Filling the Freezer

The story behind Michael Burnside's photo that received the most likes on the Braggin' Wall in 2022.
Feb 1, 2023
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Kenzi Burnside, with her Colorado pronghorn, is front and center in the photo that received the most likes—108—on the Braggin’ Wall in 2022. Her mother, Janet, and father, Michael, appear to be pretty proud.

The Braggin’ Wall, where Guidefitter members post some of their most cherished photographs of their hunting and fishing adventures and react to other photos posted by other members around the continent, is a popular feature at guidefitter.com. How popular? In 2022, Guidefitter members posted more than 3,000 pics on the Braggin’ Wall.

In 2022, Michael Burnside’s photo of himself, his wife, his daughter, and his daughter’s pronghorn garnered 108 likes from the Guidefitter community—more than any other photo. The image, posted in September 2022, is composed very nicely, the buck with horns that measure 14½ inches is a good one, and the prairie landscape of Colorado provides a beautiful background. The entire focus of the viewer, however, falls solely on his daughter, Kenzi, who is sitting strapped into what appears to be an all-terrain wheelchair and wearing the big smile of a successful hunter.

“Kenzi and her brother are the survivors of a set of triplets born to my wife and me 27 years ago,” said Michael, who does environmental testing and lives in Talala, Oklahoma. “She was born with cerebral palsy and has been wheelchair-bound all her life. My son is a hunter too, but he is capable of hunting on his own and lives independently. Kenzi needs assistance.”

That “assistance” has helped Kenzi become a successful hunter and has come in the form of careful nurturing from Michael and Janet, his wife of 34 years. Michael also gives credit to the people, companies, and groups allied with the hunting community who not only have helped take Kenzi hunting but also taught the Burnsides how to make hunting possible for her on their own.

“We’ve met many great men and women who work with groups and foundations in the hunting industry to help those who can’t help themselves experience the outdoors and share the hunting heritage that many of us are fortunate to know. I have been on hunts and met many children with disabilities or illnesses who didn’t have long on this earth, but the volunteers and organizers made sure that those children truly did have the experience of a lifetime. These are people my family and I have been very blessed to meet.”

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Kenzi’s weapon of choice is a Ruger American that is equipped with a Tactacam, which streams the hunt feed to a tablet that she can see while her father keeps the rifle on target. The electric cable trailing up from the bottom of the photo is attached to a vacuum-air actuator, which is tripped by Kenzi when she sucks in air firmly and sends an electronic signal to a mechanism that pulls the trigger.

Breathing and Vision
Back about 10 years ago, Kenzi killed a wild turkey in Oklahoma while hunting with the nearby Tulsa chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. After the hunt, however, she began to focus on other things.

“After she killed the gobbler, she didn’t hunt for a few years. She got involved in school activities, like the school choir and Special Olympics. And be honest, with just Kenzi, my wife, and me, I wasn’t even sure we’d be able to figure out how to manage a hunt with her.”

A few years after finishing school, Kenzi began to express interest in hunting again. He explained how events aligned to make it possible.

“We had a friend who told us about the Holy Pursuits Foundation that hosts hunts for people with disabilities, and we attended one of their hunts in Illinois. We hunted white-tailed deer with crossbows. Well, they had this vacuum-air actuator that they used to help her fire the bow. The actuator works just as well on a rifle, and I bought one for us to have for hunting our property and to take on other hunts.”

The actuator made it possible for Kenzi to fire a gun, but it was still difficult for her to experience the thrill of all the action. That’s about the time the Tactacam people came calling.

“About three years ago, some folks from Tactacam approached us and asked if we wanted to use their system. They wanted us to use it and for us to give them feedback as they refined this system for disabled veterans who wanted to hunt.

"The Tactacam Solo Xtreme mounts on the gun parallel to the scope using the Tactacam FTS ("film through scope") and streams to a tablet so she sees everything that is taking place just as I see it through the scope. It’s my job to keep the rifle on target, and when I say, ‘Good,’ she fires the weapon by sucking in air, which sends an electric signal to the actuator, which then activates a mechanism that pulls the trigger."

The combination of the actuator and the Tactacam opened up a whole new world of hunting opportunities for Kenzi.

Colorado Bound
Fast forward to 2022 when Michael applied for Kenzi to hunt pronghorns in Colorado—and she was drawn. Michael also procured a shoot-from-vehicle permit just in case they needed it. He said that they hunted in Colorado with a group called Outdoor Buddies, which doesn’t provide guiding services but does set aside an area for people who suffer from mobility impairment to hunt.

Mike tells the rest of the story.

“We drove around the property and came up on a buck that was preoccupied with a group of does. And it’s good that it was, because with our system—with the actuator and Tactacam and me operating everything—there are many working parts… But it turned broadside to us at about 180 yards.

“To prepare for the shot, I had to get out of the truck to set up the tripod and the actuator cables running to Kenzi. After I got on target, I said, ‘Good,’ and I heard her breathe in real hard, but the system only clicked. The shot didn’t go off. After a quick inspection, I noticed one of the cables that should have been connected to a 12-volt battery wasn’t connected. By the time I fixed it, the buck had moved on. So, I loaded up and we started driving again. Then a light rain began to fall.

“We drove to the property boundary, turned around, and saw that herd buck again—it was on top of a hill moving toward us. It had about 20 does, and a bunch of smaller bucks was pestering it. Antelope were running around everywhere.

“Again, it was concentrating on its does and was distracted by the smaller bucks, and in that rain, it was kind of oblivious to us. So, I got out, set up, and prepared for the shot.

“She tried to fire, but again just a click. I knew the cables were connected, so I began troubleshooting. I found that I had not pushed the bolt down all the way. It was all my fault.

“We got set up, and I whispered, ‘Good.’ I never know when the gun will go off, but I remained on target, and she fired. The buck ran, but I could tell it had been hit. We drove to the top of the hill and saw the buck laying about 40 yards below the crest of that hill.”

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In addition to this mule deer, Kenzi has an elk, several white-tailed deer, and wild turkeys to her credit.

More Than a Trophy
Michael said that Kenzi’s personality is in many ways typical of most hunters. She has respect for the wild game and a love of wildlife and wild places. Further, the excitement of a hunt often overwhelms her, and she even trash-talks a little.

“She knows to breathe in when I say ‘Good,’ but often she’s so focused on what she’s seeing and not what she’s doing that she breathes out. I’ll have to remind her to breathe in. And a few years ago, she and I each killed an elk—hers was a nice 5x6. She’s always reminding me that her elk is bigger than mine.”

More than anything though, the hunt allows Kenzi to feel she’s contributing to the economy of the family. The impact of what hunting means to her can’t be underestimated.

“Her dedication, perseverance, and willpower to succeed in the outdoors are very humbling. For someone who could give up so easily, she fights to enjoy the outdoors. Among Janet, Kenzi, and me, it would be so easy for one of us not to want to hunt as much as we do, but we all work together to give Kenzi opportunities that many of us take for granted. And we each have different skills and personalities and blend together to make a great team. I can’t thank my wife enough for always being available to make it work.

“And when she kills an animal, Kenzi always says, ‘Fill the freezer.’ For years, she’s been hearing me say that after a successful hunt, and to hear her say it is very heartwarming to her mother and me. It makes her feel that she’s contributing to the family, and my wife and I reinforce that feeling for her and are committed to giving her every opportunity to continue filling the freezer.”

Right now, Michael says they don’t have any hunts set in stone for autumn 2023, but they will definitely hunt. Be sure to keep an eye on the Braggin’ Wall for the Burnsides—especially Kenzi. She’s dedicated to the hunt and filling the freezer.


Russ Lumpkin is a long-time editor in the outdoor industry and a former editor of Gray’s Sporting Journal, American Angler, Fly Tyer, Alaska magazine, and the Guidefitter Journal.

Author
Russ Lumpkin
Russ Lumpkin
Augusta, Georgia
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