GOOGLE, WHICH KNOWS all things, says that a close call is a narrow escape from danger or disaster. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but there are different kinds of close calls. There are fast close calls, for example, and there are protracted close calls.

Al McClane, F&S’s late, great fishing editor, was once scuba diving when he saw a bull shark nearby. This is a highly aggressive predator that attacks people, and this one had its back arched and its pectoral fins lowered, which is the signal for attack. Al knew this. He swam frantically for his boat and flung himself in with such force that he broke his ankle on an oarlock. Had he not recognized an imminent attack and reacted instantly, he might have lost an arm or a leg or his life. That is a fast close call.

For the other sort, I turn to my friend Wayne Fears, who is, among other things, a survival expert, the coolest of cool heads, and a hard case who has led a truly hair-raising life. Wayne had hired a pilot to fly him into an uncharted area of British Columbia in search of unspoiled hunting grounds. The plan was for him to canoe a tributary of the Stikine River south through the Cassiar Mountains, taking note of the country, and end up at an extraction point.

But things went terribly wrong. The river was too shallow to navigate. The duffel bag of food the pilot provided was, literally, garbage, and there was no game around. Wayne lacked even an ax to use to make firewood, and every night, a grizzly that found him interesting and possibly edible visited his camp.

There were no planes passing overhead. It was supposed to have been a two-day trip, but even when he didn’t show up at the pickup point, no one showed any interest. He would have to try to walk out cross-country and stood an excellent chance of dying in the attempt. But on the 15th day, he heard a plane, and then he saw it. He tied a red shirt to a stick and flagged it down. The pilot worked for a gold mine, and the only reason he had come Fears’ way was to avoid a snowstorm. That is a protracted close call.

Flight Risk

I had a protracted one of my own in October 1978, when I accepted a free trip to Rhodesia to hunt. One reason the hunt was free was because October in Africa is summer, and that’s not something you want to experience. The other reason was the Rhodesian Bush War, or Zimbabwean War of Independence, which began in 1964 and ended in 1979. It involved, on one side, white settlers, and on the other, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, or ZIPRA.

On September 3, 1978, ZIPRA shot down an Air Rhodesia Viscount, Flight 825, which was en route to Salisbury, the capital. ZIPRA used a Russian Strela-2 missile. The plane crash-landed in the bush, killing 38 passengers and crew. The wreck was found by a ZIPRA patrol, which rounded up 10 survivors and machine-gunned them. Eight passengers who hid lived.

So, there I was on an Air Rhodesia Viscount, flying into Salisbury, just weeks after this happened. Our plane was completely blacked out, but this would not have helped because the Strela-2 is a heat-seeking missile that homes in on engines.

Were my thoughts on Strela-2 missiles, midair explosions, and being hunted down and killed in the bundu? No, they were not. The reason was that on our flight was the single most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life. Imagine if Margot Robbie walked onto your plane. Would you be thinking about Strela-2 missiles?

We landed and disembarked, and the safari went fine, and we flew out to Johannesburg without missile accompaniment. However, on February 12, 1979, another Viscount was shot down with another Strela-2. There were 59 passengers on board, and none of them survived. There was nothing to prevent ZIPRA from sending a missile at my flight in or out, but they didn’t.  

Was I frightened at any time? Yes. We were picked up by Allan Lowe, our PH, for the drive to his ranch at Kwekwe. Alan handed me a pistol and said that if he came to a screeching stop it meant there was a ZIPRA roadblock dead ahead, and to stick the pistol out the window and shoot it empty. I was still not frightened. I sort of hoped I would get the chance to do it, as I had never shot a pistol out a car window.

But then he pointed to a star-shaped crack in one of the car’s corner vent windows. It came, he said, when he ran over a forest cobra (the biggest of the African cobras; it grows up to 10 feet long) and parked on its tail. The enraged serpent struck repeatedly at the window, breaking it. Allan got out of the car and shot it.

He thought it was funny. I was frightened and wanted my mother.

illustration of cobra behind broken car window
Jeffrey Smith


Another close call of mine took place in the days when I was sound of lung and legs but short of elk-hunting know-how. A cow’s face is what Montanans call a cliff that runs straight up and down, like a cow’s face. There is an excellent cow’s face on Hyalite Canyon, near Bozeman. It’s maybe a quarter-mile high and leads down to Hyalite Creek, which adjoins a dirt road where logging trucks try to run you over. My plan was to hike to the top of the Cottonwood-Hyalite Divide and then slowly work the Hyalite side and down Hyalite Canyon, looking for elk. Then I would cross the creek and wait by the roadside for my hosts’ pickup truck, Old Yellow (which was the color of urine from an unhealthy bladder), to collect me.

This all would have been fine, except I became more interested in looking for elk than paying attention to where I was going, and I ended up on the cow’s face, which was more suited to mountain goats than elk—and was coated with ice.

I got partway down and realized that I did not have enough steam left to climb back up, and that if I put a foot wrong, I was going to fall to the canyon bottom. Even if I survived the fall, there was no hope of being seen from the road, and the roar of the creek would cover any sounds I made.

But then I remembered a piece of hiker wisdom from a granola-chomping friend, which said that in rough country, three legs are better than two. So, moving an inch at a time, I found an attractive looking sapling and cut myself a walking staff. Then I started to work my way down. I’d pick a likely looking spot, plant the staff, and put a boot next to it. If it seemed safe, I’d follow with the other boot. I descended probably no more than 300 yards this way, but it took me a couple of hours, and I made it to the creek and then to the dirt road where I waited for Old Yellow while the logging trucks made runs at me.

This was a modified fast close call. If I’d fallen, I doubt I would be here to tell the tale. By now, I know enough not to get into such country, and if I did, I’d have a walking staff with me before I started. As it sayeth in the 23rd Psalm, “…Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me…”

Nose for Trouble

It’s a given when associating with mules and horses that if you’re around them long enough, you’re going to get bashed. I don’t mean thrown; I mean rolled on, or kicked, or bitten, or scraped out of the saddle at a gallop by a low tree limb. It’s what horses and mules do. Both species are big and strong and subject to strange fits and vapors. But their place in mountain hunting is indisputable; a horse or a mule can cover several times what a man can in a day.

So it was that I found myself mounted on a horse named Trooper on an elk mountain near Cody, Wyoming. Trooper was a handsome gelding and did well on the trail. Except that breakfast didn’t agree with him, and he farted virtually nonstop the entire way, causing the poor guy riding behind me to nearly suffocate.

The footing was treacherous; the mountain was covered with loose volcanic rock, round hunks of stone ranging from baseball to basketball size, that would roll if you stepped on one. Our party, led by a young man named Steve Dube, was riding along the perimeter of a deep basin that was lousy with these rocks. Steve said, “Kick your feet clear of the stirrups. If your horse goes down, you’ll have to get clear of the saddle plenty quick.”

At that precise instant, Trooper’s legs went out from under him, and he cartwheeled down into the basin. I kicked free of the saddle and launched myself into space. Down we tumbled, and in the melee of flailing body parts, Trooper’s hoof and my face tried to occupy the same space at the same time.

We eventually stopped rolling and scrambled to our respective feet. Trooper was undamaged. I, however, had the best nosebleed of my life. There was blood everywhere; it looked like the hovel in which Jack the Ripper dispatched his fifth victim. In addition to the blood, my lower front teeth had been driven through my lower lip. However, I still had my lower front teeth, and all my other teeth. My nose was unbroken. I had no other damage. If Trooper had actually hauled off and kicked me, I would have been in for a decade of reconstructive surgery. This was an instant close call; it was a couple of seconds that could have changed my life but didn’t.

The rest of the story ends happily. We went on from there, up the mountain, into snow so deep that the horses quit. They groaned and lay on their sides, and we had to dismount and break trail for them. Finally, we reached the crest of the mountain, and there were no elk to be seen, so we came down. We made it back to the corral and unsaddled the beasts of burden.

By now it was late afternoon, and Steve allowed that he knew a sagebrush flat where elk came to feed at dusk, so we got in his truck and drove there. Problem was, to get from the road up onto the sage flat we would have to climb a snowbank that was considerably taller than I was, so Steve went up first to break trail and take a look, and I can still see him smiling at me from the top of that monster pile of snow and motioning me to start climbing. There was a bull elk out there in the sagebrush.

illustration of man fallen beside horse
Jeffrey Smith

I killed the elk, my nose finally quit bleeding, and my lower lip healed up. But like all close calls, it could all have ended a lot differently. I know of a cowboy who ran a winter trapline, who lost his seat in the saddle, and whose boot remained hooked in a stirrup. His horse plodded 15 miles to the ranch, dragging him slowly to death. I know of a bowhunter who had finished for the day and was riding down to the trailhead with bow and arrow in hand, just in case. His horse threw him and when he landed, a broadhead was sticking in his femoral artery. He bled out quickly, and his last words were supposed to have been, “If I knew how this felt, I wouldn’t have done it to the elk.”

Some close calls are not close calls at all. Sometimes they’re the real thing.

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