The event that changed my life was marked by a horrible sound. I heard a crack, and then a second crack. The branch that I was standing on went first, followed immediately by the one I was clinging to. I was wearing a safety belt, but because I was climbing down the tree after hanging my stand I had decided not to use it. As I fell, I grabbed desperately for another branch but I was falling too fast to catch one. Branches were breaking steadily as I crashed through the canopy. I had just enough time to be frightened. Then, suddenly, there was a loud thud and I was lying flat on my back on the ground.
I opened my eyes and looked straight ahead. I saw limbs and leaves and the sky, all spinning in a wheel of colors that converged around the trunk of the tree. I felt no pain, and when my senses returned I attempted to stand. My body would not obey my mind’s command, however, and I realized that I was paralyzed from the chest down. Maybe I was suffering from neurological shock that would soon pass, I thought. Maybe I had broken something. I didn’t know. All I knew was that if I couldn’t get myself out of this fix, it would be three days before anyone missed me. It was Friday evening and I wasn’t expected to be home until Sunday night. And that was a scary thought.
ALONE IN THE WOODS
My bowhunt started out in routine fashion, early in Wisconsin’s 2001 archery season. I live near New Auburn, a small community located about 45 minutes north of Eau Claire. I also own a cabin in northern Wisconsin outside Gordon. Hunting has always played a huge role in the lives of my family and me, to the point that when one of us decided to hunt alone, it was considered to be no big deal.
My job allowed me to work four days and take Fridays off, and I had spent the Thursday evening before my fall preparing equipment and provisions. I thought carefully about where I would hunt and finally went to bed with feelings of anticipation and exhilaration about the coming weekend.
I reached our hunting cabin around noon the next day and unloaded everything but the trailer and four-wheeler. The first area I wanted to hunt was a pine woods with plenty of deer trails that headed into and out of a large swamp. It was about 3:30 when I arrived at the base of the tree I had chosen for a stand. My plan was to tie a pull rope to the tree stand, climb up and then haul the stand to me through the dense branches. I got about 10 feet up and considered the position. There were shooting lanes here and there, and enough limb cover on the lower part of the tree to break my silhouette and conceal my lower body.
After pulling up the stand and chaining it to the tree, I climbed onto it to check its stability as I’ve always done. Confident that the stand was rock-solid and would support my 220-pound frame, I started down to get my bow. I stepped off the stand and onto a branch, balancing myself by grasping another branch. It was when I started to take a step down that both branches broke under my weight.
NO EASY WAY OUT
When I realized what had happened, I was on the ground looking up. I couldn’t move my legs or twist my body. I checked my watch. It was 4 p.m. The obvious thoughts raced through my mind: Was I busted up inside? Was I bleeding to death internally? How was I going to get out of there? Who would help me? Who would miss me? The weather forecast called for the temperature to drop to about 15 degrees that night. I wasn’t prepared for it. I was just going to hunt all evening and then return to the warm cabin, or so I had planned.
I decided that, regardless of whatever else had happened to me, I wasn’t bleeding inside and was in no imminent danger. The only way out was a long crawl to the road, where a passing motorist could offer help. I reached across my body and tried to grab some sod to pull myself onto my stomach. The ground was so sandy, however, that it gave way at my grasp. I tried again and again and was finally able to get turned over. I looked around to get my bearings and to decide on the easiest route to take. I used my left arm to pull myself and pushed with my right hand at my side. I was able to crawl, but after dragging the dead weight of my body about 3 feet, I had to stop and rest a few minutes. Then I was able to go another 3 feet and rest again.
At that point I didn’t feel a sense of desperation; I just knew I had to get out of there. The farther I crawled, the more my left wrist hurt. I didn’t know it, but the fall had broken my wrist in two places. Crawling on, I reached a small gully. I started across it and felt stabs of pain range up and down my back. It was slow going, but there were no other options.
By the time I reached the other side of the depression, it was already 5:30 p.m. and dark. It had been a struggle to crawl about 20 feet from where I had fallen. I started to wonder if I was ever going to get to the road. My pain was only going to get worse, I told myself, and I would be in greater trouble if I lost consciousness. As I kept moving toward the road, I reflected on my life and my family. I thought about my mother, who had passed away the year before, and wondered if I would see her again before too long. I wasn’t a churchgoer, but I sure was praying for God to help me.
FORTY YARDS IN SIX HOURS
I kept going, a little at a time, but it got harder and I had to rest longer between each effort. By 10:30 it was pitch black. The tree from which I had fallen was about 40 yards away. I had made it to the edge of the woods, but I needed to get another 60 yards to the road.
When I neared the ditch that separated me from the road I started trying to figure out a way to make it up the incline without triggering excruciating pain. I reasoned that it wouldn’t be so bad if I crawled up the slope at an angle. My clothes and safety belt got hung up on some small bushes. I tried to push myself over them but became stuck. After a few minutes of struggle, I willed my body to make two thrusts forward and over the brush. It worked. I was free, but the effort had weakened me even further. My strength was drained; it was midnight and I stopped for about an hour.
After a fitful nap I began to worry that my back pain would become so acute that I couldn’t continue. I felt angry at myself for stopping before reaching the road, although probably nobody would be traveling at that time of night.
It was 4 a.m. when I reached the ditch. Brush stopped me again and I started rocking my upper body. Nothing seemed to work. I tried to remove the safety belt, which was snagging on the brush, but I could only loosen the buckle. I thrashed forward and side-to-side and finally broke loose. The ditch bank was about 4 feet high but seemed to be a mountain.
I struggled to pull myself up the incline on a slanted course. After about an hour I made it to the top. The next obstacle was the weeds and brush that grew between the woods and the road. The undergrowth was thick and a few feet tall, but my rescue depended on dragging myself those last few yards to where I could be seen.
By then nothing was easy; my upper body was worn out and my muscles were burning. I kept inching forward, however, and accomplished my goal of reaching the edge of the road by 7 a.m. Fifteen painful hours after setting out, I had crossed the 100 yards that separated me from survival.
END OF THE ORDEAL
Daylight was brightening the sky when I unzipped my coat and started to turn it inside out. The coat was reversible: camo on the outside and blaze orange on the inside. I figured somebody would see it if I could use it as a flag. Just then I heard a sound that gave me hope. A car was coming. The person in the car didn’t see me waving, however, and kept going. All I could do was wait for someone else. Finally I heard another vehicle approaching.
I reached up and waved. This time it worked: The driver slammed on the brakes. He backed up to where I lay on the road’s shoulder and got out. I begged him for help. I told him I fell out of a tree and was paralyzed. I then asked him to call an ambulance and my wife. My long nightmare was over.
And so was my hunting, I thought then. My back was broken in two places and a disc pushing against my spinal cord was the chief cause of my paralysis. I also had some internal injuries, plus a broken left wrist. Three surgeries took care of some of the damage, and after six weeks I returned home. I couldn’t sit up, or even roll over in bed. After seven weeks of rehabilitation, I could shuffle slowly around my room with a walker.
Several months passed before I was able to take a few steps in my kitchen without the walker. I will never be completely healed, but my injuries haven’t kept me from hunting. Thanks to the United Foundation for Disabled Archers (320-634-3660, www.uffdaclub.org), I have enjoyed some quality time in the woods and have tagged a few bucks since my accident, including a nice six-pointer I got last season with a crossbow.
When I go hunting now, my fall and what followed is replayed in my mind. I learned three important lessons: Never go hunting alone without telling somebody exactly where you plan to hunt and when you expect to return, plan to check in by phone each night and wear a safety belt when climbing to and from a stand. I didn’t, and paid a terrible price.
To learn more about organizations for disabled hunters, go to www.outdoorlife.com/hunting