Buckmasters Magazine

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

By Ed Waite

Skill and experience can’t prevent a treestand accident – but a safety harness can.

Imagine clinging to hope, practically covering your ears, while a suffering friend begs you to kill him.

Or imagine being in such excruciating pain that you would plead with someone to end it, to pull the plug before there’s even a plug to pull.

Mike McCabe and Keith Powell don’t have to imagine it. They’re trying to forget it ever happened.

That scenario played out six years ago, during a bear hunt in Alberta. The friends, cofounders of the then-new “Sportsmen of North America” television show, were there to film the hunt for a future episode. Since Mike already had his fill of shooting bears, he was the cameraman for Keith.

On the third day of their hunt, the guys moved the camera stand a little higher so Mike could film over Keith’s shoulder.

“After the three-hour drive to reach the bait site the following day – an hour by truck and two more on four-wheeler – I realized I’d left my safety harness lying on the bed back at the lodge,” Mike said. Six more hours of going back to retrieve it was out of the question.”

That left three options: for Keith to hunt without a cameraman for those six hours, for them to set up on the ground, or for Mike to basically cross his fingers and climb. He chose the latter.

“I’d hunted for 17 years, mostly without any kind of safety system, and I never really worried about it,” he said. “I used to be an ironworker, and we’d walk out on 4- and 6-inch beams, so I really had no fear of heights.”

Keith’s stand was facing the bait pile, while Mike’s was higher on the back of the tree.

“We had been set up for a couple of hours when I saw a big old chocolate-phase bear coming in from behind us,” Mike said. “I reached around the tree and tapped Keith to let him know a big one was approaching and to get ready.

“While he was preparing, I also stood, grabbed the camera and started swinging it around the tree to get on the bear,” Mike continued. “At that exact second, the top of the stand came loose from the tree. It was like a trap door opened. As the stand fell, it pitched me forward and I fell face first.

Mike had experience as a skydiver, which is sort of how he felt in the nanoseconds before he hit the ground. Just before impact, he gritted his teeth and thought, Here it comes.

“I fractured 27 bones, including most of my ribs and sternum, hands, arms and wrists,” he said. “But the worst was my back. I knew it was broken.”

While Keith was getting down, Mike says he did the math and figured he was going to die right there.

“We were at least five hours from being picked up by the guides. It would take hours to walk out, and there was zero cell service. A best-case scenario was that it would take 10 hours before I could get to a hospital, and there was no way I could survive that long.

“I wasn’t going to just give up, but I knew I was in dire straits,” Mike continued. “I tried several times to get up, but I couldn’t move anything below my arms. Plus, I was continually spitting out blood and broken teeth. The pain was excruciating. I wanted my partner to finish me off. My worst nightmare was upon me, and I had talked about not wanting to live in this condition. But Keith would not listen to my pleas.”

In an effort to find cell service, Keith ran back the way they’d come. He was halfway up the hill when he suddenly stopped and came running back.

Mike asked why he’d come back, and Keith said, “I need to cover you up so the bears don’t get you.”

And then Keith began piling branches and brush on his partner.

“These branches aren’t going to stop them if they want me,” Mike told him, “but if it makes you feel good, go ahead.”

Then Keith took off again.

“I’ve no idea where he got the stamina to run up that hill,” Mike said. “Maybe his adrenaline was flowing like mine. That was the first time I was alone, and I was thinking about my wife, Kim, and the kids, wondering how they would deal with me being gone.”

While all those thoughts were filling his head, he heard a twig snap behind him.

“I knew immediately what that sound meant,” he said. “It was the sound you listen for while in your stand, waiting on a big bruin’s arrival.

“I was right, too. The bear walked right around me, never realizing I was there. I kept thinking, You know, I can accept dying out here. But there’s no way in hell I’ll accept being eaten by that bear – even though I had no way to stop it!”

Suddenly, the bear took off for a safer place. That’s when Mike realized Keith was coming back down the hill, yelling, “I got through! I got through!”

He’d miraculously found a signal and was able to call the lodge. The guides immediately radioed for help.

Incredibly, a search-and-rescue team – complete with paramedics – was about 5 miles away, practicing trail cutting and rescues. They were mobilized with four-wheelers and were only 20 minutes out.

They arrived in short order and assessed Mike’s condition.

“I remember them rolling me on my side, a lady reaching behind me and saying ‘He’s definitely broken his back.’ My spine was separated,” Mike said.

The team strapped him to a backboard and put him on a small trailer for the long drive out to the trail head. The going was very slow over the rutted logging road, and the pain was excruciating for Mike.

One of the team members knew of a wide place that could accommodate a chopper with an experienced pilot. They called for it and headed for the open ground, arriving about the same time.

The pilot, however, refused to land.

Some of the rescue crew then used chainsaws and brush cutters to clear more area, but the pilot still refused to return and land.

“I remember lying there on the backboard, listening to the conversation,” Mike said. “One man told the pilot that if he didn’t come in and land, I wouldn’t make it. He also explained that he had done this kind of rescue three other times and knew the opening was large enough for the helicopter to land safely.

“I remember the chopper, it was maroon-colored, and as it came in to land, I felt there was a real chance I could survive this nightmare. I had somehow remained mostly conscious throughout the whole of the afternoon, but once aboard the helicopter, I turned myself and my fate over to the crew and slipped into a deep sleep, possibly induced by drugs.”

When Mike awoke, he was in a hospital where most of his critical injuries had been addressed. Three weeks had elapsed since the fall, and for most of that time he had been on life support.

He spent the next four and a half months in hospitals before he was released. To this day and forever more, Mike will be paralyzed from about the armpits down.

However, his willpower has enabled him to build a super-human upper body. With help from friends and family, while flat on his back in the hospital, Mike designed a treestand system whereby he can physically hoist himself into a stand and bowhunt from it. He’s arrowed nice bucks every year since.

While Mike is an example of how hard work and determination can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he’s the first to point out he never should have climbed that tree without a safety harness.

It really can happen to you.

Check out the interview with Mike and see actual footage of his rescue by searching “Mike McCabe Bowhunting Tragedy” on YouTube.

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This article was published in the September 2014 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

Copyright 2023 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd