ETTRICK — As they huddled together in a ground blind that late September day, Gauge Griffin and his hunting partner, Eric Huseboe, were whispering back-and-forth.
The blind’s windows were nearly closed as to trap as much human scent inside as possible, and to muffle any noise they might make. Their field of view was compromised, but so be it.
They were hunting black bear on Huseboe’s farm near Ettrick, and for a few hours, life seemed simple, uncomplicated and free of pain.
So when Griffin muttered, “bear” multiple times without there being a black bear within eyesight, Huseboe’s response became less intense. Was this a case of crying bear instead of crying wolf? It didn’t matter.
“Gauge’s eyesight is not the best. Through the explosions, his eyes are not good,” Huseboe said of Griffin, an Afghanistan war veteran. “So Gauge kept sitting there and we would be whispering, talking back-and-forth. He would say, ‘Is there a bear there?’ He would be seeing a black stump.
“He would ask again, and I would say, ‘No, there is no bear.’ So when Gauge said, ‘There’s a bear! There’s a bear!’ I was thinking he was shooting bullcrap or kidding me. All of a sudden I look over, and sure enough, there is a bear 50 yards away. The bear walks out, and now it’s like, ‘Oh my God, he’s actually there.’”
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At this point in the 2020 hunt, it’s difficult to decipher who was more excited. Outwardly, Huseboe’s emotional meter is red-lining. Internally, Griffin wins, hands down.
For both, it was an once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“I hit him pretty good, and he jumped,” Griffin, 30, said of the kill shot that came from about 50-60 yards away, thanks to a Browning 300 short mag rifle. “I heard him crash. I don’t get much of an adrenaline rush anymore. I have seen a lot of things … ”
Huseboe, understanding the gravity of what just happened, tried to put it into perspective.
“It was a very, very intense moment for me. I was probably more excited during that, while we were trying to get the shot on the bear, than he was, by far,” said Huseboe, who owns Trophy Adventures Bear Bait near Ettrick. “I know I was more excited than him.
“It was because I knew how prestigious it was to get someone with his disability out there and actually get a bear in front of them, in this area, which makes it 10 times harder than during it somewhere else.
Once that bear was actually there, I was, ‘Wow.’ It is happening.’”
It happened, and for Huseboe — who has harvested 42 bear throughout the Midwest, Alaska and Canada — this was a watershed moment.
He understands what Griffin has sacrificed to make it back home to Ettrick from a far-away land that continues to make the news. Through getting to know Griffin’s parents, Kim and Dan Ziegler, along with other family and friends of Gauge’s, Huseboe’s grown close to him.
This bear, without a doubt, carried a ton of meaning.
“More than any of the bears I’ve shot, it’s not even close to the feeling I got when Gauge shot his,” said Huseboe, who harvested his 42nd bear this spring over a bear hunting career that has spanned more than 25 years.
“It’s just incredible.”
Incredible, it’s a good word to describe what happened after Griffin bagged his bear on Sept. 21, 2020. First of all, you have to understand that helping Griffin into a ground blind, assisting him with maneuvering a rifle, almost acting as his arms, hands and eyes at times, takes incredible (there’s that word again) patience. It takes someone with a deeply-driven care to help others, especially those who are disabled for one reason or another.
It takes passion. Not just from Huseboe, but from Griffin’s parents, his immediate and extended family, his friends — new and old — and from organizations like the Wounded Warriors. From the Ettrick community itself, which Kim Ziegler said has been incredibly generous.
“Everyone is still so kind and giving,” Kim Ziegler said, noting it’s been 10 years since Griffin, then barely 20, stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) while sweeping for bombs in Afghanistan. “Eric has been so kind, always very accommodating, always engaging him, making him, you know, part of everything.
“As a parent, I think you just do (keep going), right? We have had family counseling along the way, and the VA (Veterans Administration) is really good about that. We got actually ordered to be by bedside. That is what they do nowadays, because they know that people who are that injured will respond better to their loved ones, so we were physically ordered to be at his bedside for so many days a month. I was there anyway.”
Griffin’s mother’s always been at his side, even when she knew the risks that came with him serving his country. It was his choice, and Griffin made it early in life.
“He did early-entry program (into the military). He actually signed up when he was 17. He turned 18 on May 29, he graduated (in 2009 from Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau High School), and left for boot camp all within a week,” Kim Ziegler said.
Griffin was a hunter throughout his early years and into his teens, with white-tailed deer being one of his favorites. That was the furthest thing from his mind, however, on July 12, 2011. He was a world away, and his life was about to change forever.
In fact, it nearly ended.
“He was an engineer, so he was sweeping for IEDs before the troops would go through. So he was looking for the bombs, so the EOD could diffuse it, so the people could go through,” Kim Ziegler said.
“They couldn’t find it, because it was in a plastic bottle. The machine kept going off, and they were in an orchard, and from what his sergeant said, ‘Griffin, where is that dang thing? It keeps going off. It has got to be by this tree.’ And he stepped back and it went off. It was in a plastic bottle with a pressure plate. He had found 68 IEDs before that.”
Griffin nearly died. In fact, the doctors and medical staff around him thought there was a strong chance he would.
“We got flown over to Germany, because he wasn’t supposed to make it. Four of us went over there, two of us brought our kids home,” Kim Ziegler said. “And you only get flown over there if people think they aren’t going to make it.”
It’s been a mountainous journey since that day, as Griffin spent a day at a base camp in Afghanistan for a direct blood transfusion, followed by 13 days at a military hospital in Germany. From there he was flown to Bethesda, Maryland, where he spent another 45 days.
“They were basically doing what they could to clean him out and trying to get him stable and finish the amputation (of his left leg), plus all of his other injuries were taken care of,” Kim Ziegler said.
“Once he got stable, then we were able to go to the poly-trauma unit in Minneapolis for another 10 months. Then he rehabbed for three more years at Gundersen Lutheran in Tomah.”
During this time, Griffin spent 120 days in an induced coma — one that he nearly never awakened from — in order to help alleviate swelling of his brain. Since that point, it’s been a challenging journey with 39 surgeries.
Through it all, Griffin has pressed on.
“I just do … just keep on going,” Griffin said. “I just keep on going, I guess.”
His perseverance hasn’t gone unnoticed, and neither has his passion for hunting. That’s why when Huseboe and some friends helped recover Griffin’s bear last fall, they decided something more needed to be done. With Huseboe’s lead, they got a number of people involved in making sure a full-body mount of the animal was done.
Then, on Aug. 16 at Eric and Alysha Huseboe’s home, they surprised Griffin by presenting him with the full-body mount at a party attended by those directly involved in the process. To finish it off, remote-controlled lights were added to the background of the natural-looking scene, therefore allowing Griffin to turn them on and off.
“I had no idea whose bear it was,” said Griffin, noting there at least a dozen other animal mounts in addition to three or four bear mounts at Huseboe’s business headquarters. “I thought it was bigger when I shot it.”
The size of the bear meant nothing. It was the experience, and the hardships that were overcome, that meant everything.
“Just to feel any kind of normalcy, able to do what he enjoyed before the injury, still after injury, even though it’s adaptive and is not quite the same, at least he still gets to do what he loves,” Kim Ziegler said of the hunt.
A hunt that was worth remembering, regardless of the cost.
Huseboe, Brandon Sura of Double B Taxidermy of Independence, Joey and Audra Johnson of JLJ Trucking of Ettrick, Northwoods Precision Shooters, along with Brotherhood for the Fallen, each chipped in to help pay for the mount. Others, like Eric Erickson of South Branch Custom Meats in Ettrick, donated their time. Erickson skinned and cut up the meat from the bear, making steaks, roasts and hot dogs.
In addition to the mount, Matt Hess of Badger Mining Corporation, offered Griffin a three-day white-tailed deer hunt on the company’s property during Wisconsin’s upcoming disabled deer hunt in October.
“We are surrounded by a lot of good people,” Griffin said.
It’s the least they could do, Sura said.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s a little something I could give back after he had to give so much up,” Sura said. “I would have done it for free.”
Erickson, who grew up in the Ettrick area, said there was no hesitation when Huseboe called him about processing the bear meat.
“He has given so much. I feel for the man,” Erickson said. “He’s paid a big price, so it’s nice to give something back, even if it’s a little thing.”
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org