My birthdays qualify me as “middle age.” I’ve been fortunate to spend nearly 40 years doing my two favorite things: deer hunting and flying airplanes. As a pilot, we have many safety-mined adages. For example, we pilots say, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there aren’t many old, bold pilots.” Another saying states, “There are two types of pilots, those who have had a gear-up landing, and those who will.”
It has always struck me the parallels that exist between the aviation industry and the hunting industry that are very similar. What we do can be dangerous or even fatal; however, if done responsibly and with adequate care, both can be very safe.
That being said, on Oct. 7 of this year, I found myself a victim of the two pilot adages mentioned before, but during a deer hunting trip. I fell 22 feet, upside down and backward, all the way to the ground.
First light was just approaching when I stepped from the top climbing step onto a lock-on stand. Something gave way, and in an instant I was falling. As I began my fall, my body rotated 180 degrees with my head down and my boots skyward. I was very aware of what was happening and confident that my coming ground contact would not end up very well—as in death or permanent disability. I hit the ground hard and was surprised that I didn’t get the breath knocked out of me or even loose consciousness. My upper back felt like it was on fire, but I didn’t have any pain.
My first thought was one of pure anger at my stupidity in letting this happen, together with embarrassment and praises to my Savior. By the grace of God, my left snake boot had contacted a step (to the point that it puncture a hole in the side), which appears to have rotated my body from 90 degrees to about 70 degrees. My backpack broke the fall and kept my head and neck from making contact with the ground. Some say I was lucky, but I know it was a pure miracle.
As an outfitter, I put up and take down 50-plus lock-ons each year. I wear the appropriate safety gear and take the appropriate precautions. I can do this in my sleep (old and bold). I’m privileged to be a state Hunter Safety Instructor, and I know all too well that tree-stand accidents are the No. 1 cause of injury and death in our state. I teach this stuff to aspiring hunters, how could this possibly have happened to me?
As I lay there, I slowly began wiggling fingers and toes. No bones were sticking out anywhere, and I could move my head side to side with considerable soreness. I didn’t have a headache, so I felt I didn’t have a concussion. I checked the time on my phone and was confident that I hadn’t blacked out. I became overcome with emotion that I was alive and appeared to be uninjured. I vowed then and there that if the good Lord would allow me to escape injury, I would do all in my power to encourage my hunting brothers and sisters to be more aware of the potential for falls, and aware of the steps needed to ensure secure measures when using tree stands.
I called a good friend who is an early riser to let him know what happened (I wasn’t quite ready to let my bride know). I then called a dear friend who is a doctor, who instructed me to go immediately to the ER.
I honestly felt this would be a “quick” ER trip with a quick assessment and a pat on the back, maybe 30 minutes and I would be out. The medical staff at Navicent in Macon was very professional and efficient. They interviewed me as to what happened. When I explained that I had fallen 22 feet, their composure changed quickly.
Seeing as how I hadn’t any prior experience with falling from high places, I naïvely thought a fall was a fall. Apparently, 20 feet is a demarcation point where potential for trauma takes a different course. Broken bones and internal injury is very common above 20 feet, and the staff responded appropriately. They donned me in a neck brace and began a battery of tests, including a thorough CT scan. Needless to say, I started getting very concerned and anxious. I’m a praying man, but that morning you might have mistaken me for a Benedictine monk!
As luck would have it, several radiologist friends were working that morning and came to my room. They recognized my name and wanted to know what happened. When I told them, they were visibly shaken. Then finally came the words I was praying for…. I had no injuries of any kind (save the fact that I felt like a bull had knocked me around for 8 seconds.) Doctor after doctor came through the door, amazed at my diagnosis.
It’s been said that confession is good for the soul. By nature, I’m a very private person and not very extraverted. So here comes the confession: Of all the stands I put out this year, I didn’t put a lifeline on this one stand. There is no excuse except pure complacency. Had I installed the lifeline, the episode would have been scary for sure, but I could have easily swung back to the stick and climbed back down, all for about $20. That was my first mistake.
The second mistake I discovered when I went back to the scene of the crime. The lock-ons I use are excellent, and they use a chain receiver that mates to the actual lock-on. Some years back, the manufacturer tried a ratchet-type receiver. I only have a couple of those, and every spring on those lock-ons I open up the ratchet for tree growth. The ratchet is on the back of the tree and not visible. When I set the lock-on back in mid-August, I must have mentally thought it was the chain receiver like the 99 percent of the lock-ons I normally use. When I stepped in the lock-on at twilight for my hunt on Oct. 7, the strap on the ratchet must have pulled through. The bottom safety strap kept the lock-on from falling, but it pitched me out.
We’ve all read about hunters falling out of tree stands suffering permanent injury or even death. I think we put it out of our mind and maybe even have an internal dialogue, something like, “I hate it for him or her, but I would never do that.” Well, if it can happen to me, it can happen to you, and you will be shocked just how quick it can happen. I’m begging my hunting brothers and sisters to please, please, please install lifelines in all your stands, and always wear your safety vest. With a lifeline, you can clip in on the ground and stay clipped in until you are down again after you hunt. One friend told me it’s about like a seatbelt, and it takes about the same time as putting a seat belt on. It’s too easy, and it’s the cheapest insurance you can ever have.
Hunting alone is not ideal, but I know many of us do. Like a pilot with a flight plan, make your own hunt plan and leave it with someone who cares about you. With today’s GPS, there is no reason you can’t get the latitude and longitude for every stand you hunt and list that in your hunt plan. Quick response from EMS can make the difference in life and death.
One thing the doctors emphasized is that for my age, I’m in pretty good shape, which had an impact on not suffering an injury. I’m not a workout freak, but I do basic cardio and strength training while trying to watch my weight. The doctor said that if was 50 pounds heavier and soft in the muscles, my outcome would have been much worse. This doesn’t mean we all have to be in UFC fighter shape, but the better shape you are in, the better you can maneuver in the stand and survive a fall.
Maybe the hardest reality to accept is that once we get north of 50 years old, we just don’t move and think like we did at 30. I’m having to learn to slow down and not be in a hurry like I was 20 years ago. This might mean getting up a little earlier so that you have plenty of time to get safely in your stand. Remember, you are most likely to have a tree-stand accident while entering and exiting your stand.
There are many people who experienced what I experienced but weren’t as fortunate. Like the gear-up-landing pilot, my time finally came, and I have no one to blame but myself.
We are all blessed to have family, friends and the outdoors. Please be safe, and enjoy a great deer season!
Editor’s Note: For information on using a Lifeline when hunting from a ladder stand or when climbing to a lock-on, please visit this Hunter Safety Systems web page on their Lifeline products. HSS is a long-time sponsor of GON’s Truck-Buck contest and provides life-saving products.