After one small misstep, adventure turns near deadly
Fall is that beautiful time of year when the leaves turn colors and thoughts of filling the freezer draw out hunters. People who love hunting come in all sizes and genders and typically share common bonds on what draws them to hunt; the thrill of the chase, the beauty of the great outdoors, and the desire to put fresh food in their freezers are typical reasons.
Hunting can bring great joy or leave scars that never heal. It’s imperative to plan ahead and be prepared.
Kelly Clingman, a wife and mother of two, would agree. She grew up in Alaska and later moved to Colorado with her husband, Chris. The Clingmans enjoy hunting as often as possible. But it was during a fall hunt in 2012 that Kelly faced the greatest fear of her life.
“We’d been out hunting for about five days with no luck so we decided to move our camp to the other side of the mountain and try scouting a new area,” she said
Kelly said the day started out sunny and beautiful with temperatures in the low 50s, perfect weather for a strenuous hike.
“We were just going to scout the area and then hunt the next day,” she said. “We had to climb this really steep cliff so we decided to make it easy on ourselves and leave our packs in camp.”
In hindsight she realizes that decision nearly cost them their lives.
“At the top of the hill we started hiking and spotted an elk but it was getting late and we could see a storm blowing in so we decided to head back to camp,” she said. “We were following this narrow path and it was really rough and steep terrain.
“We were stair stepping our way down these 12- to 15-foot drops and it was getting harder and harder because it was getting dark and starting to snow. My husband just wanted to get us off that mountain as fast as possible so he told me to wait and he started down this cliff using rocks and trees and roots to lower himself down.
“But then all of a sudden I hear rocks falling and bones breaking. I was frantic and trying to get down to him to see if he was OK. He yelled up at me and told me he’d broken his legs and not to try and come down.”
By this time it was really dark, snowing hard and Kelly was soaking wet and freezing.
“I couldn’t hear him any longer so I was afraid he was dead. And I figured I was going to die too so I just wanted to be with him.”
With shaking fingers, she tied her orange hunting vest to a tree and used it to lower herself down the cliff. Eventually she was forced to grab a branch that broke free causing her to fall and cut her head, knocking her unconscious.
When she came to a short time later she could hear her husband screaming and crying out. Not realizing he’d broken his pelvis as well as his left leg, he’d tried to use his rifle to stand up and get to his wife but ended up falling face down, partially submerged in a creek, and unable to move.
Blood was running in her eyes from her head wound making it difficult to see, but Kelly was alive and determined to help her husband. Wiping her vision clear, she made her way to her husband’s side. When she tried to move him he screamed in pain so she realized, she couldn’t move him and would have to get help.
“I knew there was a big hunting camp at the bottom of the cliff so I kept going down until I finally found a road and made my way to the camp. It took hours and in the process I crossed my own trail several times because I was confused, terrified and not thinking clear. I just prayed and refused to imagine life without my husband.”
When Kelly finally found help, she tried to explain what had happened and where her husband was but she couldn’t remember the details. Search and Rescue personnel were reluctant to search in the dark because of the danger but one of the hunters assured her that he and his partners would try and find the waterfall and orange vest that would lead them to Chris.
It took more than eight hours from the time of his fall before rescuers spotted the vest and reached Chris. By the time they arrived he was severely hypothermic, suffering frostbite and frozen to the waterfall; barely clinging to life.
“To me, that was the most horrible day of our lives,” said Kelly. “I thought we were going to die. I thought I might lose my husband.”
To their good fortune the couple survived and in fact, a year later, felt well enough to go on another hunting adventure the opening day of the season.
“We know surviving what happened to us was a miracle and it has totally changed every aspect of our lives,” said Kelly. “We learned so much from the experience, like listen to your instincts. We should never have left our packs because we had rope and lights and first aid… Everything we ended up needing but not having. And we both knew better.
“But we also don’t want to waste those lessons by being afraid to go out and do something we both love so much.”
This year when you prepare for your hunt, remember to stay alert and be prepared for anything. Be sure to be familiar with your weapons, take a hunter safety course and practice with your weapon ahead of time.
And, Kelly Clingman, stresses, “Watch your step. And don’t take anything for granted. It’s funny how something as simple as where you put your feet can have such a drastic consequence.”
Take the time to get familiar with hunting laws and protocols for whichever state you plan to hunt in. Alaska State Law requires anyone born after Jan. 1, 1986 who hunts in Alaska, unless they are under age 16 and supervised by a licensed hunter, must complete a hunter safety course. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game offers an online program at: www.hunter-ed.com/alaska/approved_hunting_course.html
Once you complete the online portion, you’ll be qualified to sign up for the field course, www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=huntered.onlinecourses&classtype=h. No matter what your age or experience with hunting, if you have not taken the hunter safety course, it’s a valuable investment and well worth the time.
For more safety tips and stories check out www.urocksafety.com.
Hunter education is now mandatory in most states. In Alaska, all hunters must successfully complete a Basic Hunter Education course before hunting in the following areas:
• Eagle River Management Area (14C bears and small game)
• Eklutna Lake Management Area (14C bears)
• Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge (14C)
• Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge (1C); hunters under 10 years of age must be accompanied by an adult or must have successfully completed a Basic Hunter Education course
• Palmer/Wasilla Management Area (14A shotgun for big game)
The Alaska Deptartment of Fish and Game says that educated hunters play an important role in making Alaska a leader in conservation and wildlife management.
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October 2014 – Alaska Coast Magazine