By Joseph Robertia
Stalking through the woods in search of a bear may be some people’s idea of a frightening, near-death experience, but for Hunter Paustian it doesn’t come close to the real life-threatening experiences he’s already faced and overcome.
“The more of a challenge it is, the more I want to do it,” he said, after returning from a 10-day hunt in the Drift River area across Cook Inlet from Kenai.
The 18-year-old, from LaGrande, Oregon, came to Alaska to hunt with guide Mike Cowan of Crosshairs of Alaska through the nonprofit charity Hunt of a Lifetime, which grants dream hunts to children with life-threatening illnesses.
Paustian was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma — a rare form of bone cancer — when he was 1. A year and a half of chemo and radiation therapy followed, which caused substantial damage to his young heart, requiring a heart transplant in his teen years. At 16, a cancerous tumor returned to one of the ribs in his back, requiring it to be removed.
Despite his illnesses and all the resultant treatments, Paustian has lived as much as possible like any other kid his age, and one of his hobbies has always been hunting. He primarily targets mule deer and elk using his bow or rifle, and also likes duck hunting from time to time. He started hunting with his father when he was 5, and over the years has refined his outdoors skills. His progressing led Paustian to want to hunt one of the apex predators — an Alaska brown bear.
“He doesn’t let his illness dictate his life,” said his father, Jon Paustian. “As parents, we’ve always tried to make sure the disease didn’t define who he is or what he does in life, and he makes it easy for us.”
Tina Pattison, president and founder of Hunt of a Lifetime, said she knows from firsthand experience how important it can be to grant these kinds of dreams. While many of these wish-granting organizations focus on sports, music or becoming a superhero-for-a-day dreams, not many focus on hunting, which is what Pattison’s son wanted to do before he died.
“I lost my son to cancer, and all he wanted to do before he died was a moose hunt in Alberta. Through God’s work I accomplished that with help of many, and saw that he got to live his dream. He passed away six months later,” she said.
At the time Pattison was a school bus driver, but was so moved by the happiness of making her son’s dream a reality that she wanted to do it for others. In 1999 in Harbor Creek, Pennsylvania, she started Hunt of a Lifetime. Since then, through donations and grants, the organization has grown from providing a handful of trips annually to 60 to 70 hunting and fishing dreams a year and more than 780 trips total, of which 90 have taken place in Alaska.
Pattison feels it’s important for an organization like hers to help grant these dreams because even if a recipient’s family has a strong hunting tradition, they might not have the resources to grant the wish themselves since they have often fought long and expensive medical battles.
“For all of us, achieving our goals and dreams is what we naturally strive for, only these kids don’t know if they’ll live long enough or be able to afford to achieve them as an adult, but they deserve the future of dreaming and the reality of it happening,” she said.
Hunter had taken a small black bear back home a few years ago and has been along on mountain lion hunts, but has long dreamed of a brown bear hunt in Alaska. The dream didn’t quite translate into reality, however, as he and his guide never saw hide nor hair of a brown bear in the area they were hunting. Still, Paustian did bag a huge black bear.
“It was definitely bigger than the last one I got,” he said.
They saw the big bruin moving up a bluff, and despite being 450 yards away Paustian was able to get off two shots from his rifle, sending the bear scurrying into a stand of alders. When it didn’t come out for 15 minutes, they carefully moved up and found it dead.
“I had punched it through both lungs,” Paustian said.
Despite not getting the brown bear for which he came to Alaska, Paustian said he had a great trip, and his father said the boy wasn’t disappointed for two reasons.
“Hunter knows sometimes the game’s just not there. That’s just part of hunting. But, also, he just graduated high school and has applied at the University of Alaska, so if he gets accepted he’ll be back and will hopefully get another chance at one,” Jon Paustian said.
As with fighting his illness, Paustian said that some things just take time, and he aims to stay focused on his goal.
“I want to get one,” he said, “and I intend to.”