Thursday, November 28, 2002
Finally the phone rang. It was Malloway. An acquaintance through dealings last winter, he was my contact in Carmel Valley, the very sanctum sanctorum of California wild boar. A reliable, forthright man, a fishing guide and wise hunter, he said he''d found a connection for me. He''d been working the angles, trying to see what, if any, wild pig hunting there was to be had in the fall of 2002.
It would be a long shot.
He said a pig could be had easily for $500. Outfitters and ranchers charge top dollar for the right to shoot wild pigs on private property. But I wasn''t that liquid, so Malloway was handing me off to a new hunting guide, a man he knew by distance. He offered a caveat. There might be some vague obstacles. Malloway wouldn''t give specifics.
"I''m flexible," I replied.
I had to be. The mandate from the editorial brass was intense: Don''t come back here without pork chops. I knew them to be serious people, professional but with a twinge of darkness. Because of this and my own desire to confront the magical, elusive beast, I was willing to ignore a quite a few things--pain, sadness, solitude. Anything.
Malloway said I could expect a call.
It came, but it was a message. Bad news. Like life itself, there would be a catch. A compromise. As it turns out, the guide would not be plunging into the forests and savannas of Carmel Valley with any hunting parties until December.
It was too late to turn back. It was mid-November and I had two things to do: Turn in a story about wild boar and turn over swine flesh for distribution among the staff. The anticipation was heavy, the pressure severe. There was a barbecue on the line.
I felt like Atlas with a pretend pig on my shoulders, and here now was a serious setback. Without a guide, I''d have to venture forth solo. But where? Even if I did find the herd of hogs and bag a prize, then what? How would I drag this bristly monster back through the woods to civilization, that is, back to Seaside? Wild boar can weigh upwards of 500 pounds. Could I carry such a beast five miles over rock-strewn trail, over hill and dale? Even a more common 300-pounder was a hearty undertaking. The only incentive to haul dead swine from the forest is that it tastes good when grilled, roasted or chopped up and encased in sausage.
The pressure had been so gripping that even my subconscious was involved. There had been a dream. It went like this:
I stood on a fog-shrouded ridge, a fjord of some sort. A Scandinavia in Big Sur. In the dream, I enjoyed invisible cover. There was nothing in front of me, no bushes or rocks, trees or anything. I''d been in this place before, on past hunts for deer, elk and partridge in the high country of Idaho.
I felt naturally stoned, just standing there watching a wildlife parade. Game animals trotted briskly past as if the Ark had made landfall on this ridge and was disembarking its cargo on a Norwegian/ Pacific hillside. They were beautiful animals, all of them magnificent in every way. I had no interest in bothering, much less shooting any of them. Bear, moose, wolves, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, all moving by hurriedly in twos and threes.
A pair of regal mountain goats passed. Always steady and agile on loose rock, they wiped out and stumbled to earth right in front of me. I was embarrassed. They picked themselves up and kept going.
Then, a lone, ancient sheep approached. It looked like it had escaped the flock ages ago and absconded to roam the high crags and meadows. It was a wild rover to be sure. For reasons that remain a mystery, I put my rifle to my shoulder, took aim and squeezed the trigger. It fell over. It lay still.
Why did I shoot a dreadlocked sheep when I was supposed to be hunting swine? My mind spun anxious. My heart pounded with fear. I stood watching and hoping, praying it would rise and go away. I was in deep shit.
I knew there would be major trouble with either the game warden or the shepherd for this. If it was dead, I was obligated to carry it out of the fjord canyon and cop to the crime. And it would be a long, miserable walk. The old sheep smelled like the mother of all wet sweaters.
As happens so rarely in dreams, my wishes came true. It seems my bullet only snagged the coarse, matted wool. Impact had knocked the animal over. The ancient sheep struggled to its feet, shook its head, looked back and kept going the way the others had gone. It was gonna be all right. I could still wait for the boar to pass.
Then the alarm clock rang.
With that, this morning was to be my first in search of feral piggery. Without the guide to help, I was on my own.
I knew generally where the boar were. Though hunting on public land is "poor to very poor," according to Fish & Game, Monterey County leads the state in wild boar harvests. After all, this is where West Coast wild boar was born. With a map and water, a rucksack packed with sharp knifes, rope and other essentials, a 30-.06 Savage Model 110 rifle, a sack of bullets, a ham sandwich and a pack of cigarettes, I set out for the far end of Carmel Valley. Alone.
This is where all the trouble started in the first place, in 1925 or thereabouts. The stories are varied but follow the same lines. I called on a professor at Berkeley, of all places, to verify.
Reginald Barrett is a leading authority on wild swine, a professor in the U.C. Department of Forestry and Resource Management. Accor-ding to one of his papers, Feral Swine: The California Experience, the domestic pig came to this state in 1769 with Spanish settlers. Like pigs everywhere, a few weaseled out of the pens and made for the hills.
Thus feral pigs.
Then, 150 years later, an Englishman named George Gordon Moore showed up in Carmel Valley with Russian Boar he''d imported to North Carolina a few years before.
Moore has quite a reputation. He''s said to have partied hard with Salvador Dali and others at the Hotel Del Monte. "He was a very big-time guy," Professor Barrett says. "He was an entrepreneur who just loved to hunt."
The story sways a bit when it comes to how the boar took root. Moore was an industrialist and a sportsman. Having hunted boar in Europe, he wanted to do the same in the New World, where he worked as a representative for a European steel concern. From either the Prague Zoo, a Berlin swine broker or from some business-minded Russian, he bought a dozen European boar from the Ural Mountains. This was a leaner, meaner creature than the pink, fat domestic variety. He brought them first to the Great Smokies of North Carolina around 1920, where he hoped to start a game preserve for rich hunters. Legend has it that the boar burrowed their way out of the pens and terrorized the local hillbillies. He found his way to the San Francisquito Ranch in Carmel Valley, now known as Rancho San Carlos.
This is premiere wild boar habitat, with lots of oaks and open spaces. He set up shop there, and soon enough, his European wild boar were off in the brush rutting with outlaw Spanish pigs. Among herds you can see the mix between chubby roundish feral swine and the longer-snouted boar.
They spread fast from Carmel Valley. In a 1963 letter to his neighbor, Stuyvesant Fish of the Palo Corona Ranch, Moore wrote that when he bought Rancho San Carlos in the early 1920s, he had his North Carolina gamekeeper trap nine sow and three boar for transport to California, a process that claimed four hounds and wounded one of the gamekeeper''s helpers. The swine flourished in Carmel Valley.
Moore wrote: "The biggest boar we ever killed on the ranch, when hung, measured nine feet from tip to tip. The skin on its neck was three inches thick; 11 bullets were found which over the years had been imbedded in the fat."
Very quickly, wild boar spread all over the state.
In his letter, he told Fish: "The last time I saw William Randolph Hearst Sr., he said, ''your pigs have reached San Simeon''." Hearst died in 1951, which means whole populations of pigs had established themselves 100 miles south of Carmel Valley in a relative blink of the eye.
Today, the wild pig can be found in 56 of the state''s 58 counties, and has minimal protection under Fish & Game regulations. In California, the season is open year round. There is no bag limit. (Other game species, such as deer, generally have a limit of one per hunter per year.)
Boar are wanderers, traveling up to 12 miles a day. They spawn like rabbits. A sow can have two litters of five piglets a year. A girl piglet can get pregnant at six months.
They''re derisively compared to rodents and as you might expect, swine are dirty. They''re loaded with ticks, fleas, worms and other parasites. According to one biologist, when road kill boar were donated to zoos, the big cats wouldn''t go near. It was too gross.
They are also fierce, large, armored with a thick neck cape and coarse bristly skin. They''re armed with sharp tusks. When cornered they''ll run over people. They''ve been known to kill hunting dogs at will. The ancient Greeks and Romans so revered and feared the boar they figured into myth. Greek vase art showed hulking boar splitting hunting dogs in two.
In addition to other monikers, they''re called the buzzards of the forest. They eat anything. Although they love acorns, they''ll eat small mammals, grasses, roots, carrion and earthworms. They use their powerful snouts to till the earth in search of anything that might be edible below. The damage can be devastating, turning over soil and grass and leaving it exposed to dry. When there''s water, they turn springs in muddy wallows.
Pigs are smart. Consider each smarter than the smartest dog you know. Some compare their brainpower to the chimpanzee--a chimpanzee with tusks instead of thumbs. They don''t see well, but their hearing is excellent. Such a prominent snout gives them an excellent sense of smell.
In fact, wild boar are smart enough to know they''re safe in parks and other places where hunting is prohibited. One of their favorite targets in Carmel Valley is the Hastings Natural History Station, part of the University of California''s Nature Reserve System. It is under constant, merciless swine attack.
Mark Stromberg is the embattled reserve director. He seethes with anger about the pigs. He''s lived there 15 years and thinks Moore was a "creep" for unleashing such a savage pest on California. The swine baffle him.
"Why would they go to the trouble of digging when they could just lick up acorns," says Stromberg standing under an oak tree, around which pigs have rooted. "We''re ankle deep in acorns here. I don''t get it. Maybe they''re digging up gophers or voles."
Further out in a sprawling pasture that hugs the hill to the treeline, the grassy earth looks as though it''s been roto-tilled. It happened just the night before, the work of a herd of about 20 or 30 that come down out of the hills at dusk. It''s quite literally plowed. Unlike the neat rows a farmer might make, this looks like the crazy, frantic work of an anarchist or the dirt peasants in Monty Python''s Holy Grail. Whole chunks of earth have been turned over and sorted through. The devastation is fresh. Such a task would make hours of backbreaking work for a fit man with a shovel.
"Think about all the energy that went into this," he says, pointing to a heap of turf that''s been turned back like a rug. "Look at this pile. They just roll it up."
It will take up to three years for the ground to recover.
Stromberg''s work is studying the re-introduction of native grasses such as purple needle grass, blue wild rye and California barley. These plants are resilient, beautiful and require no maintenance or watering.
"You can plant Kentucky blue grass in here and make it look like Ohio, but it''s not Ohio. It''s California," he says. Every night the pigs stymie his progress. "I do research on native grass restoration. They certainly [screw] it up."
For the first ten years Stromberg has lived at Hastings, the boar were present but not nearly the menace they are today. Low-water years keep swine numbers low. But five years ago the pigs descended on Hastings like barbarians in the mist, as man has helped the pig progress in unseen ways. Studies of tree rings dating back to 1920 have shown that North America has been unusually wet, essentially since the Industrial Revolution.
"Carbon dioxide is rising in the atmosphere, forests are being cleared, but it could also be a natural cycle," Stromberg says. "We don''t know."
In yet another contribution man has made to swine success is the eradication of the grizzly bear. A symbol of the state, it''s gone from the land it used to roam. Swine have filled the vacuum the way deer thrive in predator-free Pacific Grove.
"[Local grizzlies] were great foragers and diggers," he says. "It''s interesting that these pigs might be replicating some of the digging the grizzlies did, but where they do it may be different than the conditions under which they evolved."
The result is not only disastrous to the fields at Hastings but downstream in Finch Creek, a tributary of the Carmel River. It''s critical habitat for threatened steelhead trout that need clear water and unfettered creek bottoms to spawn.
Standing in the turned over earth Stromberg says, "When it rains, this is going to sheet erode right down filling the river with sediment.
Not only do these four-legged menaces plow earth and hurt fish Stromberg points to a lone valley oak on the knoll that''s 200 years old and dying. Despite acorns scattered below it over decades of falls, the surrounding ground is bare. Nothing will replace it.
"The seedlings get hammered by the pigs," he says.
To compensate, students have planted surrogate seedlings downhill. To guard against swine, the seedlings are encased in plastic tubes. But even if he wanted to, Stromberg couldn''t touch the pigs. Firearms are banned at Hastings. Although Pinnacles National Monument is now exploring ways to fence out its local pigs, a pig-proof fence around 2,353 acres of Hastings would cost a fortune.
"There''s not much we can do about it," he says.
Stromberg is not the only one frustrated by swine. Down at Fort Hunter-Liggett, a vast Army training area at the south end of the county, hunters and anglers are allowed on weekends when combat practice is not underway. It''s considered one of the better pieces of public land for boar hunting in an area where the best hunting is done on private land.
Gary Houston, the environmental manager at the fort, implored me to come and shoot pigs. Even in this place where the earth gets hammered by Army training, the pigs are considered an outrageous nuisance.
Houston offered a warning: "If one turns on you, don''t hesitate. Run like hell."
Also among the pig-haters is Boon Hughey, a board member of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance (VWA), a conservation group that advocates for the wildlands in the Los Padres National Forest. He''s found huge wallows, mud pits where springs used to be. He''s been on trail near Pico Blanco and had one sow walk so close to him, he says he "coulda hit her with a golf club. She was completely fearless."
Trail reports put out by VWA detail swine damage to the Big Sur ecology. The board of directors has considered the swine problem, but realized, as Stromberg has, that there''s nothing they can do.
"We''ve talked a lot about it and it''s real tough problem. They''re so tough and they reproduce so tenaciously, to get rid of them is impossible. You''d have to get rid of every last one of them Even if you did, they''d just crawl over the next ridge from some ranch," Hughey says.
"The best thing that could happen is that hunters get aggressive on them and come in and kill them. We''re not anti-hunting by any means."
Barry Ceccon, a local game warden, says he gets complaints from new Carmel Valley landowners who want him to come in and remove marauding swine. The open lowlands with dispersed oaks make prime pig country, yet despite heavy ecological damage done by boar, hunters are not welcome. Carmel Valley may have been the Wild West 20 years ago, but more people with new money and less tolerant attitudes have settled in.
"The areas where we have problems with them are areas where they''re not hunted," Ceccon says. "Private land is their preferred habitat."
It turns out that Hunter-Liggett was not open to hunting in past weeks because of ongoing combat drills. Limited by choices of where to go, I sought out public land on the fringes.
I''d seen boar in Big Sur, but at East Molera, where hunting is prohibited. I knew Chew''s Ridge above Carmel Valley had some pigs, so I''d have to go give that a look.
I set out for a piece of public land between the army reservation and pig-rich Carmel Valley. I drove into the back end of the Ventana Wilderness through Arroyo Seco.
In a prophesy I should have taken more seriously, I spoke to the campground caretaker before setting through the gorge. He drove up in his little truck to collect my $5 (for leaving my car in an empty parking lot on public land). He said he''s seen lots of hunters go in, and not a lot of them come out smiling. Wild Boar? Forget it.
"I''ve been here eight years and I haven''t seen any," he says. "Even the fire boys haven''t seen any."
A place called the Indians near the north end of the army reservation was known to have pigs but it would have taken a day of walking to get there. I decided to hang a right on the Marble Creek Trail leading into an area where I''d been told pigs had done a lot of damage to the trails. I walked for six hours through what looked like ideal habitat. There was water, open space, cover and the ground was thick with acorns. Nothing. Not even a hoof print. (The only evidence of pigs was empty bottles of Miller, cigarette butts, bottle caps, toilet paper, an empty bag of Fritos, Styrofoam cups and so on.)
After walking all day, I got back to the truck half-blind. All I had to show for my efforts, besides some exposed frames of yellow oak leaves on a black tree trunk, was a swollen eye.
Earlier in the day, a gnat had flown under my eyelid and stayed lodged there for hours despite constant flushing. I got the gnat pod body out, but the legs and wings must have stayed in there. Soon my eye was puffy. Driving home the road was blurry.
Somewhere behind me, wild pigs were on a hillside rooting in the moonlight.
The next day I went up Tassajara Road to Chew''s Ridge and went down the trail into Anastasia Canyon. I''d been told pigs had been pulled out of here on occasion. This time I had an old college friend, a Detroit native. Being from Motown he was comfortable around powerful firearms, and he''d shown the kind of aggressive instincts we''d need if we came upon swine. Once, while hiking in Big Sur last summer, a squad of swine barreled up loudly from our right, and crossed the trail not 10 feet ahead. They were thunderous and disciplined, keeping a straight file and rapid pace. Rather than run the other way as some of faint heart might, my friend tore off after the pigs, screaming like a banshee. He kept up with them for a while but gave up when the brush got thick.
After hiking down into the canyon for four hours, we came away thankful we didn''t have to drag one out. We''d still be in there now. Although there were what looked to be tracks in a grove at the top, down inside it was nothing but hill-hugging deer trails.
We stopped for a beer and lunch at the Running Iron and there we finally saw hogs; as we arrived, the Santa Cruz chapter of HOG (Harley Owners'' Group) was leaving. I ordered Chili Verde tacos.
The next day I felt I had a sure shot. I''d seen boar sign in an area called Timber Top. There are oak trees and plenty of open spaces. It''s a beautiful place and there''s an oak tree at a turn in the trail that seemed ideal. This time though was just a scouting mission. No gun. If there was sign I''d go back the next day.
Hiking up the old two-track, I finally saw a pair of ears poking out from atop a knoll. The first pair was joined by another. Could it be? Why not? They probably don''t get hunted in here, the food is plentiful and the view is spectacular. For deer.
That night, in addition to blurred vision from the gnat, I realized I had poison oak. It covered my arms and other places. It was in my eye. The pigs were winning.
On Monday, covered in poison oak, half-blind and with legpower sapped, I returned to Seaside headquarters without a story and without the pork chops.
The editors told me to leave at once.
"Why are you here?" the editors asked. "Where is our bacon? You promised pig meat. What''s wrong with you, boy? Go. Now."
They shook their heads. They wouldn''t even call me by my real name. They started calling me ''Freddy.'' I climbed back in the truck and set off into Carmel Valley again.
I had one last chance. I''d go into Chew''s Ridge. A source with bona fide Big Sur nature connections had said the boar were in there. There was still water and plenty of acorns.
I hiked in on Monday afternoon with about three hours until sunset. Later that night was to be the Leonid meteor shower, with some 1,000 meteors crashing every hour.
Walking in I came upon a grand grassy hillside with oak trees across the ridge. It was the best place yet, with a few faint tracks to give me hope. I couldn''t hunt at night, but I could sleep in my truck at the trailhead.
I stayed past dark and walked back under a moon as bright as a streetlight. But again, nothing. The swine, I was beginning to realize, really were a myth.
Back near the trailhead, a trio of stargazers set up to watch the meteor shower with tripod-mounted binoculars and a 100-power telescope. I walked up to their encampment, with a pack and a rifle.
One of the astronomers, Chris Giorgi, asked how I''d done and what I was looking for.
"Wild boar," I said humbly.
With this Giorgi launched into a story about how he''d hit a gigantic sow with his car near Hunter-Liggett. The impact broke the pig''s back. But when he got out from the behind the wheel he found the pig was very alive and very angry. He guessed it to weigh 350 pounds.
"She did not want to die," Giorgi says.
He had nothing but a hatchet to finish it off, and that wasn''t working out. A passer-by went back to his house to fetch a rifle and a pistol. Three shots with a .30-caliber rifle to the forehead did nothing but make the pig more mad.
"I had it trapped under the car and it charged at me with a broken back even thought it was already dead," he says. "That''s the thing about boar. They don''t know when they''re dead."
"What finally killed it?" I asked.
"Chopped its head off," he says.
With that I sat down on the trail. I took my pack off and pulled out a ham sandwich. Eating the only swine I could find, I looked up into the stars, waiting for a meteor. At least I knew I''d see a meteor. This pig hunt was over. For now.
A Hopeful Hunter''s Feast
Wild Boar in Orange Marmalade Rosemary Sauce By Dan Baum
I have been hunting for wild boar on three occasions, but I''ve never gotten one. I''ve never even seen one alive. But a friend gave me one once, so I have tasted wild boar.
A wild boar is a nasty thing--low, hairy, noisome, and mean. It eats whatever it can find, and a lot of what it finds isn''t anything you''d want to eat. It drags its belly on the ground and picks up fleas and ticks. None of this prevents it from being delicious if cooked right, but you have to know what you''re dealing with. It isn''t pretty. It isn''t delicate. It isn''t nice. Wild boar is not "the other white meat." So your cooking has to reflect that.
The recipe begins, of course, with blowing a 220-grain copper-jacketed bullet through the animal''s vitals. That''s one bullet, if you''re lucky. Often it takes two or more since boar are built of pure muscle, bone, and vitriol and will try their best to slice up your legs with their tusks, drop you to the ground, and gut you like a trout.
But let''s assume someone else has done that job for you an you''re looking at a slab of meat. You''ll notice it''s surprisingly lean, for a pig. This, of course, is a pig that lives by its wits, not some banyard sty-potato. If the cut is any of those that off another animal you''d eat rare--the backstraps (or fillet), tenderloins, chops, or steaks of the thigh--go ahead and cook it rare. The only reason we don''t eat raw pork is that our domestic pigs lie around in mud, where they can pick up trichinosis. (In Germany and Korea, pigs are raised on dry grass, so people there feel no squeamishness about eating raw pork.)
Most people, I''ve found, who say they "don''t like game" have never eaten it cooked right, which is to say, very rare. Red inside. With a spark of its life intact.
If you''re lucky enough to have a cut you can cook rare, get your outside grill very hot. Slit the meat all over and bard it with slivers of garlic, then rub it with olive oil and black pepper. Don''t salt it, as that can toughen meat. Put in on the grill and watch it closely. If the meat is very fresh, a slab the size, say, of a hardcover book will tighten up into something resembling a softball.
As it cooks, heat a little bitter-orange marmalade in a saucepan. (Any marmalade will do, but the more bitter, the better. Orange-grapefruit marmalade would be delightful.) As it melts and heats, toss in a handful of fresh rosemary and a few cloves of chopped garlic and enough water to keep it liquid. Simmer for a minute.
Turn the meat and insert a meat thermometer. Bring the inside temperature to 140, for very rare, but no higher than 160. When it''s done, slice it onto a warm platter and brush on the orange-rosemary-garlic sauce.
Wild boar needs strong bedfellows. Remember your roots: parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas all have a sweet-and-bitter quality that goes perfectly with wild boar. I like to chop them into cubes with come carrot and onion, pour on a little orange juice, and roast them, covered, in a hot oven for about an hour. Take the cover off during the last 15 minutes to brown them. Nothing finer with this than plain old mashed potatoes and the biggest, heaviest, weapons-grade Cabernet you can find.
Most important: if you didn''t shoot the beast yourself, be sure you get the whole story of the hunt from he or she who did. Hunting stories are like immigration or Holocaust stories; no two are alike, but all turn on moments of incredible luck, bravery, cunning, and drama. We tell the story of the hunt when we eat wild meat, not to trumpet our own prowess but to honor the animal who died. The telling is a part of the eating, no less than the orange-rosemary sauce or the wine.