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My breath condensed in wispy vapors as I knelt atop hardpack snow, hacking wedges of meat from a frozen-solid whitetail neck with my M9 Field Knife. The 4-pointer was road-kill that I was granted permission to use for baiting wolves. I don’t bait to kill the wolves, I merely set up bait stations with the hopes of getting wolves to leave their paw prints in the snow so that I can later make plaster castings of the impressions for my collection.

I was setting up this particular venison bait station to draw a pack of gray wolves that had recently migrated to Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The notches I was making in the deer’s neck were for securing the rope on the animal to keep it at a height of 4 feet above the hardpack. Again, the idea was to entice the wolves into jumping after this tempting morsel, which I hoped would leave plaster-castable tracks in the snow beneath. Trouble was, since I’d been dropped off in this section of Mackinaw State Forest two days ago, the daytime high hadn’t even risen to zero Fahrenheit, and the hardpack was like concrete.

I was nearly finished notching the neck when the Buck’s heavy 6-3/4-inch blade skipped off frozen meat and slammed hard, edge-first, into the index finger of my opposite hand, which had been holding it in position. Air hissed through my clenched teeth as honed steel chopped deep into the first knuckle and actually stuck there. I yanked the blade from my flesh and immediately pressed hard against the wound with a thumb to staunch the blood flowing from it. The finger of my woolen glove liner was sliced neatly halfway through as though it had been scissored, and I knew this was a bad one.

With my good hand, I quickly hoisted and tied off the venison, then headed for camp—and my first-aid kit—nearly 2 miles away. Because this wasn’t the first time I’d done potentially serious harm to myself in the woods with a boneheaded stunt, I anticipated the shock-generated nausea, chills, and sweating that always accompany bone-deep injuries. Knowing what to expect didn’t make enduring it more pleasant, however.

At camp, I slipped the first-aid kit from its pocket in my backpack, took out a roll of self-adhesive safety tape and a single-application packet of antibiotic ointment. With those items at the ready, I stripped off the slashed glove liner in one quick motion. Blood spurted outward as soon as the pressure was released, but before the gash was obscured, I was able to confirm visually that muscle, bone and cartilage had been damaged.

My first concern was to stop the bleeding as quickly as possible. With sunset, the mercury had already dropped to -7 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was falling fast toward an overnight low of -16 degrees under a clear, moonlit sky. I was alone, 10 miles from civilization, and I wasn’t scheduled to be picked up for another three days. It wasn’t an optimal time or place to be leaking important body fluids.

I wrapped the injured finger with several snug turns of safety tape, gently squeezing both sides of the cut together and staunching the flow of blood completely—much like taping a ruptured automobile radiator hose. It throbbed a bit that night, but by morning the gash had closed sufficiently to be washed in a nearby spring, sterilized with antibiotic ointment, then re-bandaged with no further blood loss.

I’ll always have a long crescent-shaped scar from that experience to remind me of what can happen to a woodsman who forgets his place for even a moment, but it could have been a lot worse. The injury might easily have been more severe, even an amputation, and I could have been much farther from base camp. Also, gangrene is a real concern in temperatures cold enough to kill exposed skin, and more than a few old-timers have lost parts of their anatomy—or their lives—proving that. Worse, I might not have had the advantages of a practical first-aid kit, and that could have made a bad situation intolerable. With it, a wound serious enough to make sensible folks in civilization seek medical attention had quickly been reduced to a relatively minor inconvenience under conditions that did not favor the injured. Without it, the situation would certainly have been more challenging.

Finally, I learned, yet again, to accord a sharp working knife the respect it deserves. That latest scar joined a collage of others, mostly to the fingers, that had accrued over more than three decades. I don’t believe I’ve ever made the same mistake twice, but with all the knife work that goes with making a living in the out-of-doors, I have discovered an endless variety of new ways to cut myself. Still, the wounds have become less frequent as years go by. Maybe, as one old-timer put it, “I know how to handle a knife, and I’ve got the scars to prove it.”

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