As Mark Gutsmiedl checked his muskrat trapline in December and hauled out his daily catch, he felt blessed to be in constant pain and 1½ inches shorter than he’d been in August.
After all, the Winchester resident could easily have been three months in his grave by then.
No, Gutsmiedl’s life didn’t flash before his eyes Aug. 28 while tumbling 20 feet to the ground after his treestand broke free. But maybe that’s because he spent those milliseconds calculating how to survive his pending crash-landing.
Gutsmiedl, 62, a self-employed flooring installer in Winnebago County, recounts that day’s events in hopes others won’t repeat his mistakes. First, he was in a hurry. He had “101 things” to do that day. He was leaving the next day for his annual trip to Alaska to guide bowhunters for bear and moose through Freelance Outdoor Adventures and Cinder River Lodge near Anchorage.
He would be gone six to eight weeks, so his “to-do” list was long. First, his daughter wanted to bowhunt deer once Wisconsin’s archery season opened in mid-September, so Gutsmiedl rushed to their nearby hunting land to move a treestand for her. He told his wife, Cindy, that he’d be gone three hours. Once on site, he left his cell phone in his truck because cellular signals are too weak for reliable service.
The stand he was moving had been strapped six years to the same tree. After screwing in his tree steps and climbing up without a safety harness, Gutsmiedl found the treestand in good shape, but noticed the tree had grown into it and one of its two attachment straps. When he released the ratchets, the tree’s bark held the stand and one strap in place.
“I’ve never worn a safety harness, which was a mistake, and I was thinking I really shouldn’t be up there,” Gutsmiedl said. “My mind was on other things when I released the treestand’s straps. When I reached to pull the one loose, I put my hand on the stand’s seat. I knew instantly I’d put too much weight on it, and it broke loose.”
As Gutsmiedl started falling, he leaped from the tree to avoid landing atop the treestand.
“It’s unbelievable how fast your brain works in situations like that,” he said. “I didn’t fall; I jumped. I had to control how I hit. I didn’t want to land sideways or on my head, because I’d be killed or paralyzed. I figured I had to land on my feet, even though I’d probably break both legs.
“I wanted to try rolling as my feet hit, but it was already too late for that. I heard these really loud cracks as my right femur, right tibia and left femur broke, and I saw the outline of my right knee inside my pants push out of its joint. I tried to stand after I hit the ground, but I folded right up from the pain. The left femur was broken real bad. That leg now has lots of hardware in it.”
Although he was in severe pain, Gutsmiedl was relieved he hadn’t suffered any compound fractures. Still, both legs were horribly broken, and he knew no one would notice his absence for hours. His only option was dragging himself to his truck 600 to 700 yards away. But as he “army crawled” through the woods on his elbows, fallen branches kept hooking and pushing into his boots.
“I had to get out of the woods to the neighbor’s hayfield,” he said. “My one leg was flipped over in the wrong direction and hurting really bad. I planned to crawl to my truck and drive myself to the hospital, but I kept yelling and waving whenever anyone drove past on the road. One guy rode by on a bicycle, but he didn’t hear me. He must have been wearing earbuds. Finally, a guy on a motorcycle saw me when I was 35 yards from the road. I asked him to help me to my truck, but he called 911 instead. It took three tries for his call to go through. He also called my wife, and she thought it was a prank at first.
“My wife arrived as the Med Flight helicopter landed in the field,” Gutsmiedl continued. “They were shocked I had crawled that far. When the paramedic put a C-collar on my neck, I started realizing this was a big deal; not just broken legs. I told the paramedic I gave my neck a roll right after I hit the ground, and he said that’s the worst thing I could have done. I could have killed or paralyzed myself. I didn’t realize I had compression fractures in my neck and back.”
Gutsmiedl spent nearly the first half of September in the hospital, but told his doctors, nurses and physical therapists that he’d be trapping muskrats by December. “They liked my attitude, and said my body would let me know what it could handle,” he said. “I always set goals. It keeps me moving forward. And trapping is my passion. I love bowhunting, but I’m a trapper.”
Besides the broken legs and fractures in his C2 vertebrae in his neck and the L2 vertebrae in his lower back, Gutsmiedl had three blood clots and required operations on both legs. After returning home, he suffered seizures and a 105-degree fever from a bladder infection.
“You can’t imagine what your body goes through when you hit the ground that hard,” Gutsmiedl said. “It affects everything inside and out. Those compression fractures in my spine shrunk me by 1½ inches. I was always 6-foot-1½ inches, but I’ve been 6-foot-even ever since. I didn’t recognize the infection’s symptoms. I was in pain everywhere, so I didn’t recognize the pain caused by the infection.”
Gutsmiedl spent 12 weeks in a wheelchair before he started walking, moving gradually from the wheelchair, to crutches, to one crutch and then a limping walk. After securing a state permit to use his Snowdog machine on his trapline on public lands, he reached his goal of trapping muskrats in December.
He plans to return to Alaska in May and September to guide bowhunters for bear and moose, and he also hopes to resume his quest of taking all 29 North American big-game animals with his bow. He’s four short of that feat, needing a Roosevelt elk, Rocky Mountain elk, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, and central Canadian caribou to reach the goal.
“I might need some younger guys to help me pack out the meat, but I plan to be there,” Gutsmiedl said.