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My friends and I were pumped for the upcoming bow-hunting season. For the past 11 years, Mike, Scott and I faithfully got together to hunt on a 600-plus-acre farm we signed a lease to use. For us, the property is sort of a retreat from the everyday grind because it’s very secluded and has few amenities. Therefore, the wife and kids have no desire to go. This particular trip was unique, with many factors that nearly culminated in a tragic outcome.
For this trip, we decided to use Mike’s camper. The three of us planned to meet after work in Carlinville, a small town about 15 miles north of the property. As usual, we’d eat some world famous Taylor’s chili before heading to the farm to set up our campsite. After we set up camp, it was time for the festivities began. As it grew later, though, we knew our 3:30 a.m. wakeup would come quickly, so we decided to call it a night.
Sure enough, 3:30 a.m. rolled around and I was the first one up and dressed. I made coffee and took pleasure in waking up my foggy-headed cohorts. I stayed out of the heavy grog the night before because I didn’t want to be impaired or fall asleep in my stand as I had done numerous times in the past. It was cool and drizzling that morning — an unexpected twist, but nowhere close to a showstopper — so everyone dressed accordingly. Once everyone was dressed, we headed off for our first big hunt of the season.
It was an unwritten rule that when we stayed in the camper, we’d hunt the back quarter of the property. This section happens to be the most inaccessible by vehicle because it has steep ravines and two creeks — which may or may not be raging — running through it. Before we left, we discussed where each of us would hunt and when and where we’d rendezvous. We also talked about what protocol we’d follow if a deer was taken and how we’d link up to help each other out if someone bagged the big one.
By 4:15 a.m., we had split up and were cautiously navigating our way through the pitch-black timber. To get to our stands, we used GPS routes and reflective tape on certain trees, spaced about every 100 meters. The tape was visible by the small LED headlamps we all wore. Lastly, we relied on our strong familiarization with the land we’d hunted on for the past 11 years.
I got to my stand at about 4:45 a.m. The hike in was challenging, but as the season progressed, I knew it would become easier. I secured my gear to the tag line and I tied off my retractable fall protection (all of our stands had retractable fall protection installed to arrest our descent should we slip) before starting the 21-foot climb to my humble — yet comfortable — platform. About 10 a.m., I realized I’d been skunked, so I decided it was time to head back down for the rendezvous.
When I reached the rendezvous point, Scott was the only one I could see from a distance. By 10:30 a.m., Scott and I knew something must have happened to Mike because he was always the first one out of the timber and at the rendezvous point. We headed off in the direction of Mike’s stand and before we reached it, found a flagged arrow hanging from a branch, stuck to the side of the tree. These arrows work great to let someone know which direction you went when you want someone to find you.
Our search for Mike took us into a part of the property we seldom hunted because of its inaccessibility. Eventually, we found Mike. He was carrying the first deer of the season, and it was no trophy. It probably didn’t weigh 50 pounds field dressed. Mike had tied the deer’s hoofs together and was carrying it like a large duffle bag.
As we made our way back to the camper, Scott spotted an old stand we’d forgotten about. He then proceeded to climb the tree without spikes in it or gaffs on. Mike and I weren’t crazy about this idea, especially since the stand was nearly 20 feet off the ground, but Scott easily made the climb.
While holding on to a dead branch, Scott told us how he marks every stand under the seat. As he lifted the seat, he saw a hornet nest under it. We watched helplessly as Scott tried to climb down the tree, hornets swarming all over him. Suddenly, Scott’s handhold broke and the worst imaginable scenario happened — he fell 17 feet and almost landed on his grounded gear!
Scott suffered a fractured left ankle, broken collarbone, dislocated jaw and concussion. Thank God the timber floor was soft or his injuries could have been even worse. Extracting Scott from the woods is a story for another time, but the bottom line is we could have prevented the near-tragic accident.
At work (all three of us are pipefitters who work at high elevations on iron at powerhouses with very little footing), we always wear fall protection. All of our hunting stands, with the exception of this old one, are equipped with retractable fall protection. Also, we use lanyards around the trees. We’ll tie ourselves to the stands once we’re up there so we won’t roll out should we fall asleep. (I’m notorious for this.)
We stopped hunting this particular area a few years earlier for a couple of reasons — one being that if someone was hurt, it would be extremely difficult to get them to safety. The area is surrounded by several ravines with steep drop-offs, which under the cover of darkness, could kill an unsuspecting hunter.
The best course of action would have been to stay away from the area. Mike and I shouldn’t have let Scott climb that tree without fall protection. Although he was wearing a harness, there just wasn’t a retractable installed for him to hook onto. We could’ve hooked a lanyard up there for Scott to take the stand down. Simply put, if anyone of us had implemented the “normal” safety precautions used on every hunt, Scott could have avoided this accident that cost him nearly four months of his life. Risk management was present, just not in use.