Straight Talk - Ray Howell By Frank Addington, Jr.
Mar 10, 2008 - 2:47:06 PM
Ray and Karen in family game room.
FA: You are one of the most respected, admired people in our industry Ray but you had a rough childhood that could have turned out badly for you. Can you tell us a bit about it? First, let's begin with your birth. Where were you born?
I was born in Wayne, Michigan.
Ray's mother Monica in the middle with Ray's grandparents.
Ray with sister Diana - Ray age approx. 6 months.
FA: What happened to start the chain of events that led you down the wrong path as a troubled youth?
I had no father figure in my life. My parents were divorced when I was five and that's when my Mom, brothers and sister and I moved in with my grandparents in Wisconsin. When I was 12 my grandfather became very sick with cancer. That's when I was put into foster care.
Ray's Dad (Kenneth Howell) on Right with Ray's maternal grandparents (Dolores & Obert Treangen) Ray lived with them before going to foster care.
Ray and siblings Left to Right Front row - Ray, brother Mitch Left to Right Back row - Brother Dan, Sister Diana.
FA: What happened to change what was a bad direction into the one you are now following?
I ran away from my foster homes several times and every time I would get caught, they would throw me in jail for three days and then take me back to the foster home. The only thing that kept me upbeat in jail was being able to read hunting magazines. One day when my social worker, Tom Poukey, came to take me back to the foster home, he walked in on me while I was reading one of these magazines.
On the way back to the foster home that day, he asked me if I would like to go hunting some time. I immediately said, "Yes".
But like so many others in the past who had promised to take me hunting or fishing, I thought this was just going to be another "no show" talk. But Tom was true to his word. I got to go hunting with him and his family at a cabin in northern Wisconsin.
The first whitetail deer I saw while I was on stand really shook me up! I found out that day that there really is a whole different and better world out there.
Tom took me hunting four times through my high school years, but it changed my life forever. I knew that when I was old enough to get out of foster care, I could chase my boyhood dreams. Those dreams were having my own family, being able to participate in competitive sports, work hard and earn my own money, and most of all find out if the animals and adventures I had read about in Alaska, Canada, and Africa were real.
FA: From all accounts you have become a kind, generous, deeply religious family man intent on helping our youth and promote archery. When did this part of your life begin and what do you think was the catalyst?
Tom Poukey, Ray's mentor.
I was running a very successful fabrication business that I started at the age of 23. One day Tom Poukey showed up at my shop and told me about a kid by the name of Brian who was on his way to St. Michael's Boys School unless Tom could find a job and a mentor for him..
Brian was 14 years old and had gotten himself into some serious trouble. Even more so than what I did at his age. Tom looked me in the eye and asked me if I could help this young man. To me it was pretty incredible that Tom thought that highly of me that I could help change this boy's life.
There are lots of things that flash through your mind when somebody asks you something like that. But it wasn't my mind that answered-it was my heart. The following day, little did I know, I met a young man who would have a serious impact on my life. My family and I had a lot of fun with Brian. He would come hunting, fishing, and camping with us. He worked hard as the shop janitor and used his money wisely.
Ray with home made deer cart - Age 24.
Six years went by fast. I saw how I had the opportunity to help change Brian's life and his family's life to come. Just by spending a little time with him his grades went up in school, he didn't skip school and he spent time doing positive things in the outdoors.
You could not believe the phone call I got from his Mom telling me how lucky she was to have somebody help her with her son. More than one time she broke down in tears. I went back to Tom, after Brian was in technical school, and asked him if he had another kid I could work with. During the following years I mentored eight other kids along with raising my own kids.
FA: You now head up a program, Kicking Bear, when did you start the program and what is its purpose?
I started the program in 2000. Its purpose is exactly what Tom Poukey did for me--to find good outdoor sportsmen and sportswomen who would be willing to take a kid, who doesn't have a chance, into the outdoors to show them a better way of life.
Ray with Michael and nice trophy buck.
FA: Where did the idea for this program come from and why the name Kicking Bear?
When I turned 18 years old I went to an archery shoot/camp out at Blackhawk Archers near La Crosse, Wisconsin. That night everyone was sitting around a campfire telling hunting stories. The kids were playing games and having a blast! That really stuck in my mind.
A few years later, I started chasing my dreams all over the world with a bow in my hand. Because of my success in the field, I wrote magazine articles, produced videos, and appeared in outdoor-related TV shows. In everything I did, I made sure to make known the importance of mentoring kids. But the real eye opener happened on my polar bear hunt in 2000 in Resolute Bay, NW Territories. I took a satellite phone with me so I could call back to a computer and tell everything that was happening each day.
Ray (2nd from Right) with friends on WI hunt.
It was linked up to three major websites. On one of the websites alone, there were 96,000 hits. I couldn't believe it! I think everyone was waiting for me to get froze to a chunk of ice or be chomped in half by one of these white bruins. Every day I would tell what happened, give my GPS coordinates, and talk about the importance of being a mentor to a kid who needs one.
On the 14th day, I harvested a boyhood dream come true -- a monster bear. I talked to my wife Karen and told her that because of what we did with the websites that we would be receiving thousands of emails throughout the country from people who wanted to help kids. For several weeks after returning home, I had hundreds of emails. Everyone wanted to know what kind of arrows I used, the bow I shot, the clothing I wore, and what it was like to be hunting the "king of the ice" at 60 below. I felt like the biggest failure in the world. I only had five to 10 emails from people who were interested in mentoring.
We figured we had upwards of 200,000 people hitting the three websites. I knew at this point the approach that I had was not working. I remember sitting there feeling down about the whole situation. But then I remembered the campfires and the fun the kids were having at the Blackhawk Archers.
Just like that I said to Karen, "I'm going to put on a campout and archery shoot that is going to be totally free to everyone and anyone who brings their own kid and a kid from outside their home is going to have a chance to win things from the people who were sponsoring me."
The name Kicking Bear came from a grizzly bear hunt in Unakaleet, Alaska. I had a magnificent bear walk past me at 18 yards. Once it was to the point where it couldn't see me draw my bow, I drew, anchored, and released. The arrow was true. The bear flipped into the water, roaring and biting at the entrance wound. In a heartbeat, it was out of the water running straight at me. If you think you've got time to do something, you don't. Everything went into slow motion. I just stood there froze hoping that it didn't know where the arrow came from. The bear ran past me and collapsed.
A grizzly down and Kicking Bear was born.
After viewing the film, it was only 11 seconds from the time the arrow passed through the bear until it expired. Although I didn't know my guide, Ron Sherer, very well, he had a true love for bow hunting. The next day we were sitting around a campfire and Ron said to me, "I guide mountain lion hunts in the off season and I spend a lot of time hunting on Indian reservations. I also trade Indian artifacts, and study Indian lore.
He said the Indians gave me the name of 'Man Walking in Cat Track'. He looked at me with this grin on his face and said, "You kicked that bear's hind end, therefore, your Indian name is going to be 'Kicking Bear'. And because you like to fish so much, your full name is going to be 'Kicking Bear Fish'."
I didn't quite know what to think of Ron when he said that to me. We had only been together for a few days. But during the rest of the 10 days we spent together, I found him to be one of the most incredible outdoorsmen I'd ever met. I told my wife, Karen, the story and she said to me, "Ray, let's use the name Kicking Bear for your email address".
You could not believe the doors that started to open because of using that name. Because of the vision I had after my Polar Bear hunt, we still use the Polar Bear paw print as one of the logos for Kicking Bear.
FA: Everything has a purpose and success stories. Can you share some success stories on Kicking Bear?
Group poses for photo.
The Lewiston Sportsmen's Club has been actively hosting Kicking Bear events for the last six years. At the first event they hosted, that Friday evening there was a young boy who was having a hard time keeping out of mischief. I remember going up to him a few different times and asking him to settle down a little bit. Karen also talked to him on several occasions and told me she was on the verge sending him home.
He was a big kid who was craving attention. The following day all the kids were paired up into groups of five or six. The group that Karen and I were mentoring included this young boy. At one of the targets I had said to the group, "Anyone who could outshoot Karen would have a chance to win a gift certificate from Gander Mountain." Karen made an incredible shot that I knew was going to be very difficult for anyone to beat.
The kids were taking turns shooting and then this young boy stepped up to take a shot. The arrow hit true -- not a perfect bull's eye-but he had the best shot. All the way up to the target, he was jumping up and down, hollering and yelling so everyone on the course could hear him. "I won, I won!" He never settled down for the rest of the day. It was like he was on a cloud.
I remember seeing this boy from time to time at a couple other Kicking Bear events but at the 6th annual event, I was walking up to the club house and this huge young man stepped in front of me, reached out to shake my hand and said, "Mr. Howell, do you remember me?"
I was stunned. I couldn't believe the size of this kid who now was a man. I said "Yes, it's great to see you again". He said to me, "What would you like me to do to help you? I came here to mentor a kid." That moment hit me so hard. I stood there with tears flowing down my face.
As Kicking Bear has been successful with the clubs and the people who help kids for the right reasons, I've asked these clubs to put on an organized group youth hunt following each of their Kicking Bear events. The Dugger, Indiana event that Mike Miller and his club hosted, was the site of one of the most incredible, fun Kicking Bear events I've ever been to.
Three weeks after the event, a DNR officer by the name of Steve Haines called me and told me that he and fourteen other DNR and police officers got together to take these kids from Kicking Bear on their first hunt. These officers, along with Mike Miller and his team helped all these kids get through their hunter safety course, then took the time to teach them how to properly shoot big game animals and set up hand-made brush blinds to hunt out of. The hunt was unbelievable!
First time shooters get some personal instructions.
These kids were being mentored one on one in a group situation. When I arrived, I met 12 year old David. Steve Haines had been working with him along with another youth and I got to sit in a blind with David on his first whitetail hunt.
I remember how focused David was on watching everything that moved as we sat in the blind. At one point in the middle of the day David turned his head and looked at me and said, "If I don't see a deer in the next two minutes, I'm going to decapitate that bird over there".
I started laughing uncontrollably to the point where I thought I may have messed up our hunting. David and I must have laughed for 15 minutes over what he said. But just like it was meant to be, a young doe walked into view and I was able to talk through with David when to move and when to take the shot.
He showed great maturity in his patience as it seemed to take forever for the deer to give us the right shot opportunity. I whispered to David to hold his breath and squeeze the trigger. The shot placement was perfect. I almost think that David was so confident in his shooting ability that after squeezing the trigger and before the muzzle ball hit home, he was already yelling, "That's my deer, that's my deer!" It was that quick. I had to hold him back to keep him from running out of the blind. He was so excited.
My time spent with David in the blind was very eye opening to the kind of lifestyle this young boy was living. The stories he told me should not have been coming from any kid's life. And to him, it was nothing out of the ordinary. I believe the hardships were something that he thought were natural every day stuff that everyone lives through.
I could see his life being changed right before my eyes through the excitement on his face-his wide eyes, his big smile and yelling at the top of his lungs, "That's me deer, that's my deer!" He knows now there's a better life through the outdoors and a Heavenly Father he can talk to every day.
A youngster tries his hand at nailing a 3D Cobra target.
That night at the banquet I was asked to give a talk. They had prepared an incredible feast. I felt like the safest man in the world. It was like being in a movie. I looked out in the parking lot and all I could see were squad cars and official vehicles. I think the town could have easily burned down because everyone was there at this banquet. I decided to sit with all the kids and listen to their hunting stories.
Right next to me was a young boy who was very big for his age. He was also very loud and outspoken -- much like the young boy at the Lewiston Sportsmen's Club. Everything he did, he was craving attention. I found out later that he had been verbally and physically abused since he was little. One of the officers walked around with subscriptions to the Ducks Unlimited Magazine. All the kids had to do was to fill out their name and address and they would receive a free one-year subscription.
The young boy sitting next to me openly said, "Why would I want to read a dumb hunting magazine like this?" That hit me so hard. It took me back to the day when I was in his shoes.
Had it not been for one man who cared, catching me reading a hunting magazine in jail, I may not be the man I am today and this community would not be having a banquet like this for these underprivileged kids.
As I stood up in front of the crowd to give my talk, I looked these kids in the face and saw myself in them. I started talking about what it was like growing up like them. I held back nothing. I talked about how I avoided the police officers and social workers and made them the enemies in my mind. They WERE the bad guys!
Then one day a social worker showed me how wrong I was and how he turned out to be the best friend a troubled young boy could have. It was hard for me to talk because everything that was happening to these kids happened to me. I remember looking at the young boy I had been sitting next to and he too, along with many others, had uncontrollable tears in his eyes.
This young fellow tries to hit his target with an ancient Atlatl.
There were several things that happened that night while listening to the mentors and the kids tell their stories that made my testimony even stronger. A couple months later I was invited to their first annual turkey hunt where all these kids and others were going to have the opportunity to spend time with their mentors in the outdoors and chase turkeys. These are only a few of the countless success stories that I've been involved with since the "birth" of Kicking Bear.
FA: What criteria do you look for in the kids you are attempting to help? Do you feel this program offers something for a kid whether they are in an inner city, a ghetto, or on a rural farm somewhere?
The rope pull always lets off steam and a stream of giggles.
There are no criteria. Any kid who wants to be involved with Kicking Bear is welcome no matter what their background is and at no cost to them. There are numerous kids who attend Kicking Bear events who have both parents who neither they nor their parents know the first thing about the outdoors, archery, or hunting. Kicking Bear is open to all "kids"-2 to 102!
FA: Everyone needs some help and worthwhile endeavors such as Kicking Bear could never do it alone. I know the first one you will give thanks to is the Lord but how has the industry helped you make your program a success?
As I was chasing my boyhood dreams, I could never really figure out why all these companies wanted me on their prostaff or as an ambassador to their company. At the end of my polar bear hunt, and having the vision on how to do the Kicking Bear camps, the industry had everything to do with making Kicking Bear successful. My sponsors supply products and prizes to all the kids and to the mentors who bring their own kids and a kid from outside their own home.
The worms may be a bit yukkie but catching fish is always fun.
FA: Name, names. Who has stepped forward to help you?
There have been several great companies who have stepped forward unselfishly to do things for kids for the right reasons. Two examples come to mind. The first one was from a phone call I received from Mark Baker, CEO of Gander Mountain. He asked me if I would take the time to visit with him about their hunting prostaff. In my meeting, I had brought along my resume that was about 2" thick with everything I'd done while chasing my dreams in the outdoors. In my meeting with Mark I never opened up the booklet. All we talked about was the importance of helping these kids who needed help. His last sentence to me told me where his heart was. He said, "You're breaking the chains and giving those kids dreams".
Boy having his caricature drawn.
At that moment, I knew exactly where I wanted to be. Another phone call came from Margaret Knupp, the Marketing Director for BowTech and Diamond which resulted in a four and half hour meeting in Eugene, OR with everyone who had anything to do with managing the company. In that meeting were John Strasheim, President and CEO and Dewayne Tiller, General Manager.
When the meeting was over John and Dewayne made it perfectly clear in a statement to me that it didn't matter how many youth bows we sell together, but rather how many people we help save together. These men have a great love for the Lord and I knew at that point with tears in my eyes that phone call was meant to be.
FA: Those reading this and wanting to also help, how do they go about doing this and what do you need to really kick your program into high gear and accomplish everything you want it to do?
That's real simple. They can contact us through the Kicking Bear website at www.kickingbear.org. We need to find people and organizations who want to help for the right reasons. There are Kicking Bear events being held in several states now, but there needs to be Chapters set up in all 50 states and Canada in order to take Kicking Bear to the next level.
At Kicking Bear the bonfire is always a warm treat.
FA: Have you been able to get any gov't help? Seems the gov't, local and federal are always putting together or giving money to specific charities, have you had any luck in this area getting some help?
We were recently invited to Washington D.C. to present the Kicking Bear Program to the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus which looks very positive for the future. Several State and local DNR organizations have been in contact with us because they would like to start the Kicking Bear Program in their states.
FA: What do you see as the future of Kicking Bear?
To stay on track with doing the Lord's work -- helping and mentoring as many kids as we can who in return will revive hunting/archery clubs and outdoor organizations and increase the numbers of licensed buying hunters so that we can keep our outdoor heritage alive, not only for them but for their families to come.
Every one loves the Kicking Bear Hayride.
FA: You were recently selected by Outdoor Life Magazine as one of 25 who have made a difference in the outdoor sports. First, how does this honor make you feel? And secondly, what other awards or accolades have you and Kicking Bear received?
I feel humbled. Doing what I'm doing with the kids is my passion and just comes naturally. Had the Lord not had me grow up the way I did for His purpose, I wouldn't be the man I am today. Kicking Bear received the Stewardship from the P&Y Club at its biennial convention in April 2007.
FA: The voting for the Outdoor Life top hero is over with you being chosen the top vote getter. You were up against some incredible people but what does winning this top award do for you and the program?
Hopefully it would make people aware of the fact that there are kids who need help and that there is a program (Kicking Bear) that 100% of everything goes back to help the kids. Anyone can be a mentor and make a difference in a kid's life and their family's life to come just by spending a few days together in the outdoors during the year.
Just as important, winning the award would reinforce to the industry that there is truly nothing more important than growing an outdoor heritage through our young people. It would also serve as inspiration that with God all things are possible and that dreams really can come true.
FA: Your life is a shining example of what one can do to turn bad things into good. Tell us about your family life.
I've been blessed in this life. I have a beautiful wife. We have nine children-25 grandchildren-and 1 great grand baby! Karen and I are very dedicated to Kicking Bear and so are several of our children. Being at home is a blast! I now have the family I never had. We also have two horses, four dogs, one cat, and two small birds. It's like a little parade around our house. When Karen is walking around, everything is following her. They are in love! The only thing I get out of the critters is biting, kicking, and pecking! (That's not 100% true.) When all the grandkids come over, I used to be able to hold my own for four to five hours. The wrestling matches were endless, but now as I'm getting older, I find myself a little less aggressive in instigating trouble because after the first hour or so, I realize the kids are a lot bigger and tougher to throw around!
FA: Most people who know you also know you are one heck of a bowhunter. So, how did you get involved in the sport?
A man by the name of George, who worked on a dredging machine on the Mississippi River, introduced me to bow hunting. He gave me my first fiberglass bow when I was about 8 years old while living with my grandparents. I used to hunt anything that moved -- rabbits, squirrels, and birds. My friends and I would get together occasionally and one person would flip over the garbage at the dump while the other one would shoot at the rats and mice that ran out from underneath it.
FA: Describe your first successful hunt and if possible, what it meant to you?
Ray's with first buck - approximate age 20.
I harvested my first whitetail deer when I was 19 years old. I had a lot to learn! The sub zero temperatures had the deer stressed and they were herded up. I was out every morning and every evening that I could be. I remember releasing my arrow on a very large doe and it was true. When I walked up on the animal, I couldn't believe it. What an incredible thrill!
FA: One of your quests is getting the Super Slam with bow. How far along are you?
I still have six animals -- three sheep, Mountain Caribou, Black Tail Sitka, and a Roosevelt elk.
FA: What's been your proudest accomplishment thus far in your bow hunting career, apart from Kicking Bear?
For whatever reason, the sheep hunts have been the most challenging. On one of the hunts I was on I almost lost my life. I found out that leaving my family was worse than dying and that's the only thing that got me off that mountain. After returning home from that hunt, I went and visited my grandkids, took my wife on a second two-week honeymoon, and was just happy to be alive.
I had another sheep hunt that year lined up for Canmore, Alberta. This hunt was going to be in subzero temperatures, high in the mountains. With the snow and the ice I wouldn't know what was under my feet. which caused the accident that happened on my previous hunt.
Karen's exact words to me were, "You should go on this hunt -- you'll probably have the time of your life!" She was right. I got to hunt with one of the most incredible bow hunting characters I've ever met, Tommy Hoffman. The stories are endless. The only man I've ever met who wakes up at 5:00 AM laughing and telling jokes! On this hunt I had the time of my life and as a bonus I harvested the gold medal ram for the year from FNAWS. It scored 170-5/8 P&Y.
FA: As a kid did you ever think someday you'd travel the country bow hunting, promoting the sport and being a major, positive influence on our next generation?
As a kid, I didn't know what I was going to be. All I knew was smoking, drinking, and chasing girls, and standing on the street corners acting tough. But the Lord had a purpose in mind for all of this. As you can see He's been guiding my arrows long before I knew He was. And now it's my intention to help Him guide many other kids' arrows.
FA: You are definitely on the road to being an archery icon, legend and hero but who are your heroes?
My heroes are men and women like Susan Jividen, Maria White, Greg Symons, Doug Besherse, Steve Haines, Doug Gilmer, Craig Mortz, Greg Hawkins, Mike Miller, Frank Archery, Rick Schell, and hundreds of others I could name who have all unselfishly stepped out of their every day life to help others for all the right reasons.
FA: I know you are close to your wife. After all, we know behind every successful man is a good woman. Right? How does she fit into what you are doing?
Ray and wife Karen.
I could write a book on all she does, the chapters would be endless. The title would be, "I Married My Guardian Angel". She's stuck by me through thick and thin. For instance when I told her I wanted to leave the comforts and the financial stability of our fabricating business to do Kicking Bear full time, she didn't blink an eye. She told me to do what I felt was best and she would stand together with my decision.
FA: One more question I always like to ask... ok, a dream hunt. It can be anywhere, anytime, and with any famous bowhunters living or deceased. Who'd share the campfire with you and where would you be hunting?
That's really a tough question. I've shared the camps with so many accomplished men. Men like Tommy Hoffman who step aside of a sure harvest for himself, come back and find you, to let you have the opportunity to take a species that you don't have. Jimmy Ryan-who has given it all just for the love of bowhunting to accomplish a dream. I've shared a camp with Fred Eichler in Colorado who made me laugh so hard-none of us cared whether we hunted or not. My twin "brother" Doctor Warren Strickland, alias "Dr. Stricknine". We were almost kicked out of a camp in Mexico for laughing for days on end during a Coues deer hunt. Warren's testimony as a doctor is so strong of the Lord.
I almost choked to death twice sitting at Tom Quaca's supper table in Texas laughing at some of the most stupid jokes I've ever heard. And the time spent with Pat Aucoin-an incredible accomplished archer who helped bring me to the Lord. There are so many men who have been true to themselves and hunt for the right reasons that I have shared camps with. But if I were to ever have had the opportunity to share a campfire with Howard Hill on his elephant hunt -- that would have been a dream come true!
SPECIAL NOTE: (Doug Gilmer)
Ray and Karen with Award at the Outdoor Life ceremony.
On February 3, 2008, Ray Howell was presented the Outdoor Life Top 25 Readers Choice Award at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas.
Ray is the founder of the Kicking Bear Foundation. Through its camps, Kicking Bear has enriched the lives of thousands of young people (at no cost to them) through outdoor experiences. Using archery, outdoor skills, and special youth hunts, young people are mentored, given hope for their future, and taught their dreams can come true. Ray's passion is inspired by his strong faith and his past; having grown up as one of the kind of kids Kicking Bear seeks to help today.
In 2007, Outdoor Life profiled its inaugural group of the 25 most influential sportsmen and women online and in the December/January 2008 issue of the magazine. Categorized as leaders, conservationists, innovators, or unsung heroes, the group included such notable names as Governor Mike Huckabee, Larry Potterfield, Ted Nugent, Dick and Jim Cabela, Dr. James Earl Kennamer, Doug Hannon, Ron Coburn, and Marty Brunson. Outdoor Life invited its readers to visit the OL website and vote for the nominee they believed best represented the spirit of the OL 25. Over 10,000 votes were cast and 42% of the respondents chose unsung hero Ray Howell as the Reader's Choice Award winner.
To contribute to Ray Howell's Kicking Bear Organization please contact: Kicking Bear