Accidents Come in Threes Part 3: Blindsided!

On the last hunt of the season working for an outfitter east of Atlin,  I had a string of accidents.  The final mishap came on the fourth day of the hunt after our hunters had two moose and a caribou down.

Al, the outfitter decided that it was a good time to pack up the meat and head back to Line Lake, our base camp, to fly the meat into Atlin to the butcher.  That way the meat would be cut, wrapped and frozen, waiting for the hunters to pick it up on their way home.

Took this photo of Al and hunter right before Al swung up on his horse to lead seven packhorses back to Line Lake to fly the meat and horns out to town.

Took this photo of Al and hunter right before Al swung up on his horse to lead seven packhorses back to Line Lake to fly the meat and horns out to town.

As soon as breakfast was done, I hurried outside to help the guides and Al finish packing up the string of horses.  Al swung up in the saddle of his big sorrel gelding and one of the guides handed him the lead rope of the first horse in the pack string.  The rest were attached to piggin’ strings on the back of each packsaddle.  I untied old Willy and stepped into line with the packhorses, leading him by hand.

Willy was in his late twenties, but a good solid and dependable packhorse; his only problem was that he refused to be tied into a string.  If he was tied behind another horse, he became a cantankerous bully that would eventually cause a wreck, or if he was in front he would deliberately pop the break away and lead the train down the line at his own leisure.  So with Willy we just knew to lead him by hand down the path after the pack string and once we were out of sight of camp he would just follow along, doing his job and mindin’ his own business.

So there I was leading old Willy a few steps behind Amos’ tail when I heard Guide Terry call out, “Hey Al!  Watch that cable!”

The SBX radio antenna wire had drooped in the night and was hanging dangerously low across the path.  It was high enough that all of us on foot hadn’t noticed, but low enough it would clothesline a rider.  Al, in the nick of time, reached out and flipped it over his head and carried on down the path without a second thought.

However the big gray packhorse Andy caught the swinging of the black cable out of the corner of his eye and violently snapped his head back instantly popping his piggin’ string from the pack saddle in front of him.  He wheeled around and bolted with his brother Amos still tied on behind.

I barely had time to register what had happened, but I remember with crystal clarity that the two big grays who had been going forward had suddenly turned and were charging straight back.  I could seen the whites of their eyes rolling and the deep red of flared nostrils as they came at me.  The packboxes bumped and rattled and I knew in a split second they were going to run right over top of me.  I vainly tried to throw myself out of their path of flight, but Willy was right beside me and suddenly everything exploded into stars and blacks and reds, as my left cheekbone connected with the corner of the packbox.

I’m pretty sure I flew backwards and I know I landed on my face in the cold muck, as all hell broke loose over top of me.  I pretty much figured I was done for and it still amazes me how much you can think in mere seconds.  Somehow every one of those thrashing eight hooves missed my body—though none of us can figure out how as I was directly underneath them.

All lights and noise faded like someone had pushed the dial on a dimmer switch and then in a few moments turned the dial back up as the clamor of men shouting and horses squealing came back full force.

All I could do was take fast shallow breaths.  The whole side of my face felt like it was blown off.  I couldn’t feel anything on the left side of my head.

I was a half-faced woman!  One eye.  Half a nose.  Half a mouth.  I was a freak!  No one would ever love me anymore!  No one could possibly look at a half headed woman, let alone marry her.  What if my brain was hanging out?  What was I going to possibly tell my mom? 

I gradually became aware that I had a hand over the left side of my face.  And then I battled within myself to try and pull it off to really see if half my head was crushed or worse—gone.  I decided that my hand was the only thing holding whatever was left on, so I left it there, completely unwilling to even try and see.  Already I was adjusting myself to having half a face.

Finally one of the guides noticed I was on the lying on the ground still.  The horses were rounded up and calmed down.  I heard a bunch of shouts and then everyone was beside me.  Hands checked for broken bones along my body and then they rolled me over keeping my spine and neck straight, just incase.  I was on my back still trying to hold my face that had fallen off.

“I think I lost my face.”

And I fought them as they tried to move my hands to see if I was correct.  I already knew I was.  Al eventually managed to pry a couple muddy fingers off for a peek and assured me that it was still there.  At least what he could see.

I started breathing again. But I didn’t really believe him.

They asked me questions about where else it hurt.  Nothing hurt, I told them.  So they tried lifting me to get me out of the muck and snow into the cabin.  I was already starting to tremble violently from the cold of the ground that was seeping through my jeans and shock.

They carried me to the cabin, with my head spinning like a top and my hands still holding onto my face.  Knocked my knees on the door jam and suddenly my right fingers started hurting like they were on fire—like they had been scraped down asphalt.  I held up my hand to see if it had been stepped on after all.  The fingers were mucky but normal looking, but oh did they burn!
Al tried to help me out of my puffy down coat while I still held onto my face with my left hand.  I wasn’t going to let go, as I still couldn’t feel anything on that side and wasn’t sure I believed the guys when they told me that side still looked attached to my head.  I thought they might be lying to me just to keep me from freaking out.

As they pulled my coat off, a searing pain shot down my right arm and the burning in my right fingers increased.  Something was wrong with my arm.  Now I didn’t want to look as Al rolled up my sleeve to check.  I’d never broken a bone before, but it because of the pain I had, I just knew I had a broken arm.  And then I would have to be flown out and couldn’t ride out leading the packhorses to town as was originally planned.

I glanced down despite my fears to see a huge swollen bump sticking out the side of my arm, between the elbow and shoulder.  It didn’t look good at all.

I forgot about holding my face on and reached to touch it with my left hand.  My face didn’t fall off!  A miracle!

Al checked all around the bump and figured it was probably broken and he would have to call in a helicopter for me.

The thoughts whirled around in my.  Not finish the hunt?  Helicopter!  Leave in the final days?  But get to fly in a helicopter!  I hate hospitals!  I want to lead the ride out!  Who was going to make the bread?  Who was going to leave things in order?  Oh the pride control that boiled up in me.  I totally didn’t trust the guys to cook or clean and leave the camp in order!  Most of all, I was super excited to be the one guiding the guides out to town.  As both of the guides finishing the hunt with me had been flown in late in the season, neither of them knew the way through the high mountain pass and across three valleys to the mining road that led down to the Surprise Lake road that led into town.  I was the only one who knew the way out.

I flexed my fingers and moved my arm slightly.  The pain wasn’t THAT bad!

I argued for staying.  I had bread rising.  I had a meal to put on.  Who was going to lead the packhorses out?  No one else here could.  Al was needed to fly the plane out.  I could ride with a broken arm.  No big deal.

Guide Terry brought in baggies of snow and both men poked and prodded.  Neither could agree whether it was broken or not.

Really it was only the fact that the SBX radio wire had been broken that prevented them from calling in the helicopter.  It was also the last hunt I ever did without a SAT phone in camp.  It became standard issue for my camps after that.  I think they were all afraid that the next time I had an accident it was going to be for real.  And really it was.

I don’t know if I ever did fracture my arm, but after a few days the swelling went down and within a week I could use it fully again.

All those instant worries about living with only half a face?  Well they never came true.  Maybe it was the cold muck I landed in that helped.  There might be something to say for mud being medicinal, because surprisingly I never even got a black eye or any sort of black bruising on my face.  My cheekbone was extremely tender to the touch for weeks after, but the only evidence of nearly having my head blown off, was a light yellowing under the skin.  It never even swelled up.  It was rather disappointing.  It would have made a better story if my eye had at least swollen shut, or the bruise had been black and purple, or I had a dent in my head to point too.  (You see this dent?  It matches the corner of a packbox.  But no.  There’s no dent.  It’s probably a good thing.  It might have worried my mom needlessly that I’d never find someone to marry me.  I would’ve been dented goods.)

Jake posing with Clint a couple of days after the accident.  See!  My face is still there and it doesn't even look bruised!

Jake posing with Clint a couple of days after the accident. See! My face is still there and it doesn’t even look bruised!

Sometimes there are those of us who feel blindsided by life and even by God.  Betrayed.  Trampled underfoot.  Left on the ground, and forgotten in the fallout that ensues.

Some people (like me) react by panicking and often end up doing the wrong thing.  Fears overwhelm and we gasp for air.  We scramble around in our brains trying to cope and make sense of what has happened.  We make instant plans based on our fears and assumptions in an effort to take control of the situation or at least cope.  We scream or cry or wail.  We don’t believe those around us who assure us that we will be okay.  We think maybe they are just feeding us pat answers.  And we doubt and question and flail about and end up creating more problems.

Some people are blindsided and left on the ground paralyzed, unable to do anything.  They are frozen, incapable of making any decisions good or bad.  They curl up inside and wish to die.  They become the problem.

When bad things happen we all default into coping patterns that we established early on in life.  They say it takes 40 days to make a new habit, to change an old pattern.  But how do you practice to change reaction modes during emergencies?  How do you stop flying into panic or becoming paralyzed?

Situations are going to arise that will trample us underfoot and sometimes it’s going to look like God has let us down.  Even Jesus cries out to this effect on the cross.  However, my suggestion and hope for myself is to react as he did and cry out to God.

Cry out.  Plead.  Call.  Pray.  Whatever you want to call it.

For God is always listening actively—stretching his ear out to us.

I want to make it a practice of calling out to God in all things at all times.  Turn it into a holy habit.  Praying God will change my patterns of panic or paralysis and help me begin to react in the Spirit.

For what we do in the mundane daily will become the “old pattern” that we default to in times of crisis.

“I love God because he listened to me,
listened as I begged for mercy.
He listened so intently
as I laid out my case before him.
Death stared me in the face,
hell was hard on my heels.
Up against it, I didn’t know which way to turn;
then I called out to God for help:
“Please, God!” I cried out.
“Save my life!”
God is gracious—it is he who makes things right,
our most compassionate God.
God takes the side of the helpless;
when I was at the end of my rope, he saved me.”

Psalm 116:1-6 (MSG)

Glassing above Caribou Camp

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