CHERRY -- Mike Mesia plans to hunt deer on this November afternoon. But he has something else to do first. Mesia, 44, approaches his four-wheeler, where his friend Mike Stauner is waiting. As they have done countless times over the years, Mesia l...
CHERRY -- Mike Mesia plans to hunt deer on this November afternoon. But he has something else to do first.
Mesia, 44, approaches his four-wheeler, where his friend Mike Stauner is waiting. As they have done countless times over the years, Mesia leans over and hoists Stauner onto his back. Stauner, 43, throws his arms loosely around Mesia's neck. Wrapping Stauner's legs around his waist, Mesia lugs his buddy up a ramp to an enclosed deer stand.
Inside the stand, Mesia slides his friend into his waiting wheelchair and returns to bring Stauner his deer rifle.
Now the hunt can begin.
Mesia will take a chair alongside Stauner, and on the first Monday of Minnesota's firearms deer season the two will wait for a whitetail to emerge from the popples.
Stauner is a quadriplegic, the result of a diving accident on Ely Lake near Eveleth 23 years ago. He has no control of his legs and feet and little feeling in his hands.
He and Mesia grew up in Cherry and have been close friends since middle school. They fished. They hunted. They rode snowmobiles. They speared suckers. Neither one saw any reason to quit those pursuits after Stauner's accident.
"It was, 'let's figure out how to get you out in the woods and make things happen,'" says Mesia, who still lives in Cherry.
Stauner, who lives in Minnetonka, Minn., was game from the beginning. He knew he faced a choice about how to approach life after the accident.
"Do you want to be around someone who's mopey? I don't," Stauner says. "So, I decided, you got a life. You can either sit on your butt or get out and try to see what's there."
Oh, have Stauner and Mesia tried to see what's there. They fish. They hunt deer. They ride four-wheelers. They snowmobile. They go ice-fishing.
Sitting in the sun on Mesia's deck on Monday afternoon, they told two decades worth of stories about the evolution of their adventures. It has not always been a smooth path.
In the beginning, there was the trailer. Mesia built it so he could pull Stauner into the woods behind a four-wheeler. But the trailer had a high center of gravity and balloon tires, which made it a little unstable.
"Oh, gosh, did that thing roll him a few times," Mesia says, laughing. "Once I'd see he was OK, it was hard not to laugh."
In deer season, they'd tie the trailer to a tree so Stauner could hunt deer from it. But the roll-overs continued, and Stauner finally drew the line on the trailer.
"It served its purpose until I refused to get in it anymore," he says.
The deer stands have evolved to the Condo, a log-sided stand five feet off the ground. That's the one with the ramp where the men hunted Monday afternoon near Cherry. The other, also on Mesia's land, is called the Elevator. It's 16 feet high with an external lift. To use that stand, Stauner sits in his wheelchair on the external steel elevator, his gun on a rack. To raise the platform, Mesia ties a stout rope to the four-wheeler and drives away. The rope, passing through several pulleys, raises Stauner to his stand, where he unlocks the door and rolls in.
"Mike has gone out of his way to make deer hunting work out," Stauner says.
Stauner has shot several deer through the years while hunting with Mesia. Because he has very little feeling in his hands, Stauner must squeeze the trigger on his rifle by biting down on an aluminum clamp that looks something like a clothespin. The clamp, secured to his gun's stock, pulls a cable attached to the trigger.
"I learned not to use a high-powered rifle," he says with a smile. "The first couple of deer, I was shooting a .308. I didn't get too many shots off before my face got bloody."
When the gun recoiled, the aluminum clothespin would take a chunk out of his cheek. He switched to a .243-caliber rifle and no longer bloodies his face.
The gun issue, like the trailer, was just one more step in the trial-and-error process.
"You look at things from every angle and say, let's go this direction. No, that's bad. Let's go another direction," Stauner says.
Which brings up the snowmobile incident. This was years ago. Mesia had an old Ski-Doo Model 12/3 with a backrest on the seat. Perfect, he figured. He loaded Stauner on behind him.
"We had to bungee his feet onto the running boards because they didn't know where to go," Mesia said.
On the way home, riding a ditch, Mesia couldn't figure out why he couldn't get the Ski-Doo up to its maximum 40 mph. He kept checking his gauges to see if the engine was running all right. Finally, he turned to ask Stauner what he thought the problem was.
Stauner was the problem. His feet were still bungeed to the machine, but the rest of him was dragging on the snow behind the machine.
"He was floppin' behind me like a kite," Mesia says.
Both men cackle at the memory.
What emerges, through the telling of these stories, are two impressions. One is the level of trust that Stauner places in his best friend. None of these activities is without some inherent risk, and there is no guarantee that all will go well. But Stauner keeps signing up for the next event.
"The attitude is always there," Mesia says. "The attitude is really good."
The other impression is one that often comes with getting to know someone with a disability. It takes little time to realize that Stauner is not defined by his physical limitations. He earns a living as a computer-assisted design draftsman. He has traveled extensively with the U.S. Wheel Chair Archery team, taking a bronze medal in 1988 in Seoul, Korea. He drives. He lives on his own. He uses four-wheelers to improve deer habitat on his family's land near Gheen. He's bright. He's witty.
He also happens to be mostly paralyzed from the neck down.
Together, Mesia and Stauner continue to have adventures. They sponsor an annual fishing contest on a lake near Cherry. They have bought rockets for neighborhood kids and have helped launch them on a winter day. They have hunted Minnesota moose -- successfully. They fish on Lac La Croix, near Crane Lake, and on Lac Seul in Ontario.
"Stauner's always been a trooper," Mesia says.
He tells one more story to cement the point. One day, in Mesia's boat, the two were motoring up Loon Lake on the Minnesota-Ontario border on their way to Lac La Croix. The water was high that year, and reefs that normally would have been exposed were a few inches beneath the surface. Mesia was driving the boat. Stauner was sitting in a boat chair.
At good speed, Mesia's outboard smacked a rock reef, wrecking his motor's lower unit.
"He (Stauner) falls out of his seat and lands on the floor," Mesia says. "The boat settles down, and he looks up and says, 'I'm in for half.' "