Val Nitzsche, reeling from the death of his friend Bill Wilcox, scrambled for months trying to find a way to honor his former hunting companion and fellow conservationist.
Wilcox, a longtime employee of the town water department and a friend to about every hunter and angler in the Rim Country, died last April after a five-month long battle with liver cancer.
Nitzsche admits he wasn't sure of the best way to memorialize his sidekick until he received a phone call from Wilcox's widow, Katie.
"She called me last summer a few minutes after picking up her mail to let me known that he (Wilcox) had drawn an (elk hunt) tag," he said.
"Saddened by the loss of her husband she was also concerned that his tag was not going to be used and wondered if I had any ideas."
Wilcox applied for the archery elk tag in September 2006, about four months before he was diagnosed with the deadly disease.
Nitzsche, who had been on many hunts with Wilcox during their 12 years of friendship, had read about a nonprofit organization, Hunt of a Lifetime, that grants hunting and fishing adventures and fulfills dreams to those 21-years-and-under who have been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses.
He researched the foundation and found it was begun by Tina Pattison after her 19-year-old son, Matthew, realized his dream of going on moose hunt in Canada, before he died of Hodgkins disease in 1998.
Pattison said the foundation is dedicated "to my son Matt and the life he lived loving the outdoors to the fullest, and passing on to others what hunting and fishing meant to him."
Upon learning of the mission of Hunt of a Lifetime, Nitzsche immediately realized that if Wilcox had known he was going to receive the elk-hunt tag, he'd have wanted it to be used by a someone who shared his love for the great outdoors.
"I thought this would be a great way to honor him," Nitzsche said.
Almost immediately, Nitzsche enlisted the help of longtime Rim Country outdoorsman and Mogollon Sporting Association co-founder, Gary Barcom.
Wilcox had been a longtime supporter of the MSA and also a friend to Wilcox.
Originally Barcom and Nitzsche thought an elk tag transfer could be accomplished through the MSA but soon realized state statutes would not allow such a transaction.
"So, I contacted the Arizona Game and Fish Department and found out HOAL was the only organization authorized to transfer tags," Barcom said.
Hunt of a Lifetime obtained the legal rights to transfer tags after Terry Petko, an environmental safety manager and outdoorsman from Mesa, lobbied the legislature in 2004 to pass such a bill.
Petko convinced Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, to author the legislation that would allow tag holders to transfer hunt privileges to charitable organizations such as Hunt of a Lifetime.
"The governor signed it on April 1, 2004," Petko said. "It took us two years to get it (into law)."
After Barcom and Nitzsche informed Petko of the tag's availability, the two were told it is sometimes difficult to find a young hunter with archery skills.
"He (Petko) said, however, he did have a candidate in mind," Nitzsche said.
Within a couple of weeks Nitzsche and Barcom were given the name of Ryan Urie, a 17-year-old senior at Muller High School in Denver.
Ryan is in Stage 4 of a liver disease that has attacked his liver and colon, but doctors are hopeful his current medications will keep him healthy.
"I've been fighting this about four years now," he said. "The doctors said I am in clinical remission, but I'm still on meds," Ryan said.
The work begins
With the name of a deserving teen now available to Nitzsche and Barcom, the two set about planning a hunting experience Ryan would remember for a lifetime.
"We got many of Bill's old friends together to help out," Nitzsche said. "Through Gary's efforts and the monetary support of the MSA, a true hunt of a lifetime experience was put in place."
First on the agenda was to establish a first-class hunt camp, complete with all the amenities, north of Forest Lakes near Wildcat Canyon in Unit 4B.
"It was a city, everyone pitched in to help out," Barcom said.
As preparations continued for Ryan and his father's arrival on Sept. 1, even more volunteers jumped in to help. Norvin and Craig DeSpain of Mogollon Outdoor Adventures in Heber offered their guiding skills, as did Gilbert resident John Koleszar and Larry Holland of Taylor.
Evan Lautzenheiser, an Arizona Game and Fish Region 1 Department Wildlife Manager, also made his services available.
Ignacio Beltram and Leia Florez of Phoenix stepped up to work as camp cooks.
Overgaard resident Wally Smith supplied camp firewood and the Red Onion Restaurant in Overgaard hosted the hunting party for an evening meal.
The turnout of support to build the camp into a top-notch outfitter's facility was the fitting tribute Wilcox's friends were hoping for.
"Bill's friends know that hunting was a passion for him and while it was nice to harvest, it was more important to enjoy the experience of the hunt and the hunting camp," Nitzsche said.
Ryan and his father arrived in camp Sept. 21 primed and ready for the teenager's archery hunt.
For the next six days, the two and their guides scoured the countryside, glassing for elk and bugling in the early morning and late evening hours.
"While Ryan enjoyed numerous close encounters, he never got the opportunity to let loose an arrow," Nitzsche said. "At one time, two bulls were battling not 60 yards away, but kept moving in and out of the trees, stirring up so much dust, you could not see them."
On another day, Ryan spotted a bull, which he named "Pancake" within 35-40 yards.
"He was the biggest bull I've ever seen, probably 360 points (on the Boone and Crockett record book)," Ryan said. " But he was hung up behind a tree and I could never get a shot off.
"But, we found bulls almost every day we were there."
Although Ryan did not bag an elk, the tenacity he showed was a fitting tribute to Wilcox.
"We all noticed, he never gave up and for us who knew Bill, quitting was not in his vocabulary" Nitzsche said.
For Ryan, the hunt was a memorable one.
"I didn't get a bull, but it was a great experience, a lot of fun and a hunt I'll always remember," he said. "Hopefully, there will be another one (in the future)."
If there were moments during the hunt that Bill's friends will remember forever, it was the evening his widow arrived at the hunt camp to share the evening meal and a few hours of camaraderie.
"Ryan and his dad spent time with Katie learning of Bill's passion for hunting and looking through pictures," Nitzsche said. "We all knew it was a sad evening for her, but at the same time, it was the celebration of Bill's life we were all hoping for."
Ryan agreed the meeting was moving and poignant, " I was so thankful -- I wanted to tell her so and find out more about the man whose tag I had."
For Katie Wilcox, the evening with Ryan and Bill's friends -- sitting around a roaring campfire -- was a special treat.
"It was an emotional night, but I'm very happy I went there to meet him and his father," she said. "He is such a special young man and so respectful and kind -- if Bill could have picked anyone to receive that tag, I know it would have been him."