A Race Against Time

An Alaskan moose hunt turns into a nightmare when the slip of a knife leaves this hunter fighting for his life.

In late September 1999 I put a moose hunt together with Steve Karcz, a friend of mine who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. The idea was to fly into a remote camp and film the hunt for an upcoming episode of Northwest Hunter, the television show I co-host. Bad weather precluded the rest of our film crew from joining us, but Steve and I were able to get out in Steve's floatplane before the front hit.

We hunted for several days around Steve's cabin, but with the moose season nearly over, we decided to head back to Anchorage and switch to Steve's Super Cub in hopes of finding better moose hunting inland. It was a race against time as we switched planes, but we managed to land in the remote mountain area we had chosen just before dark. With the plane secured and our tent pitched, we rolled into our sleeping bags hoping the next day would bring success.

We awoke to two inches of snow on the ground; the first snow of the season. Steve was initially concerned about the snow load on the plane but felt the midday temperature would warm to the point that the snow could be wiped off the fragile wings. He was more worried about the brown bear he spotted just before landing the night before. For some unknown reason, the giant bears love to chew on rubber aircraft tires.

We made a mental note of the plane's location and headed out for the last day of the moose season. The cloud cover was right on the deck, and it was still lightly snowing, with visibility changing by the minute from 30 feet to several hundred yards. Finally, we saw a big bull 250 yards out. His brow tines looked to be just two points each, but then he turned just right as he started to walk away. After wiping my scope one last time with my dry T-shirt, I caught a view of three tips on his left brow tine and knew that he was a legal bull. "Let's take him. Roll the tape," I said to Steve.

I was shooting a 300 Win. Mag. stoked with Federal's 200-grain Nosler Partition load. I squeezed the trigger and before I lost sight of the moose in recoil, I watched him tip over. I couldn't believe one round could take him off his feet so quickly. Steve and I swapped high fives, then quickly moved down to where the bull had fallen. Walking up on the downed bull, Steve and I couldn't believe we had misjudged him so badly. He was way over 50 inches wide (he later taped 69 1/4 inches wide), with four points on one brow tine and three on the other. A large-bodied moose will weigh about 1,500 pounds, but we estimated this bull would have gone an honest 1,800 pounds.

Steve and I finished our video session and returned to the plane to ditch all of our excess weight, eliminating such things as extra water bottles, food, first-aid equipment and clothing from our day packs. The only thing we wanted to carry was moose and we had only a limited amount of daylight left to do it in.

When we returned to the moose we looked closely for signs of brown bears. The coast was clear, so we moved in and made plans to start the long process of butchering the animal into pieces we could handle.

I had just started to make my second cut on the center of the back, where the hide is as thick as my thumbnail is wide. I inserted the knife and applied more and more pressure to start the cut. All at once the blade zipped through the hide and my upper body lunged forward. In the sloppy snow, my slick rain pants caused my knees to slip out from under me. My hands shot out to check my fall and the skinning knife drove deep into my right thigh. Almost in one motion the knife slammed into my leg and then came right back out again. I yelled to Steve that I had stabbed myself. As he ran around the moose, blood was already spurting everywhere.

I held my hand over the cut and pressed hard. Even after applying pressure the blood pumped five inches high through several layers of clothing and up through my fingers. I told Steve I thought I had cut my femoral artery. Watching my life pump out through my fingers, all I could think was, "I'm a dead man." Steve asked how he could help and I answered that I'd need a tourniquet, knowingly kissing my leg goodbye.

I mentioned the parachute cord in my day pack and he was on it like a wild cat. He ripped open my clothing with his fingers and was shocked at the damage. Steve tied three separate lines around my thigh as tight as he could to slow the blood flow. He asked if I could crawl over the moose and elevate my legs to help keep me from going into shock, but I was getting light-headed fast so I wasn't sure. I finally was able to pull myself up on the moose, at which point the blood rushed down my leg and began filling my boot. I then slid back over the side of the moose. With my legs now elevated the blood reversed direction and started running up my back. For the second time I seriously thought this was it.

I asked for my water bottle and Steve squirted the entire contents into my mouth. Steve was busy grabbing his day pack and getting ready to return to the plane as fast as he could go. Then I asked for my gun, since we had actually seen a brown bear and a black bear not a half-mile away, though with all this blood it wasn't looking good for me. Knowing there was only one round in the rifle I really wanted to ask Steve for the ammunition in my pack, but he was in such a hurry to go for help I didn't want to slow him down again.

My rifle held four rounds, but I had burned up two reenacting the shot for the camera while one had already been spent on the moose. That left one. Steve said it took only a minute for him to get his stuff together, but when he looked down at me to say goodbye he thought I was dead. He rocked my head, but my jaw was limp, and my eyes were fixed wide open. What could he do now? With no blood flow CPR wouldn't help. He knew he needed to get me some fluids fast.

The plane was a mile away. Inside was a radio and a GPS. If Steve could reach someone and give them our coordinates, perhaps they could help. Steve's adrenaline was pumping and he hurried as fast as he could over the rough terrain, but it felt like the longest 1-mile hike he had ever taken. Once he reached the plane, he could see it was still snowed-in -- no escape! As he climbed in he prayed that the plane's battery would be good. If not he did have a cellular phone, but that would really be stretching it.

As it turned out, God was watching over us, because both the radio and the cellular phone fired right up. Steve knew the direct phone number to the Rescue Control Center (RCC) and promptly relayed that this was a life-threatening emergency. In other words, get your butts out here fast or this guy is going to die. The RCC makes the decision as to who will be dispatched in emergencies. Again we got lucky.

The Air National Guard had met at 4:30 p.m. for drill, and by 5 p.m. had canceled the day's exercise due to bad weather. Steve's emergency call came in around 5:10 p.m. Fortunately, the crew had not left to go home. The Air National Guard said they would take the call and for Steve to remain with the plane. They would use his GPS coordinates to locate the plane, pick him up, and, with his help, find me.

I never knew that I had lost consciousness, but I suddenly woke up. My leg was hurting, but the pain was tolerable. I snuggled up as close to the moose as possible to get warm. As I listened closely for approaching bears, all I could hear was the rain and snow hitting my raingear. I have had a lot of quiet time in the woods, but this was the most alone I have ever felt.

The helicopter was on its way, but with a typhoon at sea and low visibility it was taking a bit longer. The crew's plan was to come in to the mountain off the Cook Inlet, but when they reached the mountain the visibility dropped to between 15 and 25 feet. Like it or not, from sea level up to 2,300 feet, where the plane was, would take a lot of time off the clock.

In the meantime I knew I was going downhill fast. My hands had gotten so cold they felt like swollen latex gloves. The pressure inside my hands felt like an inflated balloon. My leg had been without blood for so long that I couldn't move it at all. I knew I had to get some blood moving so I thought about cutting off one of the three tourniquets.

I quickly reconsidered, realizing the cord would be too short to retie if I had to, and that I might not have the dexterity to do it. Then I thought that if I could untie the tourniquet with my fingers, perhaps I could retie it as well. I tried but my numb hands wouldn't work.

Steve had now been in contact with the Air National Guard, and they notified him they were about to touch down at his location. He exited the plane and to his surprise the chopper was right on the deck, kicking up snow, dirt and brush. With the low clouds the pilots were forced to fly a mere 20 feet off the deck. After picking up Steve they slowly crept forward, following our footsteps, but the rotor wash was destroying the footprints faster than they could spot them. Steve actually thought at one point that they had lost the trail and were whipping a dead dog.

I was still waiting, falling in and out of consciousness. I thought I heard the chopper close by, but then it seemed to go away. Finally, it came back again. When Steve first saw me his reaction was, "My God, he‚Äos still alive!"I was holding my orange hat high in the air to make sure they had spotted me. Later they said it wasn't the orange hat they saw, but the moose. Their lights were a welcome sight and I lay back down. Even though I was ice cold, I couldn't help but feel a warm rush in my heart when my rescuers arrived.

Two para-jumpers leaped out of the helicopter and proceeded to scoop me up in a wire basket. They loaded me into the Pave Hawk and within a minute we were headed for the hospital.

As we flew toward Anchorage the medics examined my leg. In an effort to save it, they gambled and cut the parachute cord tourniquet. Right away the medics realized how severe the wound was because blood immediately began spurting everywhere. They quickly placed a huge absorption pad over the artery and pushed down as hard as possible to stop the blood flow.

Emergency personnel met us at the heliport and rolled me into the hospital. My veins had collapsed to the point that the nurses couldn't establish an IV in either of my arms, but they continued to repeatedly poke in and out. The surgeon was trying my good leg, but it was not responsive either.

At this point I was starting to thaw, and the pain was so excruciating that I was begging for pain medication. My leg looked like a block of wood, but because of the little blast of blood it got from the release of the tourniquet it now was screaming with pain. The doctors wouldn't give me any pain medication until they got the IV going, which seemed to be a big problem. There was no way of knowing how much blood I had lost, but I pictured my heart cavitating on air and what little blood was returning.

Then the surgeon stepped up to inform me that he had to get an IV going pronto and the only way to achieve this was to stick a 10-inch needle under my collarbone and into my chest, thereby penetrating the pulmonary return to my heart. Again I begged for some pain medication, but the surgeon said I was on my own and not to move or he would puncture my lung. I did my best to hold still and he got the IV established with the first try.

I heard the nurse say my body temperature was 93 degrees, which explained my out-of-control shaking. A portable X-ray board was slid under my back to double-check the location of the IV. Fortunately, it looked good. The doctor looked me square in the eye and said he couldn't give any guarantees on life or limb, but that it was time for surgery. The surgery lasted about three hours, but when I woke up 12 hours later I still had two legs!

The frostbite on my leg went away after several months, but there was some nerve damage. My lower leg, from the knee to the bottom of my ankle, is totally numb. But that's all right with me because I still have my leg. I'm thrilled just to be alive.

Expert Advice :****A Race Against Time

What they did right: Both Rick and Steve appear to have been trained in emergency medical techniques, because they were aware of the nature of the problem and the likely consequences of their treatment. Tourniquets are always a last resort, and when they are employed, the assumption is that you are trading a limb to save a life. In this case, that decision was consciously made by guys who knew the odds and really had no other choice. Rick did the right thing to lie still. Steve did the right thing by calling the rescue center and using a GPS to pinpoint his location. It might have been better if he had returned to Rick's position, so he could render aid while waiting for the chopper, if that had been possible.

What they did wrong: Even very small accidents kill people. In this case, it was a combination of bad weather, slippery footing, slick clothing and the unfortunate position of the knife. Rick should have been more sure of his footing while butchering. He should have been fully prepared to let go of the knife if anything went wrong, so he wouldn't drive it into himself.

What you should do: Never allow the knife to point toward you. Ask yourself, "Where will this blade go, if it slips?" Be sure of your footing, your handholds and your balance. Make every cut with care, so you don't lose control of the blade. Keep communication and signaling devices with you at all times. Get some advanced first-aid training, and always have your first-aid kit at hand. Having a GPS to provide precise coordinates and a cell phone to direct-dial for help proved invaluable.

-Rich Johnson