Hunter injured in tree-stand fall survives five nights in woods
REMER, Minn. -- Larry Mackey still lives alone here in the remote North Woods, getting around on a cane and an all-terrain vehicle. Some days, his left leg with the metal plate aches terribly, but twice, the former St. Paul man has ridden back to...
REMER, Minn. -- Larry Mackey still lives alone here in the remote North Woods, getting around on a cane and an all-terrain vehicle.
Some days, his left leg with the metal plate aches terribly, but twice, the former St. Paul man has ridden back to a shallow depression in the woods that nearly became his grave last September.
For five painful days, he lay on the ground after falling 20 feet from a tree stand. The fall shattered his left leg and pelvis, making it impossible to walk or crawl. He had no food or water. He used a hunting knife to scratch away a bedding spot to await a rescuer, his grandson.
Sitting in his garage on the anniversary of his five-day ordeal, Mackey said his life has not quite returned to normal.
"It's funny, I've never dreamed about the accident, even though I'm a prolific dreamer," the 63-year-old retired computer analyst said. "Sometimes, I dream about not having my cane, and I panic a bit, but I consider those healthy dreams. They're recovery dreams."
Mackey, four years into retirement from U.S. Bank, survived the ordeal through ingenuity and force of will. He sang songs for amusement, packed moss around his parka to stay warm on subfreezing nights and whittled toothpicks to keep his mind away from the inevitable thoughts of death.
Yet, Mackey admits he was a hunter ill-prepared for an emergency. He went bear hunting alone without leaving a note or telling anyone of his whereabouts. He didn't have a cell phone. He didn't pack survival food or water. When his grandson, Luke Baynes, found him, Mackey knew he couldn't survive another night. He'd spend six weeks in a Duluth hospital.
"Was I reckless? I don't deny that," Mackey said. "I've always been able to get myself out of a fix, but at my age, I need to be more careful."
Being careful was not on his mind when he stepped on the top rung of a homemade ladder on the evening of Sept. 10, 2007. It was a Monday. Rain was on the way; he was ready to get home.
When his pant leg caught on a top step, Mackey was reaching down to loosen it when the ladder slid off the tree, and the hunter plunged to the ground. On the way down, he smashed his head -- a nasty scar now angles across his forehead -- and he lost consciousness for at least two hours.
When he awoke, it was dark. He couldn't stand, and he could feel his leg bone grinding in his hip socket. His ATV was about 300 yards away over deadfalls, brush and uneven ground. In excruciating pain, he crawled a few feet and found his small flashlight and decided to try crawling further to the machine. By late Tuesday morning, he had dragged himself only 8 feet. He realized crawling out was fruitless, and his 24-year-old grandson, Luke, was scheduled to arrive Friday evening to hunt bears.
Mackey is an experienced woodsman but was not in the best shape of his life at the time of the accident. He packed 200 pounds on his 5-foot-8 frame. But he had read plenty about survival techniques and, as a computer and math expert, brought a level of analytical pragmatism into the woods.
He realized his only chance was to stay calm, stay warm and hunker down until Luke or someone else found him
It was sunny Tuesday, and he spent the day fashioning a sunflower seed bag into a rainwater trap (It caught only a thimbleful of water, which he spilled). He tried yelling for help but stopped to conserve energy. Somehow during the night, he lost his flashlight.
Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a lined duck-hunting parka, Mackey knew hypothermia was his worst enemy. He spent Tuesday evening gathering leaves, moss and grass to stuff between his parka liner and outside shell for extra insulation. That night, bears visited his bait site 30 feet away, and later a pack of wolves nearby began howling.
He feared falling asleep and dying of hypothermia, so for the next three nights, he stayed awake, singing songs and humming. He snapped a warm hood over his face and spent hours flexing individual muscles to stay warm.
He awoke to frost on the ground Wednesday morning. He decided he needed a project, so he fashioned his belt into a loop, snagged a nearby branch and used it to retrieve his rifle, which was lying on the ground about 8 feet away. With the rifle in hand, he knew he could defend himself against bears and wolves and possibly fire SOS shots. He passed time by whittling toothpicks and preparing for another cold night on the ground. That evening, a sow bear and two cubs fed at the bait pile, ignoring his yelling. He realized he couldn't shoulder the rifle, but after a half-hour, the bear family wandered away.
On a starry evening, he believed he saw the silhouette of Luke standing nearby. He made a fist and punched himself in the head to shake off the delirium.
He awoke Thursday determined to make himself more comfortable. He was forced to urinate next to his body and had yet to defecate (he wouldn't during the entire ordeal), but there was no comfort lying on rocks and roots. So, he took out his knife and cut and dug away lumps and hard spots in his dirt bed. Later in the morning, he heard hunters in the distance building a deer stand; he could actually hear their voices, but they never heard his yelling. By Friday morning, a north wind brought sleet to the forest, and he believed by evening a rescue would unfold, and he would be sitting in a hospital bed.
When he heard an ATV in the distance, he fired two shots from his rifle.
But no one came.
Meanwhile, his grandson arrived at Mackey's home Friday night, and believing his grandfather was asleep in the camper, Luke went to bed without realizing Mackey was missing. The next morning, Luke realized something was wrong, called his mother to report Mackey missing and began the search. "He was afraid of what he might find," Mackey said.
Luke checked four of the family's tree stands with no sign of Mackey but then spotted his grandfather's ATV at the fifth. As he drove up about 7 a.m., he heard Mackey yelling.
Mackey had survived in the woods from Sept. 10 to 15.
One of the Remer first responders who carried Mackey from the woods was Ron Anderson, a UPS driver who dropped a package off at Mackey's house but returned two days later to find the package still on the porch. Mackey said Anderson filed a missing person's report with the Cass County sheriff, and a deputy visited Mackey's house, but "no one followed up," Mackey said.
Mackey's left femur was sheared in half and his hip socket was broken. His pelvis healed, and doctors screwed in a metal plate to help his femur to heal together.
By December, he was back at his North Woods home, doing woodworking in his garage from a wheelchair.
Mackey doesn't plan to give up hunting. His leg is still on the mend, but he hopes someday he won't need the cane. "I've hunted all my life, and I'm not ready to give it up. It doesn't scare me to go back into the woods."
His only regret about the accident is the "inconvenience I caused my family and community." He stubbornly refuses to give up his outdoor life. A few weeks ago, he made a solo trip into the woods on his ATV and forgot to leave a note. (He did carry a cell phone, but reception is poor.) He does not give speaking appearances about his survival story and is reluctant to advise others about survival skills.
He was not wearing a shoulder or full-body harness in his stand -- a no-no according to hunting safety experts -- but he doubts one would have saved him because most people usually unclip themselves while they're climbing down.
He does have one simple piece of advice: "You should be better prepared than I was. It would have been smart to have a flask of water or some candy bars. You should realize what your capabilities are, and if you're capable of surviving alone."