Devastating words that would hit anyone hard, but to an active 20-year-old, it can sound like a death sentence. One minute you’re enjoying life riding an ATV, and the next it flips over on you, breaking your neck. Surely, this was just a nightmare.
But there was no dream to wake up from. It was real. It took a while for the shock to subside, but that’s when Ben Cockell made the decision to prove the doctors wrong.
He would not allow his accident to rob him of his life. One day he would work on the family’s Alberta farm again. And one day he would return to the woods to hunt with a bow and arrow, something he’d loved to do since he was 14 years old.
The accident was in 2001, and after months of grueling rehab, Cockell (pronounced Co Kell) worked his way back to his feet. His upper body grew stronger, and although he still required the use of crutches to get around, he was able to help on the family farm and get back to his love of bowhunting.
Although he could work his way up into a treestand if he really wanted to, most of his bowhunting strategy switched to the safer, yet still effective, use of a ground blind.
Three years ago, Cockell and his father, Brian, sold the family farm and Cockell bought an outfitting business he now calls Northern Alberta Outfitters. They offer hunts for moose, mule deer, elk and black bears, but the focus is on whitetails — big whitetails! And it is in that direction in which this story is headed.
It all started December 3, 2012, three days after the deer hunting season had closed, when Cockell, his dad, and a family friend, Gordon Rockefeller, were in the house discussing the long hunting season and wondering which bucks might have made it through the season. When Rockefeller went to the restroom, he looked out the window and spotted a huge nontypical whitetail buck standing right in the yard. The massive buck was casually feeding on some canola that had spilled the night before while loading a truck.
“I set up a trail camera over the canola and managed to get a few photos of the big buck,” Cockell said. “But after that, I never saw the buck again. He never appeared anywhere all winter long, or over the entire next summer. No sightings or trail camera photos. He just disappeared.”
Then, in September 2013, one of Cockell’s clients, Will Simmons, was bowhunting a field edge when the big whitetail, now carrying antlers with even more nontypical points and more mass, paraded across an alfalfa field in full view of the bowhunter.
Since the buck never got closer than 90 yards, all Simmons could do was videotape the monster buck. As you can imagine, it was a painful experience to watch helplessly as the deer of a lifetime walked away, leaving Simmons with nothing more than the inspiration to name the buck “Medusa.”
Later in his hunt, Simmons got a shot opportunity at another huge buck, but his errant arrow hit the buck low and back, breaking his back leg. Both outfitter and client searched far and wide, but they were unable to recover the big buck.
Over the course of the next few weeks, unbeknownst to either Cockell or Simmons, the wounded buck demonstrated the hardiness and resilience that is so prevalent in whitetails. The buck evidently suffered no infection, and the wound healed sufficiently enough that he could get around quite well but with a major limp. This became evident in mid-October, when the buck started showing up on Cockell’s trail cameras. Shocked and relieved, Cockell called Simmons to let him know the buck was not dead after all, and was back in the area doing what whitetails do.
That was all Simmons needed to hear, and on October 26 he returned to northern Alberta to finish what he’d started. On his very first day back in the field he got another chance at “his” buck, and this time the shot was a good one. Days of anguish and a month of sleepless nights were washed away with a single well-placed arrow. The magnificent buck, which scored an impressive 184 inches, was finally his.
The taking of this beautiful whitetail is a key element to our story. Why? Because Simmons was Cockell’s last bowhunting client for the season, and he would be leaving for home the next morning. No more clients were coming until the firearms season, which was a full week away. That meant Ben Cockell would be able to find time to do some bowhunting of his own.
You see, most outfitters love to hunt, but it’s considered bad form to hunt while you have clients in camp. Even if those clients are longtime friends and don’t mind if you hunt, it’s still a bad idea. That’s why a guide or outfitter’s hunting opportunities are so rare — and so treasured.
The next day, October 27, with Simmons on his way home, Cockell spent most of the day winding down. But, at about 3 p.m., he started getting restless and was thinking about the one pop-up ground blind he had left out in the field. Maybe he should go bowhunting?
It had snowed overnight and it was cold, with the mercury hovering around 15 degrees. But in Alberta, that’s whitetail hunting weather. Cockell made up his mind, grabbed his gear, jumped in his side-by-side ATV and headed for the blind, if for no other reason than to get in some hunting time.
The blind was situated in a semi-open staging area not far from a deep, thick bedding ground. The deer tended to hang out in the timber, killing time until it got dark enough to slip across a road and into one of the only alfalfa fields for miles around.
Typically, the most mature bucks are always the last to sneak into the field, often after dark. Hunting the staging area would help move the potential for an encounter up a few minutes into that timeframe just before the end of legal shooting hours.
“By the time I got all settled in my blind and got my video camera set up on the tripod, there were already deer all around me,” Cockell recalled. “Ten does and two small bucks wandered by on their way to the alfalfa field. I went undetected as they passed by, so that was a good sign.”
With just 30 minutes of shooting light remaining in Cockell’s first day of bowhunting in 2013, fate — dressed in brown fur and wearing a massive tangle of bone on its head — ambled into Cockell’s peripheral vision. It was Medusa.
“The buck was on top of me before I realized what was happening,” Cockell said. “I reached to turn on my video camera but hesitated. I just couldn’t take a chance messing with the camera. The buck was moving quickly, so there was no time for video. In fact, by the time I got my bow drawn, the buck was already coming into my blind’s second shooting window.”
Sometimes these surprise shot opportunities can be a blessing in disguise. There is no time to get nervous or to think negative thoughts. No analyzing, no questions to be answered, no “thinking ahead” to mounts on the wall and meat in the freezer (always the kiss of death), just quick reaction and laser focus.
“The next thing I remember is my arrow disappearing behind the buck’s shoulder,” Cockell said. “He ran toward the alfalfa field, but he only made it about 40 yards before he tipped over and was dead still. When I saw him go down, I dropped my bow, sunk back into my chair, and took what felt like my first breath since I had spotted the buck. I knew I’d just killed the buck of a lifetime; I just didn’t know how big he was until I put my hands on him. I was pretty much on Cloud Nine.”
Despite his physical limitations, Cockell was able to drive his side-by-side right up to the buck and load him onto a “calf sled” typically used for transporting newborn calves, then he hauled his prize home.
This was more than a great buck with a nontypical set of antlers. Medusa had 27 scorable points, plus a point about six inches long that had been busted off. After the requisite drying period, Cockell’s buck had a gross score of 263 4⁄8 and a net score of 249 2⁄8.
According to the Pope and Young Records, Ben Cockell’s buck is about eight inches bigger than the largest nontypical whitetail buck ever entered from not only Alberta, but all of Canada!
This is the story of a huge whitetail buck, first and foremost. But it’s also a story of perseverance and determination. Not because Ben Cockell hunted Medusa relentlessly for three years until he tagged the huge buck, because he didn’t. Not because he made a spectacular shot under duress, which he did.
This is, in part, a story about having the resolve to disregard a pessimistic medical prognosis and fight to get your life back to the best of your ability. It’s about knowing how to maximize the opportunities one is given, be they life opportunities or hunting opportunities.
Ben Cockell had one chance to recover from his accident and reclaim his life, and he had one chance to make the shot on the buck of a lifetime. He made good on both counts.
Ben Cockell is a bowhunter and outfitter in north-central Alberta, Canada, near Fort Assiniboine.