Even the most cautious hunter can have an accident. Just ask Don Poe.
The Augusta man was deer hunting in Burke County on a damp December afternoon in 1987, when his life changed dramatically in a few tragic seconds.
He was climbing down from a lock-on tree stand 20 feet above the ground - a perch that offered a fine view of the winter hardwoods.
With his rifle strapped across his back, he stepped onto the fluted steel steps he had attached firmly to the tree. Then it happened.
"I just slipped and fell, simple as that," he said.
Poe hurtled to the ground. The impact shattered his back.
The next day, surgeons at Eisenhower Army Medical Center installed rods in his spine, and he was moved to a spinal cord unit. A month later, a second round of surgery was performed.
In all, Poe's hospital stay extended into six long months - from late December until June. When he left, he was paralyzed from the waist down.
"I was always one of the more careful people," he said. "As soon as I got into a stand I would always lock my belt." In retrospect, Poe thinks he should have lowered his rifle with a rope, rather than carrying it.
Deer stand accidents are the leading cause of hunter injuries in Georgia and many parts of the country, according to wildlife authorities.
Since 1980, state authorities recorded 732 serious accidents involving deer stands, of which 45 involved fatalities.
Accidental shootings attract the most attention because of the higher likelihood of deaths, but deer stand accidents are far more common, said Capt. James Bell of the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division.
Such mishaps accounted for 51 percent of all incidents investigated by the division in the past decade, he said, and many accidents could easily have been prevented.
"Knowing how to put up, take down and properly climb with a tree stand is imperative to safety," Bell said. "We encourage hunters to practice climbing into and out of their stands several times prior to hunting season."
How can today's hunters reduce the potential for crippling accidents?
A study by a group of West Virginia surgeons - and reported in the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail, found that homemade deer stands and rickety devices kept in service for too many years are major culprits.
Commercial deer stands, although expensive, are vastly improved from a decade ago, and often include safety belts and extra safety instructions. Experts say good stands are a worthwhile investment.
Studies performed at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., found that most falls from deer stands inflict serious spinal injuries.
The surgeons examined injury cases from 16 hunting seasons (1981 to 1997) and made the following conclusions: all victims were male, with an average age of 40.8 years. The average height of the fall was 19.6 feet. Thirty-three percent of the hunters suffered permanent paralysis.
Capt. Bell and other experts - including the surgical research team at Duke - agree that less reliance on homemade stands and better hunter education programs both can reduce accidents.
Despite his accident, Poe returned to the woods the next year to hunt - and continues to do so each season.
"That first fall, I hunted out of my Jeep, which is legal now for handicapped hunters," he said.
Today, he hunts from a specially rigged four-wheeler and is active in many groups that promote outdoor opportunities for the handicapped, including the S.C. and Georgia Disabled Sportsman chapters and the Southeastern Paralyzed Veterans Association.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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