The outline for a new Camp Bullwheel building sits open to visitors at the 2018 Fly Fishing Festival in Ennis. Camp directors Peter Pauwels and Frank Bell hope to raise funds over the next few years to move forward on a new facility. (G. Mooney photos)

River access for everyone

Camp Bullwheel seeks to open Madison River to all

ENNIS—In his nearly three decades working in the rehabilitation engineering lab for Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, Peter Pauwels saw his fair share of catastrophic injuries.

He also saw just how far human intelligence could go toward remedying those injuries.

“Craig Hospital specializes in spinal cord injury and brain injury; they do not give up,” says Pauwels. “This is a natural offshoot of all the programs that come out of there.”

The “this” Pauwels refers to is Camp Bullwheel, located a few miles south of Ennis along Varney Road, less than half a mile from the Madison River. With his passion and skill for adaptive rehabilitation and an equal love of fishing, Pauwels set about combining the two. This summer, a long journey to opening up the Madison River to people with disabilities became a reality.

He utilized the resources available at Craig to begin developing adaptive equipment for fly fishing: everything from rods designed to cast with just one hand to a revolutionary “sip and puff” rod that allows quadriplegic fishermen to cast using a breath of air. He even did research into adaptive shooting equipment to allow people with physical disabilities to hunt.

But the journey to opening Camp Bullwheel was not a direct jump from Colorado. The road to what Pauwels does now began several years ago, when he met a young man named Chris Clasby in Missoula.

Clasby is a Montana native and passionate outdoorsman. In 1990, just after his graduation from Helena High School, Clasby was involved in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He went to Craig Hospital for rehabilitation and care. His time at Craig instilled in him a passion to pursue the outdoor activities he’d always loved, and he returned to Montana to work with MonTECH, a program through the University of Montana that uses technology to aid people living with disabilities.

Long before Camp Bullwheel was even a thought, Pauwels sent Clasby one of the adaptive fishing rods he’d developed. His work with MonTECH meant that Clasby was an expert in grant writing, and he soon called Pauwels up again.

“I’d like to order two of everything you make,” he told Pauwels.

So Pauwels got building. He then brought a couple of his adaptive rafts to Missoula and he and Clasby hosted a weeklong demonstration on the Clark Fork River, taking disabled fishermen out onto one of Montana’s most legendary rivers. Eighteen people arrived for the demonstration, all from Clasby’s own networking.

“He’s paralyzed from the neck down, but that guy gets more done than most able-bodied people,” says Pauwels. “He is truly amazing.” 

There was still leftover money in the grant Clasby wrote, so he next ordered one of Pauwels’ accessible rafts. The next fishing season they shifted from the Clark Fork River to the Bitterroot, where so many people arrived that they stretched the session to three weeks. By the third year their demonstrations were drawing over 100 people. 

“That’s the pent-up demand there is for the disabled community to get out into Montana,” says Pauwels. “If you provide accessibility, they will fill it.”

The success of the demonstrations Pauwels and Clasby put on was such that Pauwels began planning to make the endeavor into something more permanent and established. That was where Frank Bell came in.

Bell lives in Idaho but owned a property on Varney Road when he learned about Pauwels’ efforts. He saw a worthy cause and he wanted to help, so he donated his property to be turned into a camp for facilitating river access to fishermen with disabilities.

And Camp Bullwheel was born.

Pauwels only moved onto the property this past March, and immediately set to work remodeling the century-old farmhouse, which was far from accessible for someone in a wheelchair. He hired an electrician to entirely redo the home’s electricity, installed miniature ramps to allow wheelchairs to navigate the space and made enough progress to open Camp Bullwheel for the summer fishing season.

“Last year when I realized I would be able to do this program, I let the word out,” says Pauwels. “I thought it would take months to fill the season. It took a week.”

When guests come to Camp Bullwheel, it’s a reversal of the norm, he says. 

Generally, for someone with a disability to go on a trip like this, they can only do so as a consequence of what their support group can facilitate: family, friends and caretakers. But with Camp Bullwheel, the person with the disability coordinates the trip, then invites family and friends to come with them.

“People with disabilities are rarely in a position where they can provide for their friends and loved ones,” says Pauwels. “The accessibility here allows them to be in a remote area, while meeting their needs, and have a little extra room so they can invite people to come fish with them.”

Each week this summer, Camp Bullwheel hosted one guest, along with a family member or friend, for a full week on the river. The week begins by getting familiar with the adaptive equipment and the Madison River, then jumping right in, usually fishing for four days with one day of rest built in. By the end of the week, Pauwels says, guests are working their rods hard, catching fish regularly and proficient with the equipment that was brand new just a few days prior.

The program was a huge success. Pauwels has only one problem.

“We’re only equipped for one person with a disability at a time with our current model,” he says. “With a 13-week fishing season, that’s only 13 people a year.”

The level of demand for Camp Bullwheel’s program surprised even Pauwels and expanding the number of people they can host will require a significant amount more time, money and construction. It may even mean moving to a larger property and building a facility from the ground up.

The camp doesn’t have a wheelchair accessible van, which means guests have to coordinate their own transportation. A van like that could cost between $40,000 and $60,000, Pauwels says. 

In the end, he wants to have a facility large enough to host several guests and their friends every week, all summer. Pauwels could even see building a rehabilitation engineering shop similar to the one he worked in at Craig Hospital. Then, they could be constantly developing and working with the latest technology for helping people access the river and fish adaptively with the injuries they live with.

“How are we going to grow over time? The demand is such that we’d like to help more people,” Pauwels says. “We have a good base, and it can go on, but in the future the demand is there, and the valley is there to support a much bigger operation.”

But to do that, the first step is fundraising. Pauwels and co-director Frank Bell, who owns the Camp Bullwheel property, showcased the program at Ennis’s Fly FisTghing Festival at the end of August, where they spent two days demonstrating their adaptive equipment and sharing their story, getting the word out as much as possible. And the community has responded.

“The support in the valley has been just tremendous. It’s a slam dunk for us,” says Pauwels. “People just come and say, ‘can we help?’”

Ennis ReMax broker Bill Mercer helped lead the fundraising charge, making a sizeable donation to Camp Bullwheel in September, part of ReMax’s nationwide “Give Where You Live” program.

“Frank came to me when they first started doing this, and I immediately became interested,” Mercer says. “The people involved in this are really, really into it. And things like this never work unless there are people who will help. 

“Maybe the little bit I give will inspire someone else.”

In the meantime, Pauwels has more work to do in Craig this winter, in addition to a kitchen-focused remodel at Camp Bullwheel. He’ll be working nonstop until next year’s fully-booked fishing season. His hopes for the future are high.

“There’s so much to do, and we’ve barely gotten started,” he says. “But what great start.”

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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