Jeff Callahan can still remember the morning that he dozed off while hunting deer out of a home made tree-stand in upstate New York.
The consequent fall -- a 13-foot dip that led to a spinal injury and left him paralyzed from the neck down -- was avoidable, he said, if he'd followed precautions and tethered himself to the tree using a safety line.
"Some men think they're indestructible, and that is exactly what I thought too," said Mr. Callahan, 57, who now hunts out of his wheelchair. Even aiming with his teeth and shooting with the support of a breathing tube, he's bagged many deer with both shotgun and crossbow.
While the subject of dangerous hunting accidents has seemed synonymous with gun-related incidents, there's now a more mortal class: falls from tree stands which have become increasingly popular with bow and gun hunters looking for a high vantage point.
Tree stand mishaps aren't a new phenomenon, but are very chronic enough, this season for the first time, New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation, which regulates hunting, has started collecting information about such injuries from local governments to better monitor and research the issue, said that the agency's commissioner, Basil Seggos.
State officials reported one tree stand passing this past year, but stated that there might have been other people, since they hadn't started to systematically start tracking the incidents. Mr. Seggos said he'd "heard at least anecdotally that several people die or get injured annually" from tree stand drops and accidents, but lacked hard details.
"I wanted to start tracking them, to determine where the issues were," he said.
Gun mishaps, the longtime scourge of hunting season, have been declining for decades due to security awareness initiatives like orange clothing intended to deter accidental shootings, said Glen Mayhew, president of the federal Tree Stand Safety Awareness Foundation.
"But we have seen tree stand events go up, because although people know they need to wear harnesses, many still are not wearing them," stated Dr. Mayhew, adding that the accidents continue despite persistent attempts to educate hunters about tree stand safety, the main rule being using a safety line and harness connected to the tree both while at the stand and while climbing in and out.
Several million seekers fall from tree stands annually nationally -- with approximately 4,000 drops in 2015 -- and states where hunters use tree stands typically have a fatality or two per year, Dr. Mayhew said. "So to see five fatalities from 1 state in a calendar year, is an outlier, or unusually large," he said of New York's figures.
Mr. Seggos said his agency relies on some 2,500 teaching volunteers for its hunter safety program, which roughly 45,000 hunters took advantage of the 1,500 classes given this season whose program includes safety education on the racks, which often include a chair and a little platform that are fastened on a tree's trunk above brush lines and over an animal's ability to spot or smell a hunter.
Of the five tree stand fatalities in New York lately, one remains under investigation, officials said. One was due to the collapse of a tree stand, and another victim probably fell while entering or leaving a stand, a particularly common circumstance.
For many hunters, carrying gear long distances to hunting places and then scaling up to the stand could increase the likelihood of a heart attack, Dr. Mayhew said. Strapping to the rack can help a hunter survive a heart attack by allowing him to call or signal for help, he said.
As a young man, Mr. Nutter said he occasionally felt impervious enough to fail security practices -- "I was 8 foot tall and bulletproof" -- and dropped twice from his stand while in his 20s, but prevented lasting injury.
Many seekers called tree stand accidents a lot more frequent than official statistics indicate, because hunters are often reluctant to inform medical or law enforcement that they dropped from a stand.
"A hunter who goes to the E.R. isn't likely to admit they fell from a tree stand," said Bill Conners, 71, a lifelong hunter from Dutchess County who writes about conservation issues and acts as a regional manager of the New York State Conservation Council. "Either from humiliation, or because they did not tell their wives or supervisors they went searching."
In actuality, many seekers prefer hunting alone and shed communication following a fall, particularly when mobile support is spotty.
Years ago, many hunters built wooden tree stands, but cheap manufactured stands have been the norm.
Hunters often access the racks by basic ladders, which can be tricky when wearing bulky winter clothes and lugging equipment, especially in icy conditions. Falls can be brought on by alcohol, fatigue, sudden moves using a weapon, and even excitement.
"When deer come together, or a squirrel jumps onto your stand, you might suddenly have to take a step back and you are not standing on anything anymore," said David Hartman, the president of New York State Whitetail Management Coalition.
It was sleepiness that caused Mr. Callahan's collapse in 1986. He hunts out of his wheelchair with the help of a friend. He aims it using a pub controlled by his teeth and activates the trigger with an air tube.
"I've talked to so many seekers who have dropped from trees," he said. "So the first thing I tell any hunter would be to learn from my experience and put on your security strap"
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