Cheating Death

Confession time…when’s the last time you did something really stupid in the outdoors and afterwards you got that sinking feeling, once the realization sunk in, that you could have been easily killed? Maybe it didn’t happen to you, but perhaps you can relate such incidents by living vicariously through some of your buddies. The truth is that spending time in the outdoors can be risky business…and sometimes, even when we think we are being careful, our actions can have dire consequences.

Today I’m going to chronicle several of the close calls I have had during my illustrious outdoors career. Granted, most of the experiences were committed in my youth…but even with advancing maturity the excitement of the outdoors experience can get the best of us. Consider some of these close calls:

Ice Fishing
Back when I was a teenager first discovering the joys of ice fishing, my buddy Mitch and I decided to take a short cut across the frozen lake to get from one group of houses to another. Much to our sudden horror, we soon discovered slushy water flying up from our wheel tracks…but thankfully our momentum carried us safely to our desired destination. It was only later we learned, after talking to an old-timer, that some dummies just drove across the lake right over where the spring creates thin ice. In fact, in that area of the lake it’s NEVER safe to drive all winter long and certainly all the locals know that. Well, little did that guy know…he was talking to the two idiots who made those tracks and who were now counting their blessings even more than before.

Duck Hunting #1
Picture a canoe loaded with three guys, all the necessary hunting gear and dozens of decoys. Now picture this same canoe traveling out on a Northern Minnesota lake in late October when it’s breaking ice at the bow just to make headway to our blind. Now consider this canoe is so loaded down that if we tipped it to the side more than two inches either way it would begin swamping. Finally, consider that in order to get to our destination it took about 45 minutes of paddling. Do you see any hazards here yet? Had the canoe capsized or any of us got wet…we were talking about a serious hypothermia situation…if not a potential drowning. Would I take such risks today…NO WAY!

Duck Hunting #2
While on the duck hunting theme, this scenario is perhaps the most frightening one I’ve experienced in my life. Again, it was the last weekend of October in Northern Minnesota on a lake that is about 20 miles wide. Temps in the mid 20s (yes, that is below freezing), winds between 15 – 20mph, nighttime, we didn’t know where we were going…and suddenly we ran the boat into a sandbar that killed the engine (and it would not restart). We now found ourselves drifting toward the middle of the lake with the prospects of spending the night in a small boat in bitterly freezing conditions surrounded by cold, deadly water that when it sprayed onto our gear and clothes seemed to immediately freeze. To compound matters…there was not another boat within site on the lake (everyone else had the good sense to stay home). Ultimately, we chipped the frozen ice out of the oarlocks and began to paddle into the wind toward land. Three hours later the boat touched soil and we jumped out to kiss the dry ground. Remember, this was in the days before cell phones so calling for help was not a simple solution…we had to facilitate our own rescue.

Deer Hunting
Generally I do not consider deer hunting to be a dangerous sport…but I did have a close call once with hunters on adjacent land. They were shooting at a running deer with no appreciation for what lies beyond their target (one of the ten commandments of gun safety). The slug shot thru the trees within 10 feet of me over my head. The offending hunters were quickly located and adequately lectured, to say the least.

Antelope Hunting
What can be worse than putting a Midwestern sportsman out in Big Sky Country (Montana)? Well, how about letting that sportsman think he can find his way around without a map. I had been hunting antelope in a pasture that measured 2 miles wide by 4 miles long fully enclosed by a fence. Okay, now it is pretty easy to figure out your bearings in this situation even if it covers 8 square miles. The problem began when I decided to look at ground just beyond the other side of the fence. Soon, I found my trophy antelope…shot it…proceeded to eviscerate it…and then start the grueling process of dragging it out. The only problem was that nice weather gave way to a storm system that was moving in. Worse, I was now lost (and I admitted it to myself)…the way back to that fence I hopped only two hours ago didn’t seem to be where it once was.

Here I am…darkening skies…sleet beginning to fall…and not certain where camp was…other than a 17 mile drive via my ATV. Worse yet…I had parked my ATV about 5 miles away from where I was now located so I could sneak on the antelope. Well, to make a long story short…I eventually got my bearings…found my ATV…was headed back to camp in the darkness when I met the others in my hunting party who were coming to look for me. Their concern quickly turned to anger for a moment…and then to relief. Yes, I was lucky here again because I did not have the proper clothes to survive overnight in the middle of the Montana prairie.

Elk Hunting
What would a close encounters confession be without the hunter possibly being the prey? Yes, I must confess that once while hunting in Colorado I did encounter a mountain lion while muzzleloader hunting. I’m not exactly sure who scared who…but I do know that my pulse quickened and during the rest of the hunt I watched the ground behind where I was walking nearly as much as the ground I was walking towards.

Musky Fishing
Little did I realize that a mid-September musky fishing outing in Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods country could be so exciting. I remember this almost as if it happened yesterday. We were back in this little bay (called Poacher’s Bay) where the waters were nice and calm…I dare say somewhat secluded. A perfect musky haunt. Well, those were no longer the conditions out on the main portion of the lake. We were unaware that the winds picked up and the weather had changed for the worse. Suddenly, we found ourselves faced with 6 foot swells in a 16.5 foot boat…with about 12 miles of lake to cover before we got back to our cabin. At times the ride seemed reminiscent of scenes from the movie “The Perfect Storm.” After a couple hours of being soaked and cold we finally arrived at our destination.

I guess the point I’m trying to make with each of these little stories is that enjoying the outdoors does carry with it some serious risks. As you read each encounter you probably drew conclusions that critical mistakes were made and perhaps I shouldn’t have been in those situations in the first place. Very true…I will give you that. But I consider myself a typical sportsman…one who is driven by the excitement of the experience and sometimes overlooks the obvious, especially when hindsight is always 20/20.

The way I’ve got this figured is that if you’ve been counting I’ve used up at least 7 of my 9 “cat lives,” so from here on out it’s prudent I be extra careful during each of my outdoor exploits. Furthermore, it’s my hope that whatever your outdoor “close calls” may have been in the past that you appreciate the second chances you were given…and modify your behavior accordingly so as not to repeat the very same mistake in the future.

In general, I don’t think any sportsmen should shy away from their activities just because the risk involved may be too great. Still, we all must accept and understand our limitations and avoid any reckless conduct that can unnecessarily hasten our demise. Be safe!!!!

© 2004 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.