Falls don’t always happen to the other guy

If my story helps just one person then it's worthwhile," says Kokomo's Rick Bollinger, after his tree stand accident. Photo provided by author

“The oak limb was as big around as weightlifter’s bicep and cured harder than a Louisville Slugger,” said my friend Randy. For several years he used the limb as his final step to reach his tree stand. The last thing he remembered was hearing a loud “Snap!” Five days later in Methodist Hospital he awoke from a coma fearfully learning he had broken his neck.

The prognosis was grim; his chances of walking again were slim. Thankfully, after several surgeries and months of physical therapy he has regained partial mobility, although his hunting days have ended. He was one of the lucky ones.

Several years later another friend, Carl, couldn’t wait to spend the day deer hunting. It was a stunningly beautiful October morning. The pre-dawn chill slowly gave way to comfortable warmth as the sun creeped higher into the azure sky. Perched 16 feet up in a cottonwood he accidentally fell asleep. He was religious about wearing his safety harness but this day he didn’t. The next thing he remembers was falling.

All alone and with a broken back, he crawled a quarter mile to his truck and cell phone where he dialed 911. “It was the first time I have ever fallen asleep in my stand and one of the few times I wasn’t wearing my harness,” he said, when discussing his unfortunate accident. “My stand was solid and secure but I never thought I would fall asleep.” But these types of accidents don’t necessarily take place during our hunting seasons.

It was a beautiful spring day on May 9 when Kokomo’s Rick Bollinger decided to remove one of the tree stands he placed the previous fall. “I thought it would be a 10-minute ordeal,” he explained.

After arriving at one of his favorite hunting spots in Howard County, Bollinger drove to the woods and walked the short distance to his elevated perch.

Bollinger ascended the tree, removed the platform and lowered it to the ground. On his descent he also planned on removing the climbing sticks attached securely to the tree with ratchet straps. That’s when things went horribly wrong.

“There was so much pressure on the top strap that when I popped it the steps basically blew off the tree,” he explained. He ended up falling nearly 20 feet to the forest floor. “I actually don’t remember hitting the ground but I do remember the first time I tried to move, I could feel the bones rubbing together in my left leg.”

A stickler for safety Bollinger always told people where he would be when hunting. He also was adamant about using safety equipment. This time he didn’t. “All I was going to do was run in grab my tree stand and climbing sticks and head back home,” he stated.

After gaining his composure he tried calling several friends who knew the area where he hunted. “I was hoping to reach them first so they could direct emergency personnel to my location,” he explained. After getting no response he dialed 911.

While lying on the ground, unable to move, he finally contacted a friend who drove to the woods to meet first responders.

After reaching the hospital he learned his femur was crushed, which would later require several surgeries and months of painful rehabilitation.

“This was one of those things you read about,” said the 67 year-old Chrysler retiree. “I have several safety harnesses that I always wear plus rope lifelines I put in every tree,” he explained. “I have no excuse for not taking them this time.”

Contrary to what you might think all three of these guys were not beginners. They are all well-seasoned deer hunters, with decades of hunting under their belts. It was one simple mistake that nearly cost them their lives. These accidents didn’t occur in some far off region. They happened right here.

The list goes on. Almost all of us know of other incidents similar to these. So why bring it up now? Because over the next several months thousands will take to the trees in pursuit of our state’s premier big game animal.

This special time of year is a passport of sorts, our ticket to enjoy one of life’s richest natural experiences during a beautiful time of year.

Hunters will find themselves perched in tree stands of every make and model. And with good reason. They increase our visibility, keep our scent off the ground and provide us with cleaner shots. But there is one huge drawback – they can be dangerous. While tree stands continue to become lighter, quieter and safer, they are still the greatest source of injuries to hunters.

Face it, especially as we grow in age, every time our feet leave terra-firma a safety hazard exists. In most cases, it’s not the fall that hurts us – it’s that sudden stop!

In a continued effort to keep hunting safe, many companies manufacture all types of safety harnesses. These tools are invaluable and no responsible hunter should climb into a stand without one. After all, your life could depend on it. Safety harnesses should not be an option, they are a necessity.

Bollinger went on to explain how no one should even think about placing or using elevated perches without proper safety equipment. “When safety harnesses first came out they were hard to figure out, especially when trying to put them on in the dark. But new harnesses can be as simple as putting on a vest,” he said.

In reality, safety precautions should begin before the tree stand is even set. Seat braces should be carefully inspected. Any wooden components should be checked for rot or other weaknesses caused by rodents or insects. Chains, cables or straps should be sound and secure. All fasteners including nuts and bolts should be tight.

Once in your stand always use a haul rope to raise or lower your gun or bow. The last thing you need to do is climb into your stand while trying to hold either of these tools.

Another piece of advice I give to hunters is to always maintain “three-point contact” while climbing or descending a tree. Only move one hand or one foot at a time while maintaining a firm grip and secure foothold with the other three. On a side note, Indiana statistics have shown that most accidents occur when hunters are descending their elevated stand.

Lets face it; bow hunting was not intended to be easy. This is one reason many of us are lured into its traditional realm of excitement. With the unique situations and challenges that occur while afield, take a moment to evaluate the risks each one presents.

With our beautiful autumn season now in full swing, remember to respect our environment and all forms of wildlife. Respect property and landowners. Respect other hunters – as well as those who may not believe in our tradition. Most of all respect yourself by hunting ethically and safely.

Bollinger wanted to share his story in hopes of helping others. “It was one of the worst years ever, especially spending summer in a wheelchair,” he said solemnly.” “I had a friend tell me he’s not glad it happened to me, but because it did, it made him more religious about using safety equipment,” Bollinger added. “If my story helps just one person from getting hurt, then it is all worthwhile.”

John Martino
Martino is a well-known outdoor writer throughout Indiana and has served as longtime outdoor columnist for the Kokomo Tribune newspaper. Martino has won numerous awards for both his writing and his service to youth, conservation and the community. He recently retired as Superintendent of Parks and Recreation for the City of Kokomo and now works as Ivy Tech Executive Director for Facilities for the Kokomo region.

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