Gunnison Country Times
By Chris Rourke

Organization takes ailing youth on hunt of a lifetime

Zach McGregor’s life has been one of perseverance.

The 17-year-old Ashland, Ohio, teen has overcome challenges since birth. He was born with one side of his heart smaller than the other.

But the persistence he’s learned from conquering adversity led to the hunt of a lifetime last week in Gunnison County. McGregor harvested a six-point bull in game management unit 54, of all places, where even healthy hunters have been known to come home empty handed in recent years.

McGregor was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, meaning the left ventricle of his heart was too small to pump blood to all the parts of his body.

By the age of 2, he had already endured three surgeries, the last of which was a heart transplant. He has fared until recently but has started to show symptoms of rejection. He also has been diagnosed with post-transplant coronary heart disease. Both conditions have left him fatigued, with breathing difficulties, and signs of kidney disease.

Yet, despite his physical difficulties, McGregor has wanted to hunt — and not just any animal. He’s wanted to harvest an elk.

“The reason why I wanted to go hunting was that it’s something new,” McGregor said. “It’s something I always wanted to do. I wanted to hunt elk, but I didn’t know we were coming to Colorado.”

McGregor’s trip was made possible through Catch-A-Dream Foundation, a nonprofit which provides once-in-a-lifetime hunting and fishing experiences to children 18 years old and younger who have life-threatening illnesses. The organization plans the expedition and provides a coordinator — a volunteer host — who works with outfitters, game processors and taxidermists.

Catch-A-Dream’s Judd Gentry traveled from Mississippi to help McGregor, his parents and two brothers have a memorable experience.

Catch A Dream arranged for Gunnison’s Tenderfoot Outfitters to take McGregor on his hunt. Owner Fred Stinson beamed with satisfaction when he described McGregor’s experience. The youth had never shot a high-powered rifle before coming to Colorado, Stinson said. After a short course in aiming and pulling the trigger, however, McGregor was ready to hunt.

The group spotted a herd of elk in the morning. McGregor saw the six-point bull moving in and out of a group of cows. He got into position and fired, but shot too low.

After trailing the animals through the woods and crawling through sage brush, the group found the herd once again. From a distance, McGregor’s mom, Jen Reed, watched the hunt unfold.

“It happened so fast,” she said. “I looked through the binoculars and I saw someone carrying him. These guys are so passionate about what they do and about Zach that they’re willing to carry him on their backs.”

The hunting party got into position near the elk. As it turned out, they were just 50 yards away. The animals still milled about for about a half hour, and there were other legal, four-point bulls available for McGregor to harvest.

But just as Stinson told him to get ready, the bull he had spotted earlier walked out of the group and closer to the hunters. McGregor took his shot and downed the bull, with the bullet resting in the animal’s spine.

“The hard part was crawling through the sage,” McGregor said, smiling as he recalled taking his shot. “I’ll always remember that moment.”

While Catch-A-Dream covers the expenses of the trip, the community has stepped forward to support the family’s exploit. The animal is being processed by Kinikin in Montrose, which has donated their services, as did Tenderfoot. The elk’s head will be mounted in a bugling position by local taxidermist Mark Mykol, who has also contributed his work.

Stinson said twice when the group went out to dinner, their meals were covered by someone else in the restaurant. The family expressed its gratefulness to the community, which has made sure McGregor’s every need was met.

“I’m grateful for what everyone did to make this come true and be successful,” McGregor said.

Catch-A0Dream organizers hope that each young person has an experience that goes beyond the kill or the catch. The Christian-based organization wants their clients to gain vision and hope from their adventure.

“These hunts always include ‘fair chase,’ so these kids don’t always get the elk. Zach had two chances at a bull of a lifetime. … There’s definitely a higher power looking over us,” said Gentry. “It’s about making new friends and realizing there’s something better.”

Reed said the trip to Gunnison accomplished just that.

“We have extended our family in four days,” Reed said. “We definitely have family in Colorado and Mississippi.”