Same routine, except today it rains. I finish my chicken book, make a few calls, draw some plants, eat, and relax. Tonight I am headed to Doe Knob.
Two weeks ago, while working a problem bear at Birch Springs, I hunted up to Doe Knob. I was stalking a sow and a couple shoats when the wind shifted and I had to back off. Moments later, I watched through the thermal as three coyotes popped up onto the ridge, ran my hogs off, and ruined my hunt.
“Hogblocked” by coyotes, I don’t know if I should count them as allies or enemies. They migrated to the park naturally, so they do not suffer the same fate as the invasive hogs. That night, Doe Knob was theirs, but tonight I am returning to stake my claim.
Hunt, fish, trap, and forage.
When I created my list of desired activities for when I retired, those rose to the top. Not surprising, as when I am engaged in them, it feels right. Maybe it is the sense of freedom or self-reliance, maybe it is hardwired into my DNA, but I have chosen not to wait twenty years to pursue them. There is nothing natural about leaving meat lay on the ground, but hunting hogs is about as close to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle I can get and still get a paycheck. Maybe one day that will change, but for now I have been hitting a wall of federal restrictions on donating the meat.
Foraging in the park is also illegal, with the exception of berries and mushrooms, but I can still look at the menu. As I hunt west I take note of all the edible plants around. Wild cucumber, carrion flower, spring beauty, trout lily, violets, sheep sorrel, toothwort, branch lettuce, Turk’s Cap Lily, greenbrier tips, chaga mushroom, solomon’s seal, false solomon’s seal, blueberry bushes, beech trees, azalea galls, and a nice big patch of chicken of the woods.
About a mile from camp I run into my bear again. He is just down off the hill munching on vegetation, so I slip by him unnoticed, making a mental note for later when I return in the dark. In another two weeks one of my co-workers, “Rambo” Ricky, has to shut down Campsite 13 because of this bad boy. He weighs about 200 now, but later this fall he will be pushing 300. He is the badass on this mountain and knows it. When Rick was camping at 13 to dart him, he said he just rolled in and acted liked he owned it.
I make it to Doe Knob right before dark, just in time to hear the coyotes start howling. If I could interpret coyote, I am pretty sure they are telling me to get lost and that this is still their turf. Damn.
I hunt through mostly old sign and cook my dinner on the back side of the knob. These days I carry a little twig stove that allows me to hike out from camp and set up my kitchen for dinner. I used to cook my dinner in camp before heading out, but some fool tore down my rock oven that allowed me to bake, boil, and grill, so I cook on trail now.
I ate many good meals from this kitchen, even though some Leave-No-Trace fans might object. The truth is, I favor fires and managed correctly, think they are more environmentally friendly. Maybe I leave a fire scar for one season before it fades, but I am pretty sure that the byproducts and industry associated with the production of fancy stoves and fuels are worse and last a whole lot longer.
I hunt the two miles back to camp with no sightings of anything but mice. Glowing white hot in the thermal, the mice run up trees, jump, and disappear like watching some paranormal ghost hunting circus.
Pictured below are a couple deer seen through thermal to give you an idea how animals look. Adding to our effectiveness, night vision and thermal are also a huge safety boon to a program that once sported tractor lights and motorcycle batteries for the night work.
Just before heading down to camp, I see a boar working his way up the hill. It has been windy all week and tonight is no exception, but I have a cross wind that favors me. I rotate the bezel on the Surefire Millenium to the IR mode, allowing me to illuminate the area, when seen through my NVG, but with no visible light for the hog to see. Although I can clearly see the hog in the thermal, the night vision tells me there is a wall of blackberries between us.
It’s almost two in the morning and I am on top of a ridge line eight miles from my duty station. The wild boar that I have been patiently watching through my thermal monocular for the last hour takes another step. I raise my rifle to look through the night vision, but all I see is a wall of vegetation, even though my quarry is less than 30 feet away. The dance continues.
After over an hour of watching patiently, he makes the fatal mistake of stepping into an open area. The heart of a hog is further forward than a deer, behind the front legs. A well placed shot to the heart can also break the shoulders preventing any tracking or trailing. I dispatch another 200 pounder and wonder why I hunted the four mile roundtrip out to Doe Knob, only to shoot one 100 yards from camp.
Same routine, but I today visit the gym, a tree on the bald, to do some pullups, elevated pushups, and planks. Fresh air and free membership.
Early afternoon, I am visited down at the spring by a father and son camping in the area. Caught off guard by a bearded man drawing wildflowers with an assault rifle strapped to his back, my well rehearsed dialogue, badge, and park service hat assures them that I am not some crazy hillbilly. We make small talk and a couple hours later I see them again when I head to the Bald.
I try to call my wife, but my phone is dead. I bought a solar charger for the mountain back in April, but I only get a trickle of juice out of it. Back in the day before I had a cellphone, I could go a week without seeing or talking to anyone. It didn’t bother me, as I am just as comfortable alone or in a group setting, but it is nice to visit with my new neighbors. I eat my dinner on the Bald and chat with Paul and his son Cole about his time with the government, fatherhood, bears, and plants. My table has the best view.
Before leaving the Bald, I listen to the weather channel on my radio about the storms headed my way and watch them roll through the mountains north of me. As I head west, the shift in thunder and the wind in my face causes me to hesitate. I don’t wan’t to hike too far from camp. Crossing the bald in a thunderstorm is not something I want to repeat, as I have learned my lesson before.
I turn around and head east as the thunder draws near. I make it across the bald and hear a hog in the beeches. I stalk closer, kneel down in the trail, and wait for it to cross the trail. It comes off the bank and stops with it’s head and shoulder behind a eight inch tree, effectively covering it’s vital areas at 25 yards. The thunder is right above me now, so I stand up and lean out to the side to get a shot in as tight behind the shoulder as I can.
She crashes through the brush and I hear another one just above me. It grunts, and I see the tops of the beeches ripple as it runs through them. It’s course bypasses the shooting lane I am watching, so I bail off the trail to track the first one down.
Tracking through acres of hog sign can sometimes be an exercise in frustration. A thick layer of subcutaneous fat can seal up a bullet hole leaving very little blood to trail, so here is some hard won advice. Before you shoot a game animal, take note of exactly where it was standing. Reference a tree, a rock, or something, because if you don’t drop it, you’ll be hunting for that trail.
With the threat of rain washing away the blood trail, I don’t waste any time. I pick up a good trail and find her about 80 yards down off the hill. The storm is right above me now. I forgo taking a blood sample and decide to double time it back to camp. As soon as I hit the trail, I run.
A half mile isn’t very far, but when you are on top of a mountain in a thunderstorm, it drags out. I make it under the tarp just as the downpour starts. Lightning is cracking off everywhere, so I spend the next hour squatting on a 1′ x 2′ piece of foam. Even though my chances of getting struck by lightning are about the same as winning the lottery, squatting on the foam at least makes me feel like I am doing something to improve my odds. Truth be told, falling limbs and trees are a greater hazard, but there is something about lightning that gets my attention. I ponder the physics of lightning and hammocks, life insurance, and my unborn son, as I wait for the storm to pass.
The storm moves on, but commo says another cell is to the west of me, so I stay in camp. My phone has 1% battery life, so I text my wife that I am okay, before calling her to tell her about the storm. With her ubiquitous carefree nature she asks me if “was pretty”. I jokingly reply “Hell no!!” and my phone dies. The rain starts again, so I settle in for the night.
I wake up early. I have eaten all my food, so I break camp, collect my blood samples that I stored in the creek, and head out. It is foggy and right before the bald, I see a dark animal to the right. Bears and hogs are both black, and by the time my brain processes that the ears are pointy and not round, the hog has winded me and taken off.
I drop down into Campsite 13 and talk with Paul and his boy about the storm. I tell Cole that it was one of the worst I had been through up there and at least he has a pretty good story now. They are breaking camp and heading down the same trail, so I lead the way in case we run into any hogs, which we don’t. I point out a few plants and animal tracks on the way down and enjoy the company.
Back at the truck, I head to the station to process my blood samples and fill out some data forms for each hog. The Dragon’s Tail is littered with branches and broken trees, confirming the power of last night’s storm, and while charging my phone, I receive two texts from Thursday afternoon.
One from my old supervisor asking if I was available to run the boat on a rescue down on Fontana Lake and another one from my current boss that warned me of impending doom. Maybe it is time to start shopping for a new solar charger.
My week is done and I reflect upon it as I head to the house. It may be hard for readers of this blog to believe, but we have had guys quit our crew because they hated camping on the mountain. I even know of one case where a hunter pretended he was up high by calling in and out of service from the station. The “mountain” is not for everyone, but for me it is a good fit.
Even though I am using modern tools, it gives me a glimpse into a primal lifestyle and a peace and relaxation that sings to my soul. An ancient song that is calling us all back…