ENNIS, MONTANA – With the snow-capped mountains visible a few miles off in the distance, Camp BullWheel sits just 400 yards from the Madison River, one of the most idyllic settings in the United States and home to world-class fly fishing.
People from all over travel to Ennis to fly fish. There is even a National Fish Hatchery keeping the streams stocked for fish season in the summer years.
However, for many years, disabled people couldn’t enjoy fly fishing in the Madison River Valley until Camp BullWheel opened. Unlike other fish camps in the area, BullWheel is a camp specially designed to cater to the needs of disabled fly fishers with high spinal cord injuries.
“There is no reason why disabled people shouldn’t be able to enjoy this Valley just like everyone else,” says Camp BullWheel Co-Director Peter Pauwels, who spent more than 30 years working at Craig Hospital in Denver before retiring to Montana in his 70s to found Camp BullWheel.
At Craig Hospital, Pauwels got involved in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Adaptive Fishing Program, where he invented the adaptive fishing equipment for disabled people that he uses at BullWheel. He designed not only rods for people with high spinal cord injuries but also boats strong enough to secure a wheelchair yet still light enough to navigate the shallow waters of the Madison River.
In his decades at Craig Hospital, Pauwels saw first-hand how fly fishing could motivate many recently disabled fishers to push through a rigorous physical therapy session.
“It’s so easy for people to get depressed when dealing with a disability, but if you have something to motivate you like fishing then you are gonna keep pushing,” says Pauwels. “You are going to see that there are still things in life that I can enjoy. I have seen so many cases where people’s attitude about their disability changes when they discover something like fishing.”
The camp was founded four years ago and hosts about a dozen disabled fly fishers every year. The camp consists of a large three-bedroom wheelchair-accessible farmhouse. Behind the farmhouse sits a set of four campers in the backyard, where guests of disabled fishers can stay.
Not only does Camp BullWheel allow disabled fishers to come to stay in wheelchair-accessible settings, but they allow up to five friends to stay as well.
“Oftentimes, disabled people are reliant on their family members to go on vacation, but here we give people a sense of independence,” says Pauwels. “And when people regain a sense of independence, it changes their whole outlook on life.”