On Sunday, Matt Breuer hunted with his son, Tate, about a dozen miles from Bemidji. This was the last day of the statewide youth whitetail hunt, and by 10 a.m. or so, when Tate, 12, hadn't fired a shot, the two packed up.

"We had seen a few deer," Matt said. "We had a good morning."

Before returning home, Matt, a part-time bear hunting guide, wanted to retrieve stands his clients had used this fall, a project he and Tate would undertake together.

The second-to-last structure the pair would unfasten from a tree was a one-person aluminum ladder stand that extended some 18 feet into the air. Tate would hold the bottom of the stand while Matt ascended its ladder.

"The stand looked good," Matt said. "My stands don't stay in the elements all year. I bring them in."

At their tops, ladder stands have straps or chains that affix them to a tree. About a third of the way up from the ground, most of these stands also have a brace, or separator bar, that connects the ladder to the tree, adding further stabilization.

When Matt, who weighs about 200 pounds, reached the stand's top rungs, he could scan the aspen and pine woods that had brought him and his bear hunters such excitement this fall. Every hunter he guided had an opportunity to kill a bruin, with only one passing on a shot, saying the bear she saw from her stand wasn't one she wanted to take home.

"But she had the chance," Matt said.

A licensed sleep technologist at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center, Matt, 39, started guiding part time in 2002. Since then his business, North Country Guide Service (northcountryguides.com), has taken off, and in addition to offering guided fishing and hunting trips, he's branched out into writing, photography and product promotion — a satisfying side gig.

"Tate was holding the bottom of the stand," Matt said. "I was at the top and had detached the stand from the tree and was slowly coming down when I felt the stand shift."

The stand, which assembles in sections, had broken and folded inward below him at a section juncture, throwing him backward.

"I remember reaching for the tree to try to hold onto something, but I couldn't reach it," Matt said. "That stand was placed on a downhill slope, so the distance to the ground was that much greater than it would be on level ground."

Falls from tree stands, numerous studies have shown, long ago replaced gunshots as the greatest threat deer hunters face. A Wisconsin study found that 84% of firearms hunters and more than 90% of archers hunt from stands.

The study also found most falls occur during evening descents from stands.

"I yelled to Tate to get out of the way," Matt said. "I fell 18 to 20 feet and landed flat on my back."

Conscious but unable to breathe — his wind had been knocked out of him — Matt lay gasping while Tate stood over him, crying. "Finally, when I could talk, I told Tate to call home," Matt said.

At first, Matt thought he was OK. His hand was mangled and probably broken. He had some frothiness at his mouth and worried he might have punctured a lung. But he could move his arms and legs. And he wasn't too far from the tote road on which he had parked his truck.

But he couldn't walk.

"I crawled to that logging road," he said. "It was then I realized I would need an ambulance."

Matt's wife, Nikki, had helped him drag a 515-pound bear to that road earlier this fall, so when she got Tate's call, she knew where her son and husband were.

"The ambulance couldn't get all the way to where I was, but a couple of county deputies had been dispatched as well, and they helped lift me to the ambulance," Matt said. "They did a wonderful job."

Bad as he was hurt, Matt was lucky. He had fractured two vertebrae in his back, doctors would find, and had badly sprained a thumb. But surgery wouldn't be necessary. In time, he will heal.

"I've played it over and over a million times in my head, trying to rethink everything," Matt said. "While putting up and taking down stands, it's difficult to be safety-harnessed to a tree. It's possible, I guess, to wear a lineman's belt, but even those, with ladder stands, are difficult to secure to a tree.

"I've been putting up and taking down stands for 30 years and have never had a scare.

"Maybe all the rain we've had caused the stand to rust and weaken at that juncture, I don't know.

"Figuring out a way to wear a safety harness while putting up and taking down a stand, not just while you're in it — that's my recommendation."

Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424