The fall hunting season is finally here and as we head into the woods to hang treestands in pursuit of whitetail deer and other large game, I can’t help but remind hunters it’s also a good time to do a safety check on our equipment. When those treestands begin to show signs of rust, or safety lines exhibit fraying, or it has been several years since you purchased your safety harness, it’s probably time to replace this equipment. Treestand safety has come such a long way since I was bowhunting in the late 90’s. Back in those days, safety equipment consisted of waist belts for when you were in the stand, and well, that’s pretty much it. Unfortunately, too many elevated hunters don’t take safety to heart and think, I’m hunting from a ladder stand, “what can go wrong” or “I’m not climbing very high”, but it only takes one misstep to change your life. The Treestand Safety Awareness Foundation (TSSA) still reports several thousand treestand accidents each year which are the number one form of hunting accidents and with all the modern equipment, most of these could have been easily be prevented.
Unfortunately, I am one of these statistics. I was 28 years old when I was bowhunting a hedgerow on a friend’s property in Northeast Pennsylvania in late October. I was confident in my new stand location, but with strong winds that day I decided hang my stand higher than normal and I was a good 23-25’ in the air. After an unsuccessful sit in the cold wind, I began to climb down with just a few minutes of light remaining. Little did I know I was about to change my life and the way I bow hunted forever. As my foot hit the second strap-on step from the top, the step gave out and I can still see myself plummeting headfirst toward the ground.
The next thing I remember is being on the ground, realizing I had just taken a bad fall, but I had no idea where I was. I was able to get to my feet, although a bit wobbly, but I was not bleeding and I did not appear to have obvious broken bones, although I figured I must have sustained some internal injuries and the adrenaline was masking the pain. I knew I had been bowhunting and was pretty sure I had been hunting a friend’s property, but I did not know where that was or which direction to head.
As I scanned the darkening horizon, I spotted a house off in the distance and was about to begin walking toward it. I somehow remembered I had a GPS and luckily I had saved waypoint for where my truck was parked and the location of my friend’s house. As it turns out, it was in the opposite direction of the old abandon farmhouse I spotted. I thought for sure I had escaped any harm until an hour later when I began vomiting. After a night in the ER, I was diagnosed with a concussion and released. Still trying to piece together how I could fall from that height and not be paralyzed, my only conclusion was I must have bear-hugged the tree on my way down, as my ribs and arms were bruised and scraped and the metal lacings on my boots were tore off.
After about a week my concussion symptoms had subsided, I made the long two hour drive to hunt the same property. I felt fine, but quickly realized this was not going to be a normal hunt. About four feet off the ground my legs began shaking and I started sweating profusely even though the temperatures were in the thirties that morning. I pushed myself and finally managed to climb into the stand, kneeling on the platform and hugging the seat in that unpleasant “hugging the bowl” pose. I eventually got enough courage to sit in the seat and complete a short hunt that day, but it wasn’t about seeing or shooting a deer, in fact I still don’t remember if I even pulled by bow into the stand that day.
I still can’t explain how lucky I was and it wasn’t until several years later after dealing with chronic neck pain that I sought help from a specialist. After several tests and scans, the fractures in my neck were discovered along with severe muscle trauma from the fall several years prior. Months of physical therapy alleviated the worst pain, but I will always have some neck issues and flair-ups from time to time, but I’ll take it any day compared to what the outcome should have been.
That fall has forced me to preach safety to my friends and family which includes always using a full body harness and a lifeline when hunting in any elevated situation and using a lineman’s belt when hanging stands and steps. It seems so easy to simply clip in before climbing, but many hunters still take short-cuts or take treestand safety for granted. There are many life altering events in a person’s existence which can be measured in mere seconds. It only takes seconds to put on a safety harness and just a split second to clip in before climbing. It also takes a split second to decide not to and even less time for that slip to happen. Maybe you’ll be lucky like me and you’ll walk away from the fall, but there’s a good chance you won’t walk anywhere again.