October is my favorite month. In fact, my husband John and I were married in October. We had initially picked the first Saturday in November to get married, but that was supposed to be the first day of deer season, so we bumped it back a week earlier so not to interfere with hunting. After all, nothing should come between a man and opening deer season. (I didn’t hunt then so it really was all about him.)
As luck would have it, the October date turned out to be the first year that Maine decided to make deer season earlier…and you guessed it. We were scheduled to be married on the first day of hunting season. After putting my foot down that I was not going to take a black marker to the invitations and change the date, John conceded and we got married as planned.
The first day of hunting season has always been a huge event in our family, so when our youngest son finally turned 10, John wanted to be ready to take him out. Friday afternoon was an iconic picture perfect Maine fall day. The sun was shining, and the Indian summer was in full force. John had scouted beforehand and decided to put up two hanging tree stands overlooking a well traveled deer lane on a knoll not far from the house.
When I first started hunting, we didn’t have many tree stands and we considered ourselves resourceful when John built some, since anything was better than the old rickety nailed on tree stands of the past. We owned hanging stands, and some of those were homemade. We also had some screw-in tree steps, some strap-on ladder steps, and homemade ladders to get into our stands. Ladder stands were the newest thing on the market and we had purchased a “buddy stand” which seats two people, to use when John and I first hunted together. I really, really like that stand.
The majority of the time, I used the homemade or a combination of the homemade stands since we had several places to hunt and we wanted as many options as possible as the season went on. When I look back, it’s amazing I even continued to hunt given how hard it was for me to climb into stands. I really thought John was testing me because some of these stands were so challenging to get into. I was always athletic and strong, so realizing I couldn’t climb into these stands as easy as I thought I could made me try even harder to succeed.
I had the stand that had strap-on ladders, that led to climbing several feet of hemlock limbs only to be totally spent by the time I reached the actual stand. More than once, I’d have to stop and catch my breath, take a break and pray I wouldn’t fall out of that tree. By the time I finally made it into the stand, I’d be a wash of sweat.
Another stand we still use requires climbing a pine about 25 feet high to get the stand. I’ve only climbed that tree three times because it literally takes all the strength I have to climb it. This big old tree overlooks a swail grass area known for deer crossings. After climbing tree steps, I have to hold onto limbs so big it requires me to hug the branches, not hold onto them with my hands. Every step has to be calculated so that I can step onto my stand, and unlike a lot of my stands, coming down is just as scary.
Then there was “tall stand” because it was in a tall tree. It was located down in the bog which wasn’t some place I craved to be. It consisted of a small maple tree with it’s top broke out and a board perched on top of it. After climbing screw in steps set too far apart for my short legs, and then shimmying up two pine saplings I finally made it onto the platform where I threw myself across it and lay there trying to figure out how to actually maneuver into a sitting position.
And finally, there was the tree that wasn’t that bad to climb into, except that I had been sick with the flu for a couple days and when I sat in the stand, the wind blew so hard that the tree swayed back and forth all night; it moved and bent so hard I had to hang on in fear of falling out of the stand. I’m not sure if it was the flu or the swaying, but I was not a happy hunter.
That’s right, I was afraid of falling out of all those trees because not once did I ever wear a safety harness or use any type of system to protect me from a fall. None of us used a safety harness.
Rude Awakening Day: On October 30, 2009, John had found the perfect spot to take our youngest son. He remembered he had a stand already hanging from the previous year, so he decided to check it out. Climbing about twenty five feet up the tree, he hung the second stand next to the existing stand. Then he cautiously climbed onto the existing stand. He tested the tree stand as he hugged the tree, putting his weight on it, and then gave a couple jumps. “Good to go”, he thought. He settled into the stand and looked out over the oak stand, just enjoying the fall afternoon view. A minute later, all our lives changed.
The tree stand made a loud snap; it was the weather-rotted strap breaking. John fell to the ground, landing with his back onto a stump. He laid there unable to move. After what seemed like forever, he rolled over onto his hands and knees and began coughing up blood. He knew he was hurt and had to get out of the woods fast because he didn’t think anyone would find him. After not being able to reach anyone with his cell phone, he decided to walk out. John made it to his truck, and then he drove himself to our house. Our daughter rushed him to the hospital in Waterville. After being examined, he was transferred to Portland for trauma care for seven days. He suffered broken vertebrae, ribs, shoulder blade, a ruptured spleen, punctured lung and several smaller breaks and bruises.
Fast forward to today. John is lucky to have come away not crippled or permanently injured from his fall. He still hunts, but he and none of us hunt unless we wear a safety harness. “I never thought I needed a harness, but I’ll never go into a tree stand without one now” says John, “and I’ll never use a tree stand that’s been hanging for a long period of time.”
We also gave up our homemade stands, not because they weren’t sturdy, but because the price of metal tree stands have come down. We change our straps every couple years and never leave them hanging anymore. We’ve added Prusik knot life lines to the big pine and I only use ladder stands now. I’m a much happier hunter knowing that not only can I climb into stands but also my family is safe from tragedy.
Bear hunting season is about to begin and that means the beginnings of sitting or standing in tree stands, so when you go out this season, please use a safety harness system. Happy Hunting!