It's a human error. We're not squirrels.
The Perils of Hunting on High. Dives From Tree Stands Hurt More People Than Bullets Do
By Joshua Partlow Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, December 23, 2005;
When he felt his boot filling up with blood, Wilmer Karn knew he was in a bad way. Moments earlier, Karn had been scaling a tree up near Wolfsville in Frederick County to get in position for the first day of deer hunting in the firearm season. The lifelong hunter wouldn't get off a single shot.
"Well, I was going up in my stand, and I got to the top. And when I get to the top, I always grab a hold and swing right in there," said Karn, 59, a retired plumber from Hagerstown, Md. "But I lost my grip and down I went."
Karn plummeted 15 feet to the forest floor, knocked the wind out of himself, shattered his right ankle in three places, broke his fibula and popped his tibia out through the skin.
"My foot was just hanging there, it had just broke the bone completely off," he said. "When I hit the ground, I pretty much knew it was shot. It was terrible -- there's just no other word for it."
Common would be another one. Far more common, in fact, than hunters shooting themselves or their buddies, or any other firearm-related mishap. On the day of Karn's fall, Nov. 26, two other hunters in Maryland -- one in Montgomery County, the other in Kent County on the Eastern Shore -- plunged out of tree stands, one to his death.
Of the 10 hunting accidents in Maryland in the past six months, six have involved people falling out of trees. And over the last five years, more than half of all hunting accidents in the state, 65 out of 126 accidents through Dec. 15, were falls from tree stands, Maryland Natural Resources Police said. The rate is lower in Virginia, but tree stand falls are a consistent problem there, too.
Gravity, it turns out, is a worthy adversary.
"You're sitting up in the tree stand, you either doze off or stand up to stretch your legs and lose your balance," said Natural Resources Police Sgt. Ken Turner. "It's a human error. We're not squirrels."
Tree stands, which have become increasingly popular over the past decade as the technology improves, come in several varieties. Some are portable climbing devices, made of aluminum or steel, which hunters use to inchworm themselves up the trunk. Others are permanent platforms, or wooden treehouse-type structures, that both bow and gun hunters return to year after year. The elevation keeps the hunter's scent away from deer, and, as Allan Ellis, promotions manager at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World at Arundel Mills mall in Hanover, put it, "Deer don't have a tendency to look up."
"It's a great ambush site, but as popularity grows, of course the accidents grow," he said. The DNR held a tree stand safety seminar at his store last weekend.
Back a few decades, early tree stands typically were eight to 10 feet off the ground, Ellis said, so "when you fell out, you'd break a fingernail. Now we've got guys climbing 30 to 35 feet up in a tree. When you come down, you don't bounce that well."
The results can be fatal. The day of Karn's fall, Andre Strickland, 53, was hunting in Seneca Creek State Park off River Road in Montgomery County. When repeated calls to his cell phone were unanswered, a search party was sent into the dark woods, Turner said. About midnight, Strickland's body was found dangling from a tree.
Police said Strickland, who lived in Frederick, lost his balance, fell and became entangled in his safety harness. The autopsy report described it as death by accidental hanging.
The more common injuries are of the orthopedic variety. This was how Kim Dingus of Bristol, Va., described the consequences of her husband James Dingus's tree stand fall in Washington County in southwestern Virginia on Nov. 8:
"His back's broken in two places, his leg, both of his feet, his pelvic bone," she said. "It's something I guarantee you he won't be doing again."
At Peninsula Regional Medical Center on Maryland's Eastern Shore, home to many popular hunting grounds, November and December are falling season, said Lisa Hohl, trauma nurse coordinator. In the summer, gurneys roll in with people who have toppled over balconies in Ocean City, she said, and there are always falling construction workers. But she notes a spike in the winter: Last year, 16 percent of hospital patients in those two months had falling injuries, double the percentages in July and August.
"I figured they were hunting," she said.
Guns still account for their fair share of mayhem. Not long ago, a 15-year-old Baltimore County hunter shot off one of his toes while sitting on a bucket, and a 61-year-old Kent County hunter shot himself in two fingers while trying to free a goose-call lanyard from the gun barrel. One chilling incident from 1999 is recounted succinctly in a Natural Resources Police narrative:
"A 17-year-old Garrett County deer hunter, while taking a break with his friends placed the muzzle of a 30-30 to his forehead, stated that the safety was on and then said: 'Watch me shoot myself.' He then pulled the trigger, removing his head above his nose."
In Virginia, guns account for more injuries and deaths than tree stand falls. Since July 2000, 75 percent of the 295 hunting accidents were related to firearms,; the rest were tree stand incidents, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries said. Some theorize that tree stand hunting might be less common in Virginia than in Maryland because there are more large tracts of open land to hunt from in Virginia.
Wilmer Karn began hunting from the ground as a young man, but it didn't take him long to learn that "deer don't fly," so he moved up into the trees. Five years ago, he and a friend built a tree stand of wood and plumbing pipe. It has been a place of refuge and relaxation. "It's peaceful up there. We got a nice seat," he said.
And yet, "there's nothing like that feeling when you see that big ol' buck coming at you."
After his fall, and a trip to the hospital, Karn was laid up in a blue recliner in the living room of his home. Protruding from his swollen foot was a traction apparatus called a fixator that held the bones in place until he could have surgery.
"It's a real shatter job," said Karn's doctor, orthopedic surgeon Donald Patterson. "It's a bad injury, a real bad injury."
Karn has already survived two heart attacks; he has arthritis and diabetes and acknowledges that he is probably too old to be climbing trees.
"Wilmer, the Lord is keeping you around, I think, to torment me," his wife, Judy, said.
Because the diabetes makes him more prone to infection, there is a small risk his foot may have to be amputated. If not, it will probably take more than a year to heal, and he may always walk with something of a limp.
"As far as we're concerned, it ain't worth a deer," Patterson said.
Karn vows he's not going to mess with tree stands anymore. But when asked whether he'll give up his favorite pastime, he's not so convincing. He leaned out of his wife's earshot and whispered with a grin, "I'm still thinkin'."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
Tree stand Safety
• Wear the safety harness while climbing to and from the stand as well as while hunting from it.
• Have a rescue plan in place and a way to signal for help.
• Use a haul line to pull gear into the tree stand and lower it to the ground.