It was love at first hunt between Becky Noble and off-road wheelchairs.
“I used one several years ago when I went on an antelope hunt in Nevada,” says Noble, a 41-year-old Minnesota native who now works as club-membership manager for Cabela’s in Rapid City. “It was an awesome experience. And after that, I was very adamant about wanting to hunt from a tracked chair.”
A car accident 23 years ago left Noble paralyzed from the waist down. But it didn’t diminish her passion for the outdoors or her determination to live life as fully and independently as possible. The electric wheelchairs fitted with off-road tracks instead of tires are essential in helping her do that in the outdoors.
Using a track chair in that Nevada hunt through the Nevada Outdoorsmen in Wheelchairs gave Noble an idea of the possibilities. She used the chair to scout and stalk antelope, and was also on it when she made the killing shot on the pronghorn buck she selected.
“It was an awesome experience,” Noble said. “I was in love with it immediately. When I got back I shared with a few people that I really wanted one and shortly after that one was found. It had come to Game, Fish & Parks by way of Youth Hunting Adventures.”
The “one” Noble is talking about isn’t hers. But it is available for loan to her and other people with disabilities through the state Game, Fish & Parks Department and its Outdoor Campus West in Rapid City.
South Dakota Youth Hunting Adventures and Wade Rice of Rice Honda bought the used track chair at a sharply reduced price of $2,500. SDYHA also pitched in for a customized trailer, with Game Fish & Parks covering additional accessories and modifications, along with some help from Cabela's. GF&P stores and maintains the chair, covering all maintenance and repair costs, then makes it available for use at no charge.
And the track chair at Outdoor Campus West might not be the last one GF&P puts out on loan.
Emmett Keyser, a regional supervisor for GF&P at the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls, said he and other agency officials hope to get a tracked wheelchair for loan there, too.
“We have looked at them,” Keyser said. “We are still looking at where we can find some funding support and hope to use federal aid dollars as well.”
Funding for the rugged chairs is an issue, especially for individuals. The basic Action Trackchair produced by Action Manufacturing in Marshall, Minn., costs $11,700. The price goes up from there, depending on accessories. The accessory options include a stand-up feature that lifts users of the chair vertically so they can stand up to shoot or cast a fishing rod.
“It’s a much nicer experience shooting sporting clays or trap, or casting a fly rod,” said Brad Strootman, who coordinates outdoor events and opportunities for Action Manufacturing. “The ‘stander’ is a real game changer.”
When they started Action Manufacturing in 2009, Tim and Donna Swenson were looking for an outdoor game-changer for their son, Jeff, who was paralyzed in an automobile accident. Tim wanted to design a wheelchair that could get Jeff outdoors. Soon they were in production. And during the last 10 years, Action Manufacturing has sold more than 4,100 chairs, making them by far the leading manufacturer of track chairs.
“Over a thousand of those went into the hands of young servicemen and servicewomen disabled in Middle East,” Strootman said.
When told about Becky Noble’s adventures with and love for the Trackchair, Strootman said he wasn’t surprised.
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“We hear those stories and we love those stories. And every day a customer comes with a story and we handle a lot of mail and videos telling those stories,” he said. “It’s great knowing that chair is making a difference.”
Sometimes chair owners and users make a difference, too. One of them is Michael Werner of Sioux Falls, who has been a leader at testing the potential of the Trackchair, and then some, in the outdoors.
“He pushed our conception of what could be done with the chair,” Strootman said. “He was the first one we heard of who was dragging his deer out of the woods with the chair. He has done it all.”
Staffers at the Outdoor Campus West in Rapid City want to see more people with disabilities doing, if not all, at least a lot more in the outdoors, with help from the Trackchair.
“We want to get the word out so it gets more use,” says Mel Pitsor, a GF&P equipment technician at Outdoor Campus West.
Pitsor takes care of the Action Trackchair and helps coordinate the loan program. He encourages anyone with a disability who is interested to inquire about the chair and maybe giving it a test ride. Contact the Outdoor Campus West at 605-394-2391.
The customized trailer that is loaned out with the chair is decorated with a picture of Noble in action, courtesy of South Dakota Youth Hunting Adventures. The trailer has a solar battery with a charger for the chair, as well as an electric tongue jack and stabilizers for the trailer. An Outdoor Campus West volunteer also built some tie-downs to strap the chair in, as well as rod holder and gun support.
And it gets around in pretty rough terrain.
“It has its limits, but it’s a pretty hefty track system,” Pitsor said. “It also has what I call ‘wheely wheels’ on the back so you can’t flip it over. And supposedly it will give you up to six-hours of run time on a battery charge.”
The modifications add to Noble’s independence when she uses the track chair.
“I can back my pickup up to the trailer, get out, get in my wheel chair and go back and push a button that lowers the trailer hitch down on the ball. Then all I have to do is wrap up the chains and I’m ready to go,” she said.
When she gets to her spot in the country, the modified ramp makes it easy for get up into the trailer with her regular wheelchair, unhook the tie-downs on the Action Trackchair and be on her way. She uses the track chair to go fishing and hunting, especially bowhunting. She can steer it right to and even into her blind.
“And the trailer has the solar panels on it, so if I’m out in the field and the battery on the chair is running low, I can charge it through the trailer,” she said.
Depending on the weather, Noble figures she’ll get in some hunting and fishing with the track chair before the snow flies — on her own, with the independence she loves.
“It’s been a really great thing for me,” she said. “And what I love most is that I can be independent. I can feel nature under my feet. Independence is so important. When I get out there in the track chair, I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do.”