There’s no amount of experience or luck that will stop a treestand accident.
The popping in my back sounded like someone running their fingers down the keys of a piano. The moment my feet touched the ground, my legs collapsed and my butt slammed to the ground.
All of the vertebrae in my back compressed with the weight of my head and shoulders barreling down at such a high rate of speed. I bounced head-first into a small bush and landed on my hands and knees with my head on the ground. My right butt cheek hit the saw blade that I had recently lowered to the ground, destroying it, along with my hip. I was in dire straights with life-threatening injuries, and I knew it.
Treestand safety does not get the attention it deserves and, as I now know, experience means little when it comes to the probability of an accident. I have been hanging onto trees for as long as I can remember. Around age 10, I saw my cousin fall and break ribs and a leg, which caused me to be more careful.
I was going through a difficult time on that dreadful day in the fall of 2012, and I just wanted to get to my hunting property to work off some stress. Hunting, fishing and the outdoors are my way of getting right with the world, and today I even make my living through the outdoors as one of the owners of Gator Trax Boats.
I share the lease with my good friend Randy from Lavaca, Ala., in Choctaw County. As always, my trusty trail dog, Ace, was by my side. Ace is a black-and-tan dachshund — not your typical trail dog, but hunters in Choctaw County call him weekly to track deer. Ace has never let them down.
October 5 was a beautiful, crisp fall morning. I was dressed in appropriate fieldwork clothing consisting of a denim shirt and pants, and leather boots and gloves. I drove a tractor to one of my lock-ons to begin getting it ready for hunting season.
Ace stretched his legs while I climbed into the treestand and pulled up my pole chainsaw to trim some nuisance limbs. All went well, so I lowered the saw to the ground, careful to turn the saw on its side.
Next, as I prepared to exit the stand, I looked at the ladder rungs and wondered why I hadn’t screwed a step in the back of the tree to provide a handhold. I told myself to be careful since it could be little tricky without that extra anchor point.
Overconfidence was my biggest mistake.
I have a lot experience in the outdoors and also with climbing. In the 1990s, between shrimp seasons, I worked up and down the Mississippi River in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas in the chemical and petroleum plants as an iron worker. Some of the most dangerous work I have done has been in the rigging of a shrimp boat (hanging snatch blocks and pulleys, and then stringing them with ropes or cables to rescue a buddy with engine failure). I’m quite comfortable working in the air, and despite my caution and respect for the situation, I never felt a fall could happen to me.
I was wrong. Almost dead wrong.
I reached around the tree and found something to grab. Next, I held onto the stand with my right hand and stepped onto the ladder rungs. As I took a step down, I let to with my right hand so I could then grasp the ladder section. Instead, I grabbed air and was falling away from the tree before I could even register a sense of panic.
Even as I fell, I could see the ladder rungs passing by, so I reached out for one. The good leather gloves were no match for the force of my falling weight, and the rung jerked out my hand like I was trying to hold onto a wet bar of soap.
I tried again with the same result and realized there was nothing I could do to stop the fall. While my mind was ready for the impact, nothing could have prepared my body. As I write this, I have had to stop to wipe away tears. I’ve never written about the accident before, and thinking about it brings back the emotional trauma.
As I lay there, I felt something on my wrist between my gloves and shirt sleeves. Feeling was beginning to return to my body, so I picked up my head. As I checked the exposed skin of my wrists, I saw fire ants. On further inspection, they were swarming all over.
For those who live in areas devoid of fire ants, consider yourselves lucky. They are amazingly fast when their mound is disturbed, and they swarm an intruder and unleash the most painful, fiery bites you’ll ever experience. And they keep on biting. The pain is very close to a bee sting, so imagine getting stung by hundreds of bees all at once, and repeatedly.
I was in the middle of a large ant bed, and although I didn’t think I could or should move, I simply had no choice. I mustered enough strength to scoot clear of the ants. I remember screaming in pain as I wiped away ants, which brought Ace to my side.
Next, I got out my phone to call for help and saw a text from my wife. She wanted a divorce. How’s that for timing?
I returned her text and asked her to call Randy and tell him I was in trouble on food plot number four. Then I called 911.
Ace was barking frantically in a manner I had never heard before when Randy finally called out my name. He barked until Randy touched him on his head and said, “We got him, boy.”
By the time they got me to the hospital, my wife had arrived. Despite our difficulties, she’s a caring person.
The doctors decided I needed more advanced care and ordered me transferred to Jackson, Miss. That’s about when my oldest son, Luke, arrived. Luke is a doctor at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, so it was a comfort to know he was there to help ensure I was getting the best of care.
The good news was my back was not broken. I wish I could same the same of my hip. Something had to give at the impact, and my entire hip socket was a mess. No one knew it at the time, but I had internal bleeding around the hip injury.
On the trip to Jackson, I could feel myself slipping away. We got there just in time. The new doctors ran tests and decided I needed traction, too. They drilled through my leg and femur bone right above my knee. My condition called for 15 pounds of weight, so they tied 2 gallons of drinking water to the pin in my leg and hung them over the foot of the bed as a temporary fix. I stayed in traction for five days with proper pulleys and weights.
My youngest son, Chad, was in Kansas filming his television show, “Wallhanger TV,” which he hosts with his wife, Dana. They were able to make it to Jackson before my surgery. The doctors performed an extensive 10-hour surgery with screws and wires and kept me five more days. Recovery included a no-weight restriction for 12 weeks.
When I got home, my 75-year-old mother brought me my bow. It was weeks before I could pull it back, but I was in Kansas with my sister by Thanksgiving in hopes of catching the tail end of the rut. Still on crutches, I slowly and carefully pulled myself up into a ladder stand. I managed to take a beautiful 8-pointer with my bow.
I could have died that day in October.
There are several devices that can protect you from the ground up, and back down. Get them. Use them.
Every time you climb a tree and nothing goes wrong, it brings you one trip closer to the time when it does.
Only one question remains: Will you be buckled up and tied off when your accident happens, or will your loved ones be planning your funeral?
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