Philip Martinson was standing on a step he had bolted into a tree and was reaching — farther, just a bit farther — around the trunk to fasten together his deer stand.
And that’s when he fell — 12 feet straight down into a shallow ravine.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow,” he screamed repeatedly — to nobody in particular, in the middle of an alfalfa field.
After decades of deer hunting with nary a slip, the 58-year-old Cokato man suffered a fall on Oct. 27 that fractured the L1 vertebra in his lower back.
Martinson told his story from a bed at Hennepin County Medical Center on Thursday, two days before the firearms season hunting opener, in hopes of helping others avoid the same fate.
Fall-related injuries are far more likely than gunshot wounds for deer hunters, said Jeffrey VanWormer, a researcher with the Marshfield Clinic in north-central Wisconsin who published a study last year based on five years of injury treatment data in his region of the state.
“They don’t go one year and then they’re done,” VanWormer said. “They go every year for 50 years. So the risk accumulates.”
One survey found that hunters have as much as a 1-in-3 chance of falling from a deer stand at some point in a lifetime of hunting. VanWormer’s study wasn’t so dire, but it found that die-hard hunters face a 1 in 33 chance of suffering a debilitating injury from a fall.
He found that injuries were more likely among bowhunters — though that could be because they have longer seasons and therefore more opportunities — and more likely to occur in the morning or night as hunters climbed in and out of their stands.
Alcohol consumption was detected in only one of the fall victims in his study, though only a quarter were tested, given the higher priority of treating their traumatic injuries.
“Most of the folks who fell were … in transition in the morning or at night,” VanWormer said. “Maybe a little tired, maybe a little groggy, and you can’t see so good and you’re moving. It was rare that they were just sitting there looking at wildlife and there was a complete mechanical failure.”
Lying in his hospital bed, Martinson noted ruefully that the fall occurred as he was trying to make his deer stand safer. He had driven out to secure the platform to a tree in preparation for the Nov. 4 start of the firearms deer hunting season.
“Setting up a tree stand is a very strenuous activity,” Martinson said. “I’ve always been worn out afterward.”
Nearly finished, he noticed that a strap securing the stand to the tree was twisted, and he worried that it wouldn’t hold. So he climbed back up to redo it.
The fall left Martinson stunned. He couldn’t find his mobile phone to call for help — turns out it was in his pocket — so he crawled to his truck and drove home. After texting his wife to gas up the car and come home — without disclosing his injury — he was taken to a hospital in Hutchinson before being transported to HCMC for spinal surgery.
While Martinson’s drive home after the fall might have been a “classic Minnesota tough guy” reaction, he would have been better off remaining still and limiting his movement, his surgeon said. Fragments of bone came close to severing his spinal cord, said Dr. Uzma Samadani, the HCMC neurosurgeon who operated on Martinson.
“He was very, very close to being paralyzed,” Samadani said.
Tree stands are not a requirement for deer hunting, but they provide clearer sight lines for shooting and less warning for deer, which tend to look down at the ground. Some hunters simply dangle on limbs or nail plywood into trees, while others use commercial deer stands ranging from platforms that are cinched to tree trunks to ladder stands that are anchored into the ground.
Martinson said he feels fortunate that his injury wasn’t worse, though he has to wear a body brace and faces months of physical therapy and missed work from his job at a cabinet factory. He intends to hunt again, though he’ll never use another platform deer stand.
He said he hopes others will learn from his injury and use all the safety harnesses and equipment that come with deer stands. On the day of his fall, he didn’t use a belt that would have secured him to the tree when he climbed up — because it was too short to fit around the tree trunk.
Martinson also encouraged hunters to help one another in setting up their stands, and to avoid becoming overconfident later in the hunting season.
“When you start out, you’re very safety conscious,” he said. “But after 15-16 times, you lose your safety consciousness.”