Though it was fifteen years ago, I remember the second Saturday of the 2002 black powder season like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful, crisp morning. I got to my stand just before first light, and I had great expectations for that morning. It was a requirement of our hunt club that you had to be in an elevated stand or an elevated position to black powder hunt. My stand for that morning was a wooden stand that rose above a creek in what was known as Upper Malvern. I saw the seat on the ground, but did not think anything of it. I would have to climb the ladder twice that morning, due to the number of things that I had to get to the platform. Climb No. 1 was uneventful. Climb No. 2 would be life-altering. I had just made it to the platform when the ladder broke loose from the ground, swinging under the platform. I was not ready for this to happen, and I was thrown about eight feet to the ground. I fell to my left side, striking a small stump with the upper portion of my left arm. I was lying on my back, unsure whether I was hurt. Once I rolled over attempting to get up, I knew that I was hurt.
My truck was about 200 yards away, and it was all I could do to get there. When I got to my truck, I laid across my seat until I had recovered a bit. Incidentally, I had no two-way radio or cell phone with me. All that I could think to do was blow the horn on my truck. No one came to my distress signal. I decided to drive to a road a hunt club member had gone down. He was walking up the road when I got there; he had heard my horn blasts. At that point, I had nothing left. There is no great time to say this, but this is important to what I have learned this same thing had happened to the person who climbed this stand the night before, but he did not fall. He pulled the ladder back, securing it as best as he could and left it, not notifying anyone that this stand should not be used in until repaired or replaced. He had placed the seat on the ground, thinking that would be notification enough; it was not. I never blamed this individual for my accident, but I do believe that this accident might have been prevented. I was transported to Chippenham Hospital, where I learned that I had suffered a severely broken collar bone, front and back, and that my hunting season was over.
What is different fifteen years later? First, I am still climbing tree stands. I now wear a full body harness every time that I climb a tree stand. I spend a bit of time checking the stand that I will climb. I check the stability of the ladder, as well as the connection of the stand to the tree. If a problem is noted, I will attempt to fix it. If it cannot be fixed, I will not climb it. I will then notify someone in the club with where I am hunting with that the problem exists. If the stand, is good to climb, I do so intentionally, focused on the task at hand. Once I get to the top of the stand, I immediately secure my harness to the tree. I do not hoist a loaded gun into the stand; loaded defined as ready to fire. Once I get everything up and into the stand, I move as little as possible. Descending the stand has to be as methodical as climbing the stand.
Accountability is an important improvement that has been made in hunting. The club that I used to be in had an accountability board and logbook. The club that I am in now requires that you sign in at the entrance to the place where you are going to hunt. Many hunters text other hunters to let them know where they are hunting, since family members will not understand the names given to hunting locations. We also use personal two-way radios, and everyone now carries a cell phone. It is important to know what you will do when you fall and load your harness.
I cannot stress the importance of overall hunter safety and especially tree stand safety. I was fortunate to live to tell my story. The same day that I had my accident, a man fell from a stand in Powhatan and, if I remember correctly, broke both of his femurs. One of the last calls that I ran as a fire lieutenant was to assist game wardens with an investigation after a man fell to his death from a self-climbing tree stand. Hunting is a great sport, but there are inherent dangers. We must keep our heads in the game. In one moment, in 2002, I became a hunting statistic, missed two months from my job, had a tree named Pete’s Tree, and made it into the last chapter of a man’s book; I would rather have seen what would come by that morning. Be careful and have a great season!