Grand Prize Silver Winner: Ambush on the Cumberland Plateau

By Brian Reisinger

A hunting trip in America’s original colonial backwoods was supposed to be full of lessons for his 12-year-old nephew.

We were deep in rural Tennessee when the rain came. It was light and so quick that the sun was still out, and it danced in the sunlight as we drove on, coming and going. It was hard to tell whether the rain was just starting and stopping, or whether we were traveling through different pockets of a land with secrets.

That land was the historic Cumberland Plateau, and we had come to this high wooded country to hunt wild hogs.

“Almost there buddy.” I said to my 12-year-old nephew Steven, riding shotgun on his first road trip.

Spreading westward from the Cumberland Mountains across parts of Tennessee and Kentucky, this corner of Appalachia is renowned among conservationists and hunters alike as the longest hardwood forested plateau in the country. Its history is long, too — tracing our country’s troubled journey from huddled British colony to independent country with an ever-expanding border, as longhunters like the great frontiersman Daniel Boone scouted new lands for a restless people.

Nearly 250 years later, my nephew and I were on our own longhunt, some 700 miles from our native Wisconsin. I wondered as my pickup traced the curving backroad through the rain — then sun, then rain again — what lessons this hunt would hold. Hunting aggressive game with a young sidekick in unfamiliar woods, I knew, was not for the careless or the faint of heart — ensuring a safe and successful hunt would take all the discipline I could teach him. But little did I know that the lessons on this hunt in America’s original backwoods would come from him — not me — and force me to confront fears I didn’t know I had.

They were deep fears that I had buried, and would only be able to find on a fateful trip, in a fabled land.

~ ~ ~

As we ventured into the backwoods the next morning with our guide Roger Matheson and his hounds, we confronted a new reality — hunting angry hogs on foot. Roger told us a stand would be no good during August heat, so we’d be on open ground, stalking animals sometimes known to charge hunters as soon as look at them. And unlike TV hog hunts with night vision and fancy weaponry, my young nephew and I were doing it old school — with bolt-action deer rifles and discipline.

In some ways, this was fitting. I had already planned for our hunt outside Crossville, Tenn. to be more than the usual proving ground all hunts are. We come from farm country in rural Wisconsin, where hunting is a rite of passage — first squirrel and rabbit, then deer hunting as we got older. Though my early deer hunts were decades behind me now, Steven had started sitting with his grandpa — my father — just as I had years before. He’d already shot several big buck, and was at that age when emboldened hunters develop good habits, or bad. There were traditions, and life lessons, in learning the right way to harvest an animal.

And we were in the perfect place for an adventure that would test our limits. For centuries, Tennessee was home to the Cherokee and other American Indian tribes, until Spanish conquistadors came in the 1540s, according to state histories, bringing disease and cross-continental conflict to yet more territory. Later came French and British fur traders, then longhunters — slipping in and out of a region still distant to many settlers in colonial America, on the other side of the mountains. Then, in 1775, Boone birthed his legend — leading a wagon train over the mountains through the Cumberland Gap and fully opening pre-Revolutionary America’s 13 colonies to the western lands of Kentucky, Tennessee, and beyond.

But now the stakes were higher than I had planned in this historic backwoods, and rising further still with each step over winding woodland trails, across creek beds, and past plunging ravines.

The intermittent rain from the day before continued as we walked — not falling anew, but dripping through the heavy forest as yesterday’s water worked its way from treetops to dirt. These woods resembled the mixed forests of home, but wilder — with taller trees and deeper ravines. We watched Roger’s Redbone hounds run ahead of us in the sunlight slanting through the trees, their noses grounded in search of sign. Eventually, they disappeared.

What I wasn’t saying, as the day-old raindrops tapped the ground, was that we were both thinking of danger — and it was bothering me more than it normally would.

Shortly before our trip, Steven had lost Buster, a blue heeler cow dog he’d grown up with who had a secret tumor so big it broke his back. While Steven saw memories of Buster on our journey, I found that the further I got from civilization’s distractions, the more I saw my dad, fighting a bad case of COVID in our backroom between hospital visits months earlier. He’d made it, but I’d felt strangely stretched ever since — hectic day job, endless writing projects, worries over our family farm navigating tough times.

As it would turn out, there were more tests to come.

~ ~ ~

We broke from the trees into an open field, and that’s where we heard it — the sudden grunt of a wild hog. Steven looked at Roger. One bark, then another, and we followed the sounds, across the clearing into the woods beyond. Through the trees to our right, we saw the dogs flash brown-red, then a rough black color plunging through the underbrush. Who was chasing who was unclear.

We readied our rifles and strode toward the sound of the dogs. I kept one eye on Steven, and whispered tips to him — about remaining ready, and safe.

The reason wild hogs are known as both colorful game and dangerous nuisance is because they have been exactly both for centuries — a symbol of courage in Medieval Europe, and the gods’ wrath in ancient Greece. Those on the Cumberland Plateau are often Russian hogs, sometimes mixed with other varieties, including pigs that went feral generations earlier. Mature sows and boars grow to 200 pounds on up, sporting large tusks and ranging in color — black, blond, spotted. They eat anything — including their own — and breed year-round, often endangering other game and local habitats if not hunted properly.

I thought of what Roger had told us to do if a hog turned on us and there was no time for a shot. Sometimes the dogs would divert a charging hog. If one got past, he advised we step behind a tree — hogs have keen hearing and smell, but poor eyesight, so a hunter stepping behind a tree disappears momentarily. I’d hunted deer, elk, and bear with my .270, but it seemed a thin defense now, easing through these wild woods with my young nephew.

Then we saw them on the main trail, clustered atop a hill — two rough black hogs, wheeling and grunting at their captors. I looked at Steven, ready to let him shoot, as my dad had both of us for two generations. He shook his head.

“You shoot.”

“You don’t want to shoot? First?”

“No.” He shook his head again and I saw in the honest emotion on his face that he meant it.

Turning, I sighted the hogs, uphill nearly 70 yards away. We’d often harvested deer at hundreds of yards, but part of me didn’t blame Steven — he was still uneasy shooting uphill, and this was freehand with hostile targets. Another part didn’t understand. We’d traveled all this way, and this could be his only chance.

I settled my crosshairs on the muscular black beast on the left, and waited for Roger’s signal that the dogs were out of the way. He gave it and I shot — the clear crack of my rifle searing through the forest as the hog dropped to the ground.

The other hog bolted and we eyed its path as we approached mine to ensure it wasn’t suffering. Then we turned toward the second, a mixed Russian boar tearing downhill through the woods. Steven didn’t hesitate as he had a moment earlier, but I watched him and remained ready myself — if he was going to shoot this hog, it would be fast.

Then the boar doubled back and ran our way, not a direct charge but a cut in our direction — once, then twice, Roger yelling for us to get out of the way. The first time we scrambled rightward in unison to grant the hog a wider berth. The second time I saw a tree just to my right and slipped behind its thick trunk.

I told myself, for a moment, that I could shoot more effectively from there if the hog charged. But then I thought of Steven, and it was there behind that tree that I learned from him. Just as he had admitted he wasn’t ready to shoot, I asked myself: was I behind this tree because I was afraid? I looked out and saw Steven there on the trail, and knew the answer was yes. In a moment I had stepped clear of the tree and was striding toward him and Roger.

I wondered as I reached them what I’d have told my sister if the hog had charged in the instant I had spent behind that tree. But there was no time to dwell on it. The hog plunged back into the woods, and we started after him. I touched Steven’s shoulder to let him know I was there, and then we saw the hog, huddled against the trees. Steven got down on one knee, and I held my rifle ready as he raised his. He’d only have a moment, once the dogs were clear, to shoot before the hog might move again — running off or finally charging, we didn’t know which. Roger yelled and Steven shot.

We got to the hog, lying on the forest floor. I patted Steven’s back and he smiled with the sun shining through the trees.

~ ~ ~

Meadow Park Lake extended in a smooth plane of water in front of us before dropping, slick and stark, off the dam. With our quarry down we were exploring the Cumberland Plateau, fishing from a dock that may as well have been the end of the world.

It was fitting, to feel so at the edge of our experience in this place. The first settlers of what became nearby Crossville had followed a woodland path known as the Walton Road, cut by Capt. William Walton. He’d come to Tennessee, according to state and local histories, by way of the Cumberland Gap that Daniel Boone had blazed a trail through. The land we travelled was perhaps not unlike the hunting grounds frontier families encountered as they searched for new territory in colonial America.

In my head, I kept turning over our own journey in those storied woods, knowing there was a lesson deeper than disciplined hunting. Certainly we’d learned many times there is no triumph without trial. But this lesson was more subtle and powerful, and it settled over me by that dam at the end of the world: Steven had taught me the lesson of admitting vulnerability. As a child — one becoming a young man before my eyes — he had not yet learned all of the reasons adults hide their vulnerabilities. And without the honesty that follows facing your fears, Steven might have never mustered the courage to take on that second hog, and I might have never told myself to get out from behind that tree.

The rain was intermittent again, the sun still shining from behind the clouds as it fell, and I thought of other vulnerabilities. I was burnt out. I was worried about losing the life I was building with my young wife. I was concerned I wouldn’t accomplish all I wanted to before we had kids, and that those thoughts would make me a bad father. And I realized, then, the impact of seeing my dad’s mortality during his COVID fight — of checking his breathing at night, of rushing him to the hospital, of watching to make sure he didn’t fall as we tested his recovering lungs. The pandemic had bred fears for so many: isolation, loss, uncertainty, economic fallout. Mine was that I was running out of time.

We fished and talked and the rain kissed the water and our skin, and we began to plan our journey home. My dad and sister had found Steven a new puppy he wanted to meet, and I had fears to face — some the kind you can shed in the backwoods of the Cumberland Plateau, others the kind that take longer.

And as I looked up from the dock at the sun, I thought it might shine brighter soon enough — even if that strange Cumberland rain kept on falling.

______________________________________________________________________________

Brian Reisinger is a writer and consultant who grew up on a family farm in Wisconsin. He’s worked in journalism and policy, and writes about rural American culture, history, and the outdoors. When he’s not traveling to historic spots he lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and spends as much time as possible in a cabin in the woods near his family’s farm.

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