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Ken Perrotte’s Outdoors Column: Hunter all for safety after tree-stand fall
MIKE EARL HAS hunted since his adolescence in upstate New York and now, nearly 50, he counts himself fortunate that he’ll be around for another deer season.
It’s not that he survived a deadly illness or a fiery crash on the highway. No, he survived a tumble late last year from a tree stand.
Earl, a retired Marine Corps noncommissioned officer, works at Fort A.P. Hill and he hunts the post and his new home countryside in Caroline County as often as possible. Hunting from tree stands has been in his repertoire since the first commercial Baker stands arrived on the market in the 1970s.
The late December Saturday morning was frosty cool. Earl hadn’t settled on a specific hunt location, but opted for new scenery, deciding to hunt a patch of woods with which he was only vaguely familiar. He knew the general area, but hadn’t scouted for a precise place to hunt prior to deciding to give it a try.
It’s a common scenario. A hunter loads up the gear and stand on his back and heads into the woods, looking for a promising location followed by a good tree to climb, all while trying to maintain a modicum of stealth.
“I picked out a tree in the skyline and then attached my tree stand tackle on it in the dark,” Earl said. “I wear a Hunter Safety System harness vest, but didn’t hook it to the tree until I reached the elevation where I would sit.”
Most hunters acknowledge this as common practice, especially with daybreak approaching. Attaching a safety strap to the tree and then moving it up the tree while you climb is time-consuming.
“I climbed a little higher than 20 feet and secured my stand and my harness to the tree. Once I ratchet strap that stand to the tree, it’s not going anyplace,” he said. “I sat for about two hours before I realized I really didn’t like my location and made the decision to get down and move.”
Earl properly used a rope to lower his pack and shotgun to the ground. He then unhooked the ratchet strap and his safety strap.
“That was my near-fatal mistake,” he said grimly.
His tree stand employed a common cable system that wraps around the tree and locks back into the unit. Earl started down the tree and descended several feet. He leaned back slightly, shifting the pressure on the stand, and instant terror ensured.
The top portion of the climbing stand totally detached from the tree.
“I was free-falling backwards and in a second went from being upright to being upside down with my left foot still in the plastic stirrup of the unit’s base. That foot slipped out and when it did I dropped, hitting the ground with a face plant,” he explained.
The top part of the stand quickly followed and crashed into his head.
“I was on the ground, seeing stars. My face was cut. I wiped away the blood and found I was able to stand. I stood there, checking things out, and then sat down by the tree for about 10 minutes before attempting to head out,” he said.
Earl knows he was lucky to be able to walk away from the accident with just bruises and minor cuts.
What if the stand pulled away from the tree at 25 feet up instead of 12–14 feet high? What if his left foot had remained stuck in the stirrup? His phone was below in his backpack. What if some deadfall on the ground below his stand had a stiff small branch or two capable of puncturing his skin and a vital organ?
What if the falling stand had struck him squarely on the head? Nobody knew precisely where he was hunting.
He doesn’t blame the stand, saying he checked it thoroughly after the accident and everything worked as designed.
“I’d done this a thousand times and was confident in my ability,” he said. “I knew most accidents come during ascent and descent, but still didn’t do all I could have. I have a new respect for safety harnesses. It slows you up, moving that harness up the tree as you climb, but it’s the only way I’ll climb in the future.”
GET MORE FACTS
Earl’s scenario is just one of countless things that can go awry when using tree stands. Statistics show one in three hunters using stands will someday have an accident related to the stand.
Near-misses never get reported. Earl’s accident won’t make it into any records because he walked away.
Many hunters have had close calls, often as a result of haste or taking an unnecessary risk. For example, how many hunters using climbing stands have tried to adjust the angle of the stand relative to a tree, due to the tree’s greater-than-estimated taper, while high in the air? How many have climbed ladder stands with guns slung over shoulders versus using a haul rope? How many have begun to doze off or actually fallen asleep in a stand?
Archery season for deer opens in a couple weeks. Many hunters will be using tree stands. Take a few minutes to refresh yourself on basic tree stand safety practices before heading to the woods. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has good information and videos at dgif.virginia.gov/hunting/treestand-safety.asp.
Finally, use stands that are built to standard. The Tree Stand Manufacturers Association is composed of stand manufacturers that submit their products for testing and promote a safety code. Learn more at tmastands.com.
Ken Perrotte can be reached at The Free Lance–Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg, Va. 22401, by fax at 373-8455 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.