By PERRY BACKUS | Ravalli Republic
CORVALLIS, Mont. (AP) — The hunt began with a prayer.
In the dark just before dawn, as cold rain mixed with big wet flakes of snow falling from the sky, the two camouflage-clad men bowed their heads and Jason Baker thanked God for the opportunity to enjoy His creation.
And then he asked for God's help to continue the healing.
Standing inside the blind that had been dug into the earth on the Teller Wildlife Refuge, a bearded Ike Zahn nodded his agreement.
"Amen," he said.
Zahn is a U.S. Marine and a veteran. He served three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
Along the way, he lost his right leg below the knee to an IED.
Zahn knows all about the need to heal.
As they settled into the well-constructed duck blind, the Marine who now calls Missoula home slowly smiled.
"It's a beautiful morning, isn't it?" he said as the sleet turned to rain and the sound of duck wings flapping filled the air. "You can't beat this, even if you didn't get a thing."
"It's important when you lose a limb to keep moving," Zahn said. "The ones who don't turn into couch potatoes and get fat."
A flock of mallards zoomed by overhead, then set their wings and turned back toward the display of decoys that Baker had carefully positioned in the warm water slough to the left and right of the blind. The wings of a pair of battery-operated robo-ducks rotated in the cold, clean January air.
"Right out in front of us," Baker whispered. "Four of them right there. Coming straight at us."
Baker made his duck call talk and encouraged the unsuspecting birds to continue with their descent.
Suddenly, Zahn stood up straight and thrust the blackened barrel of his shotgun into the air.
Two ducks crumpled and fell, to the excited whoops of Baker.
"Ike, that was some fine shooting," he said. "That was an ESPN-kind of shot."
Zahn beamed as he slipped a couple more shells into his gun.
Zahn grew up hunting deer and antelope around Miles City, but he never had the opportunity to hunt waterfowl until he met Baker.
"This guy (Baker) has been a blessing for me," Zahn said. "I've fallen in love with duck hunting after having the opportunity to give it a try through him."
Baker even went to the point of purchasing a shotgun for Zahn to encourage him to continue with the sport.
"He does it all right out of his own pocket," Zahn said. "What that means for me is that it helps me be outside and active rather than just staying home. It means a lot to me, and I'm sure all the others he helps too."
Baker operates the nonprofit, Christian-based hunting program he's named Montana Mallards. It was originally designed as an effort to give young people a chance to learn to hunt waterfowl, in hopes the tradition would continue into the future.
Baker uses 25 percent of his earnings as a real estate agent to fund the venture, which includes leasing some prime waterfowl habitat in the Dillon area.
Helping kids and veterans find solace from inside a waterfowl blind has been Baker's passion for the past four or five years.
"I started thinking about it when I learned the statistic that the average age of duck hunters is 50 years," he said. "I can't stand the idea that this heritage is dying away."
And so he started helping parents find a way to give their children the experience.
"A lot of the reason that parents don't take their kids is money or lack of expertise," Baker said. "They can't pay to get their kids to Dillon or Freezeout Lake or other places where waterfowl hunting is good. If a young person goes out and hunts a couple of times and doesn't get anything, they'll quit."
Montana Mallards has helped bridge that gap.
"I teach parents and their children how to set decoys and call ducks," he said. "I have some land leased in Dillon where we can go and get into a good number of mallards."
Along the way, Baker developed a heart to help wounded veterans and he has reached out to offer hunts to several.
Zahn said he's been involved with a number of other organizations that help veterans with war-caused, long-term disabilities.
Baker is different than most, he said.
"A lot of those organizations are just trying to get their name out there as much as possible," Zahn said. "He doesn't do it to make money. He does it for love of it. It's just in his heart."
One morning last week, Baker took advantage of a special accommodation that managers of the Teller Wildlife Refuge make for people who volunteer their time at the Corvallis site.
The refuge's development manager, Lauren Rennaker, said volunteers offering as little as eight hours a year can apply for a waterfowl hunt during the season. People giving 16 hours can apply for two days of waterfowl hunting and 24 hours of time is enough to apply for an archery deer hunt.
Many begin earning their hours on the annual Stewardship Day, which will be hosted on Saturday, April 26 this year.
"We usually have about a half day of volunteer projects on that day," Rennaker said. "We average between 40 and 50 volunteers on that day alone."
The refuge's executive director, Kim Vietz, said the partnerships that are built through volunteer work at the refuge harken back to a time when people had a close connection with landowners.
"Back in the day, people would call up a rancher and ask if they could go hunting in exchange for bucking some bales or some other chore," she said. "This program is designed to mimic that."
On their morning together, Baker advised his new veteran friend to soak it all in.
They'd just watched a pair of eagles lock talons and spin toward the ground in a spectacle that few ever see. They'd seen hundreds of ducks fly over their blind in a matter of just a few hours. And they'd rejoiced each time the black Labrador named Willy brought back another brightly colored mallard and rewarded them with a dousing of slough water he'd brought back just for the occasion.
"Here we have 1,200 acres of paradise set aside just for us on this morning," Baker beamed. "How can it get any better than that?"
Information from: Ravalli Republic, www.ravallirepublic.com