SANGERVILLE, Maine — Russell Tracy is like a lot of Maine deer hunters.
The 52-year-old loves to spend time in the woods. He’s proud of the fact that the four sons he has raised with his wife Julie also enjoy hunting, and that each of them have taken deer off their Sangerville property.
On Nov. 8, he finally caught up with the deer of a lifetime — a 218-pound “swamp buck” — with a handsome nine-point set of antlers.
Yes, Russell Tracy is like a lot of Maine deer hunters.
Until, that is, you consider that his daily trek to his favorite hunting stand — a 100-yard walk that might take your or I a minute or so — is, for him, a laborious 15- or 20-minute trudge, which he can only do with the help of crutches.
Until you consider that when Tracy “goes distances” he typically uses his wheelchair.
Until you think about how he ended up partially paralyzed.
And until you think — really think — about how Russell Tracy has dealt with the things he can’t do … and focused on the things he can.
Fateful 24th jump
Tracy joined the U.S. Army fresh out of high school. The year was 1978.
“Then I went into the 82nd Airborne,” he said, explaining the short career path that changed everything. “I wanted the extra money. The extra $55 a month. [As a] young fella, you need all the money you can get.”
Two years into his Army career while training in North Carolina, he took the parachute jump that nearly killed him.
“It was like my 24th jump,” Tracy said. “It was a night jump and I had what they call a Roman candle. It’s like you take a dishrag and you wring it right out. That’s what [the parachute] looks like coming down. Like you wrung it right out.”
Tracy knew what to do: With little time to react, he went to Plan B.
“I popped the reserve, and that one started going around the Roman candle and dumped the air right out of that chute,” Tracy said.
From 1,250 feet, Tracy plummeted toward the ground.
“Then I landed. I think I was the first one on the ground,” he said, chuckling wryly.
For seven days, he was unconscious.
“I came out of it and they told me I was paralyzed,” he said. “I broke my back, smashed an ankle, and broke the other leg.”
Then, after four months in a body cast, the Army sent him home with specific instructions to family members.
“[They told] my mom the more they babied me, the more help I’d need, so she didn’t baby me,” Tracy said.
And Tracy got back to the job of living life. It turned out he had a powerful inspiration: A family member who had multiple sclerosis and had lost her mobility.
“She was in a wheelchair. For most of her life, she sat in front of a window and watched cars go by,” Tracy said.
That wasn’t going to happen to him, Tracy vowed.
And it didn’t.
He met Julie.
“I was very fortunate. She seemed to like me the way I was,” Tracy said.
They married and had four sons. He began coaching junior varsity basketball, first boys, then girls, at Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford. He still does that, and is gearing up for the coming season.
All wasn’t perfect, he’ll be the first to admit.
“You have those days. My wife sees those days once in awhile. But not very often,” Tracy said. “You can’t feel sorry for yourself. Like I tell my wife, I enjoy life. It might not be ideal circumstances, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
And during the fall, he hunts. Just like he has since his cousin, Charlie Peavey, showed him how, years ago.
Finally, a big buck
On Nov. 8, Russell Tracy awoke to a hunter’s dream: Snow had fallen. Like he does each morning, he gathered his gear and started walking to his stand.
“What they call me is an ‘incomplete paraplegic,’” he explained. “I have some muscle in my leg that I can use. Not much, but enough to get up and down a tree stand.”
It didn’t take long before things got exciting.
“At five minutes to six, a spike-horn walked out. We hadn’t had any deer meat in two years, so you can see that was a bit of a dilemma,” Tracy said.
The dilemma: Shoot the first buck you see, and your season is over. Wait, and you might see something bigger … or you might not.
After two consecutive harsh winters had severely affected the state’s deer herd, Tracy said he finally saw the results a year ago. Hunting was dismal.
“Last year I didn’t see any bucks here. Only the second time in 25 years that I hadn’t seen a buck during deer season,” he said. “So I thought about [shooting the spike-horn]. I know if I told [my wife] I passed up a spike-horn, it might make her sick.”
Three minutes later, three more deer sprinted through the Christmas trees that Tracy’s brother has planted on the property. And three minutes after that, things got really interesting.
“This big buck came around the Christmas trees, where I had seen those three deer, and all I could see was horns,” Tracy said. “I pulled up [my rifle] and he stopped. He must have heard me or something. I got crosshairs on him and shot and dropped him. But I didn’t know how big he was until I got up to him.”
In his years of hunting, Tracy has seen plenty of deer. Some are big. Some, you just think are big.
“I’ve seen a lot of what I call ‘field bucks,’ where they look big, and then they go about 180 pounds,” he said. “This one was what I called an old ‘swamp buck.’”
At the local tagging station, he found out that the nine-pointer weighed 218 pounds — the biggest deer he had ever shot.
“I was excited because of its rack, too,” Tracy said. “I like character. And that’s what this rack had: A little bit of character.”
Character. Interesting choice of words. You might assume that Tracy knows a little bit about the word. And you’d likely be right.
Hunting’s over, time for hoop
This week, basketball tryouts began at high schools across the state. As he’s done for years, Tracy will be working alongside Brian Gaw, the head girls coach at PCHS.
Tracy said telling his athletes the story of his injury is something he became comfortable doing years ago.
“You kind of have to tell the kids that you coach what happened to you,” he said. “And hopefully, to let them know, no matter how bad it is you can move on from that if you want to.”
And though he sometimes wishes he could demonstrate skills better than he does, he’s determined to stay active for as long as he can.
Sometimes, that means coaching. Other times, that means hunting. Or raising a family.
And what it doesn’t mean: Sitting in a chair all day, watching cars drive by.
“I’ve got to keep what I’ve got as long as I can,” Tracy said. “Because it’s not going to last forever.”