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Camp Grafton hunt in northeastern North Dakota an annual veterans’ favorite

Doug Martin of Milnor, N.D., had reason to smile after shooting a buck this week at the annual hunt for disabled veterans at Camp Grafton near Devils Lake, N.D. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

CAMP GRAFTON, N.D. -- The buck was a dandy -- a “nice 4x4,” as they’d say in the hunting lingo -- and Dennis Heap came within seconds of having it in his sights for an opportunity to pull the trigger Tuesday morning, Nov. 20.

Seconds are a long time when it comes to deer hunting, though, and there wasn’t enough time for Heap to get into the right position for a clean shot.

And so, he’s left with the memory of a very impressive deer and the reminder every deer hunter gets at some point -- that dandy bucks get to be dandy bucks for a reason.

“I wish I could have gotten a good shot at him,” Heap said. “I just didn’t have the right angle.”

Heap, of Grand Forks, was one of four military veterans participating Tuesday in a special deer hunt for disabled North Dakota veterans at the 1,500-acre National Guard training camp near Devils Lake.

Col. Dean Hildebrand, a former commander at Camp Grafton, started the hunt in the early 1990s as a way to control deer numbers on the grounds and give qualifying veterans a place to hunt, said Larry Walford, retired chief warrant officer at Camp Grafton.

The Camp Grafton hunt been an annual event since Hildebrand founded it, says Walford, who has organized the hunt since 2001 in conjunction with Barnes County Veterans Services.

Hildebrand, who died in 2008, served in the National Guard 40 years and was director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department from 1996 until 2005.

“You see a lot of guys coming back year after year, and they enjoy it,” Walford said. “It’s pretty rewarding to see that they can come out and have a place to hunt and somebody to help them get their deer and be successful.”

Saying thanks

Held Monday and Tuesday, this year’s hunt provided the opportunity for seven veterans -- three the first day and four the second -- to hunt deer at Camp Grafton. As part of the event, veterans are paired with Camp Grafton employees who host the hunters and help them get their deer in designated sites throughout the training grounds.

Veterans must have at least a 50 percent disability to qualify for the hunt, which has been limited to shotguns with slugs the past two years to minimize the risk to nearby housing, Walford said.

“It’s a way to thank the veterans for their service,” Walford said. “We sure enjoy having them out here, and they seem to enjoy it also.”

Heap, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1971 to 1991 in Michigan, Thailand, Grand Forks twice and Alaska, was one of the four veterans hunting Tuesday.

He first participated in the Camp Grafton hunt last year, when he shot “a fairly good-sized doe.”

“That was the first deer I’d gotten in 27 years,” he said. “I was pretty excited.”

Tuesday, Heap was paired with Scott Bischoff, an avid deer hunter and a boiler operator in the steam plant at Camp Grafton. Bischoff has helped out with the hunt for the past five years and says he enjoys it.

That was obvious Tuesday.

“It’s kind of the highlight of my year,” Bischoff said of the veterans’ hunt. “I like the social aspect of it. You meet some pretty cool people who have made some sacrifices, that’s for sure.”

Deer numbers are on the upswing in the Lake Region, Bischoff says, and the first day’s hunting success at Camp Grafton made a strong case for that observation.

“That was something you don’t see very often,” Bischoff said. “Everyone had their deer by noon, and they all were bucks.

“I’m seeing more deer this year than I’ve seen probably in the last 10 years,” he added. “The deer are definitely coming back. That mild winter helped tremendously.”

Stories and lunch

Shortly before noon Tuesday, the veterans and their Camp Grafton hosts gathered back at camp for a lunch of chili, sausage and various baked goodies. Heap’s hunting buddy, John Hanson of Grand Forks, had shot a doe, and Doug Martin of Milnor, N.D., took a smaller 4x4 buck.

“I took my deer 21 minutes into the hunt,” said Hanson, who served in the U.S. Air Force and also spent time at Camp Grafton as a National Guard member from 1974 through 1979. Hanson says he’s been fortunate to participate in about a dozen Camp Grafton hunts over the years.

“When I walked in this morning, everyone’s yelling, ‘Hey John!’ ” he said. “It’s kind of like ‘Norm!’” whenever “Cheers” character Norm Peterson walked into the bar in the long-running sitcom.

Martin, who served in Vietnam as a U.S. Army soldier in 1967 and 1968, was on his first Camp Grafton hunt. Wounded in Vietnam, Martin says he underwent several foot surgeries.

“My wife quit counting at 22, and I know they’ve done (foot surgery) 10 times since,” Martin said. “They don’t know (what caused it). It was like the bones grew right out the bottoms of my feet. I’d go on sick call and my medic, he would shave them off, and I’d go back to work.”

Also hunting Tuesday was Vietnam veteran Clarence Belgarde of Belcourt, N.D. Belgarde, who has hunted at Camp Grafton the past five years, didn’t shoot a deer Tuesday morning, joking he planned to let the other veterans fill their tags first.

“I said I’ve got to wait until everyone else kills their deer so I can shoot the biggest,” he said with a laugh.

Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966, Belgarde served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.

“I’ve been in Cuba, Okinawa, the Philippines and the states,” in addition to Vietnam, he said. “I was wounded; I got shot through the neck so they kind of sent me home (from Vietnam) the hard way.”

The Camp Grafton hunt, he said, is a good time for the veterans.

“I’ve hunted ever since I was 7 or 8 years old,” Belgarde, 71, said. “It’s fun to get together with the guys here.”

By day’s end Tuesday, Belgarde and Heap both had filled their tags with bucks, but the big buck Heap narrowly missed having in his sights remained elusive.

“For out here, he was” a nice buck, Bischoff said. “There have been three big bucks I’ve been kind of watching all year, and he’s definitely one of them.

“He’s not a typical Camp Grafton buck. … He doesn’t let you see him much.”

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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