Foley: Get ready for hunting season
Big game hunting season started this week with archery season. Muzzleloaders get their chance starting September 10 and rifle season starts in October. Between now and Thanksgiving hundreds of thousands of hunters will head for the Colorado backcountry to stalk elk, deer, moose and other big game species.
Hunting season is also a busy time for mountain rescue volunteers. With all those hunters in the woods the chance of wilderness search and rescue situations is naturally higher. Only hikers outnumber hunters as the subjects of search and rescue incidents in Colorado.
There are all sorts of ways hunters can get in trouble; broken bones, twisted knees, lacerations, hypothermia. Hunters have the same baseline risks as anyone in the backcountry, maybe more when you consider firearms, knives and arrows. Last season, one of our most difficult rescues occurred when an archery hunter accidently impaled himself in his thigh with a hunting arrow. Besides the serious medical issue, he required a litter evacuation on a steep slope with down trees, at night, in the rain.
Illness can also become a problem. Hunters may not be physically prepared for the rigors of hunting camp. We have had several hunters die of heart attacks. Last September there was a four-day search for a missing archery hunter in Routt County involving ground crews, helicopters and search dogs. The subject, Richard Harkins, 43 of Minnesota, was found just 200 yards from his camp. He had died of acute mountain sickness (AMS), also known as altitude sickness.
Mountain weather can be dangerous, even for the well prepared. In the early 80s, before I moved to Grand County, I worked a search for a black powder hunter on Gore Pass. After a multi-day search, which included time and labor intensive grid searching in the primary search area, the camouflaged hunter was found under a giant spruce. He had been struck by lightning, which not only killed him, but ignited his powder horn.
Hunters sometimes get lost. Rescuing a subject from a known location is exponentially easier then rescuing a subject who’s lost or unable to communicate. Adding the search element increases the complexity of the operation and almost always compounds the survival problems for the subject. Many of our most intensive searches are for hunters. Several years ago, in Corral Creek, we had a hunter who got caught out after dark. He made a number of bad moves including heading towards “headlights” that were really the rising moon and traveling randomly during the day. He started a fire each night, then put it out before moving his position. He was found after five days over in Wheatley Creek by a Blackhawk helicopter. When I interviewed him he proudly showed me the tiny Cracker Jack toy compass he was using.
Hunters as a group are usually pretty well prepared for a simple day hike in the forest. It’s when something doesn’t go as planned that they often need search and rescue. A simple Injury, accident or illness in the backcountry can turn into an emergency. Since hunters are most often solo in the woods, being self-sufficient is critical.
As with any backcountry traveler, we recommend carrying basic survival gear which includes proper clothing. Wool or synthetic clothing maintains its insulating properties when wet, while cotton draws heat from your body and takes a long time to dry. The ability to make a fire or shelter, to navigate with a map, compass or GPS and illuminate the forest at night will increase survivability. Hunters who become lost don’t usually die from thirst or starvation. They die from exposure.
According to case studies* of lost hunters, only 40 percent are adequately equipped for their emergency situation. Besides injuries, accidents and illness, weather and darkness play a large role. With 18 percent of lost hunters, weather played a major factor. Darkness was a contributor in 33 percent of lost hunter cases.
Some other interesting facts from lost hunter case studies:
Hunters often take shortcuts that result in getting lost.
Many hunters will go to great lengths to walk out on their own unassisted due to ego and other factors.
While pursuing game, hunters often end up in difficult or unfamiliar terrain without regard for exhaustion or navigation.
They typically under prepare for extremely foul weather.
Hunters tend to over extend themselves into darkness and push beyond their physical abilities.
On the positive side, hunters are usually dressed in orange, making them easy to spot, and will use their weapon to signal for help. Many will attempt to build a fire or shelter and 33 percent of lost hunters walk out unharmed.
Hunter safety classes cover survival skills, but without some practice, preparation and experience that classroom lesson doesn’t translate very well when the sun goes down and the mercury drops. As long as 60 percent of hunters don’t have the right gear for spending the night out in bad weather or other unplanned emergencies, odds are hunting season will continue to be busy for GCSAR volunteers.
*The Textbook for Managing Land Search Operations by Robert C. Stoffell
Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 35 years. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.