HAMILTON - Dakota Hendrix knows what it's like to take a walk in the woods. Five years ago, his body still allowed him that.
Those days are gone now.
He was 4 years old when his adopted parents learned that Dakota was stricken with a rare form of muscular dystrophy known as Duchenne.
Over the past few years, the disease has slowly robbed him of his ability to move. He can no longer walk. His hands barely work. From his wheelchair, he can bend a little at the waist, but it's a struggle.
But the disease hasn't stolen Dakota's ability to dream.
Like many 12-year-old Montana boys, Dakota dreams about hunting in the hills with his dad. He dreams about fast cars and motorcycles, too.
"He's a very smart and intelligent kid," said dad Darrell. "You couldn't ask for a better kid. He has a heart of gold. It's kind of hard to explain, but it tears you apart to see him the way he is."
This year would be the first that Dakota could legally hunt, but a year ago none of his family members thought it was possible.
Dakota's arms weren't strong enough to hold a rifle. He couldn't squeeze the trigger. And being confined to a wheelchair, it would be a challenge to get near any big game.
"I initially didn't think there was anything we could do," Darrell said. "I was wrong."
Last year, members of the Western Montana Chapter of Safari Club International teamed with the CB Ranch south of Darby to help another Bitterroot disabled youth fulfill a dream.
"We were looking around to find a private ranch where we could take disabled youth out hunting," said Jon Wemple, the chapter's president. "It's a huge challenge to get these kids on an elk."
Working closely with CB Ranch manager Luke Bush, the Safari International team helped Mike Wilke shoot a bull elk last season.
"After the success of last year, the interest grew to get these kids out on a hunt," Wemple said.
Through an application process, Dakota's name surfaced.
"We could tell right away that he was just a special little boy who faces some really difficult challenges in his life," Wemple said.
Wemple and others on the team met with Chris Clasby, coordinator of the University of Montana's Montana Access to Outdoor Recreation program.
An avid hunter himself, Clasby understood the challenge Dakota faced.
Clasby was paralyzed following a tragic car accident that took the life of his friend and rodeo traveling partner. Through the UM program, Clasby offered the use of a special rifle mount that could be attached to Dakota's wheelchair.
The boy used a joystick to sight the rifle in on a target. He sucked on a straw to pull the trigger.
On his first outing, Dakota put his second bullet right through the middle of a target's bull's-eye.
"You couldn't have asked for a better shot," Darrell said proudly.
In early November, the team brought Dakota to a hunting camp on the CB Ranch set up especially for him.
On the first day, they bundled the boy up in warm clothes and put his wheelchair on the back of a snowmobile trailer before bouncing their way across rugged ground in search of an elk.
"He didn't complain once," Wemple said. "He really didn't show any disappointment when we pulled in that night empty-handed. He was just an unbelievable trouper."
To make the trip even more special, they had told Dakota he could have whatever kind of food he wanted.
"He told us that he liked macaroni and cheese," Wemple said. "And so we cooked it over an open fire."
The second day was a repeat of the first. There were no elk to be had.
"At the end of the day, after bouncing around on that trailer in his wheelchair, he said ‘I've had enough,' " Wemple said. "We all could understand."
Then the weather turned nasty. A second chance for Dakota was pushed back for more than 10 days.
On the last week of the season, Clasby offered the use of his 1-ton, 4x4 van to help Dakota try one more time to find an elk. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, the troops gathered again for one more try.
"There were wolf tracks everywhere on the lower reaches of the ranch," Wemple said. "The elk were really scattered."
Bush led them higher up into the mountains where they found three cow elk standing on a ridge.
"It was absolutely amazing that it all came together," Wemple said. "We had a hard time getting Dakota set up, but that cow just stood there for maybe five minutes."
It took Dakota one shot to bring the cow down.
"She was 247 yards away," Wemple said. "He leveled the crosshair right behind her shoulder and squeezed the trigger. Twenty yards later and she was down."
The snow was knee deep. It took some time to get the boy and his wheelchair next to the animal.
Wemple will never forget the look on his face.
"That whole time, he had this big grin," Wemple said. "He had accomplished something that he never thought he could."
Bush said it was an experience that he'll never forget.
"I really enjoyed the opportunity," Bush said. "It was really nice to see the smile on his face. These are boys trapped inside a body that no longer functions. They were both very, very smart."
A few days later, Dakota shot a whitetail doe deer on Wemple's ranch west of Victor.
"I've hunted all my life, but this experience was just so different," Wemple said. "To see these kids who live daily with these major challenges accomplish something like this is pretty amazing."
Dakota's dad thinks so, too.
"God answered my prayer for my boy," Darrell said. "He truly did."
Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or email@example.com.