The Fall

"Thirty-six feet below my tree stand, I lie with a broken back. Then it hits me, no one knows where I am."

Some hunters claim that climbing into a high tree stand in the dark makes the task easier in at least one respect: There aren't any head-spinning views of earth to bring on vertigo. Perhaps a touch of that self-preserving fear is what I needed on a frosty first morning of bow season-something to temper the automatic way I climbed, peg by peg, 36 feet up that tree.

Nine steps up, at 25 feet, the pegs end and the final ascent begins. From here on out there's only a series of stout horizontal branches, but I have negotiated them several dozen times over the years. Mindful of the frost, I move gingerly from limb to limb until the stand is directly above me, only an arm's reach away. Maybe it's the nagging worry of work I left unfinished back in my art studio, or maybe the anticipation of what might unfold in the magic hours ahead-whatever the reason, I am not altogether focused on the job at hand. Appreciation for this potentially lethal height has left me.

Unconsciously, I reach out with both hands for the stand's support arm. It is a fleeting moment of vulnerability, but the disaster is triggered. With a sickening snap, the thigh-thick limb I am standing on gives way, dumping me into free fall. There is time for only a flash of thought-"I'm a dead man"-before I'm lying on the ground, agonizing pain welling from my back, my lungs struggling to gather air. Am I alive? My eyes make out dim forms of trees standing sentinel in the early dawn. An earthy fragrance fills my nose.

I hear a bird chirping its first song of the day. Gradually, the panic of total breathlessness fades as my lungs fill again with sweet, wonderful air. It is with genuine astonishment that I conclude, I am alive.

An Evaluation
I try to sit up, but an avalanche of unalloyed pain collapses me face first into the rocky soil. That's when I become aware of an unfamiliar bulge in my back. My experience as a medical sergeant in the infantry kicks in and I am lucid enough to diagnose at least one broken vertebra in the low thorax or upper lumbar region. As though examining a wounded comrade, I begin to test my extremities as if they're not my own. First, the neck--turning my head is painful, limited and triggers numbness in my left arm. I know that means there's another fracture in the lower cervical region. Checking my right hand, the hand that earns me a living as a wildlife artist, I make a fist, then slowly summon the individual fingers to straighten. Then the left hand. They all work. I test my toes and feel each one move inside my boots. My spinal cord seems okay.

I roll onto my back and discover that the cold, frosty ground provides some relief. So there I lie, soothing my broken back, waiting for the rescuers, when the awful realization sets in--no one knows where I am! And I told my family I'd be gone the entire weekend. I'll die from hypothermia right here. There won't be any rescue!

Alone
I've often been much farther in the woods than the mile I've hiked this day. But I have never felt alone. Now I know the feeling, and it fills me with dread. The night before, I read The Battle of Salmon River, by Ted Trueblood, in which he wrote: "In wilderness you are on your own. You can't bang on the radiator pipes if you need more heat. You can't stop by a restaurant if you get hungry. You can't run over to the neighbors for a cup of sugar, because there are no neighbors." Last night's adventure story is now my reality.

I decide that I must move. I roll over onto my stomach to see if I can crawl. My left arm cooperates, but when I try to straighten my right arm it only bends awkwardly and my hand curls into a useless fist. My legs are no better. I can stretch out my right leg, but my left won't fully extend. I doubt whether these disabled limbs can move 200 pounds of dead weight.

The shortest distance to the road means a route straight er a mountain. Because I'm unable to lift or turn my head, I can't see my direction of travel. I can only feel for it. My visual world consists entirely of the three inches of earth directly in front of my nose. Then I remember the compass I dropped into my right breast pocket as I left the house that morning. Fishing the cool metal case out with my left hand, I pull it over in front of my face and let the needle settle down. One hundred forty degrees, I say to myself; 140 degrees will point me out of this mess.

And so, pulling with one good arm and pushing with one good leg, I begin working myself uphill. At first I gain a few arduous feet, only to slide back down. Then, slowly, I become more proficient with my crab-crawl. My bad leg, like a rudder, offers me some stability. Still, whenever I extend either leg sideways, high-tension shocks shoot through my spine. It is an unnerving reminder that the break in my lower back is dangerously close to my spinal cord.

My brain swims under the fathoms of pain. At one point, fear of blacking out grips me, and I yell out as loudly as I can. I'm sure no one will answer, but I'm mistaken. A coyote calls back from a distant ridge with a long, lonely cry. I take the coyote howl as an inspiration and attack the slope more aggressively, using the small beech whips for handholds here and there.

What Happened?
As I inch along, my mind battles back the depression by manufacturing distractions. I think about the tree. Standing at the base of this hardwood-studded mountain near a thicket with a few apple trees, it's a natural place for a tree stand. The aspen is the largest tree in the area. But I have enough woodcraft to know that aspens are also soft, self-pruning trees, with branches that can break clean at their bases without a whisper of warning.

At 36 feet, the stand's height is unusual, admittedly well beyond the limits of safety. In fact, all of my other tree stands are half that height. But when I tested this stand lower on the tree, deer scented me, so I'd gone higher. And it had worked; deer approached from directly downwind, passed and then climbed the mountain straight into a clear broadside shooting lane. At 18 to 20 yards and eye level, a passing buck offered an archer's dream shot--a shot I'd made successfully three times in the past.

Still, in retrospect, the risks could have been minimized. Without a proper handhold below the stand, I put total trust in the branch. But why did the branch break in late September, when in early June it had easily supported my weight as I installed the stand? Had the summer-long drought weakened the tree? Had my peg holes made it vulnerable to insects? Suddenly I knew: Never before had I put both feet and all my weight onto that one limb. And, dumber still, I'd done it without wearing a safety strap. It was a profound error.

With no time to dwell on guilt, I begin to take stock of my assets: I have two good limbs, two fair limbs and the strength and willpower to go on. I push my injuries to the back of my mind, confirm my course and continue clawing up the mountain.

Over the Top
I've promised myself a rest when I get to the top of the mountain, and when I do reach the summit I collapse in the leaves, soaked in sweat. The noon whistle sounds from the nearby town of Remsen, N.Y., which means six hours have elapsed since my fall. I am utterly spent. My mind drifts and the ground closes in around me as consciousness starts to ebb. I snap to, fearing I might pass out, and order myself to press on after only a few minutes' rest.

I start down the steep slope head first, but the weight of my lower body presses on my spine, sending searing pain up my back. I'll have to go feet first. My arms must do all the work, and I find the going tougher downhill than it was uphill.

With my nose a few inches from the soil, my mind drifts to deer. I imagine a buck scenting this terrain, sorting out pheromones and glandular scents from the welter of aromas swirling about the understory. The reverie is broken when my legs become ensnared in a deadfall. Carefully, I am able to free myself, slide across the ridge face and begin once again down the hill. It's a labor that will repeat itself. Because I can't turn my head to see obstacles below me, I continually get hung up on forest debris.

Midway down the mountain, the edge of a steep drop-off forces a route decision. The option is a nasty-looking 30-yard thicket of thornbushes. I choose the barbs over an uncontrollable slide and within minutes my hands and knees are bloody. But I've got bigger worries--thorns keep bunching up in my crotch. My pocketknife! I can feel its weight sagging in my left breast pocket and I immediately offer up a prayer of thanks for not having packed everything in my backpack, still lying beneath the tree. Reflexively, my good left arm goes to work guiding the knife through the accumulation of spiked branches. It's painstaking work--every few feet I have to hack through another pin-pricking bundle--but at least modest progress is being made.

Halfway through the thicket, I have a terrifying thought. If I black out in here, I might never be found. My mind is hurtling toward panic when I hear a familiar sound--a passing car. I've made it! I angle my body downhill and tears roll down my face when I spot a patch of asphalt only 40 yards away.

But as I near the road, I realize that I'm dressed in camo and lying flat on the ground. How will anyone see me? Twice before my pockets have held the answers, and this third time is indeed a charm. My hand burrows into my wallet pocket and pulls out the white handkerchief without which I never go hunting--a flag. Using my hand and teeth, I tie the fabric to a nearby branch and drag this signal flag along with me to the roadside, where I collapse on the dirt shoulder. I check my watch. It's 4:30 p.m.--10 1/2 hours since my fall.

Few people live on this dead-end country road, but within minutes I hear a car coming. I raise my flag and the driver slows down. He sees me-and keeps on going! Ten minutes later, a second vehicle slows down. Same story. A third car, and again I'm ignored.

"My hair's a wild mess, my clothes are tattered," I think. "I must be a scary picture." Drivers obviously fear this battered apparition at the side of the road. I beg and even scream for help as each vehicle passes. No one stops.

Twilight is fading when another car approaches. I wave the branch pathetically. It stops! An apprehensive elderly woman steps out and says, "Yes?"

I can barely form the words, "Please. Call the paramedics."

Her car roars off and soon there are sirens echoing through the mountains. I shake uncontrollarifts to deer. I imagine a buck scenting this terrain, sorting out pheromones and glandular scents from the welter of aromas swirling about the understory. The reverie is broken when my legs become ensnared in a deadfall. Carefully, I am able to free myself, slide across the ridge face and begin once again down the hill. It's a labor that will repeat itself. Because I can't turn my head to see obstacles below me, I continually get hung up on forest debris.

Midway down the mountain, the edge of a steep drop-off forces a route decision. The option is a nasty-looking 30-yard thicket of thornbushes. I choose the barbs over an uncontrollable slide and within minutes my hands and knees are bloody. But I've got bigger worries--thorns keep bunching up in my crotch. My pocketknife! I can feel its weight sagging in my left breast pocket and I immediately offer up a prayer of thanks for not having packed everything in my backpack, still lying beneath the tree. Reflexively, my good left arm goes to work guiding the knife through the accumulation of spiked branches. It's painstaking work--every few feet I have to hack through another pin-pricking bundle--but at least modest progress is being made.

Halfway through the thicket, I have a terrifying thought. If I black out in here, I might never be found. My mind is hurtling toward panic when I hear a familiar sound--a passing car. I've made it! I angle my body downhill and tears roll down my face when I spot a patch of asphalt only 40 yards away.

But as I near the road, I realize that I'm dressed in camo and lying flat on the ground. How will anyone see me? Twice before my pockets have held the answers, and this third time is indeed a charm. My hand burrows into my wallet pocket and pulls out the white handkerchief without which I never go hunting--a flag. Using my hand and teeth, I tie the fabric to a nearby branch and drag this signal flag along with me to the roadside, where I collapse on the dirt shoulder. I check my watch. It's 4:30 p.m.--10 1/2 hours since my fall.

Few people live on this dead-end country road, but within minutes I hear a car coming. I raise my flag and the driver slows down. He sees me-and keeps on going! Ten minutes later, a second vehicle slows down. Same story. A third car, and again I'm ignored.

"My hair's a wild mess, my clothes are tattered," I think. "I must be a scary picture." Drivers obviously fear this battered apparition at the side of the road. I beg and even scream for help as each vehicle passes. No one stops.

Twilight is fading when another car approaches. I wave the branch pathetically. It stops! An apprehensive elderly woman steps out and says, "Yes?"

I can barely form the words, "Please. Call the paramedics."

Her car roars off and soon there are sirens echoing through the mountains. I shake uncontrolla