EAGLE — Tred Barta grabs a fistful of arrows he’s made with hickory, elk sinew, pine tar and carefully chipped obsidian. He’s felled elk, bear, boar and geese with these arrows, he says, pointing to the rack of longbows he hewed by hand.
“I want to do everything the hard way. The Barta way,” says the outspoken 58-year-old record-holding fisherman, author, pilot and renowned Eagle Valley outdoorsman. His “Best and Worst of Tred Barta” television show on the Versus channel is the network’s top hunting program.
So it’s hardly surprising that when a spinal stroke in May 2009 stole the lower two-thirds of his body and a rare blood cancer decimated his towering, 200-pound frame, he barely missed a beat.
Since beginning what he calls his “new adventure,” living in a wheelchair paralyzed from the armpits down, he’s dropped bear, antelope and whitetail deer across North America with his handmade longbow. He cowboys cattle atop his longtime horse, Badger. He captains a fleet of high-end fishing boats at a resort in Panama. He directs his long-standing fishing tournaments that have raised more than $1 million for children’s causes. He’s been recertified in scuba diving. He pilots his family’s 63-year-old aviation business, buying and selling corporate aircraft. He designs and builds his own line of birch-and-maple longbows, a primitive, hard-to-use weapon with a storied history as one of hunting’s first tools. And he’s filmed eight episodes of his celebrated show.
“I don’t know how anyone would continue like he has,” says Mark Freedman, a publicist and producer who helped Barta create his unique show. “Not only continue, but improve. I swear he’s better at his show than ever before.”
“A motivational show”
Barta’s show is the most popular hunting show on Versus. His Luddite, traditional approach to hunting has garnered a loyal following. Loyal enough to persuade network executives to extend Barta’s program through 2011, despite the host’s confinement to a wheelchair.
“People are writing in to say that Tred has inspired them to get back out there,” says Jeff Macaluso, head of outdoor programming for the Versus network. “Tred is the same old Tred. He just does things differently now. It’s more of a motivational show.”
Still, Internet posts and blogs reveal people who are often appalled by his vociferous, moral-centric and politically charged viewpoints.
“People either love Tred or they hate him,” says his wife, Anni. “I’ve lost good friends over Tred. That’s because he is the most honest human being I’ve ever met.”
While Barta’s do-it-all pace and the tough-guy, “hard way” mantra have remained intact since he was paralyzed, the macho, self-described caveman with pointed thoughts on America’s “lost manhood” has softened significantly.
“He went from this super-abrasive, ‘I-don’t-need-anybody, I-just-want- to-kill-something’ man’s man to somebody who really wants to stop and smell the roses,” says Danny Kirsic, the videographer who has directed Versus filming for all seven years of Barta’s show. “He lives larger now than he ever did. He asks for help. He’s not an island anymore. He knows now that it takes a village. I like the new Tred.”
Barta is quick to acknowledge his caregivers, primarily Anni, whom he married four years ago. A lithe, energized former University of Colorado ski racer, skydiver and rags-to-riches designer of cutting-edge ski clothing, the Breckenridge native has used a workaholic approach to Barta’s injury that has helped save his life.
After four months of recovery from his spinal stroke, doctors discovered the rare blood cancer. The news hit Barta hard. Anni had never seen him so low. The risk-loving, thrill-seeking man — whom she first met 37 years ago when they both ski raced at CU — had, she says, squeezed every bit of fun possible out of life, and he was giving up.
Wife buoyed his spirit
“I wasn’t about to give up,” she says.
As doctors planned to move Barta to a nursing home, where he could undergo heavy doses of chemotherapy, Anni intervened and took her husband back home to their 20-acre Longbow Ranch above Salt Creek outside Eagle. Doctors argued against the move, but Anni didn’t budge.
“He had gotten to the point where he wanted to die,” says Anni, who speaks graphically and bluntly about medical work she had to assume when she moved her paraplegic husband home. “I realized that we had to work on his spirit. You recover from something like this with attitude, and, boy, do we have that in spades around here.”
“Anni!” Barta’s voice booms from down the hall of their remote ranch home, which features a new elevator and a massive trophy room swollen with enormous, record-setting ungulates, birds, billfish and boar. An adjacent room spills over with exercise equipment and a special crane to lift Barta back into his chair when he tumbles.
Anni grabs a harness she designed and built. She slips it over Barta’s shoulders. Now the lifelong archer can lean forward in his chair and shoot. Pulling on his 40-pound longbow, he pops a series of his handmade arrows into a boar target, expertly bunching the shots in a tight circle.
“We are having to really prove what was all talk before,” Anni says. “It’s tough. A true test of our souls. But when we get through this, we can be not just survivors but true champions.”
Just as Barta’s bravado has changed, so has his mission. The testosterone-heavy, dare-you-to-try-this focus of Barta’s previous life has evolved into something deeper. Today, he ends his videos — hunting bear in British Columbia or whitetail in Texas — with the phrase “If I can do it, you can do it.”
“Obligation” to others
As a crew of divers from Vail’s Beaver Divers prepares Barta for a scuba session at Avon’s Recreation Center pool — which is a test for next week’s show in Hawaii — he admits some nervousness. But it quickly fades as he notes that 1 million viewers will see the show.
“I feel an obligation now to anyone who has a problem like this,” he says, his thundering voice dropping to a whisper. “If you have a problem, hop on my shoulders. I can do it. You can do it. I’ll show you.”
A moment later he’s underwater, swimming with his arms, weightless and free. One hand splashes up from the surface and gives a thumbs-up.