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Wisconsin logger who survived in woods still cutting

Gary Edinger, of Kennan, uses a steel cable on Nov. 15 to tie a tree he cut on land near Ogema. (T'xer Zhon Kha/The Wausau Daily Herald via AP)

Gary Edinger, of Kennan, uses a steel cable on Nov. 15 to tie a tree he cut on land near Ogema. (T’xer Zhon Kha/The Wausau Daily Herald via AP)

Wausau Daily Herald

KENNAN, Wis. (AP) — Gary Edinger has found himself the unlikely star of the documentary “Will to Live: The Gary Edinger Story,” featured on Outside magazine’s website.

The magazine’s articles are usually on topics such as outdoor sports, adventure, gear and clothing for active people. But few of the subjects are of the type who wear scuffed-up hard hats or use chainsaws for a living. So why the interest in Edinger, a 68-year-old logger from Kennan, a little town nestled among the trees and streams of the Northwoods?

The reasons are made clear in the documentary, which was released with the teaser “A Freak Accident Changed This Man’s Life.” Because of a series of mishaps, Edinger lost his leg below his left knee. Sadly, this sort of thing is not unusual for loggers.

Logging is the most dangerous industry in America, according to USA Today, and life-threatening and fatal accidents happen regularly. In 2016, for example, the fatality rate for loggers was 136 per 100,000.

‘I always have to push things’

It was extremely cold when Edinger woke up about 5:30 a.m. Feb. 15, 2007, he wrote in his book, “Will to Live: A Saga of Survival.”

But he decided, before he even got out of bed, that he would go into the woods anyway. “Most normal loggers won’t work when it’s colder than minus 10,” he wrote. “But there is nothing normal about me. … For some reason, I always have to push things.”

Edinger thinks it was mid-morning and about 15 degrees below zero when he started to cut down a double-stemmed tree, a soft maple that had two full-sized trunks coming from a single stump on land east of Phillips, in the town of Emery. That tree was near another he just had felled, and his plan was to use his old mid-’80s era skidder to pull all the logs out at once to a pile, then cut them into sections for a trucker to load and take away to a mill.

He notched the smaller of the two trunks, then went to work on the larger stem. His plan was to have the larger one fall onto the smaller, and both fall to the ground. But as he was cutting the larger trunk, it began to “barberchair.” That’s what loggers call it when a tree’s trunk begins to split, making it hard to predict where it will fall.

Edinger started to run as the large tree came down. It fell against the smaller trunk, which started coming before getting hung up in another nearby tree. That made a kind of ramp for the large tree as it fell. Edinger was just pulling his left leg over the stump when he felt a “tremendous boom.”

“There was no pain, just a stunning jolt that ran through my whole body,” Edinger wrote in his book. He ended up sitting, straddled on the tree he had previously cut down, stunned. He checked his chest. It was solid, he wrote, “and I thought, ‘Oh, you’re all right.'”

He wasn’t.

‘What I saw … just hammered me.’

Edinger tried to stand up. “But my left leg didn’t touch the ground,” he said.

He looked down, thinking that his leg was broken. “What I saw instead just hammered me,” Edinger wrote in his book. His lower left leg was gone, guillotined by the falling tree and the edge of the stump he had tried to run past.

“Steam was rising off the end of the stump, and I could see a stream of blood, about the size of a pencil, arcing down into the snow,” he wrote.

He tried to use his belt as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. It broke. He tried again. “I really reefed on that thing,” he said in the documentary. It broke again, and he knew it wouldn’t be of any use.

He figured he had, maybe, a half hour before he bled to death.

‘Really, really hooked on racing sled dogs.’

There was a moment or two then, as Edinger sat on the log with his leg bleeding and his belt broken, that he thought of how easy it would be to lay back and let the cold and loss of blood take him away.

“But then I thought, ‘What the heck, why don’t you see how far you can get until you die?’ Just to show people I wasn’t a quitter,” he said.

So he started an agonizing journey. First, he crawled to his skidder and drove the machine back to his pickup truck, where he kept his cellphone and could call for help. When he reached the truck, which had a manual transmission, he used his right foot to put in the clutch, and put it in the first four-wheel drive low gear. After shifting into second, he started a slow drive out of the woods.

Then he called 911.

When Edinger is logging, he goes at his own pace and does the job his own way. He could never work with someone else, he said, because “I don’t like people all that much.” He’s joking, but only partly. If he had a partner, then he’d have to consider someone else when he stopped for lunch, or decided to work into the night using the lights on his machinery.

He also takes a throw-back approach to the job that most modern loggers shun, using hand-held chainsaws to fall trees.

“Most guys use processors now,” Edinger said.

Processors are long-armed, powerful machines that can cut and stack trees while the operator stays warm, dry and safer inside a climate-controlled cab.

“Those guys don’t even get sawdust on them,” he said. “Hand cutting is the hard way.”

Edinger likes using older, smaller equipment because it does less damage to a woods. “I’m a tree-hugging logger,” he said. “I’ve always cared about the environment. A person should do as little damage as possible to it.”

‘I couldn’t let that tree win.’

Edinger was on the verge of passing out when he got in touch with an emergency dispatcher on that morning in February 2007. When he told her he was driving slowly, in pain, and had lost his foot, there was astonishment in her voice.

The dispatcher implored him to pull over.

“I ain’t pulling over,” Edinger responded. “I’m getting out of here.”

Deputy Brian Roush and an ambulance crew caught up with Edinger on Price County D, and Edinger was taken to the airport near Phillips to be loaded into the medical helicopter that would fly him to Marshfield.

At this point, Edinger believed he would live, and even had hopes that doctors could reattach and save his foot (he had dragged it with him). But the medical responders knew that he was on the cusp of death.

Doctors and EMTs gave Edinger roughly 10 pints of blood as they worked to save his life. An average adult has about 12 pints of blood.

The recovery wasn’t easy. There were times when he said he wished he hadn’t made it, Leanne said in the documentary.

But 10 months later, Edinger returned to the scene of the accident, hooked up to his skidder the tree that severed his foot, and dragged it out of the woods.

“I couldn’t let that tree win,” he said.

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