas bass tournament scene and aspires to fish professionally. He’s sponsored by Bass Pro Shops, where he was leaving this deer camp for a speaking engagement.
“In the next 30 days, I’ll be home three days,” Baughman said.
The Bowers help fill his schedule. They hired him two years ago as the fund-raising coordinator for Dream Catcher.
Baughman had spent the past several months working hard on a fund-raising fish fry the night before the hunt, lining up the facility, food, volunteers, raffle and silent auction items, door prizes and helping promote the $7-per-head fish fry.
“We just thought it would be a great opportunity for him,” Cathy said. “He likes being in the hunting atmosphere.
“I just think he’s an exceptional guy with a disability. A lot of them, and I know this is going to sound kinda cruel, they got an attitude that everybody owes me something. Not Hunter. He has inspired others, and he’s never complained.”
Baughman lends his personal experiences at the banquets, and Cathy says he’s become a great motivational speaker as he encourages others.
“There’s nothing that stops him,” Bobby said. “We had a banquet, and he told them, ‘When I first started, I didn’t know there was any place like this I can go. Now I can do anything. The only thing I can’t do is ride a canoe.’ (Why?) I guess he don’t want to. He’s an inspiration for anybody. He’s an inspiration to us.”
Baughman was cleaning up after the fish fry until 3 a.m. He went home to shower then slept a couple hours at a truck stop with hopes of getting an early start for an hour and a half drive to camp.There was one errand on the way, stopping by the Izard County Sheriff’s Department to return the deep fryer. It was too hot to load up right after the fish fry, so Hunter brought it back in his truck.
“We raised $6,700,” he told a deputy as a couple of inmates unloaded it.
About that time, a local radio station was running a piece on Dream Catcher, and quoted Baughman:
“At nine months old, I got sick and lost my legs, so this is all I’ve ever known,” he said. “But for someone who is 35 or 40 and had a wreck and was paralyzed, or fell off a house working and was paralyzed, it’s a whole change of life.”
They need some help adjusting to the rigors of wheeling into the deer woods. Baughman learned to conquer the feat and enjoys helping others. He allows them to regain some normalcy, like participating in the comradery of a hunt.
Down at camp, smiles and laughs were common among the five hunters, ranging from 8 to 61. With his first deer, an 8-pointer, Mangus earned camp bragging rights. He was especially stoked to top his brother, Grayson, 12, who shot a doe. Both boys suffer from spina bifida.
Baughman congratulated them and asked about the details of their hunts. He talked with each hunter about their morning as they waited for Bobby to grill lunch. Baughman planned to sit in the stand with one of the other hunters in the afternoon.
“For me, (Dream Catcher) was great, but I was going to go hunting or fishing whether I went with them or not,” he said. “But a lot of people don’t get to do that. A lot of people don’t have the ways to do that, or people to help them. So it’s really cool to be able to help with that, something I believe in growing up.”
Putting people on game satisfies him to no end. He recalled one man on a hunt who said he had never caught a bass. Baughman fixed that, taking him to a pond on the property.
“The first bite he got was almost 5 pounds, and he was flipping out,” Baughman said. “He’s 24 or 25 and never caught a bass in his life. He can’t even throw the rod. He had to have it handed to him. Oh, he was just beside himself. And that’s what it’s all about.”
That’s the part of Dream Catcher he loves, and he’s gladly trading many of his chances to hunt for others.
“I’ve killed my deer,” he said. “If I never killed another deer and got to sit there and watch somebody kill their first deer since they had an accident, or kill their first deer ever, if I can see the joy on their face, that’s better than me killing one.”
People like Markowski and landowner Blane Johnson are appreciative of Baughman, and are certainly impressed.
“We’ve got to know him pretty good over the past couple of years,” Markowski said. “He’s a special dude. He doesn’t let anything get him down.”
“Obvsiously, he’s dedicated to what’s going on,” Johnson said. “The more I get to know Hunter, the more it’s hard to view him as handicapped. He gets around good, he’s so independent. This guy’s married. He’s leading a normal life.
“I’ve been with kids before when they’ve killed their first deer. This is nothing new for me to have guests hunt. If it’s not for guys like him, I couldn’t do what I do for these folks. I don’t have the time to organize what he does.”
Bobby Bower gives a lot of credit to Baughman’s parents because they never treated him special. His mother told Bobby she’d call over his father to whoop him when he wouldn’t roll over for her.
“He got treated like you and I did,” he said. “You got a thumbing when you done something you wasn’t supposed to.”
Baughman’s parents and grandparents taught him to hunt and fish on their frequent trips, and he got a lifetime hunting and fishing license for his 16th birthday. Baughman had a fishing boat before his first truck and began making outdoors connections in bass competitions.
The Bowers witnessed his progression.
“We’ve known him so long, he’s like our adopted son,” Cathy said. “We love him and he’s part of our family.
“Bobby and Hunter are very close. They’ve done a lot together. They just have a connection and will be friends forever. We’d do anything for him, and he’s part of our family.”
And they can appreciate his humor. One of their favorite Baughman stories was from his family trip to the beach. He was wearing prosthetics – he played soccer and basketball in junior high but soon gave them up because they hurt – as he frolicked in the surf. One came off, and the 9-year-old’s worry of losing it prompted him to cry out, “My leg, my leg.”
“All these people were running out of the ocean because they had thought a shark bit his leg off,” Cathy said.
Those tense moments are a thing of the past as Baughman is easy going, soft-spoken and laughs easily. Cathy simply summed him up: “He likes life.”