When hunting, I am often reminded of one of Gen. George Patton’s more famous quotes: “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other guy die for his.” We’re not afield to kill or maim ourselves, instead to kill an animal. Yet every year unwitting sportsmen and women get themselves into pickles that can, and sometimes do, end up maiming or killing them.
While I have not yet been killed myself, I have been maimed more than once and terrified a lot. In no particular order, here are eight of my scariest moments in hunting.
1. Tree Stand Falls
Hunting from on high has inherent risks that increase when hunters forsake no-brainers like using a safety. In 2010, the Ohio State University Medical Center published a 10-year study that showed “tree stands are the leading cause of hunting injuries in Ohio.” The study examined 130 hunting accident cases at two central Ohio hospitals. Half were because of falls, and 92 percent of those falls were from tree stands. Only 29 percent were injuries from gunshot wounds. Of those who fell, 59 percent suffered fractures, with 47 percent having either lower or upper extremity fractures of the ankles, legs, shoulders, arms and wrists. Another 18 percent had “closed-head injuries” -- in layman’s terms, brain damage. And 8.2 percent “suffered permanent neurological damage.” Drugs and alcohol were involved in 10 percent of the cases, and according to Dr. Charles Cook, the lead author of the study and a trauma surgeon at the Ohio State University Medical Center, “Most of the hunters were not wearing safety harnesses.”
I have never taken a bad fall, but it’s been close, and I do have friends who have broken bones. One TV cameraman I met years ago in camp was killed in a tree stand accident two years ago.
2. I'm Lost!
Many years ago in Colorado, I was elk hunting with a muzzleloader during a bugle season when I got to the elk in some dark timber. Naturally, I kept following the herd hoping for a shot that never did materialize. When I saw it was getting dark, and I probably should have headed back to camp, I realized I had no idea where I was. I climbed a tall, straight conifer and discovered that I was miles from camp and there was no way to get back before dark, when I would end up lost for sure. So I built myself a small shelter from fallen limbs and sticks, made a crude bed from pine boughs, put on all my clothes and slept fitfully until dawn, when I made my way back to my hunting buddies.
Every year, hunters get lost in the woods. Most are found with no serious injuries, but on occasion somebody gets hypothermia, breaks a leg, has a heart attack or incurs another injury that debilitates them. To maximize chances of this not happening to you, always tell others where you are going and when you expect to be back, carry a map and compass as a backup to any electronics and know how to use them, and pack basic survival items. One of the first things I did when I moved to Alaska many years ago was take wilderness survival training and medicine classes. You should too.
3. Reliving Gilligan's Island
I was an assistant guide when my boss and I anchored our skiff near shore in southeast Alaska so we could go ashore and start tracking a big black bear that a client had shot in the rear leg at 50 yards. I checked the tide chart and told Jim we had two hours. When we got back, we were 15 minutes late; the skiff was being pounded on the jagged rocks by a 10-foot tidal surge that threatened to destroy it. We left the clients with mouths agape as we jumped into the ocean to save the boat. Jim got in and tried to start the little outboard while I tried to keep it off the rocks, getting sucked completely under the skiff at one point, shredding my pants and jacket on the razor-sharp rocks. We finally got the dudes aboard and pushed off with no motor, which forced us to paddle with one oar and the top to the battery box against a 7-knot current to reach the mother ship anchored an half-mile offshore. Had we not been able to get the Zodiac going, we would have been marooned until somebody came by. That could have been tomorrow, or a month later.
4. Cowboy Up!
It was 25 below as our pack string of 12 horses, three guides, two clients and I started riding out for the tiny line cabin 10 miles distant that marked the halfway point back to base camp. It was late September in Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains, and the freak storm, and nearly frozen men and horses, were akin to death. Foolishly, when it hit we continued hunting, killing three bull moose and two huge grizzlies, all of which were loaded on the pack horses. The bad news was, those ponies hated both bears and bitter cold, and twice went into a bucking rodeo that scattered pack boxes and gear to the heavens. At these extreme temperatures, this is no longer a game -- it is a survival exercise. Our eight-hour ride turned into a 16-hour nightmare that left fingers and toes frostbitten, and horses near total exhaustion. Had there not been food and cut firewood at the cabin and sacks of grain for the horses, something -- or someone -- would have died that day.
5. Here Kitty Kitty...
My back was up against a huge old pine as I worked my cow call in Southwestern Montana. The bull was coming hard, and I just knew that within minutes I’d get a bow shot. Then, silence. The wind was perfect, I had not moved, was well-hidden. What happened? That’s when the hackles went up on the back of my neck. I slowly turned my head to the left, where my eyes filled up with the sight of a very large mountain lion. With belly and tail low to the ground and ears back, there is no doubt I had cow-called kitty into my lap. At 20 yards I wasn’t sure what to do, so I simply stood up and made myself as large as I could. Thankfully the big tom didn’t want any of that, and in a flash vanished into the scrub brush. I could not get back to the truck -- and several cold ones -- fast enough.
6. Air Scares
I absolutely love flying in small bush aircraft, and the guys who drive them are some of the world’s finest pilots. But every now and then, they can scare the pants off you. Like the time the knucklehead pilot overloaded the DeHaviland Beaver with three of us, three caribou and all our gear on a short lake, and when he found he could not get enough speed to take off, simply belly flopped a landing onto the tundra. Or when a buddy I hunted sheep with landed us on top of a glacier, from whence we killed two nice rams the next day, but did not have enough ice for a runway. So we lightened the load as much as possible, then he drove us right off the edge of the glacier face. We fell about halfway to the bottom before we had enough speed to get the plane to actually fly under its own power. I have lots of stories like these. Thankfully, they are not like some others I know where the plane didn’t make it -- and neither did the pilot or passengers.
7. Bears in the Dark
When I guided brown bear hunters in Southeast Alaska, you essentially waded up a river in the afternoon, hunted until dark, then walked back to the boat. Trouble was, the bears own the dark, and your headlamps are constantly finding angry sows and cubs. One time, Jim Boyce and I were bowhunting when we got charged in the dark by a screaming sow who first took her two cubs into the bush for their safety. The only thing that kept that big mama off us was the fact that we were separated by about 40 feet of four-foot deep river. She stopped on the other side and went nuts, Jim shot at her feet twice to no avail, then she plunged into the water and started coming for good. That’s when I went nuts, screaming and pelting her with big rocks until she finally got the message and left us alone. It was a pants changer.
8. Oh, %$#@*!
On a solo backpack hunt for Dall’s sheep in Alaska opening morning August 10, 1994, I was cruising around a simple shale face in search of rams. That’s when a boulder came loose from just above me, struck my frame pack, and carried me over the edge. I fell 150 feet straight down a jagged shale face, the big pack thankfully protecting my head and torso. That’s the good news. The bad news? I had broken my left ankle in 6 places, snapped the left fibula, and shredded the little and ring fingers of my left hand. Since I could not get back over the top of the mountain to my tent camp -- I tried for two hours -- I ended up scootching on my butt for 10 hours into the bottom of the bowl where there was a trickle of water. The bush pilot that dropped me off was due back in four days, and I knew I could survive there.
Thankfully, I did not have to. Back in the days before cell phones, satellite phone, and GPS units, I carried a walkie-talkie that got aircraft frequencies. In shock and getting a bit goofy, I faintly heard a jet somewhere, though I never saw it, and sent it a mayday. It was a FedEx cargo plane heading to Memphis from Anchorage. I got them to circle while I talked to the hospital through them. They dispatched a LifeGuard helicopter, and before dark (at 3 a.m.) I was in the emergency room, being prepped for an 8 a.m. surgery. Three surgeries later, the toes on my left foot are fused, I still have the plate that screwed the fibula in place, the calf is half the size of the one on my right leg, and my left hand is a bit funny looking. But I have killed several rams since then. Never, ever give up.