Outdoorsmen and the sad shape we're in
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- People ought to be dying to get outdoors, not dying after they get there.
Fact is, though, more and more hunters, anglers, hikers, climbers and paddlers are dying "out there," and we're dying because we're fat and out of shape.
I say "we" because I, too, fit that description. At age 58, and with a tractor-sized spare tire around my waist, I'm a better-than-average candidate for an exercise-induced shuffle off this mortal coil.
If that should happen, I would become yet another statistic on an ever-growing ledger of outdoor mishaps attributed to poor diet and poor physical conditioning.
The problem has become epidemic. A sizable percentage of deaths reported during the nation's hunting seasons are attributed to heart attacks suffered while afield. In West Virginia, where the terrain is steep and hunters are older and heavier than average, state-sponsored hunter safety education classes include tips on how to get in shape before hunting season begins.
Hunters aren't the only ones dying out there. Earlier this week, I ran across a news item about search-and-rescue efforts in America's national parks.
Park Service personnel launched 2,876 search-and-rescue missions last year. In 892 of those missions - nearly one-third - victims' fatigue or poor physical condition was the primary cause. More than 1,800 of those searches were for day hikers, weekend warriors who decided to take a stroll in the woods on their days off, and didn't bother to consider whether they were in good enough shape to complete the hike. Twenty-six of those hikers died.
Now that I've reached the far limits of middle age and have begun crossing the border into elder-land, I've become painfully aware of my physical shortcomings. I avoid rugged terrain. I calculate carefully any distances I might need to hike, and take a pass when I think the effort might red-line my heart.
What makes me so careful? Well, I once suffered the embarrassment of having my carcass hauled out of the woods, and I don't ever want that to happen again.
I was fishing a remote Raleigh County trout stream. My fishing partners and I had hiked from the top of a mountain into a remote canyon, and had spent the day happily catching trout. But soon after we started hiking out, I ran out of gas.
It was about a mile from the creek to where we'd parked our vehicle, and a quarter-mile into the climb I fell apart. I could stay on my feet and keep walking, but only at a fraction of my usual pace. I told my buddies to proceed ahead, hike to the car and wait for me there.
About 15 minutes later I heard a vehicle approaching along the old gated logging road. It turned out to be a conservation officer. My friends had sent him down the hill after me, and he generously offered to transport me to the top of the hill.
The heck of it is, I was in pretty darned good shape at the time. I was in my late 20s, and while I took blood-pressure medication, I jogged and played basketball regularly.
For years, I believed the incident occurred because I'd forgotten to take a dose of medicine. It wasn't until my mid-40s, when I started bicycling for fitness, that I discovered the true cause - the dreaded "bonk." In short, my body ran out of fuel.
I hadn't eaten much that day, and my body used up its available stores of glycogen, a substance the body converts to energy to fuel its muscles. When that happened, I "hit the wall."
The same thing happened to me years later, during the final 3 miles of a 20-mile pre-breakfast bike ride. I finished the ride barely able to turn the pedals; if the road hadn't been dead flat I might have had to walk the bike home.
The moral, dear readers, is that we all need to take into account our physical condition before we start doing strenuous things. The better shape we're in, the less likely we are to require help from those who protect and serve.
Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or firstname.lastname@example.org