Tree stand safety the target as hunters prepare for archery season

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    Allen Dunlap watches his son Luke, climb a tree stand in Ottawa Hills. More hunters are injured each season by falls from tree stands than by firearms.

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  • STONY RIDGE, Ohio — It was an ideal October day, early in the archery season for deer, and perfect for a hunt. Larry Nicely walked about three-quarters of a mile from where he had parked his vehicle along the road to one of his tree stands, which was stationed on a rural Wood County property he had hunted for nearly 20 years.

    When Nicely reached his stand it was around 4 p.m., which would give him plenty of time to get settled and quiet before the deer were expected to begin moving about in the last hours of daylight. Nicely started up the three-section metal ladder that would take him to the stand some 18 feet above the floor of the woods.

    As he was climbing near the top, something snapped and the ladder folded back on Nicely, throwing him about 15 feet to the ground.

    “At that instant, time just slowed down to nothing,” said Nicely, an experienced hunter as well as a hunter education instructor. “I hit the ground and just laid there. I started spitting to make sure there wasn’t any blood.”

    It had rained earlier in the day, softening the terrain around the base of the tree. After taking a few moments to process what had just happened, Nicely staggered to his feet, but immediately crumpled to the ground again.

    Nicely would learn later that the fall dislocated his shoulder and crushed the L-1 vertebrae in his lower back. It took four screws, two metal plates, a bridge, and a surgical team at St. Vincent Medical Center working on a Sunday to put Nicely back together the following day.

    Since he had always carried his cell phone and not stashed it in his hunting pack, Nicely was able to call his wife, a licensed practical nurse, who was just getting off work. She knew where his tree stands were located.

    “I told her I wanted her to come help me walk out to the road,” he said. “It was that male ego thing — always thinking you can get up and move, no matter what.”

    Nicely’s wife called the Troy Township Fire Department, which sent paramedics and volunteer firefighters to the scene. One of the volunteers drove his SUV out into the adjacent field, and the paramedics used an inflatable backboard to transport Nicely out to an ambulance waiting on the road.

    Nicely was 50 when he took that fall nearly five years ago. He had been hunting since he was 16 and using tree stands since he was 20. Many deer hunters use tree stands in order to remain out of a deer’s line of sight, to get a wider view of the area, and for safety, since shots travel at a downward angle.

    “Tree stands provide a bit of an advantage so a lot of hunters use them,” said Rock Vetell of Rock Solid Archery in Haskins. “You can see farther, shoot farther, and it gets your scent up away from the deer.”

    Nicely estimated that he had climbed into various tree stands no less than 500 times in the three decades before his accident.

    “You don’t think about the things that could happen to you, and then all of a sudden your world comes crashing down,” he said. “Painfully, I guess it proves that this can happen to even the most experienced hunter.”

    Nicely became part of the most alarming statistic deer hunters face — more hunters are injured in tree stand-related accidents than those injured by firearms. He said that statistics show that in a group of longtime hunters, two out of three will experience some kind of tree stand accident in their lifetime.

    “There’s six of us in the group I hunt with, and every one of us has had some kind of tree stand accident — a step breaking, getting cut after slipping, broken ribs — it’s all happened,” he said.

    Safe hunting from tree stands involves not only the use of quality, manufactured, and safety-certified stands and ladders, but also regular close inspection of all the hardware and straps that hold the units together, and the use of safety harnesses and lifelines that keep the hunter attached to the tree at all times, especially during ascent and descent.

    “Most hunters use good equipment and follow the safety guidelines,” Vetell said. “The minute I get to the stand, I’m hooked up to the safety lines.”

    According to industry statistics, 86 percent of tree stand accidents take place while the hunter is climbing to the stand, or coming down from the stand.

    Nicely had his safety harness on, but it had not been attached to the tree. And he had installed new lifelines on all of the tree stands he was using that season, except the one where his accident took place. That final set of lifelines, which would have changed the course of his life had they been in use, was lying on his garage floor at the time.

    “I became a statistic in my own hunter education class,” said Nicely, who spent three months in a brace following the surgery that repaired his back. “I make tree stand safety a big part of every hunting class I teach. I’ve got first-hand experience at this.”

    The Virginia-based Tree Stand Safety Awareness Foundation reports that there were approximately 4,000 tree stand-related falls that resulted in injury reported nationwide in 2015. Tree stand-related falls are the No. 1 cause of serious injuries and death to deer hunters, the TSSA reports, with one of every 11 falls reported in a recent 10-state study resulting in a death.

    Ohio and Michigan do not keep separate records of the number of tree stand accidents, but with the archery seasons in both states set to open in about a month, hunters are currently in the woods scouting for prime tree stand locations. TSSA president Glen Mayhew, dean of the Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, said that although the number of tree stand accidents nationwide has been reduced through a robust educational program, the safety message needs to be repeated.

    “We still have room for continued improvement to ensure that everyone that uses a tree stand does it in a safe manner and comes home safe to their family and friends,” Mayhew said. “To accomplish this, let’s get the season started by putting safety first.”

    Nicely is an apostle carrying that message. He removes his tree stands regularly to inspect them, changes out the straps and hardware, and rotates his lifelines.

    Friends had helped him install a new ladder and two sets of new straps on that stand where he had been seriously injured in October, 2013, and on the next to last day of that same archery season, Nicely harvested a deer from that stand.

    “I was already safety conscious before, but now I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “I have the scars to prove that I know what I am talking about, and they’ll be with me for the rest of my life.”

    Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at or 419-724-6068.