It’s a cold January morning in Nashville, Tennessee. Twenty-eight-year-old Hayden Martin has been up since 3:30 a.m., already anticipating the hunt ahead.
He and his buddy Matt pull into a nearby gas station. Most of their preparations were done the night before, but the morning snack-grab ritual is nearly as sacred as the hunt itself.
Armed with powdered donuts and Reign peach fizz, they make their way toward public lands on the outskirts of Nashville, between the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways.
True to plan, they reach the boat launch before dawn. Hayden and Matt meet up with their friend Ben to load the boat with their gear and Hayden’s hunting dog, a birdy black lab named Hurley. Soon they’ve cast off down the shoreline.
Even though they’ve already scouted out the perfect location, Hayden’s mind is full of variables: Will there be other hunters close by? Will the wind conditions be favorable? Luckily, all is well and quiet when they arrive. Carefully, Matt lifts Hayden from the boat and carries him to shore.
Hayden was 6 years old when he was diagnosed with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, or FSHD. “It really changed my journey throughout life,” he says. “Up until about age 13, I was an everyday, run-of-the-mill kid. I was running around playing basketball, football, baseball.” Hayden even had his second degree black belt in Taekwondo.
But just as Hayden reached his early teens, the disease began to progress. “I wasn’t able to do what I was normally able to do,” he says.
Muscular dystrophy is a disease that causes progressive muscle degeneration. Over time, muscles grow weaker and thinner — a process called atrophy. As a result, individuals with muscular dystrophy often have trouble moving and balancing.
Hayden, for example, can no longer run. He prefers walking to using a wheelchair, but getting out of a boat isn’t something he can do without help.
Back on shore, Hayden sets up the blind while Matt and Ben move their gear over from the boat. Hurley does her part too, double-checking the decoys. Thinking of what she looks like when there are real birds to retrieve, Hayden’s reminded of one of the main reasons he’s there. “Watching my dog have the time of her life retrieving birds is so great,” he says. He knows it’s what she was born to do. And giving her the opportunity to do it is what makes getting out of the boat worth the trouble.
“It can be a real struggle sometimes, because you’re like, ‘How do I ask someone to help me without being a burden?’” he says. Every hunter is familiar with the struggle of getting up early and braving chilly weather. For Hayden, the hardest part about duck hunting is relying on someone else to carry him in and out of the boat — a physically demanding job. Luckily, he and Matt have the kind of friendship that makes him feel more comfortable. And that makes all the difference.
Muscular dystrophy isn’t easy to ignore. Hayden works out at the gym five to seven days a week to help combat its effects. He doesn’t let the disease rule his life.
“I keep pushing myself,” he says. “I don’t just want to give up and be lazy and sit on the couch all day. I want to be out and doing stuff that I enjoy, be around people that I enjoy spending time with, and be involved in God’s creation, seeing everything that He has to offer.”
That’s something Hayden isn’t keeping to himself. In 2019, he started a blog called Down to Westlake. “It’s a community for people who have handicaps and are afraid to get started with their outdoor journey, or who don’t know how to get involved in the outdoors,” he says. He hopes his posts about adaptive hunting give readers some simple, practical ways to get into the wilderness, despite the challenges. And he hopes to show others like him that they’re not alone.
Hayden says one of his biggest tips is to surround yourself with good friends who understand you and your daily struggles. “That way, you’re not going blindly into the field,” he says. “And you’re not looking at someone you’ve never hunted with, wondering ‘How do I ask this guy to help me?’”
Hayden also suggests making your gear and equipment work for you. Talk to your local gun shop about modifying your guns or ammunition to reduce the weapon’s kick and help protect fragile shoulder ligaments. Invest in an off-road power chair — something Hayden has been saving up to buy and will finally get to use this season.
Lastly, seek out local and national organizations focused on adaptive hunting or wilderness adventures. Some examples include Outdoor Buddies in Colorado, the national organization United Foundation For Disabled Archers, and Kidz Outdoors, which focuses specifically on youth. Hayden’s favorite is the KT Team. “They’re an amazing organization out of Statesboro, Georgia, that I have been following since their inception in 2018,” he says. “They specialize in turkey, deer and dove hunts, and do amazing work for disabled hunters.”
Eventually all is ready, and it’s time to wait. The world is hushed and cold. It’s been a hectic morning, but now there’s nothing to do but be still — and have some powdered donuts.
A bit of daylight peeks over the horizon. Hayden, Matt, Ben, and Hurley straighten to attention. It could be any moment now.
Featured photo for this article (top, main image) is courtesy of Matt Carey.