By Sharon Fink
Special to The SUN
The saying goes, when you hear a bell ring, an angel gets its wings. For Ray Emery, when he hears an elk bugle, it may be his personal angel.
It began on Sept. 16, 2014, Emery, an avid hunter and fisherman from Pagosa Springs, had been keeping his eye on a large, blond-colored bear near Fourmile Road. He had set up game cameras and found evidence of how large this bear was.
“I found hair as long as a dollar bill and places where he scratched when standing upright that measured 7 feet tall,” he said.
He nicknamed the bear “Blondie” and wanted more than anything to bag him. Also spotted on his camera were pictures of a mountain lion, so he knew one was traveling through or was making this spot part of his territory.
Emery had a tree stand set up in a large aspen and had been going for days hoping to claim the elusive blonde bear. Three days prior to Sept. 16, he caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye.
As he investigated further with his binoculars, he was stunned to see the most magnificent bull elk he had ever laid eyes on. Emery called him an imperial elk because he was a 7×7, meaning 7 points on each side, totaling 14.
To see an elk such as this imperial bull is extremely rare.
As Emery was gazing at him in wonder, he thought to himself, “You and I are going to have an appointment soon.”
Little did Emery know his premonition was correct, but not in the way he envisioned.
Not having the success he anticipated hunting “Blondie,” Emery had decided on the morning of the 16th that the time had come to take the tree stand down.
At 11:30 a.m., he left his friend’s cabin where he stays while hunting on Fourmile Road and drove a mile or so down to park his truck. He walked approximately a half mile and proceeded to take everything down and move his equipment to a different location.
As he was unstrapping his stand and had to twist the pin to let the cable out of the top section, he felt himself falling backward.
“I threw my arms out trying to grab the stand.” Feeling the air rushing through his hair, Emery continued, “Falling over 30 feet felt like a long time. My thought was at least I am going to die doing what I love.”
Several minutes went by after the fall before he realized the severity of the impact. He saw his glasses nearby and reached to retrieve them, discovering a lens had popped out. He tried as best he could to move his body, but soon knew that he could not. He assumed he had broken both legs. He spotted the lost lens and managed to reset the lens back into his frames.
Needing a bit of shelter, Emery used his upper body to crawl his way to a nearby spruce tree. Using the cushion from the tree stand, he tried to make himself as comfortable as possible given his intense pain.
At around 4 p.m., Emery had determined he may not be found, so he tore a plastic bag he had with his supplies to make a garment to keep himself as warm as possible during the night. Because of the poor reception, he never bothered to carry a cellphone.
At around sundown, in the distance, Emery heard the scream of a mountain lion.
“I thought at first, ‘That’s interesting, I’d never heard one out in the wild before,’” he noted.
As time ticked away, however, the screaming became louder and louder as the lion was making his way closer and closer.
“The lion was winding me,” he said, using a term to describe the predatory behavior of lions when on the hunt
Lions smell their prey and wait for just the right time to attack. This lion was on the attack.
As the lion approached closer, circling Emery, who was unable to defend himself without a gun, the adrenaline kicked in.
“I knew I had to stay alert and not allow myself to go into shock. The only thing I could do was make noise by screaming and using my knife to bang on the metal portion of my stand which was beside me, hoping to scare him off. I banged so hard, I broke my knife,” he said.
Now, without even a weapon, it was almost dark. The lion was about 50 feet away and closing in.
“I was really scared. I prayed real hard,” said Emery.
Then he heard the snap of a twig.
“I started screaming and crying as loud as I could. I couldn’t move. My legs were paralyzed. I thought this was it. I made my peace,” shared Emery.
Then, out he stepped, just 5 feet away. The appointment Emery had wanted with the imperial bull had arrived. Instead of the bull being in his gun sights, however, he came to save his life.
“The huge bull stood between me and the lion, and let out a bugle so loud, it made my ribs rattle,” explained Emery.
Suddenly, a warm air came down, as soothing as warm water, and melted away the intense fear and anxiety, giving a sense of peace and well-being.
“I quit screaming and hollering and crying,” he said.
The large bull walked over to Emery and sniffed his boots.
“He started bugling again and a half dozen cow elk came out and took turns sniffing me and coming close. They wouldn’t let me touch them, but I came within inches. I felt at ease,” explained Emery.
During the next hour or so, the imperial bull kept up the bugling, signaling to the frustrated lion he chased off that there was no use trying to come back. During this time, the elk never left his side.
When Emery’s wife, Penny, did not receive a phone call from him by 7 p.m., she felt something was wrong. She waited until 7:30 p.m. and drove up the mountain from town to check on him. Upon seeing his truck along the road, she frantically began blowing her horn. By this time, it was about 8:30 p.m. Emery heard the horn and so did the elk.
A call was made requesting a search and rescue team, only to be told that since it was after dark, they would have to wait until morning. However, after enough persuasion, the team of rescuers made the journey. Between 9:30 and 10 p.m., Emery heard and saw activity and yelled so as to be heard.
“My brother-in-law first found me,” he noted.
The imperial bull and his group of cow elk by this time had left, knowing their services were no longer needed. Help was on the way.
“I don’t think I cheated the surgeon this time,” Emery told Penny as he was being carried out.
He was flown on a chopper to Durango. It was here he was told that any delay in him being found would have resulted in his death. Once it was determined he suffered a T-12 explosion fracture in his back, he was immediately flown to St. Anthony’s Trauma Center in Denver, over 300 miles away. He spent the next seven to 10 days in the hospital, then the next three months at Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver, a world-renowned medical facility specializing in traumatic brain and spinal injuries.
Today, Emery uses a cane and wears a leg brace. He also experiences intense nerve pain.
“My waist down to this day feels like it is on fire,” he explained.
Over the last five years, he has had five surgeries.
“God works in mysterious ways. I thank my maker every day,” Emery shared.
While motioning toward the scenery of the mountains, he added, “How can anybody deny there is a God when looking out at this? This is my church.”
Emery’s experience made him realize just how precious life is. He and Penny, along with their golden retriever, made their dream of traveling to Canada and Alaska a reality.
His having been the recipient of a miracle changed him in other ways, too.
“I was never the type of person before my accident to have ever believed such an event was possible,” he said.
He is a believer now.
“I love to hunt; I love the outdoors. I got a bull on my wall that I got in ‘09 — a 6×6.” With tears in his eyes, he adds, “After all that happened, I could never pull the trigger on a bull again.”