by Chad Waligura
“You better get used to tying flies because that’s all you’re gonna be doing for the rest of your life.” The words tumbled coldly out of this male nurse’s mouth the first time he saw Corey in ICU after his wreck. They rattled around in Corey’s head awhile before sinking deep in his belly. They wounded him. “That really pissed me off!” Corey admitted. “Who did that guy think he was? He didn’t have any call to say that to me, especially then.”
To make matters worse, Corey’s doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to hunt for at least a year because they were worried about what a gun’s recoil could do to his surgically repaired neck. That dropped him into the lowest of lows.
A week earlier, Corey’s life was just as it should have been for a 21 year old boy growing up in northwest Wyoming, carefree, promising, full of independence and fun. In one instant, though, it was all gone. After a car wreck where he was ejected, Corey found himself at a local hospital in Billings, MT, with broken bones in his neck and back and an uncertain future laying before him. It happened on May 27th, 2001.
He would spend the next month and a half at that hospital since there were no rehabs for Corey to go to. He was the only patient there in a wheelchair.
“When Corey broke his back in the spring of 2001, he thought he’d never again see the mountains from the back of his horse. Lucky for him, he was wrong.”
Corey’s spinal cord in his neck wasn’t damaged, but the broken vertebra in his back paralyzed him from the waist down. Even so, he could barely imagine what his life as a ranch hand was going to be like when he got out.
In mid-July, he wheeled out of the hospital in a full back brace (called a turtle shell) to live with his parents for a few months until he could figure out something to do. One day, a friend of Corey’s who owned the ranch where he used to work came by and told him he could come back whenever he felt ready. While Corey was recovering from his injury, the ranch house had been modified with ramps and wider doorways just in case he would. There was only one big hurdle left to be tackled though… the horse. Most ranch work requires horseback riding, and nobody knew anything about how to make a horse accessible. Not yet anyway.
Eventually, Corey started going back to the ranch where he’d sit around with the other guys in the evenings, knocking around ideas about how to do things differently, one of them being how to get riding again. “One day, we just decided to try it,” he said. “Two guys picked me up and tossed me in the saddle. I rode, but I was way too unsteady. I knew I was gonna have to get more support somehow.” Fortunately for Corey, one of his hobbies (other than hunting & fishing) was working with leather, which included making saddles.
The first thing they tried was to attach a ‘D-ring’ to the back of Corey’s old turtle shell with another affixed to the back of the saddle. Then, they attached the two with a bungee cord after he mounted. It helped, but he was still too unstable. The next design involved a black plastic pipe and velcro strap sticking up from the back of the saddle. “That one was a lot better,” Corey said, “but it beat my back up so I couldn’t ride very long with it.”
The following year, Corey had a special high-backed saddle that he had made, complete with a trunk strap. It gave him the support he needed to be able to ride and do any job he needed to on the ranch. He was back in the action. That same year, he entered a ranch roping event at a rodeo with a friend of his named Brandon. In it, he’d have to do something he’d never done since getting hurt… ride at top speed. Corey decided ‘what the hell.’ He’d go for it. He wound up getting bumped around pretty badly, but he got something else from that ride besides a lot of bruises, two really good ideas. The first was a lap strap to keep him secure in the saddle and the other was to add a gel pad for extra cushion under his hind end. Both of them together turned out to be the last two pieces of the puzzle. He was ready to ride!
In 2006, Bob, a family friend who worked with horses, trained one for Corey that would lay down so he could transfer straight from his chair into the saddle. It was a match made in heaven.
While all of this was going on, Corey had kept planning to hunt again. Every year, he would apply for an elk tag for unit 58, a unit in NW Wyoming. Corey dreamed of getting back out there like he used to hunt with his dad and brother as a kid, even though he had no idea how he was going to be able to do it now. Before his injury, they’d pack way back into the mountains and do the whole hunt on horseback. Corey even killed his first bull when he was sixteen years old on a hunt like this. He absolutely loved it. But when he broke his back, he thought he’d never again see the mountains from the back of a horse. Lucky for him, he’d be wrong.
Now he knew it could be done. During that summer of ‘07, Corey drew a tag.
When October arrived, Corey, his uncle Ken and father-in-law Steve hauled a horse trailer up to the nearby Carter Mountain in the South Fork Valley. They had a hunting cabin there that they’d always used as a base camp. The weather was perfect for that time of year, clear and a cool 75 degrees throughout. The three of them would hunt together for the next three days straight on horseback. The rut was on and bulls were bugling like crazy and they saw a lot of elk, just nothing big enough to pull the trigger on. He didn’t get a bull on that first time out, but Corey got something back that way more important than an elk, his passion.
Then began the arduous cycle of going to the mountains, loading and unloading the horses, setting up camp, glassing for elk, putting on stalks, passing on shots and then returning home. Over the span of two months, they’d hunt all over the unit. Any time they could get away, Corey and a friend would drive around looking for elk. And anytime they’d find elk, they went back and got the horses. Corey would climb on his horse, his buddy Charlie would secure his chair on the pack horse, and off they’d go. Whenever they’d stop to glass or set up on an ambush point, Corey would get back down in his chair. And so it went for the rest of the season as pleasant fall turned into harsh winter.
As Thanksgiving neared and Corey got word an arctic norther was coming that was supposed to leave a foot of snow in its wake, he first called Charlie and next called in sick to work. Corey knew from experience that the elk hunting would be ideal after it passed over.
The two made it up to the cabin on Tuesday night just as the front hit. When they left camp the next morning in the dark, it was -7 degrees and snowing. It was bone-cracking cold, but their hopes kept them warm as they rode up to a familiar place where they could glass as the sun rose. The elk were out! They watched cows and small bulls across the canyon for most of the morning, but a big bull never showed. “It was pretty cold that morning,” Corey said, “Even our sandwiches were frozen. We had to make a fire just to thaw them out… to thaw ourselves out too. Then we took a nap before going out that afternoon. I wanted to cross over to where we’d seen all those elk.”
And go they did, busting elk out of the timber on their way to a high meadow called Pete Miller’s Park. Corey knew that elk sometimes used it to feed after a snowfall. When they finally got up there, they found nothing but snow drifts. No elk. No tracks. No bugles. Nothing. They had just passed through elk infested country to get to a barren mesa. They were cold and dejected, but mainly cold. Even still, Charlie helped Corey climb down one more time so they could set up along the edge to wait and see if something would come out.
Nothing ever did. So about an hour before dark, they called it quits. They’d pack up and head for the alluring warmth of the cabin. Since Corey didn’t want to make his horse lay down in the snow again, he asked Charlie to lift him back into the saddle. When he did, Corey saw an elk. “There’s elk in the meadow!” he whispered forcefully. “You’re lying,” Charlie answered. “Get me down. Hurry!” Corey insisted. From his vantage point, he could see elk over a knoll that blocked his buddy’s view. Three nice bulls had come into the field. Charlie snatched Corey down from the saddle, then hurried to get his rifle and spotting scope. As the bulls pawed at the ground to graze, Charlie worked Corey’s chair carefully through the snow and sage brush until they got to the top of the knoll, stopping every time a bull’s head popped up to check around. Finally, they got into position. There was one good bull in the group, one really good one. Corey planted his shooting sticks while Charlie watched through the spotting scope.
At 500 yards away, the elk stood unaware. Corey locked on the biggest bull’s shoulder and let out an exasperated shot. He missed! “I shot over him that first shot,” he confessed. “I got lucky though. For some reason, they ran right toward us. They stopped about 300 yards away and kinda balled up. So I waited until they started to leave. They got in a line and my bull was in the back. I locked on him again and dropped him in his tracks.”
It was a dream come true for Corey. He told Charlie that he could get back on his horse and ride over to his trophy but Charlie refused. He pushed Corey all the way over to where the beautiful 7×6 bull lay in the snow. At their feet was the glow of success. All the fatigue and burden of the past two months melted away, a total of 21 days hunting, all on horseback. It was one of the greatest feats in disabled hunting. “I was tickled,” said Corey. “And when we got back to the cabin that night, I was plum tired. The cold didn’t bother me much on that ride back though. Charlie and I went back the next morning and packed him out.”
Since then, Corey has been back to the hospital in Billings on a few occasions. Each time he went, he tried to find that nurse that came into his room all those years ago. “I want to tell him about all the ‘fly tying’ I’d been doing since I got out. Heck, that first fall after I got released, I hunted and got a nice mule deer buck and bull elk. I was gonna tell him about that too.”