Two weeks ago I went to the Wilderness Wildlife Week to hear my friend Ila Hatter, http://wildcrafting.com/, speak on wild edible and herbal folklore. While cruising through the booths, I ran into Doug Elliot, a gifted storyteller, naturalist, and herbalist, http://www.dougelliott.com/. I took some edible plant walks from Doug back in 2000 at the Rivercane Rendezvous and heard some of his great storytelling around the campfire. While catching up, Doug asked me what a typical day was like and since I have been asked this many times, I thought a blog post would be fitting. I am thankful to have a “dream” job, and I write this post as an insight to my daily life and hopefully add a few tips from the woods.
It is common knowledge that our park controls the non-native hogs, for their destructive habits and competing with native wildlife for resources. http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/dff309-meetexotic.htm This excerpt describes the program:
“What do we do with non-native wildlife? In a typical year, wildlife managers actively trap and shoot wild hogs to stop habitat destruction and disease spread. Most of the work is done from December through June. In a typical winter, wild hogs move to the lower elevation areas where wildlife managers can more easily access them. In the spring and throughout the summer, hogs move to the higher elevation forest in the backcountry, making hog control much more difficult”
No day is really typical in this job and sometimes we chuckle at how out of the norm our job can be. As noted above, our program varies by season. Winter months are usually spent still hunting during the day, hunting over bait at night, and trapping. During the spring, the hogs move up in elevation, so we follow them and camp up high to hunt them at night using NVG’s, thermal, and shotguns, due to the vegetation at that time.
It is winter and pretty damn cold at times, so I’ll start with that.
My alarm goes off at 0630 and then the most annoying creature in the world, my wife’s cat, starts clawing underneath the door trying to get into the room. The by-product of failed negotiations laced with feminine charm, this cat now haunts my reality. I not-so-secretly wish I could remove the problem, but in the spirit of matrimonial harmony I launch a passive aggressive retaliation against it’s master with a fusillade of flatulence. It gets the desired response as my wife, roused from her slumber, tells me to “STOP IT”. I chuckle and take pride knowing that I can be as annoying as the cat.
Time to get dressed, so I layer up. My “action suit” is a smartwool t-shirt, another merino long sleeve, wool socks, merino long underwear, cargo pants, Gore-tex gaiters, an issued softshell, a fleece hat and neck gaiter. Over this I put on a Wildthings Primaloft vest and jacket I designed on their website. As soon as I start hiking, I know I will heat up, so I will then stow the vest and jacket and wear only the soft shell. When I stop or slow down to still hunt, I will throw the jacket on over my softshell. I scarf down my favorite meal in the world, cereal, grab my gear, and head out. It is 4 degrees when I leave the house.
My commute takes me along the Dragon’s Tail, from Tennessee into North Carolina. Despite only living 28 miles from my duty station, the 318 curves in the 11 mile Dragon slows my commute to just under an hour. I admire the mist rising off the river and head up the Dragon, checking three hog traps on the way in. Nothing in them today, but I caught one earlier this week and there is still more sign, so I leave them set. I keep trucking along the icy Dragon’s Tail in four wheel drive.
I arrive at the ranger station and find an array of combs laid out for me. I guess this is my hog trapper’s polite way of saying I should comb my unruly beard that I have been growing since I switched back to the wildlife division. Waiting patiently for five years, my beard is growing aggressively unencumbered by any grooming policy. I pick a small black one and soon learn the soothing joy of combing my beard.
Between the three of us, we have already checked eleven traps this morning, so we make our plan and head to the marina. Everything is frozen, the motors won’t start, and the water pump indicator is frozen. We start fooling with it, get the motors into the sun, and an hour later we are in business. I comb my beard again and tell Junior, our hogtrapper, to remind me to research outboard block heaters when I get to a computer.
Once underway, our plan is to divide and conquer, dropping of both hunters to still hunt bedding areas and let Junior finish running the trapline, which includes seven more traps to check and two to pre-bait. Before we drop off, we make pickup plans for the crew. Following the P-A-C-E acronym we designate a Primary and Alternate pickup spot. Our Contingency plan is to turn the radios on at 1500 and the Emergency plan is to get to the lake bank and build a smoky fire or signal in another way. We drop K.W. off and wish him luck. This likable, 58 year old mountain man is certain death in the woods, but I rib him about his diet of Spam and Lunchables before he heads out. He will spend the day working his way off trail, headed up under a top and come out two drainages east of his drop off location.
We have to look out for ourselves and each other as a response from the rangers would take at least 2 hours to get on the lake and several more to try and get to us off trail. Every Monday morning, we do a pack check making sure we have what we need in case we get caught out. For me, that is my clothing, a G1 poncho liner, fire starting kit, a shelter kit, and the removable bivy pad from my pack. I round it out with a first aid kit in the top pouch of my pack, a navigation kit in my right cargo pocket, a survival kit in the left, and a Mora knife on a lanyard around my neck. If for some reason I was separated from my pack, the contents of my pockets will get me through the night. I will do a blog post on the gear I carry and why soon for all my fellow gear-o-philes.
My plan is to scout a section of the main trail and then head off trail out a ridge where I have found bedding areas before. On that ridge, I ran into the largest group of hogs I have ever seen, but armed with only a five gallon can of gas and a knife, they all got away. I’ll save that story for the campfire sometime. Needless to say, I hunt that area religiously, especially in cold weather.
My hike starts out like all hunts on the lake… uphill. The feeder creek has a cool waterfall I get to scramble up first, which I thoroughly enjoy.
I hit hog sign almost immediately and I pre-bait the trap in that drainage with corn that I brought for it. Upward and onward, I hit the main trail and head west. Our goal has been to scout a 33 mile trail that bisects the lower portion of all the drainages, letting us know where we have activity. We use the established trails as our highways into better hunting areas and a majority of my work is done off trail at this time of year. The first couple miles of my hunt is uneventful. I notice an old fence post from pre-park days and wonder if it is chestnut or locust. It looks like locust, but I don’t stop to check.
It is a little before 1:00 and I hear some leaves rustling on the opposite hillside. I am on the north side of a ridge and the trail is covered with crunchy snow, but I have a good wind. There are a couple ways to put the sneak on game in dry leaves or crunchy snow, all requiring some cover noise. Wait until they are rooting or moving, move when the wind is blowing, and move when an airplane is going overhead. I use all three to gain ground, get sight of my quarry, and get in range. Letting the animal crest a hill or drop into a gully and using a creek as a cover sound are good moves too.
During the winter I run a 6.8 AR with a Surefire suppressor shooting 110 grain Barnes bullets. Once rendered into our possession, we obtain blood, heart, fecal, nasal, and tongue samples for our disease monitoring program. Even though I just shot this animal ending it’s life, I can’t help but feel like I am violating it by getting the fecal sample. Life and death in the woods raises some interesting thoughts to ponder.
I return to the trail, pull out my water bottle, and find that it has already frozen at the top. I bust out the ice and drink up, knowing that my body needs just as much water in cold weather as it does in warm. When I return to the station later, I will find that all my blood vials have frozen as well.
Heading west, I peel off on the ridge that takes me to the bedding area. I hit sign within 100 yards, but time pulling sample means I will not make it to the Primary pickup location. I pull out my map and locate a gentle finger ridge a half mile away that will take me down to the Alternate pickup spot. Easing out the ridge, I come across four does that drop off the ridge to the north.
I survey the beauty that surrounds me. Combing my beard, standing on top of a ridge in the winter woods, by myself, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres, I am assured that my decision to leave the law enforcement division was the right choice. This past year, when I started spending more time in my patrol truck than in the field, I knew it was time to go. The pay and benefit cuts are all worth it, as in the last month I have spent more time in the woods than your average ranger does in a year. It’s not that they don’t want to be out there, it’s just an unfortunate symptom of a shifting program responding to new demands and budget cuts. My heart however, has always been in the woods, and I am back where I belong.
I find my finger ridge and ease down, ever watchful for bedding hogs. Hogs are the ultimate survivors and I respect them greatly, even naming my school after these survival machines. Even if they didn’t breed like rabbits, weren’t tough as nails, or have a their omnivorous ways, wild hogs would get a gold star for their choice bedding sites. I often find their leaf nests under the protection of a pine tree, midway on South facing finger slopes. That is a textbook microclimate location.
No beds on this ridge and forty five minutes later, I pop out onto the lake bank.
I still haven’t eaten lunch, so I kick some fatwood fins off a dead Virginia pine to light up my Mini Emberlit. No drive thrus or restaurants for us, but a hot meal on a cold day is pretty damn nice during my lunch break. The mini Emberlit packs up small, is lightweight titanium, runs off twigs, and leaves no fire scar. It was expensive, but well worth it in my book. The chopsticks were because I left my spork in the sink at the house and I usually carry my lunch in the MSR Stowaway pot you see here.
Via radio, I let Junior know I am at the Alternate pickup. Dressed in camo on a rocky bank, it is really hard for the driver to see us. I give him a flash of the mirror as he cruises in the channel and also with the rescue laser I am testing out. The jury is still out on the laser, partly due to the fact that one of the crew is red-green colorblind.
From here it is down the lake to pickup K.W., then back to the station to process the samples and fill out a short paperwork form. On the ride back we share intel from where we saw sign and start planning for the next day.
I wish I could tell you that we get into gangs of hogs every day, but the truth is our efforts have paid off over the years. Over 12,000 hogs have been removed during the history of our program and I have anecdotally noticed that numbers in my area have declined. Having the ability to breed twice a year, bearing up to six piglets, and becoming sexually mature at six months, if we ever quit, the population would rebound quickly, so tomorrow we will be back at it again.
Hogs in the Smokies: http://smokiesinformation.org/nature-wildlife/wild-hogs
Watch here for volunteer positions trapping wild hogs and helping deal with nuisance bears in the Smokies: https://www.thesca.org/serve/positions
Watch here for federal jobs hunting or trapping (type 0404 into the keyword search): https://www.usajobs.gov/
I did some work with these guys in college and they are the go-to agency for careers like mine: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wps/portal/aphis/ourfocus/wildlifedamage
Wildthings Gear: http://www.wildthingsgear.com/