Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Safe Hunting

Safety harness 2

Jake (not his real name) had planned an afternoon Pennsylvania deer hunt. He had watched his young son ascend a tree in their brand-new climber. Jake had coached his son a great deal on hunting safety and the safe use of bows, guns, ATVs and tree stands. Jake and his son were comfortable with their deer hunting safety knowledge, and their many hours spent on the family farm made them right at home in the deer-rich woods, just several hundred yards from Jake’s dad’s place.

By Phillip Bishop

After leaving his son, Jake slipped through the warm afternoon sunlight to a climber he and his son had put in the woods a couple of weeks earlier. They had kept their human scent away from the stands since placing them. The fresh tracks and well-worn trail gave Jake great hopes for the first after- noon of bow season.

Jake was using an older climber that was beginning to show some wear. That’s one reason he had bought his son a new stand. This stand wasn’t really Jake’s. It belonged to his dad. Jake climbed up about 16 feet and carefully fastened his tree belt around the oak. This was a tree Jake had hunted the past two years, and the faint scars on the bark showed him when he was in the right spot. Jake liked the size of the tree, and the smooth, tight bark, which made for safe, non-slip climbing. Most of all, he liked the great location.

No one knows exactly what happened to Jake that afternoon. When dark- ness came, Jake’s son took only about 15 minutes to return to his grandfather’s. Together, they waited another 30 minutes. Jake’s dad was getting antsy. Maybe Jake had arrowed a deer. Maybe he was tracking one using his head lamp. Maybe he needed help.

Jake’s dad was a little worried but not too much. Jake was a safe hunter, and had been through his own hunter education class, which he had repeated just two years before with his son. Jake wore a good safety harness and always tied in.

Whether you're hunting, hanging stands or moving them around, always remember to wear a safety harness, stay hooked up, and let someone know where you'll be. Safety first! (Photo: Summit Stands)

Whether you’re hunting, hanging stands or moving them around, always remember to wear a safety harness, stay hooked up, and let someone know where you’ll be. Safety first! (Photo: Summit Stands)

After another 30 minutes, Jake’s dad decided to take his old four-wheeler and help Jake find his deer and haul it in. He set off toward Jake’s stand and arrived five minutes later. No flashlight was visible in the stand or the woods. Something wasn’t right, but the low aim of the ATV headlights couldn’t reveal what it was.

As soon as he snapped on his powerful light, Jake’s dad’s heart was crushed. There was Jake, ashen gray, hanging from his safety harness. A hasty 911 call was made, and the local rescue squad made a quick run to the farm, where they met Jake’s dad, who directed them to Jake. But it was far too late.

Jake had somehow fallen, but his fall had been stopped by his fall-arrest harness. A closer look showed that the leg straps had been released when Jake’s feet were only about 6 feet above the ground. Jake had slipped downward in his safety harness, but the small chest strap that held the shoulder straps in place had caught Jake around the neck, effectively hanging him.

What a terrible end to an afternoon that had started so pleasantly and with such positive expectations.

Lessons Learned from Jake
Deer hunting is a very safe sport compared to many other recreational activities. I recently did research on deer hunting injuries and accidents, and am happy the data showed that your chances of being injured while deer hunting were 0.008 percent (eight injuries for every 100,000 hunting licenses sold). That means you are more likely to be injured by a toilet or die driving to the hunt than being injured deer hunting. But safe as it is, and as few accidents as there are per licenses sold, you don’t want to be among the few exceptions. Deer hunting is one of our greatest pleasures, and we don’t want that to end because of a careless accident.

In Jake’s case, he did many things absolutely correctly. He had completed two hunter education courses. He had helped train his son and familiarized himself and his son with the old and the new climbing stands. He had used an up-haul rope, had his cell phone handy and, most important, used a fall-arrest harness and tied in solidly. His dad and son knew where he was hunting.

Jake’s mistakes, which were unfortunately fatal, were not thinking about safety, not thoroughly knowing his harness and not planning for every possibility.

Julie’s Last Hunt
Julie (not her real name) was excited about sharing her husband’s passion for pursuing whitetails. She was hunting with her hubby and one of his new hunting pals. Julie’s husband and his buddy had helped her haul in her two-piece climber and set it on a good, straight tree for climbing.

Julie’ husband stayed behind to supervise her climb while his buddy headed for his own stand. Julie began climbing just as her husband had shown her. She had made it about 14 feet up and was almost at the height for her hunt. Somehow, her boot caught one of the pins that held the lower platform to the tree. She inadvertently pulled the pin loose on the lower platform without even realizing it. The lower platform fell, and Julie was left hanging from the upper piece. She held on as long has she could, but what goes up must also come down, and that’s what Julie did. Unfortunately, she broke her ankle, bruised her hip and injured her back. It was a sad end to what started out as a wonderful day pursuing whitetails.

Lessons Learned from Julie
Julie did a lot right but, together with her husband, made a couple of serious mistakes. The lower platform must always be securely tied to the upper platform. Every time I use a two-piece climber, I think of Julie, and I check the connector — and then I check it again. Her big mistake was that she wasn’t wearing a tied-in fall-arrest harness. Had she been securely tied in, she could have used the harness to help her mount the upper-stand platform or, in the worst case, been suspended. Research suggests that more tree stand accidents happen during the climb up and climb down than at any other time. Suspension can be dangerous, as discussed in the next section, but a properly used harness could have bought Julie and her husband a few minutes to figure out a way to get her out of the tree, hopefully uninjured.

James’ Funeral
James did almost everything right. He was well trained in hunter safety. He notified his best friend of his hunting stand location. He inspected his stand, tied in before leaving the ground and kept his high quality full-body safety harness tied firmly to the tree trunk.

No one knows — and unfortunately never will — what happened to James. His stand was found at the bottom of the tall, straight tree he had climbed. His corpse was suspended more than 8 feet above the ground, and James was dead.

The autopsy showed that James had some bruising on the inside of both upper legs and some lighter bruising and abrasions under his arms. He had been young, fit and healthy, but he was dead from suspension trauma. In some unknown way, James had fallen into his harness. He had remained upright, hanging in his harness for a time rang- ing from about five minutes to 30 minutes.

After a few minutes of hanging vertically with his legs relaxed, blood had started to pool in his legs. This pooling was only slightly increased by his leg straps and would occur even if the straps exerted no pressure on his leg veins. Gravity alone was sufficient to reduce the blood return to his heart. His heart tried to compensate, but to no avail. In a God-given physiological remedy, his heart had slowed down, causing James to faint, which, had he been standing upright, would have caused him to fall flat, eliminating the gravity problem and allowing blood flow to be restored. Unfortunately, when he lost conscious- ness, James’ good harness kept him from falling over where blood flow to his brain could be restored. Unable to maintain blood flow, the oxygen supply to James’ brain eventually became so low that he could not maintain normal organ function, and James tragically became a fatality.

Lessons Learned from James
Fall-arrest harnesses are vital for safely hunting from elevated stands. I have worn a fall-arrest system almost every hunt from elevation for the past 12 to 15 years. For the past several years, I have been very careful to wear my harness all the way up and all the way down the tree. I know that harnesses can save your life, but in the wrong circumstances, they can also kill you.

A fall restraint harness should be part of your hunting setup any time you're off the ground.

A fall restraint harness should be part of your hunting setup any time you’re off the ground.

As you sit waiting for a shooter buck, ask yourself if you fell and were totally suspended, how would you self-rescue? There is always a possibility someone could show up and rescue you. Had Julie’s husband had a climbing stand close by, he could have quickly climbed up the tree and rescued her, assuming he could act fast enough. Your safety harness might buy you enough time to be rescued. That’s one of the reasons for taking a cell phone or walkie-talkie and ensuring at least one person you can contact knows the area you will be hunting.

But where I hunt, it’s unlikely anyone is going to get to me quickly enough. Even if someone were close by, I still make sure to have a self-rescue plan, and you should, too. Figure out what you are going to do, and then practice it in a safe place with supervision and very close to the ground. Self-rescue is much harder than you think, and there are so many variables that no single solution will work for all hunt- ers in all circumstances. Self-rescue is vital, so practice it. And if this sounds like a hassle or you think, “It will never happen to me,” consider this: Jake, Julie and James probably thought that, too.

Relax and Hunt Deer (Safely)
Sad to say, all these stories are based on real deer hunting accidents. Note that none of them were weapons acci- dents. When I started hunting almost 50 years ago, our chief concern was to avoid getting shot and shooting another hunter.

Tree stands were hammered-together boards up in tree crotch. When the Baker one-piece climber became popular in 1970s, deer hunting — especially in the eastern United States — quickly changed forever. Data suggests that tree stands account for far more injuries than all weapons put together. This is not to blame tree stands. Used correctly, they are safe, and I use one on about 90 percent of my deer hunts.

Eternal vigilance is the price of peace, and eternal vigilance is also the price of safety, whether we are driving, working with equipment, piloting an aircraft or hunting deer. It’s worth repeating: One of the reasons we act unsafely is that we think, “It can’t happen to me.” Ask Julie. It can happen to anyone, and the more risks we take, the more likely it will happen to us.

I hope for all hunters to enjoy the coming deer season, but I want us to enjoy all of it, and all of the next season and the one after that. The odds are good that we will, but the odds are even better if we pay attention every time we hunt. If we do, it’s much easier to relax and hunt deer. And it’s easier on our loved ones, too.

— Dr. Phillip Bishop is a an expert on suspension trauma. An avid whitetail hunter, he is a professor at the University of Alabama and regular D&DH contributor.

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