A Warden's Woes

Catching poachers and baby-sitting moose makes a wild life.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Like those of most young adults, the early stages of my working life were fraught with dead ends and tangents. But loafing beside a blast furnace one day, I looked through the factory window at the blue sky and flying birds and had an epiphany. These realizations often arise from the convergence of independent realities; in this case, it was my being inside and nature's being outside. I was not long for the factory; I needed some fresh air.

I spent most of my leisure time hunting or fishing. It was a no-brainer-I would become a game warden. Today, in the final months of a long career as a conservation officer in Ontario, Canada, I can look back over those times with misty eyes and say to myself, "What the heck was that?"

The job was, for the most part, a perpetual joke searching for a punch line. Rarely a week went by without an incident involving humans or animals that expanded my perception of what a particular species was capable of doing.

One such event involved a black bear that weighed in at about 40 pounds. This poor beast had been caught in a steel trap, costing him a couple of toes, and the local veterinarian was good enough to stitch the little guy up after administering a general anesthetic. I was called in to retrieve the bear and transport him to a cage back at my house, wherein he could be kept until fit for release.

Everything was going smoothly. The vet was confident the bear would be asleep long enough for me to get him home with time to spare, so I placed him on the passenger-side floor of my pickup and took off. In hindsight, I should have considered that the vet had never anesthetized a bear before; therefore, his estimated time of arousal was based upon his experience with poodles and ponies.

I should have been astute enough to see where this set of circumstances was leading, but my confidence grew as I approached the turn from the highway onto my side road with tiny Ursus americanus in a deep sleep as I braked for the corner. I straightened out on the gravel road and looked over to see my passenger, back against the firewall, hind feet curled over his tummy, staring me flat in the eye as if I were the sole reason for his throbbing paw and anesthetic hangover.

I'm pretty sure I could have taken the bear, but I wasn't about to sacrifice my uniform and the skin it covered to find out. I had to drive another mile to get to my driveway, and that old six-cylinder Ford barely touched gravel all the way. I believe to this day that it was only centrifugal force that kept the bear pinned to the seat and away from my throat. If you think a race-car driver is quick to bail out of a burning vehicle, you should have seen me exiting that pickup. It was out, slam, snarl, and slobber as the bear hit the inside of the window.

Game wardens bring home all kinds of unexpected visitors. Just ask my wife. One afternoon she heard me come through the basement door; the next thing she heard was "Honey, keep the dog upstairs please, I've got a moose down here."

In her mind, there was likely no upside to what was taking place below her. Either her husband had finally gone completely around the bend or there was, indeed, a moose in her basement. I looked up to see her peeking around the corner of the stairwell, brown eyes like saucers, one foot hanging in the air ready to bolt. What she saw was...well, it was a moose in her basement.

The little bull calf-all 60 pounds of him-had hyperextended his hip when he caught his foot between two rocks as his mother was apparently chased across a river by wolves. A fisherman reported his plight, and we carried the animal out on our shoulders for transport to a place where he could recuperate. He would live to run again-and in another year or so wouldn't have fit through the basement door. I explained this to my wife, but there was never a time when she didn't look around the corner beforeescending the stairs.

Wildlife encounters are predictably unpredictable, but interactions with humans sometimes leave you longing to be back in the company of lower mammals. The vast majority of the people we encounter are law abiding, sincere, and cordial; but it's human nature to remember the boneheads. Let's face it, most of these folks aren't cutting out on Mensa meetings to go and try to outwit the game wardens. The stories are all in the same category; the characters simply change.

Like the time my partner and I were in plain clothes working in the area of a remote creek where the locals illegally speared and snared pike in the spring. We were carrying a couple of poles-to fit the profile-when we met two guys heading in with spears for an evening of fun. We had just said hello to each other when vehicle headlights shone up the trail. The pair jumped into the bushes with us in behind them. There they were, hunched over, holding their spears, peering through the underbrush, with us looking over their shoulders.

"Game wardens have been all over the place lately," one of them turned to say.

"That a fact?" was my reply.

It's a good thing most violators have room-temperature IQs, or law enforcement would be a constant uphill battle. Consider the guy who offered us a $40 bribe to get out of a $25 fine. I guess he figured a couple of nights of free room and board more than made up for his poor math. Still, he had nothing on the fellow I caught with an out-of-season pike. This guy showed up in court pleading insanity, waving a letter from his doctor at the justice of the peace.

sometimes things did turn a little nasty. like the time I encountered a husband and wife hunting during a closed period. I seized a shotgun from the man, who decided he wanted it back. A scuffle over the gun ensued, and I had to discourage him with a swipe on the triceps with my billy stick. He, like me, was expecting his wife to jump on my back. As he pleaded to her for help, he pointed out that I had struck him with the billy.

She looked at me, then looked at him, and said, "Yeah, and he's going to hit you again if you don't smarten up." We need more women in the woods.

Sometimes the way poachers are apprehended gets the message across better than a slap on the wrist from a judge. One Sunday I got a call from the local police detachment requesting my presence ASAP. When I arrived, the police turned over a couple of out-of-province types, a shotgun, and a mallard duck. Normally, being that there was no Sunday hunting in the area, the case would have appeared pretty straightforward. However, the two hunters were still shaking in their boots when I arrived. I understood why when the arresting officer briefed me.

Apparently, these two characters were traveling through a major city when they stopped along the highway to shoot and retrieve the duck in an adjacent field. A resident of a high-rise apartment observed the incident and called the police. A plainclothes constable got the call and pursued the vehicle, calling for assistance. This is where things got hairy for the lads with the duck.

It seems that somewhere between the communications center and the intercepting officers the message got distorted, and they thought the approaching suspects had shot at the other officer. All available units were dispatched, the highway closed in both directions; weekend traffic backed up for miles. The stage was set: Cruisers were angled across the road, roof lights revolving, and shotguns were leveled.

One can only surmise what conversation took place between the two men when they saw the reception committee, but it probably had something to do with how seriously we took our game laws in this province. They were likely never so happy to see anyone as they were that pursuing officer who, finding the pair handcuffed face down on the asphalt, rescued them from their captors.

After all is said and done, here I am in the waning months of a job that had me hopping: from armed trespassers to tom turkeys chasing little old ladies, from buttheads hunting at night to deer smashing farmers' pumpkins, from so-called duck hunters shooting loons to raccoons in chimneys, from druggies who thought cocaine would make them shoot straighter to rabid foxes chasing horses.

Given the above, some of you may think one would be happy to be free of all this nonsense. Well...you're right. All I ever really wanted was just a bit of fresh air. rescued them from their captors.

After all is said and done, here I am in the waning months of a job that had me hopping: from armed trespassers to tom turkeys chasing little old ladies, from buttheads hunting at night to deer smashing farmers' pumpkins, from so-called duck hunters shooting loons to raccoons in chimneys, from druggies who thought cocaine would make them shoot straighter to rabid foxes chasing horses.

Given the above, some of you may think one would be happy to be free of all this nonsense. Well...you're right. All I ever really wanted was just a bit of fresh air.