The nine lives of cats... and game wardens

by Steven K. Cross

I am in my 11th year as a game warden and have been in some near misses and quasi-wrecks. When working in adverse conditions and with an array of equipment, virtually anything can happen. Here are a few stories that make my hair stand on end thinking of what might have happened if we didn't have the luck of Mother Nature watching over us.

Surely not Mario Andretti

We had planned a decoy operation (a deer mount used to capture night hunters) in the Fairview country. It was late November and about -20C.

A crew of six officers and three vehicles were en route to the field where suspected night hunting activities were taking place when the District Officer, whom we figured knew the roads, missed a turn. In a dazzling cloud of snow, the next thing we knew Joe's truck, (oops, no names mentioned) was buried in a four-foot snowdrift and Joe was attempting to exit through a window.

After a little ribbing we figured we had better get this operation back on track. We started by hooking one winch to the stuck truck. No budge. The second truck was hooked on and still very little movement. Three officers operated vehicles and the other three spectated from the road, monitoring the profanity. The next step was erroneous, as the two trucks started jerking with the winch cables. After about the third jerk a "snap" was heard over the roaring engines and profanity. A sparkling glitter whizzed past one of the observing officer's heads at the speed of a .22 Swift bullet. Everything stopped abruptly and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. One of the hooks attached to the winch cable had disconnected (later discovered as an installation error) and nearly decapitated one of the officers.

Words of wisdom to those who operate winches: don't jerk with them and ensure the "C" clamp is installed properly.

Million Dollar Wood Splitter

During my 4 1/2 years in Grande Cache, we worked very closely with the RCMP members of the detachment. I had planned a helicopter patrol with the RCMP in October. The morning arrived and we met at the helipad at the Forest Service compound. The pad was on the northeast corner of town, with a view to the southwest straight down the Smoky River valley. The pilot sparked up the helicopter to let it warm up and we reviewed maps for the tentative flight.

When all was clear the two RCMP members, the pilot and I climbed in. I could hear the rotor speed pick up as the pilot explained the push-to-talk-button on the headphone set. The helicopter gently lifted off the ground and slid sideways, one way and then back the other. We pivoted and hovered in several spots around the fenced enclosure. However, we never got more that five or six feet off the ground.

The pilot then commented he was unsure of where the wind was from and if he could get enough lift for take-off. I pushed the button and informed the pilot that the wind virtually always blew from the southwest, straight up the river valley. He replied he didn't think it was from that direction on this particular day. I didn't argue. He was at the helm. That was my error. Maybe I should have been a little concerned when he added, "Let me know if we are getting too close to the trees."

We backed into the northwest corner and the pilot pinned it for the southeast corner. Too late to turn back now. I could see the two pine trees approximately 50 feet tall between the two front seats and they didn't seem to be getting much shorter as we raced toward them. I didn't think my palms could get sweaty that quick, but by the time I reached for the push-to-talk-button to inform him we weren't going to clear, my finger nearly slipped off. Not that it would have made any difference. Leaking profusely, I stared in amazement as this million dollar wood splitter I was riding in, went to work on the top eight or 10 feet of the two pines, one on either side. I thought this couldn't be good. That was about the last stable thing I saw as the helicopter began to vibrate like the wildest carnival ride I had ever been on. As my head rapped off the window I saw the pilot gripping the stick with both hands. We hung a hard right, tilted nearly on our side, the helicopter made an about turn and we were on a rapid descent back into the fenced pad. We went back into the pad nearly as fast as we had went out and bounced about four times before screeching to a shuddering halt some distance from where we had touched down. But the good thing was, we were still right side up!

I must say that it was the shortest, but most exciting helicopter ride I had ever been on. After we could stand on our gelatinous legs we walked around to discover two piles of neatly stacked, sliced and diced pine tree. I called it a day. The next day a semi came to town to haul the wood splitter back for some costly repairs.

Sleeping not so Beauty

Bill and I have been doing horseback patrols in the Willmore Wilderness for about three years now. It was early September and we had been on the trail for three days when we rolled into the Sheep Creek cabin at about 8 p.m. We were tired, as we had ridden nearly 12 hours that day. The ponies were tired too and had no qualms about standing quietly at the hitchin' rail after a few bites of grass and a drink of water.

I pride myself at being a superb trail chef and do most of the cooking. After chowing down on a deep-dish pizza from a wood stove oven that would put Panagopoulos to shame, Bill and I sat down to refreshments and a game of crib by Coleman lantern light. We sat at the old wooden table looking out the window, and could see the outline of the four horses (Dunn, Burt, Penny I and Penny II) resting quietly tied to the hitchin' rail. All I could think about was falling into my spring cot to get some shuteye. Wrong.

The next glance I made out the window was to watch Penny II tip over and start thrashing. Bill and I rushed out of the cabin and with some effort got her back on her feet. A quick assessment revealed signs of colic. She was lathered in sweat, her pasterns (ankle area above front hooves) were smoking hot and she didn't look good at all. For those who are not familiar with horses, but possibly with babies, colic is like the nastiest case of upset tummy or heartburn you could imagine. The only cure is to keep them moving until it breaks loose.

Bill and I took turns walking Penny II around and around and around and around (you get the picture) the cabin. Next, we tried purging her with the sun shower and with every spice we could dig out of the cabin and pack boxes. Anyhow, about 5 a.m. she came out of it and started to eat a little grass. Bill and I could finally hit the bunks and get some shuteye. I awoke about 9:30 a.m. to see Bill's bunk empty and the other horses gone. I figured he must have taken them for a drink. I stretched, threw on my gun belt and headed for the creek. I checked the regular watering spots and no Bill or horses. I went back to the cabin. Ah ha, they were on the airstrip having something to eat. So off I went again.

As I cleared the trees I could see all four horses standing abroad looking over the creek bank. I figured that maybe Bill was doing a little fishing. As I approached, I could see a large brown colored figure approximately 50 yards from the horses. As I got closer the figure took the form of about a three hundred pound grizzly in a staring contest with the four hobbled horses. As I approached I drew my pistol and expected the worst. Then things even looked worse when a glance to my left revealed a silhouette of Bill laying in the grass along the creek bank. My worst nightmare: Bill mauled by a grizzly, three days' ride into the Willmore backcountry, no radio communications - but as long as the bear didn't charge the horses I would have a way out of there. I crouched next to Dunn and undid the hobbles with one hand, keeping one eye on my grizzled friend. As I led the horses back to what I thought was a safe distance, I sighed a sigh of relief as the bear turned and started on his leisurely way up the creek.

As I sprinted over to the molten pile of Bill, I saw no sign of blood, just the roaring chainsaw-like snore from his snout. I gave him a swift kick in the backside and in kind enough words asked what he was doing. He sleepily replied, "Having a nap." His attention was somewhat aroused when I pointed out the fur ball now about 100 yards up the creek and went on to explain the earlier situation. A closer survey over the creek bank revealed the grizzly had wandered about 25 yards from Bill as he lay in his siesta state. After a few chuckles, we returned to the cabin for some left over pizza and a relaxing game of crib.

I haven't been in the outfit for as long as some of our old crusties, but have had the opportunity to sit in on a few bear pit sessions to hear some of the hair-raising stories of narrow escapes. I swear there is some old archaic angel watching over us, as to my knowledge there has never been an officer killed in the line of duty in the Province of Alberta from the time of their creation (knock on wood).

Steven K. Cross is a member of
the Conservation Officers Association
of Alberta in High Prairie