Kris Bjerke lay bleeding and immobile in a deep gully in southwestern Wisconsin on Nov. 23, a tourniquet throttling his left leg above the knee.
Inches below, a bloody bandage compressed a puncture wound about 7 inches deep into his upper calf. No wonder that Bjerke, 43, had feared he might die in that gully, sprawled beside the 11-point buck he shot at 7:30 a.m. on a friend’s farm in Crawford County.
He couldn’t believe he’d gored himself on the buck’s rack one day before Thanksgiving. Soon, though, the Ferryville, Wis., resident realized he would be OK. Why else would his friends and first responders be smiling and helping him pose for quick photos with the dead buck that nearly killed him?
Contrary to rumors that raced ahead of Bjerke’s 30-mile ambulance ride to the hospital in Viroqua, the buck hadn’t attacked him. After Bjerke fired one shot from his .30-06, the buck fled into the gully below and halfway up its far side before tumbling dead to the bottom. Bjerke then waited 20 minutes before descending from his treestand and into the gully to claim his kill.
Bjerke field-dressed the buck with his pocketknife, walked 400 yards to his truck, e-registered the kill with his smartphone, and started walking back with a rope, ratchet strap and come-along to crank it out of the gorge.
His friend, who owns and farms the property, was fertilizing a nearby field. When hearing that Bjerke had shot a big buck, the farmer insisted on helping with the extraction. They returned to the gully’s edge with an ATV, and Bjerke descended the bank with a rope and strap.
Once at the bottom, Bjerke walked over to retrieve the buck. All he had to do was turn the buck around and drag it 20 feet to a good spot to winch it out. Bjerke’s work went smoothly until he grabbed an antler to drag the buck over to the rope. That’s when he stumbled on some rocks, lost his balance and fell backward onto the deer, driving his left calf onto an antler tine under the weight of his 6-foot-4, 280-pound frame.
“When I stood back up, my friend was calling me names for falling down,” Bjerke said. “I looked at my leg and saw blood on my pants. I thought maybe I’d gotten some deer blood on my pants while gutting it. But when I sat down to unzip the pants leg, I saw blood gushing out. And when I pulled the pants leg up for a better look, the blood was spurting out.
“My friend didn’t realize what had just happened, and yelled for me to quit bleeding all over his woods. I kicked off my boot and yelled up that something was seriously wrong. I pulled off the sock to see what was going on, and now the blood was really gushing out. I was a lifeguard and Eagle Scout when I was a kid, so I knew bush firstaid. I had to act fast. I grabbed the strap and made a tourniquet from it.”
Bjerke wrapped the strap around his leg just above the knee, threaded one end through a loop on the other end, and started tightening it.
“I knew I had to tighten the tourniquet until it hurt like hell,” he said. “If it doesn’t hurt like hell, you aren’t slowing the bleeding. My friend was beside me by then. He took the calfhigh sock I had on and tied it around my leg, too. The blood was still coming through, but not as fast.”
Bjerke was grateful his friend was there to help, but his gratitude increased even more seconds later.
“He called the ambulance because my phone wasn’t working back in there,” he said. “I could send texts, but I couldn’t make calls. Once the ambulance was on the way, my friend left the gully to direct them to me. They wouldn’t have found me if he hadn’t climbed out.”
The first responders began arriving 30 minutes after the call went out.
“In rural Wisconsin (by the Mississippi River), that’s a good response time,” Bjerke said. “If I hadn’t put the tourniquet on, I wouldn’t have made it.”
As more first responders arrived, they assessed Bjerke’s condition, confirmed the tourniquet was effective, applied a big compression bandage, and decided how to get him out.
Meanwhile, Bjerke recognized two of them as friends who also happen to be deer hunters. They had even quizzed him weeks earlier about which farm he was hunting. Now they not only knew the farm, but one of his exact hunting locations.
“When they answered the call that morning, they didn’t know they were coming to rescue me,” Bjerke said. “Once they had their plan and had things under control, they wanted a quick picture of my buck.
“And I’m in their pictures!” he said with a laugh.
The first responders had already picked the best route out, and cut down some trees to get their UTV as close as possible to Bjerke. “They got me onto a stretcher, and it took six of them to lift me out of there,” he said. “To get me onto the UTV, they had to lift me over their head. That couldn’t have been easy.”
Bjerke reached the hospital about 2 hours, 15 minutes after his friend summoned help. A surgeon closed the puncture with 22 external stitches and several more inside. Despite penetrating 6 to 8 inches before hitting tendons and stopping behind his knee, the antler never tore through the fabric on Bjerke’s pants.
“The tine pushed everything up into the wound and then back out,” Bjerke said.
“It really hurt, and it will take a couple of months to really know how much damage it did, but right now things look good. I probably won’t need any follow-up surgery or therapy.”
Looking back, Bjerke is thankful he knew first-aid and how to apply a tourniquet. He’s also grateful for the first responders’ fast arrival and decisive actions.
“I’ve already applied to join the Ferryville Fire and Rescue team,” he said. “This whole thing made me want to become a volunteer as soon as I’m back to full strength.”
Contact Patrick Durkin at firstname.lastname@example.org.