Everyone Needs to Keep Safety in Mind When Hunting From Tree Stands
I wake from my dream with the bed sheets damp from my sweat. I’m still shaken, panicked from that feeling of weightlessness, that feeling like I’m perpetually falling, waiting on impact.
It’s a dream I’ve had before and will have again — and I’m thankful for it. I’m thankful it’s a dream. I’m thankful I won’t ever put my family and myself through that Halloween day in 2004 again. I’m thankful I’m reminded daily how precious life is to you and the ones who love you.
A Beautiful Day for Hunting
It was a beautiful Sunday in the fall of 2004. The morning was crisp with a light steady breeze. I knew exactly where I wanted to be. There was an oak flat between two clover plots. The whitetails in the area often frequented this flat, browsing on their way from the fields back to their bedding area. It was a pretty good hike in there by southern standards, which meant I was required to have an earlier than normal wake-up call, but I didn’t mind.
Slipping through the thicket as quietly as I could, I cautiously took each step, never more than three or four without stopping, just like a deer. Finally, after painstakingly making my way through the dark autumn forest, I arrived at my post. A red oak, probably 100 years old or more, is where I would stand guard for the next four hours.
I found an old stand here years ago. Knowing how much time and energy it took to put up that old wooden stand way back in the woods, I was confident enough to replace it with one of my own.
As I took my first step onto the steps leading up to my stand, my stomach rose into my throat. I had left camp without my safety harness. Returning now would mean I wouldn’t arrive back at my tree for at least an hour. This would be well after daylight and during the hours when those whitetails would be heading back, hopefully, right under my tree to their bed.
I would be fine, I thought. Climbing this tree just this one time without my harness wouldn’t hurt anything. Heck, I’d been up and down this tree 20 or 30 times before without so much as a slip. In fact, I’d never fallen out of any tree. No reason to ruin a good hunt.
“A nice 8-pointer was slipping his way through the oaks, stopping occasionally to munch on an acorn or briar leaves.”
I took my first step into the sky, just as quietly as I had made my way to the stand. 10 feet turned into 30. In seconds, I was taking my final fateful step onto the platform of my loc-on. I pulled my bow and pack up and then quietly knocked an arrow. I had made it, unscathed, and was ready for the morning hunt.
The crunch of leaves to my right broke me from my daydream. I slowly turned my head and immediately caught a glimpse of an antler. A nice 8-pointer was slipping his way through the oaks, stopping occasionally to munch on an acorn or briar leaves. He passed just out of range of my bow, off to his bed for the day, which would soon warm to near 80 degrees.
The Biggest Mistake of My Life
The rest of the morning would prove beautiful, but uneventful, at least as far as hunting was concerned. It was nearly 10 a.m. and it was time for me to get back to camp. I gathered my gear and lowered it to the ground. I stood to stretch my body, stiffened from the long sit. I took one last look around, and then I made the biggest mistake of my life.
You see, back then I used metal bolts as my steps to climb the tree. We would take a long drill bit and make a hole deep enough to support the bolt, then stagger them and climb. On this particular tree, I had one bolt well above my stand. I would use this bolt along with a sturdy tree limb to hoist myself onto the platform and to hold onto as I took my first step off.
Maybe it was my foggy brain state after such an early morning. Maybe it was meant to be, but this morning as I took my first step down, I grabbed onto that limb on the old red oak with both hands. I was too much for the limb to hold that day.
1.43 seconds. That is the amount of time it takes gravity to bring a 220-pound object 30 feet back to earth. They say when you have a near-death experience, your life flashes before your eyes. I can tell you they are wrong. In 1.43 seconds, I only had time to yell, “Oh s%$&!” I tumbled backward and somehow had the wherewithal to tuck my shoulder and brace for impact. I was lucky to land flush on my right side.
31 miles per hour. That’s the speed that a 220-pound object dropped from 30 feet impacts the ground. I’d played years of football and took my fair share of tumbles off the monkey bars, but this was nothing like I had ever felt before. I lay there on the leaf litter trying to take a breath.
The landing knocked the breath out of me, quite literally, as one lung collapsed on impact. It wouldn’t come back for what I guess was nearly two minutes. That’s when they say my lung expanded again. My liver and spleen were lacerated and I broke my pelvis in two places. The remaining force fractured my L4 and L5 vertebrae, along with my foot, and sent searing pain throughout my body.
This is when my life flashed before my eyes. I remembered Davis, my hunting mentor, handing my brother and me two new safety harnesses. We were NEVER to get off the ground without one. I thought about how disappointed he would be with me. How I had let him down. I began to think about my parents, my siblings, even that girl I was trying to get to go on a date with me back at school.
I realized that none of them expected me home until near dark. They wouldn’t even start to worry until late in the evening if they hadn’t heard from me. This meant I would be in these woods all day and into the night with rescue most likely coming in the early hours of the morning on the next day. The mosquitoes were already buzzing; I wasn‘t waiting. I decided I had to get back to the camp to call for help.
I dragged myself across the ground to my bow, which lay near me. I was able to use it, along with all my available strength — and that old red oak — to struggle to my feet. I thought I would use it as a crutch.
A Pain Like Nothing I’ve Felt Before
That first attempted step sent a pain through me like nothing I had felt before or since. As the bones in my pelvis shifted, I immediately passed out. I woke, not sure how long after, with my face in the leaves and feeling drunk like the sky was spinning above me. I would try it again, foolishly, this time with the same results. I would awaken to accept my fate.
“It shouldn’t be too bad, I thought, spending the night in the woods. These mosquitoes suck, but they are only biting my face. Surely, the coyotes won’t bother a human.” I remembered I had a lighter in my pack, another rule Davis taught me, so at least I’d be able to build a small fire.
I can’t describe how it feels to be alone in the woods, helpless. I lay there for the better part of five hours, calling as loudly as I could every 20 minutes or so. “HELP!!!” “HELP!!!” There was no gun to fire my three warning shots. No flares to send up. No phone to call or text. Just me and my thoughts, wondering why I had been so stupid and how bad my injuries were.
At around 2:30 p.m., I thought I heard a truck door close. I began calling out again. This time, my calls were answered. As fate would have it, two hunters had noticed my truck still parked at my camp and had come by as they left for home. When they realized I hadn’t returned, they set out to the area that I had signed to hunt that morning. They told me that they had almost just headed home, but they just decided to poke their head in since they hadn’t seen me milling about camp. It was a lucky break.
Upon finding me, they immediately began trying to figure out how to get me out. We didn’t know if I had a spinal injury or not, but because there was no way to contact an ambulance from our position or get a helicopter into those woods, it was decided we had to do it ourselves.
These two men raced back to camp and retrieved an ATV, a ladder and a piece of roofing tin. Through some redneck ingenuity, they were able to fashion a stretcher of sorts and attach one end to the back of the ATV. I was able to pull myself onto the makeshift stretcher and one man drove while the other carried the other end of the ladder. We slowly made the bumpy ride out of the woods to the road where the truck awaited me. I cried out in pain with every bump. There were a lot of bumps.
Once back at camp, they were able to summon an ambulance to come to my aid. It took nearly an hour for the ambulance to reach our location and another 45 minutes strapped to a spine board to get to the first of three emergency rooms I would visit.
Upon arriving, I was wheeled into the emergency room and a battery of tests began. X-Ray, MRI and a CAT scan assessed the damage done internally. IVs were administered for the dehydration and pain, and worst of all, a catheter was inserted because I couldn’t relieve myself.
My family members, well alerted by this time, were making their way to see me from all over the region. Mid trip, they were told I would be moved to a better hospital, and they all had to double back to meet me there.
I would spend five days at this hospital undergoing a humiliating and painful series of tests and treatments. I scared everyone. It was like I could watch them age right before my eyes. After five days, my internal organs had stopped bleeding and I was cleared to continue my recovery at home. Finally, off the painkillers, the beeping machines, and the constant testing, I could go home to get some rest.
Again, I wake from my dream, my clothes soaked with sweat. I’m panicked from that feeling of weightlessness, that feeling like I‘m perpetually falling, waiting on impact. Face down in the carpet, I realize this isn’t a dream. It’s the morning of the 11th day since my accident. After five days of having my family help me bathe, go to the bathroom, and put their lives on hold to aid me, I’ve taken another fall.
I was having breakfast that morning when I noticed a strange pain in my left shoulder. It was a sharp pain. Later, I would learn it was called Kehr’s sign. I didn’t know what it was at the time, so I stood on my crutches to relieve what I thought might be heartburn. Upon standing, I became extremely dizzy and passed out. After snapping to, soaked with sweat, I was able to muster enough energy to climb back into my chair and dial my mother.
You see, this was the first day she had felt comfortable to leave my side. She decided to go quickly into town to run an errand or two. By the time she could return, I would be in shock. This is what caused the sweating, so profuse that I would actually stop shortly thereafter, as my body had no more to produce. It also caused me temporary blindness. I had to listen to what was going on around me.
I remember the ambulance ride, listening to the buzzing sirens and the paramedics talking with the hospital. I remember thinking to myself, “I wonder what people are thinking about this ambulance going down the road. I bet they are wondering who is inside it and what is wrong.” That’s what I had always thought when I had seen an ambulance.
A Close Encounter With Death
Upon arrival at the third emergency room, it was onto another round of tests and treatments. I would soon learn that I required emergency surgery to remove my spleen that had ruptured. Apparently, spleens are known for splinting themselves at the onset of injury and then rupturing later.
“The doctor told me how lucky I was that this didn’t happen the day I fell from the tree. That day would have been my last.”
The anesthesia was given as quickly as possible, and I was told that another hour without treatment would have resulted in my death due to blood loss. The doctor told me how lucky I was that this didn’t happen the day I fell from the tree. That day would have been my last. Again, I watched the faces of my family members aging with stress as I lay flat on the gurney and was wheeled off into the recesses of the hospital.
The surgery was a success. Around seven pints of blood were removed, which is about half of my body’s total. I required two blood transfusions to replace it. I spent another five days in the hospital, three in the intensive care unit, and received another catheter and an IV in my carotid artery.
I was placed on every pain medication you can imagine. I also had multiple drain tubes, one in my abdomen and one down my nose into my stomach. Every few minutes, that tube would suck the remaining blood and who knows what else from inside me. Green, black and red fluid all passed through the tube taped just under my left eye..
A Full Recovery
This accident also required me to withdraw from college for the semester. All in all, I was bedridden for over 30 days and on crutches for another 50 after that. When I fell from the tree, I weighed 220 pounds. My first day on crutches I weighed 180. Despite this, I would go on to make a full recovery. I would take on the remainder of my classes the following semester, working double to catch up.
I was so lucky. Landing in any other way that day would have resulted in paralysis or most likely death. I still experience pain in my pelvis and lower back to this day, and I have a weakened immune system without my spleen. This means I get sick easier. I have to watch my diet and exercise more than the average person. What a blessing.
Through the pain and the humiliation, the worst part about this entire accident was the stress that I watched my family go through. Luckily, I was just a young man of 19 and I didn’t have a wife or kids. Seeing the worry and fear in my parents and siblings was bad, but I can only imagine what that would do to a child.
I will say that despite everything, I’m glad this fall happened. It has taught me the preciousness of life, the value of family, and the importance of tree stand safety. I urge you to wear a safety harness AND use a climbing rope system when you plan to hunt above the ground. There is no good excuse not to. My medical bills tallied more than $250,000, so don’t tell me you can’t afford it. Stay safe or stay on the ground. It’s that simple.
So, as I slip off to sleep tonight, I wonder if I’ll have the dream again. You know, the one where I’m falling, perpetually, waiting for impact. I hope I’ll sleep soundly. I can find comfort in knowing that since you’ve heard my story, maybe you won’t have one of your own.