Monday, November 9, 2015

This Happened to Me

Outdoor Life magazine has as a staple of content called "This Happened to Me," where readers would send in their real life stories of how they faced a dangerous situation and what ultimately transpired.  It remains my favorite part of their magazine.

I've been fortunate that in nearly 45 years of outdoor pursuits, I only felt like I was in danger one time.  This past weekend that good fortune ran out.

My buddy Fuzzy was going deer hunting, but I was convinced of a good mallard flight on the north end of our lake.  Thus, Saturday morning I eschewed the comfort (and other hunters and dogs) of Gucci Point and headed out on my own to the north end.

I've hunted dozens and dozens of times by myself, and have never had an issue.  All of that was about to change.  While we rose very early Saturday morning, I decided to use Fuzzy's boat, as well as his motion decoys and both required some work before departing.  By the time I left the landing, I was leaving 15 minutes later than I had wanted.  That being said, I just had a small decoy spread to set, and the Yellow Dog and I should be able to work quickly.  Besides, Fuzzy's boat was equipped with a long shaft mud motor, which made quick work of the ride.  We'd be to our destination in minutes.

I found a good spot to set up in the reeds, and positioned the boat to begin setting decoys.  I'd start with the mallards, which were at the front of the boat.  Unfortunately, there were a lot of bulky Canada geese decoys between me and the mallards, so I stepped up on the gun box to tiptoe around the decoys and make my way to the front of the boat.

Unfortunately for me, the night had put a thick layer of frost on the boat, and as I was pulling myself up onto the gun box my foot slipped and I tumbled forward.  Fuzzy's boat is built for duck hunting, and sits only a little over a foot off the water.  Hence, as I spilled through space, I was aware that there'd be nothing to stop my fall over the side of the boat.

Things went into slow motion for me.  "NO, NO, NO!" is all I could think, and with my left had I was able to grab the side of the boat as I was headed over the side.  I immediately landed in water that technically was 4 feet deep, but the muck I was trying to stand it did not have a firm bottom.  I was up to my chest in frigid water, and my waders quickly filled.

While all of this what happening, the Yellow Dog became excited, and quickly jumped into the water after me.  Now we were both flailing in the cold water, looking for a way into the boat.  My thoughts now went to "this is not good, this is not good..."

I went hand over hand to the back end of the boat as there is a feature back there called "pods" which stabilizes the boat when under power.  The pods are basically at water level, and if I could pull the dog onto them, I could at least fix that portion of my mess.

My plan could not have gone any better, and I was able to get the Yellow Dog back out of the water and into the boat.  Now I just needed to get myself up.  With a quick pull, I got myself in with ease.  

I quickly dropped my waders and got the water out.  I then accessed my situation.  I was wet up to my chest, but I was safe.  I looked at the gathering daylight, and felt it was going to be a really good day for duck hunting.  Since the very best duck hunting is right at legal shooting time, and since I had already been through so much, I felt I would stay until I got too cold.  I would then take a quick 10 minute ride back to the landing, get out of my cold clothes, and consider my options.

I was able to set the decoy spread uneventfully, and settled into the boat blind to await my quarry.  I pulled out my phone from my pants, and was thrilled to see that it still worked.  Unfortunately, the remote control for Fuzzy's motion decoys that I had in another pocket was shot, and I felt lousy about ruining it for him.

I hunted for couple of hours, bagging three birds, and while I was definitely cold (it was about 40 degrees out), the blind had me out of the wind. and I was getting along.  However, by the end of my tenure, my body was shaking quite a bit, and I knew it was time to get back in.

As I was pulling out, I saw one of Fuzzy's motion decoys had a missing wing.  I was furious at myself - I had already ruined his remote, and now he'd need to order another new part.  I moved the boat toward the decoy with hope that the wing floated and was nearby.  When I arrived the decoy, I could see that the wing had indeed sunk, but it was on the frame which held the motion decoy out of the water.  If I could pull up the frame, I could grab the wing and at least salvage that.

I kneeled on the gun box and lifted the frame.  My plan was working great, but my grip on the frame was too high, and as I lifted I could not grab the wing.  Hence, I decided to lower the frame, get a better grip lower in the water, and try again.

As I lowered the frame. the friction of the water on the wing sitting upon it moved the wing, and it fluttered off the frame to the darkness below. I lunged at wing, thinking that my legs braced against the boat would hold me up.  Unfortunately, I didn't consider the impact that the cold had on them, and how much strength had been sapped.  I again had that horrible thought of "NO, NO, NO," as I tumbled over the side of the boat headfirst into the frigid lake.

I took a huge amount of water up my nose, and came up spitting out lake water.  I immediately grabbed the side of the boat and screamed "STAY!" at the Yellow Dog, who was still thankfully in the boat.  I again hand-over-hand made my way to the back of the boat to the pods, and felt like I could quickly extricate myself from the lake like I had done the last time.

My first attempt at pulling myself up went nowhere.  My legs were shaking so much that they were of very little use to me.  I tried again and again failed miserably.

I considered my options.  Calling for help vocally would not work as it was doubtful anyone would hear me, besides I was 15 minutes away from help under the best case scenario.  My  phone was in my pants, in my now water filled waders.  I could swim the boat to shore which was 200 yards away, but the mud would make things nearly impossible for me once I got close to shore.  I had to find a way to get in the boat.

I was really calm at this point.  I knew what I had to do, I just needed the strength to do it.  After one more attempt and a profanity filled pep talk, I was able to hoist myself onto a pod.  With a death grip on the boat, I attempted to move into the boat, but my legs really weren't working well.  Part of it was due to the shaking, and part of it was due to all of the water in my waders.  They were completely full of water, and puffed the waders out like MC Hammer pants.  

I made my way to the motor, started it, and made a bee line for home.

The boat goes about 15 miles an hour, and the wind I was driving into was another 15 MPH in my face.  The stinging it caused on my bare hands and head was horrible.

By the time I arrived at the landing, my shaking was really, really bad.  I quickly removed my waders, got the Yellow Dog into her crate in the back end of my truck, and drove my truck up the hill to the house above.  My breathing was in gasps, and I was in really bad shape, but I was home.  I immediately made my way inside; disrobing along the way, and hopped into the shower.

I sat in the shower about a half hour and tried to warm up.  I ultimately got out, dried off, and made my way upstairs for some warm clothes.  I put on some long underwear, a t-shirt, a sweat shirt, and some socks, but still I had the shakes.  I then took a space heater in our room, turned it on as high as it would go, and sat next to it.  While that was better, I was still shaking, so I pulled my sleeping bag off the bed and pulled it over me and the space heater.

That did the trick.  I finally started to warm up.  I told myself I wouldn't come out until I started to sweat, but I never got to that point as I got incredibly sleepy.  Figuring that I needed to remove the sleeping bag from the heater before I fell asleep and it caught fire, I rolled the bag back onto my bed, got in it, and fell asleep.

While I never felt that "I'm a goner," I did feel I was in deep trouble.  What I did was stupid, and risky beyond the pale.  I paid for it, and things could have gone a lot, lot worse.  

The lessons of all of this?  There are many:

  • There isn't a duck worth being stupid.  Take your time and be safe.
  • Moving around a frosty boat is stupid, especially when hunting alone
  • I should have gone in IMMEDIATELY after falling in the first time.  Even though I felt OK, I was getting myself in a really bad physical situation, and had no idea how adversely it was impacting me.
  • I need to get a waterproof pocket for my cell phone to allow me to call for help (and to allow me to avoid costly phone repairs). 
  • Driving out by myself, setting the decoys, then driving back and getting the dog is probably the smart thing to do.
  • Hunting alone should probably be relegated to safer locales (either land or shallow water with solid footing).
There are likely others as well.  

I've been hunting ducks for 40 years now.  In that time, I've never fallen out of the boat.  Ever.

Last Saturday I did it.  Twice.  I hope it never happens again.

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