Ray Hoeft

Moments after he’d fired the shot to bring down a 900-some pound moose on the second day of a hunting trip to Vermont last October, Ray Hoeft, a senior at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School, was in disbelief. Standing in the woods of Bloomfield, Vt., with a team from the nonprofit group Hunt of a Lifetime, he was in awe of all that had been done for him so far.

“I didn’t believe I was there. It was like a dream,” said Hoeft, son of Patrick and Michelle Hoeft, Union.

The dream began more than 1 1/2 years earlier in March 2015 when Hoeft was with his grandfather, Tom Dowil, Villa Ridge, who creates and sells fishing lures to raise money for various charities, manning his booth at the annual Truth and the Outdoors wildlife expo in St. Clair.

To date Dowil has donated around $5,000 from sales of his fishing lures to charities, like St. Louis Children’s Hospital, St. Jude, cystic fibrosis, American Diabetes Association, parish dinner auctions and veterans organizations.

The exhibitor next to them was with Hunt of a Lifetime, and Hoeft struck up a conversation with the man. Similar to Make-A-Wish Foundation, Hunt of a Lifetime grants hunting and fishing dreams for children 21 and younger who’ve been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses.

“This sounds like me,” Hoeft mentioned as he read the organization’s brochures.

A few years earlier, when he was in seventh grade at Immaculate Conception School in Union, Hoeft had a seizure. That led to the discovery of a half-dollar-sized brain tumor, which fortunately turned out to be benign.

However, after having surgery to remove the tumor, Hoeft contracted a staph infection, which got so bad that he required a second surgery. That led to a three-month recovery which was complicated by the fact that Hoeft is allergic to penicillin.

“I was on antibiotics I think that entire time,” said Hoeft, who noted he was able to go to school most days, but he would have to leave class sometimes to get hooked up to an IV.

“It was super difficult,” recalled Dowil. “The brain tumor ended up being the minor problem.”

Impressed by Selflessness

Fast-forward a few years to March 2015 at the Truth and the Outdoors expo.

After hearing about Hoeft’s experience, the Hunt of a Lifetime representative invited him on a wild hog hunt near Fort Leonardwood, but Hoeft turned it down. He didn’t feel deserving.

“He told the man, ‘Really, I’m all right now. Why don’t you take a different child on the hog hunt,’ ” Dowil recalled.

“Ray felt like because he had overcome the illness, there may be some other child who would be more deserving,” his grandmother, Ruth Dowil, explained.

That kind of selflessness so impressed the man with Hunt of a Lifetime that he told Tom Dowil he wanted to sponsor Hoeft for the organization’s big prize — the hunt of a lifetime.

“The man asked, ‘Does he like to hunt and fish? . . . I’ll take him to Hawaii, and we’ll blue marlin fish,” recalled Tom Dowil. “ ‘Or would he rather hunt moose, elk, turkey, caribou, what?’ ”

Hoeft’s dream was to hunt a moose, so plans began for making a trip to Vermont.

More Than Just a Hunt

The family didn’t know much about Hunt of a Lifetime before this encounter, but the more they learned, the more in awe they were by the generosity.

“This is such a big deal that a couple of years ago (Hunt of a Lifetime) was going to take a girl who was sick, but when it came time to go she was too scared to go without her doctor, so they took her doctor along with them,” said Tom Dowil.

“I had no idea about Hunt of a Lifetime, but they have huge sponsors all over — gun sponsors, hunting club sponsors . . .”

To prepare for the trip, Hoeft was given vouchers to Gander Mountain, so he could get the proper clothing and boots.

Hoeft took his own gun, a Rueger rifle. Hunt of a Lifetime did provide him with another gun, but it was a kids rifle, he said, noting he stands 6 feet, 5 inches, tall.

“They take unbelievable care of everything,” said Tom Dowil. “The sponsors, the airplane, they fly them out there. Put them in a hotel. They pay for all of it.”

Hunt of a Lifetime even offered to let Hoeft stay overnight in St. Louis the night before the trip so he wouldn’t have to get up so early to drive to the airport in the morning, said Ruth Dowil.

‘Releasing the Spirit of the Animal’

Hoeft’s uncle, Mark Dowil, went along with him on the 10-day trip this past October, Oct. 13-23. They stayed in North Stratford, N.H., and hunted in Blumfield, Vt.

Hunt of a Lifetime only makes two hunting trips to Vermont for moose each year, said Tom Dowil.

The moose hunting season is only six days, but the Hunt of a Lifetime kids are pretty much guaranteed they’ll get a moose in that time, Hoeft said, noting the charity has scouts who go out ahead of the hunt to determine the best plan.

Compared with deer hunting, moose hunting involves a lot more walking.

“You travel,” said Hoeft. “With deer, you find a place to set up camp, and you wait for them to come to you. With moose hunting, you go out looking for them.

“The moose at this time of year are in the rough,” Tom Dowil noted. “A guide will go out and call, do a moose call and, if you’re lucky, the moose will come forward to answer the call.”

Hoeft, who had three guides from Hunt of a Lifetime with him on his trip, said his moose answered the call on the second day of his hunt. That shot ended the hunt, but not the excitement.

“After he shot the moose, the guide came over and gave him a handmade knife and said, ‘Welcome to Hunt of a Lifetime.’ And then they take the blood from this moose and take it across under your eye,” said Tom Dowil. “That’s what’s called releasing the spirit of that animal. It’s respecting the animal. That’s tradition that goes way back.”

To get the 900-pound moose out of the woods, the team brought in a draft horse.

“They tell you, ‘When he decides to go, get out of his way, because he is going to build up enough momentum to pull this big animal out,’ ” said Tom Dowil. “He’s going to go all the way to the truck with it.”

At the weigh-in station, it felt like the whole town had turned out to see Hoeft’s moose. The span measurement on its antlers, from tine to tine, was around 37 inches, said Hoeft.

The remainder of the trip was spent hiking and seeing the sights.

“We went on Mount Jericho, N.H., rented a four-wheeler, drove around all over that country. Went to a maple syrup factory. There was a lot to do up there,” said Hoeft.

The meat from the moose he shot has been processed and delivered to him.

“It’s really good. It doesn’t taste all that different from beef,” said Hoeft.

“It’s just a very, very lean meat,” Tom Dowil said. “Extremely lean. There’s hardly any fat on it.”

The head of the animal is being mounted. Hoeft doesn’t know yet where he’ll hang it.

The mounting will be completed by a local taxidermist, said Tom Dowil, noting the antlers and hide are delivered and then put together locally.

‘Extremely Impressive Organization’

There was another teenage boy making his Hunt of a Lifetime at the same time as Hoeft. He was from Colorado and has cystic fibrosis.

“He had treatment every morning and every evening during the hunt,” said Hoeft.

It seems nothing will prevent the organization from making the hunting dreams of sick children come true, said Tom Dowil, pointing out Hunt of a Lifetime has taken kids in wheelchairs on hunts.

“They are an extremely impressive organization,” he remarked.

The name of the group is fitting too, considering the cost involved in any one of these types of hunts, said Dowil. He estimated the value on all Hoeft was given and experienced — the gun, the ammo, the clothing, the hotel and food for 10 days, the guides, the hunt — was thousands of dollars, perhaps as much as $25,000.

“The permit tags alone for hunting a moose are $2,000,” Hoeft said.

“So it was the Hunt of a Lifetime,” said Dowil. “He will probably never get to go on a hunt of this magnitude ever again.”