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Needle and Thread

I can say, in all honesty, that I have experience putting stitches in my own head!

It began on a crisp morning late one September when I took off from Prince George in a 185 Cessna float plane with Dan, my friend and flying instructor, for four days of Caribou hunting in Tweedsmuir Park.

At seven thousand feet we leveled off and reduced power to cruise. It took us two hours to reach our destination, during which time we circled a few small lakes along the way and watched some moose feeding in lily pads. We circled a few protected bays looking for a good campsite and it didn't take long before we found the right place. It was a small bay, with a flat grassy area for a tent, large trees for wind protection, firewood and a wide view of the mountains. The lake looked like glass and the reflections from the rugged snow-capped mountains were breathtaking…. I hardly noticed the floats touching the water when we landed. We brought the plane into shore and secured it with two ropes from the struts below the wing to two well-rooted spruce trees on shore, then unloaded our gear and made camp.

needle1Sitting by the campfire drinking a cup of tea late that afternoon I looked up the mountain and spotted a single, large billy goat, very high up on a rock across the lake. I called Dan and suggested we go after that billy goat, figuring we could still make it back before dark. He agreed, so we grabbed our rifles and climbed into a rickety old raft that was there and paddled across the lake to the rocky beach on the other side. From here we started hiking up the mountain, down wind from the goat.

About a half-mile from the beach we came to a turbulent mountain creek. Dan said there was no way he was going to cross that creek, especially so late in the afternoon. I tried to convince him to come with me but he adamantly refused. Undeterred, I made a plan to go by myself. When I came back to the lake I would fire one shot as a signal for Dan to come and get me.

Pulling a 100 ft. nylon rope (I always carry this with me) from my windbreaker, I tied a small log to one end and threw it with all my might across the creek, trying to make a catch between the rocks on the other side. It took about six throws until I was successful and the rope held. I then grabbed my rifle in one hand and began crossing the icy creek, with the water waist high, holding onto my rope for balance. Half way across the creek I had second thoughts about the viability of my plan because if I lost my balance or if the log let go I would end up tumbling down this creek for several hundred feet before finding a flat spot to haul myself out. Soon I gave up trying to keep my rifle above my head and strapped it on my back so I could have both hands free to hold the rope. After much difficulty and feeling very cold I managed to cross the creek.

I looked up and realized the mountain was much steeper than I had anticipated, but I was determined to get a shot at the goat so I started climbing. After a couple of hundred feet the ascent became even steeper. I climbed straight up, using my hands and elbows, to a small ledge that held only half of my body. From this vantage point I could see the billy goat, and he was looking directly at me, rather quizzically. He had been alerted to my presence. When I was climbing several rocks had broken loose and fallen to the valley floor causing a lot of noise on the way down. I carefully took the rifle from my back and tried to get as much of my body on the ledge as possible. Through the scope, the shot looked good but my body was in such an awkward position I could not hold my rifle still. I carefully squeezed the trigger and fired a shot. I was not prepared for what followed next.

needle2The recoil of the rifle was such that it caused the scope to hit me in the forehead and knock me off that narrow ledge - I was in a free fall down the mountain. Every thing had taken place in seconds, but before I fell I saw the bullet hit the rock wall about 5 feet above the goat.

Before taking the shot I had put the sling around my left elbow to give my rifle more stability and now it was attached to my back. As I fell I kept hitting small ledges that helped to break my fall. I tried desperately to grab onto a few of these ledges but was unable to break my decent. Suddenly I hit a small ledge about a foot wide and about two feet long with a bit of moss growing on it and one single, small juniper. In desperation, I managed to grab the juniper.

Only my shoulders and head were on this ledge with the balance of my body hanging over the side. Somehow my arm was still through the sling on the rifle. I managed to get my rifle on the ledge and put it between two rocks, so with one hand on the rifle and the other hand on the juniper I slowly managed to pull myself onto the ledge. While my feet were hanging over the side and my head was back against the cliff I could feel myself starting to drift into a semi-conscious state. I had to decide quickly if I was going to try and tie myself onto this ledge and wait for help or try to get out by myself. Neither the ledge nor the juniper seemed secure enough to hold 200 pounds, so I had no choice.

Hurt and bleeding, my first concern was to try and stop any major blood flow. I always carry a compass that has a mirror, so I assessed my body damage. I could see a large cut running the entire length of my eyebrow, partly down on the side of my face, large cuts and bruises on the back of my head (judging by the blood), two cuts on my left leg, and a number of bruises on my body. I was not sure if I had cracked a couple of ribs on the left hand side of my chest but I thought the most severe injury was either the area just above my eye or the back of my head. It was bleeding heavily. I took off my belt, my shirt and t-shirt and cut my t-shirt into strips. I wrapped it around my head, took my belt and made a tourniquet that I held in place with my right hand.

By now it was getting quite dark but the moon had started to come up which shone off the lake onto the cliff where I was sitting. After about two hours I stopped the blood flow so I took my belt off and bandaged by head with the strips of cloth from my t-shirt.

needle3Next I tied my nylon rope around the juniper to a rock, slung my rifle on my back and slowly lowered myself over the side. With great difficulty and even greater determination I reached the end of my rope… no pun intended

When I reached the bottom of the mountain I became aware of warm blood running in my left eye all the way down my front, into my pants, and realized I was bleeding quite heavily again. I took my belt and tightened the tourniquet around my eye. In the darkness and without my rope I knew I could not attempt to cross the creek again so I had to find a new way to the lake, which I did.

With the moonlight, and one good eye, I slowly followed the creek for a quarter of a mile to the lake. It took me over three hours. With a sigh of relief I dunked my head into the water to help maintain consciousness, then I hollered for Dan to come and get me. I was afraid to fire my rifle to signal, because it had banged against the mountainside and if it was damaged, putting a bullet through the chamber could cause it to explode.

Dan easily heard my yelling because he had been on the raft only a few hundred yards away, still hoping I would make it out that night. Dan paddled the raft towards me. As I drew near he let out a yell and jumped back onto the raft attempting to get his oar into the water to push off again. He told me afterwards that, at first glance, I was not recognizable and that I was most "God awful looking thing" he had ever seen. I had a swollen face, blood soaked bandages wrapped all over my head with a belt around it. My shirt was thoroughly soaked with blood as were the front of my jeans.

Dan paddled me back to the camp where the fire was smoldering; he threw a few logs on the fire to get it going again. We had a small first aid kit but there was nothing in it suitable to fix the wounds I had. Dan took one of his shirts, tore it into strips and bandaged the two wounds on my head and one on my leg as best he could. I should get to a hospital as soon as possible. Dan thought he could fly off the lake by moonlight and get above the mountains by circling a number times and then try and make the nearest town, Burns Lake. We could try and land by moonlight and the lights from the town.

We left all our camping gear behind, climbed into the plane and tried to take off using the moonlight on the lake. We took a practice run and were air borne on our second attempt. Reaching approximately 400 feet off the lake we found that the reflection of the moon was not helping us at all and realized we could not safely go any higher. We thought it would be best to go back to camp and try at first light in the morning. The landing was bumpy but I must say Dan was great pilot.

It was imperative that the bleeding in the front of my head be stopped if I was to make it through the night. Dan was squeamish about seeing so much blood and certainly was not disposed to putting stitches in my face… so I decided to do the job myself.

I always carry a needle and thread so, using the light of the Coleman lantern and the mirror on my compass I put my plan into action. Dan went to the ice chest in the back of the plane and got some ice cubes that I held onto either side of the cut until it was a slightly numb. Then I took out the needle, threaded it and began trying to push it into my skin. I had no idea how dull a needle, and how thick the human skin, could be. I had to use a stick like a thimble to penetrate the skin. It took a lot of effort to get the needle in to my skin and across to the other side and back out again. After what seemed like an eternity, I managed to put in three stitches. Success - they held my eyebrow together. It was the worst job of sewing imaginable and after that marathon, I was too weak to put any more stitches on the side of my eye. I figured I could close that with a lot of band-aids!

needle4Knowing that the injury to the back of my head could be serious, I sat by the campfire all night talking to Dan. To build up my strength I drank cup after cup of tea with a plenty of sugar, which surprisingly, brought back my strength quite rapidly. Before first light we packed up our camp and took off, headed for home. About half hour from our lake we were flying above some open grassy meadows when I noticed a herd of caribou.

I said "Dan, we can't go back empty handed, lets land and see if we can get a caribou".

Dan said "No way, you are going to the hospital."

I reassured Dan that I felt quite strong again and I finally talked him into landing. But by then the caribou had heard the plane and were gone. We tracked them for about a mile before deciding we had gone far enough and to go any further was asking for trouble. Returning to the plane we were amazed to see, standing right beside the plane, a prime young bull caribou!

I took Dan's rifle and with careful aim dropped the caribou 20 feet from the plane. Great, that's what we had come for. Within half an hour we were airborne, taking with us the caribou, stashed in the back of the plane in quarters.

Upon arriving in Prince George I immediately went to the hospital to be patched up. Only two of the three stitches I had put into my eyebrow were removed and for many years afterwards, every four or five months that third stitch would try to surface and then become infected. I would yank and tweeze but was never able to get it out. About 10 years later the stitch finally surfaced and I was able to grab it with a pair of tweezers and pull it out.

To this day, every once and a while when I am shaving, I look at my scars on the left side of my head and vivid memories of our caribou hunting trip come flooding back.