Though the golden-hued October sunrise over the Smoky Mountains was a miraculous sight to behold, Austin Riggs stared directly away from it. After all, he had a far more important focus on that crisp autumn morning.
“The big bull is pushing his cows up the mountain toward the ridge top,” the thin-framed 15-year-old said quietly, not wanting to spook the grazing herd of elk. “We have to hurry.” As a longtime hunting outfitter, I knew Austin’s estimation of the situation was right on target. “Let’s move,” I replied.
A few physically challenging minutes later, Austin was lying in a prone position with the bipod of his rifle extended. Searching desperately for the 800-pound bull elk through his riflescope, Austin’s posture stiffened and then relaxed. “I see him! Should I shoot?” he asked.
“Wait for him to turn broadside,” I advised. “When he does, take a deep breath and slowly squeeze the trigger.”
Two thousand miles away in his home state of Kentucky, Austin’s family was waiting near the phone for a report from the ongoing hunt. That phone on the living room table had served an important role in the Riggs’ life, including when the hospital had dialed it to share the terrible news that Austin’s recent fatigue had been the result of cancerous growth spreading throughout his young body.
“It was devastating news,” shared Neil Riggs, Austin’s grandfather and mentor. “That phone call dropped us to our knees.”
It was a similar call in February 1998 that led to Tina and Chet Pattison’s determination to provide hunting opportunities for children with life threatening illnesses through their nonprofit organization, Hunt of a Lifetime (HOAL). Their son Matthew was diagnosed with a type of cancer that was usually curable. In Matthew’s case, it was not.
In order to try and fulfill Matthew’s final wish of hunting moose in Canada, Tina turned to a wish granting foundation. However, the group refused the request, as its policy was to not grant hunting wishes to children. “Trembling and heartbroken, I wiped at the tears rolling down my face and wondered who would be able to help make Matthew’s wish come true,” Tina shared on the foundation’s website, huntofalifetime.org.
After many phone calls and time-consuming research, Tina found an outfitter who was willing to rise to the challenge. In fact, the entire town of Nordegg, Alberta, came together to cover the cost of groceries, horse feed, butchering and even a helicopter ride. Matthew harvested his trophy bull moose on the first day and the Hunt of a Lifetime Foundation became a reality thanks to Tina and Chet’s hard work.
Today, HOAL has established organizations in all 50 states, four Canadian provinces, Africa and New Zealand. They contact hunting outfitters like myself—Sun Valley Outfitters—to arrange the hunts, which are generally donated by the outfitters.
–Neil Riggs, Austin’s Grandfather
HOAL raises funds to cover the transportation and other costs. Applicants to HOAL must be 21 years of age or younger and be suffering from a life-threatening illness to apply.
“The elk hunt gave my grandson another reason to fight,” said Neil Riggs as we sat around the campfire the night before the hunt began. “I believe it made a difference.”
Back on the hunt, the scent of sagebrush and pine trees wafted around us as early morning thermals brought the heavy air downhill. Austin’s breathing suddenly deepened as the bull turned broadside.
“Now,” I calmly encouraged. A moment later, the firing pin ignited the gunpowder in the bullet’s casing with a crack.
Once certain that the bullet had found its mark, Austin sat up abruptly and let out an exultant war whoop. Nearly as excited as Austin, I scooped him up in a bear hug. Grandpa Neil joined us shortly afterwards, and together we made the difficult trek across the canyon to the fallen monarch.
The sun had risen only slightly above the eastern horizon and Austin turned to take in the miraculous scene. Bathed in yellow autumn light, the look on his face was one of elation and exhaustion. Clearly, as he stood on that Idaho mountainside, he felt more alive than he ever had before.