A number of years ago, on an elk hunting trip, my father in law, brother in law and myself came extremely close to dying as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. It was a very scary experience to look back and realize just how close we came to perishing as a result of our carelessness.
The three of us had purchased a cabin for our families in a remote, high altitude mountain area. The elevation of our cabin was about 9,600 feet above sea level. It was high enough that it took several days to acclimate to the altitude and would often cause headaches if you exerted yourself too much.
Since our cabin was located in such a remote, wooded area, there were no utilities available. We were totally off the grid. We used a generator for power and propane for cooking and heat. We also used the fireplace on occasion for heat and light both. Due to the altitude of the cabin, it was common to have four to six feet of snow on the ground most of the winter. As a result, our access to the cabin was usually limited to between the months of May and November.
I come from a family of hunters and it was a regular event to use the cabin as a base camp for both deer and elk hunting. It was common for us to either bring our four wheelers or horses on our hunts as it made carrying our game back to the cabin so much easier. It was in late September we had planned on elk hunting near the cabin and had trailered our horses up to the cabin to make the hunt easier.
It was an Indian Fall with temperatures in the upper 50’s and low 60’s. It was beautiful weather for a hunt with the leaves just starting to turn on the quakies. We were having the time of our life, riding all over the mountainous area near our cabin, enjoying the scenery and weather almost as much as the anticipation of bagging a big bull elk. We glassed a herd of about 20 elk more than 1,000 yards away but were never able to get close enough for any kind of a decent shot.
The next day out, clouds began to roll in and by mid-day, it began to rain. We donned our slickers but not before we got wet. We continued to ride the rest of that soggy day with no luck finding a decent bull. By the time we got back to the cabin that evening and got the horses put away, we were wet, cold and hungry and anxious to get inside, warm up and get some food on our stomachs.
Ever since my father in law suffered hypothermia on a backpacking trip, he had become hyper sensitive to the cold. I even have a picture of him sitting on the beach in Coronado, CA wearing his cowboy hat and a jacket with the beach towel wrapped around his legs. He hated to cold! Anyway, as soon as we entered the cabin, he asked me to fire up the propane heater even though it wasn’t that cold inside. So, being an obedient son in law, without a second thought, I lit the heater and turned up the thermostat.
I then went outside and fired up the generator as it was getting dark. After a quick bite of food, we decided to setting down and watch a video. We had an old color TV set up on a shelf by the fireplace and used an old full size VHS camcorder (the big ones that would rest on your shoulder when you shot videos) as a video player to watch the limited library of video tapes we kept at the cabin. That night, the video of choice was “Tremors” with Kevin Bacon. If you’ve never had the privilege of watching that masterpiece, it’s about these huge underground worms that are eating people and destroying the town.
One of the unique characteristics of our fancy entertainment center was that the TV would occasionally change from color to black and white. The high-tech method we used to rectify this annoying shift was to smack the TV hard on the side. This procedure usually solved the problem.
I glanced over at my father in law who was sitting in an over-stuffed chair next to me and he was out – fast asleep which seemed quite appealing to me after a long day of hunting, a full belly, warm cabin and a classic movie. As a result, I was quickly dozing off to la la land myself. My brother in law was laying on a couch closest to the TV and was also feeling sleepy when in a critical part of the movie (the giant worm was eating yet another victim), the TV went black and white. My brother in law, who had become an expert in adjusting the TV and bringing it back to “technicolor”, sat up to smack the TV once again.
As soon as he sat up, he grabbed his head and yelled out to us – “Wake up, were being poisoned!” It took several seconds to come to but as we tried to stand up, our heads felt like they were going to explode. We could feel our hearts pounding like we had just run a mile and we felt like we were going to throw up. We managed to make our way out to the front porch where we quickly sat down with our heads between our legs and tried to keep from passing out from the headache pain we were experiencing. As soon as I could stand again, I went back inside, turned off the heater and opened the windows and doors to try and air out the cabin.
How could this happen?! We had never experienced any problem like this before. The propane heaters always seemed to function properly in the past and we never worried about carbon monoxide poisoning. Then it came to me – the reason we almost died – we had neglected to take the metal bucket off the furnace flu. In an attempt to keep squirrels and other critters out of the cabin, when we leave the cabin, we climb up on the roof and put a bucket over the top of the flu. Because we hadn’t used the furnace the night before, we simple hadn’t thought about the issue of a blocked flu.
As a result, over a period of about an hour, we had been slowing breathing in the odorless carbon monoxide, making us sleepy and gradually and painlessly killing us. It really is scary to think how close we came to dying that night and I’m convinced that wonderful old color TV went black and white purposely, by a higher power, to save our lives. Had that not happened – had my brother in law not needed to sit up to smack the TV, our families would have discovered three bloated bodies several days later. We were that close!
The effects of carbon monoxide poisoning are prolonged – in fact it took about three days for us to feel back to normal. You see, the hemoglobin in our red blood cells became saturated with carbon monoxide which blocked oxygen from being absorbed and transported throughout our bodies. So, for three days, our bodies were trying to replace the carbon monoxide with oxygen that would provide energy and stamina. We were so oxygen deprived; our bodies were struggling to do the simplest of tasks. Granted, we were at a very high altitude (which didn’t help) but even walking just 20 feet would cause us to be winded and needing to rest. Nevertheless, like the tough guys we thought we were, we weren’t about to bail on our hunting excursion.
Luckily we had our horses to do most of the work. Every now and then when we’d be in a really densely wooded area and we’d have to get off our horses and walk them over all the fallen timber and brush, it would about kill us. It was like trying to run a race breathing through a straw. I hope never to have to experience that silent killer again (I may not be as lucky the second time).
Unfortunately, I’m afraid many families will be subjected to the potentially fatal consequences of carbon monoxide poisoning in a grid down scenario. Many who have stored away emergency camp stoves or other alternate forms of cooking, light and heat, due to the stress of the situation, will fail to follow proper safety precautions when using such emergency systems indoors. Here’s the best safety tip I can provide – regardless of how safe your cooking or heating source may claim to be, NEVER use it in an enclosed area. I know, I know, there are many heaters that are ventless or fluless and claim to be safe to use indoors – nevertheless, ALWAYS keep a significant fresh air flow when using such a device.
Some may say, “Why would I open a window and let cold air in when I’m trying to heat the room?” Yes, it is a little counter-intuitive but essential for survival. Please take my word for it, it’s absolutely not worth it! Life is far too precious to risk the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.