Hunting Hunters in the Yoop, Part 2
I rode patrols with conservation officers in Michigan's western
Upper Peninsula, November 12-18, 2001. Having already written
a novel about a conservation officer, [The Ice Hunter] I learned
and saw more than I could imagine. What follows is fact - and
the fuel for future fiction.
By Joe Heywood
On the second day I meet Officer Steve Burton at a gas
station-convenience store in Sagola at 4:30 a.m. and away we go
with coffee and donuts. I tell him everybody was worried about
him yesterday. He nods and that's the last we speak of it.
Within thirty minutes we are checking five four-wheeler drivers
who are just getting ready to head out way before dawn. When
Steve asks about helmets, they have to hunt around in their
pickups to find them.
Steve is a genuine Yooper from Ishpeming, a former state trooper
and now an officer in the Army National Guard. He's also now working
on his master's degree in public administration at Northern Michigan
University. He grew up hunting deer at the family camp on the
Pesheke River, near the McCormack Wilderness Area.
When vehicles we've already checked pass by us in a small convoy,
the drivers all have on their helmets and are riding single. Law
abiding citizens all.
"Yesterday morning there must have been twenty of them," Steve says.
"Word must be out that we're here."
After daylight we check a camp where there is a nice eight-point
hanging. Only one man is in camp and he acts hinky about our presence.
His campmates are in the woods.
"Something's not right back there," Steve says afterwards. He'll
revisit the camp later. I'm tempted to write off his feelings,
but I know that good cops develop instincts about situations
and master the art of situational awareness. Something has
triggered his concern, even if he can't verbalize it.
That afternoon we are at another location where there is an
illegal camp with litter all around, including spent condom
"I think I know who these guys are. Couple of yahoos from town.
They're gonna clean this mess up."
Further up the road we find a tent with four bucks hanging from
a nearby tree, one of them is half-skinned, but all of them are
tagged legally. There is no sign of the hunters. It looks like
they split in the middle of the skinning job. The meat will spoil
in this heat.
A small pickup with a man and woman pass us, moving slowly.
Slow-moving vehicles during the last two weeks of November
strongly suggest road-hunting.
When we catch up to them later, they are backed into an open spot.
"How's the hunting?" Steve asks.
"Not hunting," the pudgy man driver says.
No guns, no licenses needed, so we move on.
"They're not deer hunters. The woman was scrambling to pull up
her jeans," I tell my partner for the day. "They were down to
Steve grins. "Oh."
At dark we sit on a camp, intercept people coming back in. We
earlier found a fourteen-year-old boy hunting alone with a shotgun
in an illegal blind his dad took him to. We wait for dad to get
back and of course he is last to arrive. Steve takes the man
aside, explains about the blind and that he has to hunt with
his son. The man was hunting miles away. By law he needs to
be supervising his son. I think. There are so many rules I
can't keep them straight. When somebody asks me a question,
I refer them to the officer.
Pulling out of the camp we get a call from Dickinson County.
Can we handle a bear-truck accident? The animal is a traffic
hazard and the Troop and county units are on other calls.
"Okay, but we're thirty miles away," Steve tells the dispatcher
and away we go, humming along at high speed with our blue lights
flashing. It is a surreal ride and a lot of cars ignore the
lights and don't pull aside as state law requires. Our siren
whirps us through towns and villages. We both try to keep an
eye out for deer. I can't help myself. I feel the exhilaration
of a six-year-old riding a fire truck. My unabashed glee embarrasses
me. The COs are professionals. I am a professional. I am not
allowed juvenile feelings like this. But they are there and I
have to laugh at myself. Doofus, I chide myself.
At the accident scene the bear is on the side of the right lane.
A truck is pulled over further on. We stop behind the truck. An
elderly man is driving with a son who looks like Fatty Arbuckle.
"Nope, since we hit it, I been sittin' her' tryin' not to shit
my pants," he says. "The bloody thing come outta nowheres."
"Bears," Steve grumbles as he writes.
After the truck hit the bear, two more vehicles struck it, dragging
it down the highway. An oncoming eighteen-wheeler was being
tailgated by a woman who picked that moment to pass, pulled out,
saw the bear and swerved back behind the truck too sharply sending
her spinning down onto the grassy shoulder, stopping within feet
of a steep drop-off A near disaster, but she is gone by the time
I walk back to the point of impact and pace it off. There is a
huge splash of blood and about thirty yards of intestine chunks
down the right lane, just inside the center line. It is two
hundred and eleven yards to where the bear lies. It's a jet-black
female yearling, maybe 175-200 pounds. Most female black bears
are in hibernation by October 15, regardless of the weather.
Too bad this girl was still out and about. The injuries are
what a pathologist would call massive trauma and I can't help
thinking what damage a truck would do to a human being as I
drag the bloody animal down into the ditch to prevent accidents
It's raining when Steve drops me at my truck in Sagola so I can
head for Crystal Falls. Tom and Sherie Courchaine were expecting
me for dinner at six and I am late. Tom is District 3's senior
officer. We met when he was in a similar position at District 12
in Plainwell, near my home. He served as a CO and sergeant before
his latest promotion. He is a veteran of the Indian fishing treaty
rights battles of the Garden Peninsula in the seventies that
nearly led to bloodshed. Sherie is a former diabetes educator.
They met and married when Tom was a CO assigned to Escanaba.
Sherie's dad Jack joins us for dinner. He is over from his place
in McMillan in the eastern Yoop to hunt the back of Tom and
I knock on the door and Sherie immediately sees the blood on
my hands and arms and laughs pleasantly. "Spent the day as a
working warden, eh?" She points me to the bathroom to wash up.
After a wonderful dinner and sharing a couple of bottles of a
French Bordeaux, I can hardly stay awake and head for Iron River.
It is drizzling and there are deer to dodge all the way.
My 58-year-old ass is dragging and it is only Day 3 of my
eight days of patrol.
I am no longer sure of the day. I have not heard news, read a
paper, know nothing except the work we are doing. It is night
again and Dave Painter and I have driven down a two-track to
a camp. We park and get out. Three hunters have just returned
to their tent and are getting a fire going. Dave chats with
them when another vehicle comes along the road headed past
the camp into the woods. Dave walks over and flags him down
and talks to the man who is a retired police officer from
Detroit. He says he's staying in a cabin in Wisconsin and
he's going down the road to look for an ax he left back in
the woods. He also says he was expecting a pal to meet him,
but he probably stayed in the cabin instead of hunting. Just
then two more vehicles come down the road heading back to
where this guy was headed been. Dave talks to them briefly
and they head on. The two men in the second truck are sullen
and do not want to talk. All answers are monosyllabic.
Dave says to me, "They're all together. He keeps the first guy
there and lets the two vehicles pass. Obviously his instincts
are aroused. Meanwhile the first three hunters get in their
truck and disappear. When the two vehicles come back after
ten minutes, Dave intercepts them again. Dave goes back to
the second truck to look at it. As I start to follow him,
the former non-talkers in the first truck roll down their
window and suddenly become effusive and want to play "Twenty
Questions." They ask me if there's a DNR in every state, and
I say yes, but the function has different names in different
states. They start to ask me questions about the US
Fish & Wildlife Service and if there are enough conservation
officers yada-yada, and I tell them to direct their questions
to their state representative or the governor and go to join
The guys in the first truck were trying to divert me. I've dealt
with enough reporters and other folks to recognize the tactic.
Besides, to them I am just another CO of some unknown flavor.
I am big with a short green parka, a big black flashlight, and
a hunter's orange cap, dressed much like Dave. In the dark we
look the same.
Dave has found two doe heads in the second truck -- and the
missing hatchet. One of the deer is not tagged. He quickly
learns that it belongs to the retired police officer, who
doesn't have a doe tag. Dave writes him a ticket and keeps
the head for evidence. All of this takes place at night
over about thirty minutes and it is so dark that I literally
can't see my hand when I hold it up. After we get an address
for the cabin where they are staying, and the hunters have
departed, we drive back to where they were and look around.
Dave suspects there is another deer back here and that our
sudden appearance has caused them to abandon it. We spend
thirty minutes bumping around in the fields and using the
spotlights mounted on the sides of the truck to read tracks
in the grass to see where they have been and we find a place
where a truck was stuck and some branches chopped to help
get them out of the mud. Dave decides to come back at first
light tomorrow to look around and see what he can find. He's
sure there is something more.
I have dinner at 9:30 p.m. It consists of a donut from a gas
station in Crystal Falls and a decaf coffee with amaretto
creamer. I don't remember having a lunch. In fact, I can't
any lunches during the week except for my supply of energy
bars and a day-old pasty that Steve Burton and I shared during
one of our patrols. My breakfasts have been donuts and orange
juice from the same gas station.
I nod. "With holes," I tell her. Donuts with holes are cheaper
than those without holes. I never bother to find out why.
Riding back-wrenching roads all day and trying to concentrate
on seeing everything we can see is leaving me bushed every
night. This is definitely a job for younger people.
Day 8 and Dave Painter and I are wandering roads somewhere
between Iron River and Crystal Falls. It's a quiet day. Many
hunters have already broken camp and headed for home. The day
before yesterday we hoofed into blinds in northern Iron County
and had a spell in the morning checking guys carrying handguns
without permits. Later we cruised a road past a cabin Dave
had been called out to around Halloween.
The resident had beaten another man with a baseball bat in
Crystal Falls and the Iron County cops had gone out to his
house to find him and discovered a blood splash and deer
hair. Dave got the call at 2 a.m. and found an illegal deer.
He didn't get home until 4:30 that morning. He says the
assailant works on a pipeline out of state and he has been
cruising by the house since then in case the man comes
back. There is a warrant for his arrest for assault and
the illegal deer.
Dave tells me about another incident where an ex-con violated
a restraining order by entering his ex-wife's house and beating
her. Then took her gun and shot a deer. Dave got called out
in the middle of the night for that one too.
"There's a larger fine for killing the deer than beating his
ex," Dave says, shaking his head.
About an hour ago we were driving along when a woman suddenly
popped up on the road, dragging a deer. We stopped. She had
shot the six-point, gutted it and dragged it up a steep hill
to the road in about twenty minutes. We threw the deer in the
back of the truck and drove her to her house, a third of a
mile mile away. She was going to drag it and didn't want to
bother us, but we take her. Dave tells me she's a Native
American and he has busted her father for illegally taking
a bear. She is built like a linebacker, with a rosy complexion.
Dave congratulates her on her success and earns a big smile.
Last night Steve Burton walked up on a hunter with an illegal
bait pile. Steve ticketed the same guy in the same place last
season, but the guy says he doesn't remember Steve or the
incident. Later we found a truck parked along a remote tote
road well after dark and stopped. After awhile we heard voices
in the thick woods and got glimpses of flashlights. Maybe
they were dragging a deer out. But we quickly determined
they were lost in the dense underbrush. The weather was
finally getting cold and we slapped out hands against our
sides to keep warm while we waited. Three men emerged on
the road without a deer. One man was packing a loaded 44.
magnum hogleg, which we don't see right away because he had
it under his coat. When Steve saw it, he asked the man to
make it visible. The man was unhappy about the events, but
Steve explained the concealed weapons law and reminded the
man he could confiscate the weapon and ask for the court
to condemn it. This calmed the man down. Steve took the
pistol and unloaded it. The man didn't have a concealed
weapons permit. Absent such a permit, you have to keep a
pistol visible and in plain sight. He didn't.
One of the hunters told us he shot at a deer, but couldn't
find blood. He fetched his pals and they went with him to
look for a trail. The law allows for finding and dispatching
a wounded deer after shooting hours, which end thirty minutes
after sundown, but the guy had a loaded gun and they had three
lights. It would be okay to take a weapon, but it would make
sense to carry the ammo and load up only when the weapon was
needed. Steve senses this story isn't what it's ought to be
and issues a citation. The pistol-packer says, he's not going
to carry the damn thing any more.
But that was last night and today has been pretty quiet, the
sun is out, the air cooling down and we are passing a pasture
land when I spy an animal in the field.
"Is that a deer?" I ask.
"Give me the glasses," Dave says, stopping the truck.
He looks, hands them to me. "Wolf."
I take them and look. Sure enough. I grab my camera with the
300 mm lens and get out. This wolf is about one hundred yards
away, light-colored and massive and stares at me while I snap
photos, praying the animal doesn't spook and bolt, but it stands
there majestically alternating looks at us and the other end of
the field, which we can't see. I kick myself for not having the
A red pickup truck pulls over to the shoulder just past me and
the driver jumps out.
"What is it?" he asks excitedly.
"Wolf," Dave says.
I keep snapping away.
Suddenly I see a rifle rising in my peripheral vision and instinctively
I reach over and push the barrel down toward the ground. "You
can't shoot a wolf!" I growl.
The man says, "I know, I just want to look through the scope, eh!"
Dave says. "There's a second wolf along the hedgerow, guys."
I get a glimpse, but no photo. It is black, smaller.
Two wolves at one time. Way cool, my kids would say.
Back in the truck, I tell Dave I'm sorry I grabbed the guy's rifle.
He says, "I almost did the same thing when he pulled it out
of the case from the back of his truck, but I saw him make
sure the chamber was clear and I knew it wasn't loaded."
He is amused, either at my naiveté or my reaction or both.
Several hundred yards down the road we see cattle herded against
a fence in the same field the wolves were in.
"Better tell Jim Hammill about this," I say. "They may have
been stalking the cattle."
Three weeks later at the post-season deer feed at retired Officer
Mike Holmes's camp near Iron Mountain we learn that the man with
the scoped rifle was one of Steve Burton's National Guard sergeants.
He told Steve about the wolves and how Dave Painter was with
"some old guy with a camera."
It's good to make an impression, I guess.
I am back in the American Inn in Iron River by nine and fast
asleep within thirty minutes. Tomorrow I will begin the drive
home to Portage. It will take about twelve hours. It is supposed
to snow along the way. So it goes. ~ Joe Heywood
"Born in Rhinebeck New York, grew up in a USAF
family, living all over U.S. and in Italy as well. First year of high school
in Norman, Oklahoma and final three in Rudyard, Michigan in the eastern Upper
Peninsula. I graduated from Michigan State University in 1965 with BA in
journalism. There I played lacrosse on the university club team and was one of
the tri-captains in my senior year. After five years in the AF where I was a
navigator in a KC-135 tanker. Vietnam vet. After the AF I joined The Upjohn
Company in Kalamazoo in 1970; I retired in 1999 as Vice President of
Worldwide Public Relations. I have fished in Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota,
Idaho, Colorado and Wyoming, but in none of the hallowed places in those
states. Most of my trouting has been confined to Michigan, where there is
ample opportunity and plenty of stubborn and wily fish. I wrote and published
three novels while working in the corporate world and now write fiction full
time. My fifth novel was published earlier this year by Lyons Press and my
next novel will also be published by Lyons sometime next spring. I am not a
great fisherman, but I continue to learn, which makes it a wonderful passion.
My other passion is ice hockey, namely the Detroit Red Wings."
[His latest novel is The Ice Hunter.]
He lives in Portage, Michigan, and claims the Pere Marquette as
his 'home water.' You may find him in the Chat Room as 'Joe' or 'Joe H'.
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