The Woods Aren't Always Friendly to the Outdoorsman
Spend enough time in the outdoors hunting, especially in the backcountry, and odds are good that you'll eventually find yourself in a less-than-safe situation.
Bear attacks, tree stand falls, fast water; the list of dangers are many. The following tales are real. They show us just how quickly things can turn ... and how lucky some people are to be around to tell us about the experiences.
Attacked By a Grizzly
Carl Haggar was doing what he loves most: hunting for elk three miles from his home on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, just south of Glacier National Park. As he walked the edge of a ravine, he saw a flicker of movement. A small grizzly bear cub scampered up the steep ravine on the opposite side, breaking the silence. From the bottom of the ravine erupted a loud woof, announcing the presence of the cub's momma in a full charge.
In an instant, she effortlessly pulled herself to the top of the ravine, her massive body shaking her grizzled fur with every movement she made, Haggar says. She landed only 20 feet in front of me, then stood on her back legs looking bigger than life. I instinctively un-shouldered my gun and held it with two arms across my chest with the safety off. On her last lunge before she cleared the bank, I spoke to her as I would my own horses, saying 'Whoa-Whoa-Whoa' while slowly backing up. For just an instant, she looked as if she wouldn't complete her charge. But when my heels caught on some brush causing me to fall, things changed."
Haggar's fall triggered the mama bear's instinct. She launched a full-out attack with her head low to the ground woofing and growling with every breath she took.
She closed the gap from 20 to 5 feet in a flash, Haggar says. I felt certain she would maul or kill me. While lying on the ground, I raised my gun with one hand, pointed it at the charging bear's head, and fired.
The charging bear instantly collapsed to the ground with a thud. Haggar quickly got up and readied his gun in case he needed to make another shot, but there was no need. The bear was dead.
"Although I was relieved to be alive, a feeling of disgust and anger filled me, Haggar says. "Being an environmentalist and conservationist, I did not want to be responsible for the loss of this mother bear. I felt for the cub and can only hope it made it into hibernation."
Haggar reported the incident to Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. After a warden and bear biologist examined the scene of the attack, he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
I reflect on my good luck and know that many others have not been so lucky, Haggar says. I realized how truly fortunate I was when a close friend, who works as a bear biologist for the Blackfoot Tribe, explained that when shooting at the head of an adult grizzly, the shot has to be placed perfectly within a 4-to 6-inch diameter for one bullet to stop the bear. There is no room for error.
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The Many Lives of Fred Eichler
Realtree pro-staffer Fred Eichler has had almost too many near-death experiences to count. Eichler spends weeks at a time in some of the most inhospitable environments in the world, pursuing big game. Although he's living his dream, his adventures have nearly cost him his life on several occasions.
One of Eichler's most terrifying near-death experiences came in the form of a near drowning while hunting grizzly bears in Unalakleet, Alaska. After their boat's motor failed, Eichler and his team had to rely on one small paddle to maneuver the boat down the Unalakleet River.
Suddenly, the boat hit a sweeper (a tree that had fallen over the water). The force of the current pushed the boat under the log.
Eichler's cameraman jumped from the boat onto the shore, but Eichler, who was wearing waders, a heavy jacket, gloves, and a hooded t-shirt, was swept off the bow and immediately sucked under the water. The weight of his clothing caused him to sink to the bottom like a stone.
I tried to swim to the top but couldn't because water had filled my waders, Eichler says. I felt certain I was going to die. I remember thinking, 'Well, this is a stupid way to go.' Luckily, the current pushed me into another submerged log. I grabbed onto the log and pulled myself out of the water using its limbs like a ladder.
But, Eichler and his team weren't out of danger. Even though he made it to dry land, Eichler and his guide, who also fell into the water, began suffering from hypothermia, thanks to below-freezing temperatures. To top it off, they had lost all of their gear, and Eichler also contracted a nasty lung infection from the water he inhaled. The team built a make-shift shelter and used the matches that happened to be in the cameraman's pocket to light a fire. They sat and waited for more than 30 hours.
Luckily, two Inuit hunters returning to their village because of bad weather stumbled upon the group and helped them get back to civilization. Eichler went immediately to a doctor who provided him with antibiotics to clear up his lung infection. Eichler says he learned a lot from that experience, claiming that these days, he always wears a life jacket when in a boat.
This is just a sampling of Eichler's many close calls. Videos and images of these hunts can be seen on Eichler's Facebook page. Despite his numerous near-death experiences, Eichler continues to pursue big game throughout the globe.
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Rhett Akins and Michael Waddell Stranded
Michael Waddell, host of Bone Collector and Realtree Road Trips, and country music artist Rhett Akins were having the time of their lives hunting moose on horseback in Alaska's Wrangell Mountains. Their 10-day hunt was a success, with several moose taken, but things soon took a turn for the worse.
The airplane scheduled to pick Michael and Rhett up on the 10th day of the hunt didn't show. The pair had no way of communicating with the pilot or with basecamp.
Another day passed without a plane, then yet another.
We didn't know what to do, Waddell says. At this point, we didn't know if the plane had crashed, if we'd been forgotten, or if the weather was the problem. We had horses, and we had the moose that we killed, but we weren't sure what to do. Basecamp was 40 miles away, but we feared that as soon as we left our rendezvous spot, the plane would arrive.
Days continued to pass, and temperatures dipped below freezing at night, making the duo's situation even more perilous.
As our supplies got low, we began getting desperate, Waddell says. On day 16, we decided to ride the 40 miles back to camp. But just as we began preparing for the ride, the plane showed up.
Waddell says that had the two of them not had the right equipment and moose meat, they would have been in serious trouble.
This experience reminded me that Mother Nature is in control, Waddell says. Things can be going along just fine when she turns everything upside down. Many people worry about wild animals, which are a threat, but weather can be much more dangerous.
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Fire In the Sky
Brandon Butler, executive director of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, was on his way to a turkey hunt in Texas when he experienced true terror in the air.
Twenty minutes after takeoff from Dallas, the flight attendant on Butler's plane started hustling up and down the aisle. Butler says the plane seemed a little too low, but no one appeared concerned.
Our hearts stopped when the flight attendant got on the intercom and - in a fearful voice - told the passengers that there was a fire on the plane, and the pilot planned to return to DFW, Butler says. What followed was the scariest moments of my life.
According to Butler, the plane banked right. Then the pilot got on the intercom, telling the passengers they'd be landing in 30 seconds.
Dallas was at least 20 minutes away, Butler says. Outside the window, all you could see was a large lake. We were going in. I knew it. The girl sitting next to me knew it. Everyone knew it.
A voice told the passengers to put their heads between their legs and place their hands over the back of their necks. Butler says instead, everyone sat straight up in silence as the plane dropped from the sky like a rock.
We could all see the water coming, Butler says. I'd like to tell you that I experienced some sort of romantic moment in which my life flashed before my eyes, that I thought of my family and seeing my daughters one more time, but that wouldn't be honest. All I thought of was survival. I scanned the plane for the emergency exits. I tried to calculate the amount of time it would take for the plane to sink and fill with water. I wondered if the plane would crack apart. Would it explode?"
As the plane rapidly closed in on Earth, Butler says he heard the landing gear descend. Seconds later, the pane zipped along a runway at a remarkable speed. A fleet of fire trucks and emergency response vehicles surrounded by military Humvees rushed toward the plane with blazing lights.
We had landed at a Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, just outside of Fort Worth, Butler says. Everyone was quickly evacuated, and other than slight smoke inhalation, there were no injuries. That night, after all the events of the day, my hunting partners and I gathered for supper. Before we partook, we stood together, bowed our heads, and gave thanks. You can believe that Grace was full of praise and glory.
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Dropped In the Wild
Outdoor freelance writer J Wayne Fears wondered how he'd gotten himself in such as predicament. Fears had paid an outfitter up front to drop him off by plane for a two-week float trip down a little known river in the Canadian Rockies.
After the plane flew out of sight, Fears discovered the small river running out of the lake he'd been dropped by was too shallow to float. In addition, many of his supplies were missing. When he cleared customs in Vancouver, his bags were not repacked correctly. Most of the camping gear for the canoe trip was placed in a bag designated for his later trip to Alaska and was sitting approximately 300 miles from where he was at the moment. His plans were to go on the float trip and then on to Alaska. Family and friends didn't expect to hear from Fears for a month or more.
In his possession, Fears had a tent, rifle, sleeping bag, and rod and reel, but no food, no stove, no hatchet, or cooking kit. The realization of his predicament soon hit him. He was stranded in wild country without the provisions he needed, and no one, besides the outfitter, knew of his location.
Fears' original plan was to float the river for a week and a half, being checked on by air every couple of days, and at the end of the float, he would reach a point where the float plane would pick him up.
Lost In the Wyoming Wilderness
Realizing I couldn't go anywhere by canoe, I explored the lake and found the remains of an old Indian camp, Fears says. Here, I would await the float plane to come to my rescue. I tied a red wool shirt to a long stick to signal the plane to land when it showed up. I salvaged an old tea kettle and a short section of old stove pipe to use for cooking.
The days passed with no float plane in sight. Fears soon realized he'd been abandoned. Winter was coming on fast, and each day it got colder. Fears kept his fire going day and night, not so much to keep warm or cook, but to keep a curious grizzly away. The bear visited his meager camp nightly, even with the fire burning.
He would sniff my tent so hard, I'd feel it moving, Fears says. I felt certain he'd tear through the tent at some point. Needless to say, I slept very little at night. I kept a round in the chamber of my .30-06, just knowing I'd have to use it at some point.
Firewood also became an issue for Fears. Within a few days, he'd collected and burned all of the dry wood within an easy walking distance. The only cutting tool he had was a folding, hunter-style knife. And, although food was not scarce, variety was. The lake offered plenty of trout, and berries were abundant, but his stomach began to rebel after several days of the same diet.
As days went by, I dealt with boredom, fear, anxiety, and lots of guilt, Fears says. I began studying my maps and plotting a course out of this beautiful, but dangerous country. I knew it was going to be a long, difficult hike, but I had no choice. I didn't want to winter in those mountains.
By the 15th day with no sign of a plane or any real hope of being rescued, Fears decided to pack out. As he was packing his bag for the hike, he heard a plane.
A beautiful float plane came through a high mountain pass straight toward me, Fears says. I jumped up, ran to the lakeshore where I could be easily seen and started waving the pole with the shirt on it. The plane passed overhead. My heart sank. How had he missed seeing me? At that moment, the plane turned and flew back over the lake again tipping its wings at me. It circled the lake several more times and then came in for a landing.
Cutting the plane's engine, the pilot opened his door, stepped out on the pontoon and shouted, What the hell are you doing way up here?
Don't go anywhere, I shouted back, as I jumped into the canoe and headed to my ride out of the mountains.
Fears told the pilot his story and learned that the pilot provided supplies for a gold mine and had never before flown through that part of the country.
Fears says he understands now why some people lose their minds out of desperation and anxiety when faced with a survival situation.
I was young and naive at the time, Fears says. I was fortunate to have survived. And although I would never want to endure such a predicament again, I must say, I learned an awful lot from that survival situation.
Editor's Note: This was originally published April 22, 2015.
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