Missing fingers and squashed toes

For a while I thought I was just being ham-fisted. I have never considered myself a clumsy type yet since moving to the BC wilderness I have been beset by a string of minor accidents and mishaps.

First there was the heavy metalled door I dropped on my unshod foot, which turned my toes blue and swollen. I hobbled and limped around painfully for days while they recovered.

Then there was the time my psychopathic horse (ex-horse – he’s now molesting others) stood on me, rendering me useless for the better part of a week, a supine and grumbling slave to whisky and ibuprofen.

There have also been countless pulled muscles, blood blisters, scrapes and scratches – not that they really count.

And more than a few close shaves. Last year a log-splitter I was handling neatly crushed the end of my gloves – missing my fingers by a precious inch or two.

During raft guiding training I took a particularly nasty tumble as we flipped a raft in a class IV rapid which left me briefly trapped underwater and feeling like a drowned rabbit when I finally emerged.

While on an industrial ATV riders’ course I lost control of a machine with a heavily-weighted trailer on a steep hill but somehow remained upright.

Doing my best to learn from my more egregious mistakes and a surreptitious study of my smarter and fully-digited neighbours in the area, I began to take precautions.

I bought a pair of handsome of Kevlar trousers to use with my chainsaw, helmets for the whitewater raft and lifejackets for the lake.

I began to use safety glasses and ear protectors while operating the brush-cutter and circular saws. I invested in a fine pair of boots with steel toecaps and some heavy-duty leather gloves.

Then last week, during a genteel early afternoon kindling-making session (you take a piece of cedar in one hand and reduce it to small slivers with a sharp utensil held in the other) my axe slipped.

Of course I was wearing neither heavy leather glove nor Kevlar pants nor eyeglasses. The axe, an excellent and sharp implement made in Finland, sliced gracefully into my left hand.

I realized that there was something wrong when my hand began to go numb and the blood started flowing. Terrified I had lost a digit, I scanned the immediate area and then my hand but thankfully all was still in place.

My rigorous first aid training is a weighty asset in the bush but treating oneself amid waves of nausea and lightheadedness is not an ideal scenario.

Thankfully Nick, a guest staying at the ranch with his family, volunteered his assistance and drove me the hour or so to the nearest doctor’s surgery down on the lake.

By late afternoon I was being stitched up by a doctor who spoke to me in Ukrainian and a nurse who professed great admiration for Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the late iconic Soviet dissident.

Of course there was a brief wave of interest from friends and neighbours when I returned to the ranch bandaged and medicated.

But in a community of loggers, carpenters and industrial mechanics my injuries merited precious little discussion.

“Oh,” said Lynda, our neighbour to the north, clearly underwhelmed, “Dick cut his whole thumb off with an axe.”

Sunny, who lives a mile to the south and once fell 30 feet off a roof and lived to tell the tale, was even less compassionate. “He’s just trying to get out of work,” he told anyone who would listen.

I used to think that covering a war as a news correspondent was one of the more dangerous occupations you could opt for in life. But for all the bullets and shells, most of my friends emerged unscathed.

It’s true that the stresses of the work pushed many to bouts of heavy drinking. The occasional colleague – often, unfortunately, the most talented – was killed or left with a lifelong injury.

But for every war correspondent maimed or scarred there were dozens who came away with little more than disturbed dreams and the vivid but fading memories of a few close calls.

During my decade on the frontlines I escaped serious injury altogether.

The closest I came to losing a limb was probably when a rat bite, sustained during a vodka-drinking session with the Russian special forces in a sauna in Chechnya, turned septic.

By contrast, here in the backcountry, it sometimes seems that every other person has a shortened finger, a badly broken bone or the old whitened scar lines of a metal object through the arm or leg.

Lars, our renewable energy expert who just left yesterday after installing a new well pump for us, told the story of how he skewered his hand with a knife while winter camping.

As he fought to control the spurting blood, he had to ski several miles through the frozen bush to reach the nearest medical help.

Eric, who has hear just this morning, had his third finger crushed when a large rock fell on it.

So, perhaps, on reflection, I am not as accident-prone as I thought.
Living in the wilderness, working with chainsaws, axes, angle grinders and half-fallen trees, I suppose you have to pay your dues.

With this in mind and a heavy dose of fatalism, tomorrow I plan to head out to finish the pile of cedar kindling still waiting to be split. This time, however, I will be wearing one heavy leather glove.