Life Onboard a Submarine

November 17, 2010 by  

An Incident in My Life at Sea
Thom Cantrall

The sun never shines when you are deep below the surface somewhere in the cold, rugged North Atlantic Ocean. It was July of 1967 and we were early in our fifth patrol. The upkeep period and the nights of Liberty in Southwest Spain were but a fading memory… though the antics of some of our crew would continue to be the subject of conversation throughout the next off-crew period.
We were a Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine, firing the Mk 3 Polaris Missile, USS James Madison SSB(N) 627 Gold.

Being such, the boat had two complete crews, Blue and Gold, which rotated on and off the vessel at three month intervals. While one crew had the boat, the other crew was home. Our cycle ran thusly: the first

Our Ship's Patch... our Emblem

month home was strictly R&R, Rest and Relaxation. If anyone wanted leave, this was the time for it. Those who did not avail themselves of it called in to the office on Thursday and physically came into the office on Monday. As can be seen, life was not rough during R&R. If one wanted make a short trip that would take him out of the general Charleston, SC area for more than three days, leave papers were issued to protect everyone in case of accident or something else untoward outside of our Liberty area. When he returned, the papers were simply discarded and the leave time was not counted. All in all, it was pretty difficult to use up all the thirty days per year leave we were granted.
The next two months following R&R was a “crew training” period. The Submarine Training Center at Charleston presented classes and simulator training in virtually all areas of submarine and military activity. Normally, I would attend two to three weeks of these classes… and even taught one on occasion in the absence of the regular instructor. If not in a class, we came to the office on Monday and Friday and called in on Wednesday.
All too soon, this idyll closed and it was time to mount a Boeing 707 chartered for the purpose and fly to Rota, Spain. Our arrival was timed to coincide with the return of the boat from her patrol. Invariably, we arrived in the middle of Western Spain’s night, although our bodies, still on Eastern Time, thought it was about 7 pm. Ah, the wonders of Jet Lag.
When morning finally came, after only approximately 238 hours,

USS James Madison SSB(N) 627 at sea

we rousted out of our temporary quarters deep in the bowels of the Submarine Tender USS Sperry. A breakfast of barely edible, surface craft food and it was down to the boat. For three days we coordinated with the Blue Crew, going over any machinery glitches and malfunctions and idiosyncrasies within any of the missiles on board. We covered everything anyone had made note of or anything else that was thought important, interesting

The Author at Change of Command Ceremony

or even amusing! At the end of the three days, a short ceremony was held wherein both crews stood in formation topside while each commanding officer read his orders, one relinquishing command and the other accepting command of the boat.
Below decks, we who were senior enough stood the watch in peace and comfort while this protocolic nonsense was playing itself out over our heads and out of our hearing.
Presently, tradition and regulation satisfied, the boat again belonged to the Gold Crew and the Blue Crew was headed to the air terminal to board their flight home. This, to our gang who maintained the sixteen Polaris on board, marked the beginning of an upkeep period that ran twenty-four hours a day for twenty-four to twenty-nine days. During this time, any updates to existing equipment or replacement of old equipment had to be effected. From three to five missiles were rotated off the boat and new ones installed in their place. Dynamic testing of the birds had to be performed. It was during this phase of testing that I and my counterpart, Charlie “Swamp Fox” Marshall, were most sorely tested. There were times that we went as long as seventy-two hours without sleep while conducting these tests.
Eventually, even this passed and, invariably, time was found for some recreation. I managed a few nights of liberty in the local area of Rota, Puerto de Santa Maria and Cadiz, Spain. I even managed, in the five times I was in Rota, to visit cities such as Sevilla, Toledo and Jerez de la Frontera, where I had the honor to sample a four-hundred year old wine. We had tours to Gibraltar, Tourmelinos and even the beautiful Granada. In all, I found Spain to be a most wonderful place filled with warm and friendly people. I was there in the mid 1960’s while Generalissimo Franco was still in power so, crime in the streets was unheard of… it just simply did not happen.
With upkeep completed and all systems up and running we would, just as the sun was setting in the western ocean, put to sea. My job at this time was to be in charge of the crews handling the mooring lines, making sure, once underway, that all mooring lines were stowed correctly and that all the stanchions and guidelines were also properly stowed. It could mean the life of the ship and the crew should any loose gear go adrift in a combat scenario so particular attention was paid to getting things done right and insuring all the lockers were properly secured. I was the last man down, signaling to the bridge when I went below that no man was left topside. As soon as I shut and dogged the after hatch, which would be the last time it was opened until we resurfaced on our way back into port sometime between fifty-six and seventy-two days from now.
As soon as we were far enough from shore to reach water a hundred fathoms deep, the Captain dived the ship. With that action, all sensation of motion ceased. From that moment until our resurfacing near this same hundred fathom curve on our return, in the absence of a storm we could not tell that we were moving. We could, literally, circumnavigate the globe submerged and, without looking at instruments, gauges or dials, we would never know we had ever left Spanish waters… Except vertically!
The middle and upper level decks in the Missile Compartment

Submarine Launched Polaris Mk III Missile

were floating decks. As such, they were not rigidly affixed to the hull, but rode on studs that were mounted directly to the outer, or pressure, hull. Since the pressure hull, as its name suggests, is subject to sea pressure, forty-four lbs per square inch per one-hundred feet of depth, it compresses and expands as sea pressure increases or decreases with the change of depth. The result was, they could not change depth more than six to eight inches without the deck moving on one of these studs, creating a distinct popping sound within the compartment. Consequently, the ship could go as fast or as slow as the Control Room wished and we could never know about it, but let them change depth by a foot and we knew immediately!
Once we were in our patrol area it was a boring existence with people actually arguing over who got to do a task that was upcoming. We stood our watches six hours on and twelve hours off with very little to do otherwise. There was a movie shown a couple of times a day; usually after dinner and at midnight. The evening movie was on a schedule but at midnight, we could show anything that had already been a shown as a scheduled movie. The selection process for this midnight movie was generally a major argument over the merits of one movie versus another, often most vociferously remonstrated for or against by a person who had no intention of watching it, no matter what played, but was just in it for the fun of the argument. Since we carried some seventy movies per patrol, by this time, most of us who had been there since her inception where hard pressed to find a movie we had not seen before… often seen several times. After all, Hollywood can only make so many movies a year and if you discount those not worth watching the problem begins to become apparent.
There were three card games going at almost any given time, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. There was a low-stakes, nickel, dime, quarter, poker game, a pot-limit poker game and a pinochle game. About the only thing that ever interrupted the poker games was a call to battle stations or some other general drill. As one man left to go on watch, another would be coming off watch and take his place. The pinochle game was not exactly that way as we tended to have our favorite partner, usually someone approaching our own skill level or slightly better. I was in the 99th percentile of this game. We generally ran two pinochle tournaments per patrol, the first with a fifty dollar per person entry fee and the second with a one-hundred dollar per person entry fee. Normally sixteen teams constituted a tournament. Winners were paid through the top four places with the winners taking half the pot. I tried on several occasions to organize a five-hundred dollar per person game, winner take all, but could never get the requisite sixteen teams. Considering the fact that the

Submarine Launched ICBMs...

brand new Chevy Impala I had bought just prior to this patrol cost me a total of three-thousand-one-hundred dollars, the sixteen-thousand dollar payoff to the winning team would have been well worth the effort. Perhaps the fact that my partner and I had won the six prior tournaments might have created an aura of reticence.
My partner, Jim Walter from Monroe, LA spoke with a pronounced lisp and only the fact that he was the senior Petty Officer in the Fire Control Technician’s gang kept him from receiving more ridicule than he did. These FT’s are the fellows who maintained all the computers and other electronic equipment that prepared the missile for launch. Walt and I stood our watches together in the Missile Control Center, the submarine’s equivalent of the “blockhouse” at Cape Canaveral. He was, usually, the Fire Control Supervisor and I was the Missile Test Technician. By this time, I was also qualified to stand the F.C.S. watch as well, so if he had to visit the head or wanted to step out for a coffee run, he could do so without calling in another qualified Tech. Leaving one person on duty in the Control Center, while not officially sanctioned was not frowned on either, especially as long as such times were of limited duration and not overdone.
Walt was an older man, practically ancient by submarine

standards. I was nearly twenty-four by this time and he must have been at least thirty or thirty-one years old… practically in the grave, to be sure. Even though I was of an age with most of my peers, I never really fit in with them and Walt and I were a much better match. Besides, we both preferred to listen to Country Music, so didn’t have to endure the ‘Stones or the Supremes while on watch.
The highlights of the day were the meals. We had the best food and the best cooks in the Navy, bar none. At that time, the regular Navy allowed one dollar and thirty cents per man per day for food. In our program, they allowed one dollar and fifty cents per man per day. That doesn’t sound like a lot of difference, but, believe me, the difference was substantial. We had lobster or prawns, or both, at least once a week. We had steak in one form or another at least twice a week. Also included irregularly were dishes like prime rib roast, roast duck, lamb curry and roast leg of lamb and about anything else a man can dream. The lack was in fresh commodities. Fresh vegetables were impossible as was milk. Even eggs became iffy after a few weeks at sea. These pleasures notwithstanding, the food was seldom less than excellent.
The boat provided four meals per day, one after each watch, though the norm was to eat before and after watch. The only time anyone ever got out of his bunk for a meal was if there was something very special being served or it were a special celebration. The main meal was at noon with the six pm meal being a light dinner. Midnight was generally soup or beans and do-it-yourself sandwiches. Often, if there were leftovers from earlier meals they would meet their demise here. In addition to this pantheon of edibles, the mess hall was always open if one felt the need for a sandwich or such… just make sure you clean up after yourself! I think the average person gained about fifteen pounds per patrol. The standard joke was that we wished we could catch the person responsible for shrinking all our regular clothes while we were underway and were wearing the Dacron jumpsuit that was our “at sea” wardrobe.
Life at sea was generally quiet with boredom being our biggest enemy. That is probably why, when Chief Petty Officer Jim Overfield called us together and dropped his news on us that we were so receptive to it. According to the Chief, the officers had hatched a plan whereby each crew was to create and assemble a list of questions pertaining to our area of expertise. The Torpedomen (TM’s) on the launch tubes and hydraulics, the launch system rocket motors and such, the FT’s on their gear, mostly the Missile Control Center and the MT’s… me… on everything else. This included the birds, their systems, the control and ancillary equipment such as power supplies, temperature control systems… even down to where the power switches were for any particular piece of equipment that concerned the Polaris Missile and the interface between the MCC and the Missile Compartment and the individual birds. In fairness, lest one think the weapons department was being singled out, this was happening throughout the boat. All departments were doing the same thing, from Radio to Engineering, from Sonar to Navigation; everyone was so involved, though how a Yeoman (the secretaries of the ship) could come up with a hundred and fifty questions is beyond me… there are, after all, only so many things you can ask about a paper clip. These questions, once assembled and verified, would be used to quiz the crew of one of our sister submarines while in the training phase of our off-crew time. I was rather surprised at the enthusiasm the entire Weapons Department showed in the pursuit of the hundred best questions from each gang. We Missile Technicians covered everything concerning the missile including its internal electronics and computers, its guidance and targeting and flight control systems as well as all the equipment that attaches to it or interfaces with it. Even the power supplies and heating and cooling systems were our responsibility. Questions as detailed as “Where is the switch to turn off power to the Temperature Regulating and Monitoring Power Supply (TRAMPS) on tube 7 located?” That would be WP 2, starboard side, upper level of the missile compartment, second switch down on the left side (in case you had to do it in the dark in an emergency). Amazing, isn’t it, how a detail from forty years past comes so readily to mind while being unable to recall what I’m supposed to do this afternoon.
The torpedomen (TM’s) covered the launch tubes themselves, the hydraulics and air systems and their controls as they pertain to the tubes as well as the function and operation of the Launch Control Center console in the compartment. The Fire Control Technicians (FT’s) covered all of their equipment in the MCC and the missile alignment gear in the missile compartment.
As I mentioned earlier, there were multiple watch stations within the Weapons Department. In addition to the two in the MMC which I described previously, there were three in the Missile Compartment. These were the Launch Operations Supervisor (LOS), usually a TM and his assistant, a junior TM or MT. The LOS was stationed at the Launch Control Panel and could not leave without being relieved by another qualified LOS watch. The Assistant LOS was the legs for the LOS watch and had the responsibility, as well, of monitoring a number of critical gauges, dials and indicators. He was required to

Author at Launcer Operations Panel in "At Sea" garb

make a regular check of a number of such places, noting pressure reading, temperatures or volumes as indicated. The third man on watch in the compartment was an MT who had the responsibility of making any adjustments necessary to anything in the compartment pertaining to the missiles or their ancillary equipment. Included in this were the TRAMPS, the power supplies, the missile heating and cooling system as well as a myriad other such things like the interface with the MCC and anything else the ALOS was not capable or qualified to handle. Totally unofficially, he was also responsible for maintaining the contraband music system that was piped up from the MCC into the compartment via unused wiring between the two compartments. The technician was free to wander at will throughout the compartment, even going forward to the mess hall for a coffee run as long as the LOS knew of his whereabouts at all times. It wasn’t like he was often needed as entire six hour watches came and went with nothing arising that required his attention, but you never knew…
Each of these positions had a different set of requirements, so it was necessary to complete a qualification process in order to stand that particular watch. By this time, I had qualified on every watch station in the Weapons Department, including that in the Torpedo Room. The reason for doing this was mainly boredom, although the learning of and the qualification on the Torpedo Fire Control System was a matter of necessity.
We carried two torpedo Fire Control Technicians and never rotated them at the same time. Standard procedure was carry one senior, experienced tech and a second, junior and lesser experienced tech. After the junior man was competent in the operation and maintenance of the system, the senior tech would be transferred out and a new junior tech brought in. On this particular patrol, we had just made the switch, bringing on board a new, very junior tech right out of school and the day before we were to leave Rota on patrol, the senior FT came down with appendicitis and had to be shipped to the hospital. The only man available to replace him in the short time available was another very green very young technician.
About two weeks into the patrol, the power supply to the Torpedo Data Computer (TDC) failed and Chief Overfield asked if I could help them get it back online. It was a small job to complete, actually, one transistor in the control circuit had failed and as soon as that was replaced, it was back up and running. A day or two after that incident I happened to wander through the Control Room where the Chief was standing the Dive Officer’s Watch. I stopped a moment to chat with him and he asked if I was busy at all… when I replied that I was bored stiff, he suggested I take the ordinance pamphlets on the torpedo system and learn it to take it over this patrol. I must admit, it was a highly interesting experience and quite unique. I doubt there has ever been another instance of a Missile Technician maintaining and operating the Torpedo Weapons System. While it brought no extra pay, and really no recognition more than a raised eyebrow from Captain Snyder when he realized who was doing it, it did bring me more than just a little notoriety and set the stage for what was to come with this cross crew quiz.
On completion of this trip, we did not go back to Spain as we had supposed, but brought the boat all the way back into Charleston, SC. This added an extra week to our time at sea, resulting in the longest submerged run to date, sixty-five days. We arrived off the coast of South Carolina as a major hurricane was beating the area. Since we could not enter port in that kind of storm, we laid up well at sea and waited until the next day to surface and enter port. The winds were gone, but the rain was torrential. I have never, before or since, seen such rain. It was absolutely amazing how much water was falling from the sky. I sent my line handlers topside just as we passed under the Cooper River Bridge, but the rain was so heavy that, as soon as the mooring lines were all laid out and made ready, I brought them all back below decks and we waited in the missile compartment until we were actually needed topside.
By this time, each gang had from two-hundred-fifty to five-hundred three by five cards with one question on the front side, its answer on the reverse on everything in their respective areas. In addition, there was a series on such things as Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Weapons, their handling, security and logistics. There was another set on the administration of the ship, the squadron and the Navy in general. In all, our department had amassed some one-thousand to fifteen-hundred questions and answers. The program called for any particular group to answer about one-hundred to, maybe, one-hundred and twenty-five questions covering, mainly, their area of responsibility only, plus some from the Nuclear Weapons and Ships Policy areas. Never was it planned that any TM would be asked a question from the MT or FT list and vice versa.
It was planned that three or four men would sit together for the quiz, primarily answering in turn, but able to rely on his cohorts if necessary. About a hundred questions were to be asked of the group by the lead Petty Officer of the gang on the other ship, in our case, the USS Tecumseh SSB(N) 628. Another twenty five or so would be asked

This is us at sea, submerged... it is all our enemies saw of us too...

by the Weapons Officer from the general Nuclear Weapons and Administration group. The whole process was supposed to take from forty-five minutes to an hour, depending on how sharp and experienced the particular guys on the hot seat were. Our own lead Petty Officer and Chief were also present, sitting in the back, observing but offering opinion only in the few cases where there might be a disparity in arrangement between the two boats in question. As can be imagined, there were few of these instances between hull numbers 627 and 628 even though we were built in Newport News, VA and the 628 boat was built in New London, CT.
…That is, until the Swamp Fox and I came in. Our first indication of a non status-quo was the fact it was just the two of us. I immediately wondered at this… so much so that I asked the Chief about it. His answer that “it’s just how the numbers came out…”, and that since Charlie and I had been on the boat the longest, we should be able to handle it…
That part at least was correct. When I first boarded the boat some four years prior in July of 1963, she had two by twelves for decks in some places and was barely wet. She had virtually no equipment installed yet and was just an empty hull tied up to a pier. I predated Charlie by only two to three weeks in time on board, but we were both there throughout the entire installation, testing and grooming process of the entire weapons system. To say that we had experience with every single process and system in the Weapons System would be not more than the truth. In addition, we were both endowed with an innate and insatiable curiosity that literally drove us to find out how things worked. The word on the boat was… the difference between the Swamp Fox and I was that I would take anything apart as far as I could so long as I was reasonably sure of being able to reassemble in so that it looked pretty much as it did before the evolution started. Charlie, on the other hand, would simply disassemble it with no such reservations.
One downside of this was my tendency to give too much information when asked a question or, as my best buddy, Smitty said… “Ask him what time it is and he’ll tell you how a watch works!”
A prime example of this curiosity, combined with a healthy dose of boredom, occurred when, while reading the Swops (Special Weapons Ordnance Pamphlet) Manual on our warhead, I noticed that the Neutron Generator in the warhead was shown as a black box with no further information. Now, I knew it was highly classified, and I was sure the details were contained in the Captain’s Swops on the warhead, but that, like all Highly Classified information was strictly “Need To Know”… I decided, after quizzing Mr. Suska as deeply as I could, to set out to learn for myself how it worked. He, for his part, could not tell me if I was right, but he would, he said, “tell you when you’re wrong…” Over the next few weeks, I got every text I could find on Nuclear Physics and interviewed as many of the Nuclear Power Plant officers as I could get to stand still for a few minutes. I then began to formulate scenaria. I knew the connections, what it took for power, etc. and I knew the elements that were heavy neutron emitters when thusly excited. Every day as he came off his watch, Mr. Suska would sit with me while I would expound on my latest scenario and he’d then tell me were I was wrong. Finally, one afternoon he told me nothing, just took my books from me and said, “That’s enough!” I figured I was very close to right.
Our second indication that things were not normal on the day of our quiz was when we arrived at the scheduled place at the appointed time and our Assistant Weapons Officer, Lieutenant Pete Suska was grinning widely as we came up to him. “Listen, guys,” he stated, “we didn’t mention this before, but you two will probably be asked about more than just your primary job. We’ve had discussions about the two of you and I’m afraid we’ve created a situation that has become more than was officially planned.” As it turned out, to have worried about what he described would have been a lot like worrying about spilling a cup of water on ones self just before falling out of the boat.
No amount of questioning on our part would gain us more information. He simply told us to go answer their questions and not be bothered by who was there or what was happening outside our area of responsibility and he’d run interference for us and see us after the session. This said, he opened the door for us and allowed us to enter ahead of him.
What greeted us was not the informal atmosphere we had tried to provide for those from the Tecumseh that we had tested. This looked more the review board for the Spanish Inquisition. I’m sure Joan d’Arc would have felt right at home here. Seated at a table in front of the room were, in addition to those described previously, the senior weapons officer and his assistant, the lead Petty Officer from all three ratings as well as their Operations Officer, a Lieutenant Commander, and both the Executive Officer and their Captain. At once, I knew we were in for a time of it. Over the next four hours and thirty minutes that panel asked us every question they had on all areas of the weapons systems, missile and torpedo. When the departmental questions were complete, we broke for lunch and reconvened immediately thereafter.
The first people I met on reentering the building were Captain Snyder and our Exec, Mr. Logan. Neither spoke to us other than to acknowledge us with a wave and a smile as we proceeded on to the crucible.
The afternoon session only lasted about two hours but it was their Captain, Exec and Ops Officer asking the questions. These were questions on Nuclear Safety, on casualty procedures, on the chain of command and military protocol, on targeting and target security… on the nuclear warheads, including theory and deployment. I can truthfully say that I have never been so thoroughly interrogated in my life on any subject.
Finally, their skipper closed his book and leaned back. This was a signal to others, I suppose, as, hearing a noise behind me, I turned to witness at least fifteen officers rising to leave the room. When they had entered, how long they had been there, or even who they were, I had no idea. The only ones I recognized were those from our own crew, the Captain, Exec and Weapons Officers.
A few closing questions brought the ordeal to its culmination and the Tecumseh’s Captain shook our hands… a rare thing among Naval Officers and enlisted personnel… thanked us for a “rare treat” and he departed. We were dismissed with the thanks of the room and rose to leave. I had no idea I was as exhausted as I actually was, but it was a real effort to walk from that room.
We had just gained the hallway when Lt. Suska motioned to us from a room across the hall, beckoning us therein. What greeted us was pretty unbelievable. A good portion of our wardroom was there, including those who’d been in the quiz room and several others. They actually applauded us as we came into the room! Lt. Suska was grinning from ear to ear as he said very matter-of-factly, “They would trade their entire department for either one of you!”
Captain Snyder added, “Men, you have done your crew and your ship proudly today. I have never witnessed such a display of knowledge on such a wide range of subject matter presented so calmly and smoothly under very trying conditions. Congratulations and well done.” To this he added that we had two weeks basket leave, i.e. uncounted leave days, on our account for whenever we wanted them.
That was the end of the story. Nothing more was ever said about it and life went on. The following patrol was my last on board James Madison. I left her in April of 1968 having been transferred to the Polaris Missile Facility, Pacific, located at N.A.D. (Naval Ammunition Depot) Bangor, just outside of Bremerton, WA. After two years there, my enlistment expired and I left the service after nine years of active duty, remaining in Washington, more or less, to this day.

Mean Animals I Have Known

May 25, 2010 by  


Mean Animals I Have Known


Thom Cantrall

Once again I find life and Hollywood to be at odds.  In all the movies I’ve ever seen wherein animals are actually allowed to appear as themselves, in their real personae and not some Disneyesque scenario where wild animals are portrayed as living in family groups with Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear living in harmony with their bunny and squirrel neighbors, the mean ones, if depicted at all are conspicuously obvious.  Who could but realize immediately upon seeing him that Shere Kahn is absolutely up to no good and wishes nothing but evil to the “man cub” in “The Jungle Book”?

Even when actual animals are playing the part of animals, often with the help of plastic stand-ins, we are not allowed the honor of determining for

Shere Khan

ourselves the level of innate goodness embodied therein.  “Jaws”, for example could not make an appearance without being introduced with a blood chilling rendition of some soul-tingling mood music.  I know that one Great White Shark bears a strikingly close resemblance to any other Great White Shark much the same as one crow bears an exact resemblance to any other crow in the world.  But, that not withstanding, did we need to be told that this creature was dangerous?  Wouldn’t the simple appearance of a tall fin jutting out of the water tell us his intentions?

As a person who has spent a great percentage of his life among God’s Creatures, I can attest to anyone so inclined that no such warnings as those described above have ever preceded any close encounter of the malevolent kind among Mother Nature’s children.  Not once have I ever heard the tum-tum-tum-tum… tum-tum-tum-tum that Jaws engendered when approaching any critter that might wish me ill!

In my single digit and very early double digit years I spent well over seventy-five percent of the daylight and a substantial portion of the not-so-daylight hours when not serving time in that venerable institution that was the bane of my ilk… School… anywhere but under a roof.

Great White Shark

Much of this time was invested in exploring every square foot of my uncle’s ranch and the surrounding environs.  Fences held no meaning for me at this juncture and location other than a necessary inconvenience meant to keep livestock restricted to a predetermined area… more or less, considering the shape in which most of these backwoods fences were kept.

Many of them had been erected by the Spanish when General Mariano Vallejo had owned this vast Northern California domain and had seen little in the way of maintenance since that time.  To say that most were decrepit would have been liberal in description… actually, most were worse than that.  As a consequence, this was pretty much open range to both the cattle and sheep that grazed these timber and brushlands as well as to small boys who were, truly, pint sized disciples of Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith.  But, I digress…

This ranch was home to about four or five million Western Timber Rattlesnakes.  Indeed, it seemed that these rattlesnakes were the only thing that did grow in profusion on this back-woods ranch.  Now, perhaps I’ve exaggerated a bit, but suffice it to say that they were common and they grew large.  I know that the official records say that this snake does not exceed five feet (1.52 m) in length, but I could have shown those experts several specimens that exceeded

Western Timber Rattler

that conservative length considerably.  Probably the largest I ever saw personally was one my cousin Shirley killed under the clothesline just out the back door of the house.  This snake measured over six feet (2 m) in length without its head.  This snake had a girth of over eight inches (19.3 cm) and looked particularly menacing.  For the most part, the only time we ever killed a rattlesnake is when it was in proximity to the house or could pose a danger to some of us.  While I know that television tends to portray the rattlesnake in a coiled position, head poised to strike and rattles singing, I actually saw that in the wild so rarely that I thought for many years that we had demented or, at least, unnatural snakes.  Yes, when provoked, our snakes would coil and assume that classic pose, but it was an extremely rare circumstance, for sure, when a snake let forth with his singing buzz.  Generally speaking, he had to be provoked heartily to induce that buzz.  Normally, as soon as he was no longer being prodded or poked, he just uncoiled and slithered on about his rattlesnake business without so much as a “by your leave” or even a glance back.  Though, he would probably have shaken his head and shrugged his shoulders, had he had them, at the ignominy of this treatment he had received.

The one notable exception to this general rule occurred one warm spring day when Tony, our trusty and tired saddle horse, and I were returning from a morning’s excursion to the edge of the wilderness, an area of immature Madrone trees (Arbutus Menziesii) about two inches (5 cm) in diameter and twenty feet (7 m) tall that had been killed in a fairly recent wildfire that had passed through the area.  This created a nightmarish land of soot-covered stems reminiscent of a black bamboo jungle.  Only the foolish ever entered the Wilderness… a second time.  On the morning in question we had just made the trek for much the same reason people climb mountains… because they are there.  It had been a pleasant foray and had served to clear my mind of the cobwebs engendered during the previous week by Mr. Wilson, my fifth grade teacher in his never-ending quest for dangling participles or split infinitives or

Pacific Madrone

something of the sort.  The ride had worked wonders on my over-taxed nervous system, serving to remind me that if a noun wanted to dangle its gerund, it was by no means my fault!

I was smiling inwardly and drowsing outwardly in the late morning sun.  Tony, for his part,

Curled Madrone Bark... very smokable

was taking it all pretty much in stride and was nearly as asleep as I was.  The road we were on was no proper road, but a cat trail cut out by the massive blade of my uncle’s venerable TD-24 bulldozer in the quest for the huge Coastal Redwood trees (Sequoia Sempervirons) that grew there.  These cat roads laced the mountainside, providing the foot-weary a fairly comfortable place to walk.  They were, at least, brush free and coated in about six or so inches (9 cm) of loose, flowing dust.  The dusty trail was the morning newspaper of the mountainside.  In it you could read the travels of the local denizens… deer, lizards, snakes, mice, skunks raccoons and weasels… they all left note of their passing for the alert reader.

On this particular day, however, “alert” was not a word I would use to describe either Tony of myself.  I was slumped in the saddle, nearly asleep in the sun, the reins wrapped loosely around the pommel… My feet were dangling on either side of the horse, free of the stirrups.  All in all, it was about as pleasant a morning as a lad of my few years could have imagined until we rounded a curve and, directly under Tony’s belly a rather large rattler let out with a very loud and penetrating buzz that immediately served to transform an idyll into a nightmare.

I immediately recognized the sound for what it was and, unfortunately, so did Tony.  His immediate reaction, born of an innate, if heretofore unknown, dread of large rattlesnakes, was to launch himself straight vertical for a considerable distance.  I’ll have to leave the exact altitude attained to one’s imagination as, at that moment, I was much too busy for quantitative research.

Words my father had uttered only a week or so prior, on the occasion of my arriving back at the barn on Tony and being in the saddle but sound asleep, came to mind…  “Thomas (actually, he called me Tommy… a habit I could not break him of his entire life!) one of these days something is going to spook him and he’s going to throw you so high the crows will have time to build a nest in your behind (actually, my dad’s language being as colorful as it was, “behind” was not the exact word he used here) before you hit the ground!”  That, along with certain other predictions regarding the effects on my anatomy of some of my antics served to suggest to me that he would have had a fair future as a prophet had he chosen to pursue that end.  With maturity, something you could have gotten pretty long odds, in this era, against my ever surviving long enough to reach, has come the realization that, perhaps, “Natural Consequence” may have had more to do with his prognostications than did any sense of the supernatural or ethereal.

It amazes me even today, more than a half century later, how clearly those thoughts came to mind while I was still in the ascent stage and was diligently applying what I knew of , added to what I was learning of the physics of flight, even while contemplating the inevitable… Somewhere below me was a crazed horse and, below him, an angry, vociferous rattlesnake.  Even though I was still gaining altitude at the moment of this thought, I knew that, eventually, gravity being what it was, I was going to going to have to effect a landing.  Although I was, at present, navigating quite well, I was not at all sure that such benevolent circumstances would long continue, let alone persevere.

Coastal Redwood (Sequoia Sempervirons)

While time seemed to hang suspended, I could feel myself losing velocity as I neared the apogee of my short flight.  Soon, I felt the rush of air as my direction of flight reversed and my velocity once more began to increase at the rate of, I was to learn many years later, thirty-two feet (11 m) per second for every second of my descent.  At this point, my thoughts began to change from the esoteric investigation of non-powered flight to the entirely mundane… Where the HELL (this being about the strongest language at my command at this time) is that snake?

I must say, as earth became larger and larger in my window of vision, much the same image the Apollo Astronauts would have seen about a decade and a half later, that snake began to occupy more and more of my working mind.  As the conjectural thoughts were pushed aside in favor of the essential, I began to detect, on the very periphery of my awareness, a loud, eerie screeching that seemed to fill the air with its essence.  A small portion of my conscious thought was being hijacked by the weird sound.  About this time it dawned on me that, of the three players in this incongruous drama, there was only one capable of generating that kind of output.  As in the science of criminology, when the impossible is eliminated, what is left is probably the truth.  So it was that in this case, neither horse nor snake was capable of  that tone, therefore, that left only me as the author of that sound… a fact that, while it did little to attenuate the volume, it did serve to remove one source of stress from my already tortured psyche.

Now, there was only one prime thought remaining… where the hell is that snake?  Very soon, like the pilot said at his Board of Inquiry following the crash of his fighter plane… “I ran out of air speed, altitude and ideas simultaneously”… I found myself measuring my length in the deep dust of the road.  As I lay prostrate, still wondering where that snake was, I could hear Tony making tracks as fast as he could down the mountain.  He seemed nothing more than intent on putting as much distance as he could between himself and that snake… wherever he was… as possible in the shortest possible time.  As I lay there in the dirt sucking the needles and leaves off nearby trees and shrubs in the effort to get air flowing into my lungs once more, I began to take stock of my anatomy.  Without the benefit of mirrors or other paraphernalia, I made the assessment that everything seemed to be pretty much as it was prior to the ordeal, all of three seconds before.

The snake was not in evidence, having departed during the debacle just described.  Tony was gone, but I had no concern for him.  He knew the way back to the barn better than I did and I had no doubt but that I’d next see him when I got to the bottom of the mountain, standing at the gate, probably grumbling because he hadn’t been fed yet.

I spent a few minutes assessing my condition, testing my extremities and, in general, wondering where in hell that snake was.  Finally, having decided that little further could be gained from my present position, I tentatively began to rise.  It was not the easiest task I’ve ever performed but almost everything seemed to work fairly well so, timidly at first but soon with more strength and purpose, down the road I moved.  I was sure that Tony was gone and that I was resigned to the long walk home on shaky and achy legs.

About three curves down the hill, standing to one side of the skid road was Tony, his reins were dangling, effectively ground-hitching him and allowing me to catch up the reins, mount the saddle and ride into the ranch yard in triumph, head held high rather than having to sore-foot it the last two miles in from the site of my encounter.

My even more unkempt than usual condition and my rather labored movements finally clued my parents that all was not pure peaches and cream in my world.  The severe interrogation to which I was subjected finally served to get the story of the meanest rattlesnake in all of Northern California out of me… only to incite paroxysms of mirth from the entire family, parents, siblings, aunt and uncle and cousins, at my expense… probably the meanest thing that snake did.  And, I never did figure out where he had gotten to… I was just eternally grateful that he was not still there when I arrived, returning from my aborted free-flight.

As is usual with mean animals, there was absolutely no warning before he sang out in that especially loud voice…er… tail in his case.  In fact, it is precisely this proclivity in some individuals to remain silent until I am entirely within their snare and am at peace with the world before launching their attack that marks them as particularly mean animals!

One of the past masters of this subterfuge resides in the forested areas of the Pacific Northwest.  He is a rather small bird, too small to account for the amount of terror he can author.  He seldom is as large as a bantam hen, but his ability to raise his victim’s blood pressure to near explosive levels is unparalleled in nature.  The usual scenario generally involves…

Ruffed Grouse

The morning had been eventful.  Elk were around in good numbers and had provided shot opportunities on a couple of occasions on smaller bulls.  It was early in the season though and I was holding out for something better, ignoring my long-standing tenet of “never turn down on the first day what you would take on the last day.”  The vagaries of archery hunting for elk being what it was, one was never safe in the assumption that further chances would eventuate that would offer good shots.  But, I was adamant.  I wanted a nice bull if I could get one, and if one always takes a small one first, he will never have the opportunity to take a large one.

The sun was making brief appearances from time to time and it had not rained in over two hours when I caught wind of elk nearby.  It must be noted that elk, though beautiful are not fastidious and they do not bathe.  Hence, they smell like a barnyard.  And, a large group of them smells like a large barnyard.  That is what I was catching now… the aroma of a group, properly called a gang, of elk somewhere very close.  The terrain was flat and somewhat swampy.  The timber was sparse, but regular in its growth.  The main growth was the ubiquitous Salal Brush (Galtheria Shallon).  Salal grows everywhere in this country, and is, indeed a major economic commodity in this area as it is harvested and used in floral arrangements in the cities of the west.  Entwined in this lush growth of Salal is the scourge of northwest loggers, Pacific Blackberry (Rubus Ursinus).  There is just enough of it here to serve as a major tripping hazard, tying the hiker’s legs securely to the ground as his body continues onward on its trek.  The result is, often, a loud crash and a burst of p

Ready to Rev

rofanity.  The fact that this simple shrub is the major food source for the Columbian Blacktail deer that live here does little at this moment to redeem it in the eyes of the tripee.

On this morning, I was especially careful of it.  I was moving across this area of sparse timber most quietly, easing my way to where I might see the elk I was smelling.  On and on I moved, step after silent step.  From one tree to the next until, at last, I was seeing elk moving through the timber.  There were several animals present and I had seen at least one set of antlers through the trees.  I was inching ever so much closer.  Already I had passed up a small bull and some cows, the larger bull now in full sight just ahead.  I was slowly closing the range on him… Fifty yards… forty yards… nearer and nearer to the twenty-five yards (22.5 m) to which my wooden recurve bow limited me.  Just as I was to the point that I felt that I might consider a shot, I took that one more step that is so often fateful.  From out of the brush at my feet burst a small ball of feathers in the form of a ruffed grouse.  He was mean enough to beat me mercilessly with his wings as he made his ascent and his escape!  If I could have maintained my composure, I could have caught him in my hat as he passed by, but, alas, such was not to be.  One cannot imagine the amount of noise such a tiny creature can make with just his wings in the morning air.  Add to that the fact that he was actually multiplying that by the factor of his wings actually beating me physically.

Of course, the elk were long gone, having no more desire to deal with the small tyrant than I had, but they had a clearer field in which to maneuver than did I with my feet tied to the ground by blackberry vines, my heart was now in the proximity of my Adams apple and still on the rise… the air around me still blue from the expletive that managed to slip out while my mind was otherwise engaged with the problems of dealing with killer grouse!

Olympic Peninsula Rain Forest

On a scale of one to ten in meanness, that grouse had to rate at least a twelve or thirteen.  I did manage to survive that unmitigated attack and even to take more elk in the future, but that didn’t stay me from my newest sport… skewering grouse with my bow and arrow whenever the opportunity presented itself!

Lest one begins to think that it is only the alive and aware animal that is capable of inflicting pain and torture on the unwary or under prepared, please note that there are several species that bear enough malice to continue their retribution even past the curtain that signals the end of mortality.  One of the meanest of these was an elk that went beyond the call if duty in creating torment.

It was a rainy morning that opening day of elk season so many years ago.  It was the first such season and my first foray into the jungle of huge stumps, ancient timber and young re-growth timber that is the west side of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

The Navy, just a few months prior, had seen fit to honor my first choice of duty station on my transfer from the submarine I’d served aboard for the previous five years. POMFPAC, Polaris Missile Facility, Pacific, was to be my home for the next, and last, two years

Washington's Olympic Peninsula This Story is S. of Forks and W. of Hwy 101

of my service.  This facility was located on what is now the Submarine Base at Bangor, WA, home to the Pacific Trident Missile Fleet.  Housing shortage in the area at the time of my arrival… “most critical since WW II” the newspaper headlines announced on the day of my arrival… forced me to make an alteration to my original plan and to take a military house on the Naval Ammunition Depot Annex on Indian Island, near Port Townsend, about thirty miles (50 km) north of the base.  This proved a most fortuitous circumstance as it landed me among the worst of bad company… a band of hard core elk hunters.

From the time I met Greg and Adam in June until season opened in November, we talked elk.  Being the new boy on the block, I listened and listened… and listened some more.  Many were the tales of the elk trails followed, the elk seen and of the ruggedness of the country traversed.  It was this last that I, in retrospect, didn’t listen to quite closely enough.

Opening morning of elk season 1968 found me on a ridge covered in reprod timber… that is, young growth approximately six to eight years old.  It was about fifteen feet (5 m) high and just an inch or two in girth.  They can grow quite thickly, blanketing the terrain with a rather tall carpet of green.  I was sitting in a position where I could see across the canyon below to the ridge opposite.  Adam was to my right, up the ridge about a quarter mile (400 m) away and near where the two ridges united.  Greg had taken up his position by going to my left, down the ridge, crossing a drainage and up onto the side of the next ridge, giving him an excellent view of the lower end of the ridge opposite.  What had caused us to assume this alignment was our having spotted a gang of elk on the ridge beyond, coming up out of the Mosquito Creek drainage.  And, this gang was moving slowly and unconcernedly in our direction.  A quick war council produced this deployment with the agreement on the point that when they reached the top of that ridge opposite, chances were that they would either turn to my right, up the ridge or turn to my left, down the ridge.  If the former case came about, they would run directly in Adam.  If the latter, they would bottom out and be directly in Greg’s sights.  I, being the rookie, was in the rocking chair and hoping just to get an opportunity.

The plan worked exactly as designed.  The elk hit the crest of the ridge and turned to my right, uphill.  I could see them as they fed and moved through the young timber.  Never long enough for a shot, but I could see them.  Occasionally I could see antlers, usually poking ab

Gang of Roosevelt Elk

ove the trees.  Never could I see both antler and animal simultaneously until, finally, at the head of that spur ridge in a small clear spot, there he was.  A young bull he was, to be sure, but a nice one for a rookie.  Slowly I raised my brand new Remington .30-’06 and took careful aim.  I judged the range at a bit under three hundred yards (270 m) and was snuggling into the sling of my rifle… the cross hairs of my scope were just settling in place when a very loud shot rang out and all I could see of the bull in the scope were four elk feet flailing in the air!  Adam, obviously, had been in absolutely perfect position.

With the report of the rifle, the gang immediately turned back down the ridge, obviously planning their escape back down the ridge to the bottom and thence slipping into the standing, old-growth timber unseen.  Again, I could see them slipping through the brushy timber without giving me opportunity for a shot.  Again, I could see antlers above the brush, but then…. Directly across the canyon on the side of the ridge about a hundred feet (30 m) below the crest, the herd was on a trail that brought them into the open for a short distance.  By this time, they were in single file and moving at a slow trot.  At the particular point in question, each animal in turn had to jump a downed log and was then in full view for about three to four body lengths at which time the animal disappeared back into the jungle of growth.  It was like a shooting gallery.  The range was good, about two-hundred-twenty-five yards (200 m) and about level.  The shot, while it had to be done without wasted time, was doable.

I watched eagerly, my scope locked on each head as it appeared in queue, awaiting a turn at the gallery jump.  When a set of small antlers appeared in the lineup, I slipped the safety off and waited as the cows and calves ahead of him cleared the way.  Soon, he was there… his head held high as he jumped the fallen obstacle without seeming effort and landed in the open area.  He took one more shuffling step to catch his balance and I heard the report of my rifle.  I do not recall ever feeling the recoil.  The shot was true as I watched the hair jump just behind his left front shoulder and he stopped still in his tracks.  Since he was still on his feet, I worked the bolt and jacked a second round into the chamber.  Again, the hair jumped right next to the first hit as the one-hundred-sixty-five grain Speer

On the Peninsula

bullet found its mark.  But, again, he did not fall.  Neither did he move.  It was as if time was standing still and all else in the world had disappeared except that bull elk and me.  There were no other elk in existence… I had no companions, no family, and no purpose except as concerned that bull.  Once more, I worked the bolt.

I knew I had two lethal shots in him and was amazed at his ability to remain upright.  That he was shaken and wounded mortally, I knew, but I was determined he not suffer.  Always, I had prided myself on the fact that no animal I had ever taken had required more than one shot to dispatch.  That a Roosevelt Bull Elk could carry a lot more lead than a deer was a fact that I understood intuitively and was just now learning in real time.  For my third shot, I took a bit more time and located where the bone ran through his neck.  I was sure he was not moving with two rounds in his boiler room… now I was going to put one into his wheelhouse.  I felt that the range was a bit excessive to effect one into his brain, so chose the second-best location.  Once more, I could see the hair on his neck jump as the heavy bullet created its effect.

Slowly, after this shot, the bull’s knees began to buckle.  Like a punch-drunk fighter viewed in slow-motion, he folded slowly, one leg at a time and he eased to the ground, taking care, I was sure, not to bruise any of his delicious meat.  I watched as he crumpled like an empty potato chip bag until he was prostrate on the steep sidehill.  Then, like that bag unfolding on its own, a leg jerked spasmodically…  A second kick caused him to roll down the hill a bit.  Soon, another kick and he tumbled even further down the ridge.

“Aha,” I said to myself, “how wonderful!  He’ll be so much easier to dress out at the bottom of the ravine than he would be on that steep sidehill.  I’d probably have to drag him down to the bottom anyway…”

Oh, how naïve can a rookie be?  I had totally failed to reckon with the fact I had just harvested one of the really mean elk in all of creation.  All elk hunters know intuitively that trophy elk do not live above the road as this would make the pack out to be much too easy.  Even if

Roosevelt Elk in an Alder Bottom

one should be caught traversing that “no-elks-land” they will do everything they possibly can to rectify their faux pas and immediately light out for the very bottom of darkest, brushiest hole imaginable, there to die.  Thus, in their passing, they can inflict the greatest possible distress on the hapless hunter who was inexperienced enough to have taken his life!  I once had a Pastor of a local church swear to me that he had taken a nice bull above the road in such a position that he had but to back his truck up to the bank at the side of the road and slide the animal in whole, thereby retrieving him almost without effort.  I was skeptical but not wanting to disbelieve the clergy when I found out he was also a fisherman!  Now I was torn terribly trying to believe his most wild story.  As he continued, it cleared itself up for me.  It seems he was forced to stop for some construction work on the road he was using when the timber cutting crew lost control of a tree they were falling and it dropped right across the bed of his truck… I tell you, those elk will do ANYTHING to get even!  I’m now quite sure that animal’s being above the road was just a ploy to lure the unwary into a position where his truck could be squashed like a june bug.

This is a trait common to all elk and subsequent harvests have led me from the depths of “Ohmygawd Canyon” to swamps so mean and foreboding that the fauna has regressed several stages on the evolutionary scale (I mean, have you ever seen a flying lizard?).

Roosevelt Bull

These outings have served to teach me this fact.  However, what this young bull did was way beyond the scale of ordinary meanness.  Upon reflection, I cannot recall a single time when an elk just went peaceably and stayed where he fell.

In this land of excessive moisture, the rain creates many strange phenomena.  The more than two hundred inches (500 cm) of annual precipitation causes the land to be conformed to the water’s needs.  In this case, these pressure ridges, as we were now on, created by a long ago, long gone glacier several thousand years ago were not made of solid rock, but of alluvial materials like sand and gravel.  At the bottom of the gully, between the ridges, the excessive water flow had created a trench very much like that created by a backhoe when installing underground utilities.  This trench was approximately eight feet (2.5 m) in depth and three feet (1 m) in width.  The sides were perfectly vertical and water ran in the bottom.  The ditch looked so unstable to me that, if it had been a construction project, no man would have ever been allowed in it without shoring the walls.

As I hiked down the hill from my ambush point, I was being soaked by the gallons and gallons of water that had been suspended on the needles of the young spruce and hemlock trees I was bulling my way through to reach the place where I expected to find my elk.  Looking back on that today, my worrying about that water was very much like worrying about spilling a cup of water on oneself just before falling out of the boat.  It took me nearly an hour to fight my way through brush as thick as the hair on a shaggy dog’s back to reach the bottom of that gully.  I could readily see the path in the more open sidehill the bull had made in his “kick it loose and let it roll” routine he used to expand his meanness to stellar proportions.

The thick brush I had been negotiating ended a few feet from the very bottom of the gully, providing a clear area approximately eight feet in width extending up and down the gully.  I could not believe my good fortune in seeing this… Imagine, an area of clear ground on which to work!  A five hundred pound (225 kg) plus animal is hard enough to move around for dressing in any place or position.  Doing so in brush or on steep ground can be terrible.  I was nearly ecstatic, then, at finding this boon.  And, that ecstasy lasted the full two minutes or so it took me to break through the last of the heavy cover

Cow with Calves

and see the horrible truth of what this animal had done as his last act of defiance.  All that was to be seen where I would have supposed this beast to be was the marks of his last struggle as he managed to heave himself bodily into that trench in the bottom of the gully.  With no small amount of trepidation, I inched forward slowly, peering expectantly into that hole even while dreading the confirmation of what I new was true.

What greeted me was a sight indescribable.  Lying in the bottom of that hole I could see a foreleg, or maybe two hind legs and one eye.  He lay in such a juxtaposed position I am convinced there were forces other than random chance at work here.  I doubt sincerely that he could have become so sincerely misaligned by mere chance.  In addition, he was now acting as a really nice dam in the stream running at the bottom of the trench and was rapidly creating a rather nice lake on his upstream side.

It was at least six feet (2 m) from the lip of the trench to the animal and he filled another short distance with his body.  The walls were perfectly vertical for as far as I could see in either direction, affording me no easy access or egress anywhere within sight.  I found a convenient stump left over from the logging of this area and sat down to contemplate my situation.

As I pondered the improbability of this, a shot rang out from Greg’s direction.  Vaguely, I recalled another from that area a bit earlier.  More than likely, this last shot finished what the prior one had started… which meant, Adam being busy with his own bull from earlier and, now, Greg with his, I was entirely on my own.  I was sure that I could expect no help so what was to be was up to me.

The rain was falling, not in drops any longer, but in vast sheets of water.  Looking down the draw, I could see wave after wave of water being driven before the wind.  In places, where the wind swept up the

The Impossible Greens of the Rainforest

ridge, the water was hurled up the ridge, a vanguard to the wind.  It was actually raining uphill!  I have never, before or since, witnessed this exact phenomenon, but there it was this cold, windy and wet November day.

I finally, after much soul-searching, removed my outer garments, coat, vest, raingear, etc. and piled them on the stump that had served as my throne and, keeping only my venerable Buck Knife, my small hand axe and bone saw from my belt sheath, I jumped from the lip of the trench into its bowels.

I have never seen such a sight.  I didn’t have an elk lying in a ditch; I had a pile, a lump even, of elk lying in the bottom of that ditch.  Looking up, it appeared that I was being buried in the groin of Mother Earth herself.  With a sigh, I pushed all thoughts aside and bent to the task at hand.

My first several attempts at moving the animal merely resulted in falling debris and waves of water as I unblocked, momentarily, the river that was being detained by the body lodged in the bottom.  I stopped a moment and reassessed my situation.  I looked over the situation in minute detail and, believe me, there was no little part of it that was comforting.  At last, I thought I had a handle on what needed to be done to untangle this mass of elk and arrange it in line with the flow of the trench.  This, at least, would afford me the opportunity of dressing out the animal and, possibly, rendering it into pieces of a manageable size that it might, eventually, be removed from the hole.  My years of untangling backlashes from my fishing reels stood me in good stead in getting this job accomplished.

By pulling on one foreleg until I got it free then scrambling across the lump of elk and into the growing lake of ice water on the uphill side, there to extricate a hind leg from its trap, I was able to effect some progress.  Back across the carcass again to find the other foreleg only to find the antlers buried in to the bank, holding the head firmly in place… directly on top of the misfolded appendage I was trying to liberate.  On and on, back and forth for the better part of an hour I worked to get this mean critter into an orientation that would allow me to begin the arduous task of butchering.  By the time I managed to get five hundred pounds of dead elk arranged as I wanted him, I was drenched to the skin, covered in mud and muck and ruing the day I had ever heard of elk.  It should be noted at this point that, although I may have described this in words that would make one think it was a pleasant, joyous occasion… it was not!  However, in terms of what was yet to come, this interlude might well be taken as high, easy living.

At last I had wrestled him into a position in which I could begin the dressing.  As soon as I had vented the animal, I began to encounter problems caused by the proximity of the vertical walls.  I could not roll the animal to allow easy extraction of the offal, so I had to remove it by hand, over the aft end, piece by piece.  By now, Icy Lake, formed by Elk Dam, had drained sufficiently that I could move the offal out of the water.

When, at last, I determined him to be as clean as I could make him in my present place and circumstance, I began the task of reducing him to carriable proportions.  I thought that six would be appropriate.  To this end, I removed his head and antlers and placed them in a safe spot.  I then removed both front shoulders.  This, while not near as easy as it would have been on open ground, was not overly difficult.  The hind quarters, however, were a totally different matter.  Normally, with the animal on its back, it is a relatively simple matter to make a cut at the joint, allowing the weight of the hind quarter itself to pull it way from the carcass.  By simply extending the cut as

Young Author With First Big Bull

the quarter falls away, it is soon completely severed, the hip joint being a ball and socket joint that is easily popped loose.

Such is life in a perfect world.  My world, at the moment, was far from adequate, let alone perfect.  I could not effect the cuts as I normally would because the walls held the legs nearly vertical, not allowing gravity to aid in the process.  Add to this the fact that Rigor was, by this time, setting in and one can see the situation was deteriorating rapidly.  It was pure gut-busting, mule-hauling work to get those hind quarters separated from the carcass and by the time it was completed, I was nearly in as bad shape as was that elk.

The last step in my butchering process was to split the carcass transversely, across the carcass just above the sixth rib yielding a fairly flat chunk of meat that was the prime of primes in elk.  On this was contained the tenderloin and the choicest steaks.  The other half contained some fine steaks as well… the T-bones and the rib steaks as well as the chuck steaks were here with a lot of fine elk.  It also included the ribs and brisket as well as the neck.

By the time I had completed the butchering, I was exhausted.  While deciding my next move, I sank down to rest, using a hind quarter of elk as my seat… a load of round steak supporting a round butt… and began to think how I was going to get out of this predicament.  Obviously, I could not get out the way I had come in, gravity being what it was, so that left only two options… up the trench or down the trench.  As soon as my heart rate returned to a near normal rate, I arose and, shouldering one forequarter, began my trek down the bottom of the trench, praying for a spot where the sides were low enough to let me get out of the hole.

It seemed like hours had passed and miles walked before the lip of the trench began to do dip to greet me.  Slowly and cautiously I crept along, my load gaining weight with each step all the while issuing prayers for the lessening of the depth to continue.  Finally, at last, my head was above the ground level and I waited no longer, but lifted that front quarter from my shoulder and onto the ground outside the trench.  It really felt like I’d covered at least a mile, but it was, as I learned by pacing the distance on my return trip, only about five hundred feet (350 m).  Four more trips I made with the meat from that bull and I had only the chest cavity remaining.  I was out of gas and out of ideas on how to move that large, bulky bull down my rapidly deteriorating route when I heard my name being called.

While grinning so widely that I threatened to break my face, I hollered back.  When a second call asked if I needed help, I screamed for rope and my packboard, a couple of items I had neglected to

Young Roosevelt Bull

bring with me when I dove into this hell-hole.  I guess I was more interested in keeping them safe and dry in my truck than I was in actually using either.  That was a mistake I never repeated in all the years I hunted elk.  From that day onward, I never left my truck without a length of rope wrapped around me.

I put the question of what to do about that last piece of meat on hold until I had help here with me.  In the meantime, I recuperated.  I knew the job was far from complete as, even if both Adam and Greg came in, it would still mean two trips apiece back up that mountain through that brushy jungle with more than a hundred pounds (45 kg) of elk strapped to the packframes.

In a few minutes, I heard the chatter of men as the brush snapped and an occasional curse rang out, signaling a foot caught up in a root or a vine or such.  It dawned on me suddenly that this was the noise of more than just two men.  In fact, when the brush finally parted, not only Greg and Adam popped out, so did three good friends from town.  I could not believe that they were actually there, having told us not to expect them until late as work commitments would cost them opening day of the season.  There were now six of us.  Bob, Leon and Larry had found our trucks parked and had heard the shooting so had figured we had animals down and could use some help.  This being before the present era when the world was not overrun with thieves, we did not remove the keys from a vehicle when we parked as it may need to be moved to allow access to another.  Thus, the three got out packboards and such gear as they felt we would need and started in to find us.  I was deep in my long rut when they called out at first, so I did not hear them.  Greg and Adam, however, did.  In fact, they were within a stone’s throw of Adam and he guided them on to Greg.

I cannot express the joy I felt on seeing their homely mugs, and told them as much!  It was the work of but a few moments to tie a rope to that last hunk of carcass and to pull it out of the hole.  They had even determined a better route out.  Basically, it followed the trail the elk had used in coming down that ridge so long ago and led us directly to the junction of the ridges and to our trucks.  I broached the possibility that I might get a ride out on one back or another, but the fact that I soon realized that the only way this was going to happen is if I were willing to go the same way that elk was going… in six pieces did much to cool my ardor at what I had really thought to be a viable idea just moments before… An hour later, after much discussion of the sanity of anyone who’d venture into that hole, we were all at the truck enjoying a cold drink and a warm meal of Chef Boyardee that was whipped up on a Coleman stove.  Although it was just simple fare, heated quickly and served directly from the pan, it was possibly one of the finer, most welcome repasts I have ever known.

Adam’s elk was already in his truck and Greg’s was waiting at the edge of a small logging trace, ready to load.  I had fired my first shot at 8:05 that morning and the sun, behind thinning clouds, was sliding from the western sky as I sat on the tailgate of my truck, recounting the tale of the meanest elk that ever lived…

A Small Piece of Heaven

May 5, 2010 by  

It was an unusual day for the far west end of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula… the sun was shining.  The air was warm and inviting.  Imagine my surprise as I pulled off US Highway 101 in the town of Forks to top off my gas tank to be in need of neither a jacket nor raingear.  It was early in June and I had no expectation for anything but rain and foul weather in this land where annual rainfall is measured feet rather than in inches.  I was pleasantly surprised by this fortuitous turn of events.  In a place were the sun can be obscured more than two hundred and twenty five days per year, any day without cloud is to be celebrated.
My goal was clear in my mind.  I had been looking forward to this period since last November when I discovered my own little corner of Eden while elk hunting in this land of Roosevelt Elk and wet brush.  I had sneaked in on a herd of some thirty-five animals but, not finding the animal I wanted, I sneaked back out and left them to their own devices, none the wiser as to my presence.  One of the real

Roosevelt Elk in Timber

bonuses of hunting with bow and arrow was the opportunity to hunt in full stealth mode.  This affords the delight of days like this had been.  I had been within several feet of wild critters while they were totally unaware of me.  To be allowed the privilege of observing these largest of the elk species of North America from arm’s length was worth much more than the cost of license and tags.

In my exit from the valley of Goodman Creek, I happened on a spot that drew me back on this prime June day in 1973. I was right on the creek, walking upstream when I encountered an area that looked like a park.  The timber was a mix of Western Hemlock (Tsuga Heterophylla) and Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga Menzesii) with few Sitka Spruce (Picea Sichensis) also there.  The stature of these trees was amazing to behold.  Here were trees exceeding ten feet in diameter with a canopy so high that it seemed to tickle the very belly of heaven.  Because the trees were so large and the canopy so tight, there was no understory at all.  There were not even brushes growing in this park.  Again, due to size, the trees were widely separated, leaving more room on the floor than would normally be expected in such an area.
On the north side of the creek there was a wide gravel/sand bar where the stream made a sweeping turn away from the park.  At the edge of the sloping beach was a step of about a foot up onto the forest floor.  Here, among these northern giants, the floor was even and smooth.  Not so much as an old stump marred the pleasing esthetics of the area. The gravel bar beach was in direct sunlight for a few hours in the middle of the long, late-spring day and salmon berries and huckleberries grew in profusion on the south side of the stream adjacent to the sun-speckled clearing.  Here and there, huge old trees lay in the creek creating natural hiding areas for the myriad fish living there.

Goodman Creek

The demise of these huge trees was proof that nothing resisted the inexorable pressure of water forever.  As surely as the Colorado River had reamed out the Grand Canyon, the flowing waters of a creek never more than ten feet in width at this time of year persisted in its efforts and eventually, undercut and fell these behemoths who dared challenge the creek’s right to flow where it wished.
For days my companion and I communed with our Maker on this piece of ground He had taken a bit of extra time to prepare for we two of his children.  We fished daily, taking a few of the fat, hungry and very tasty cutthroat trout He had placed here for our use.  We picked the bright berries that grew in profusion and even found enough oyster mushrooms to satisfy our hunger for these especial fungi.
On one evening we were afforded a

Oyster Mushrooms... eat as is.. very tasty

special airing of His first-run show when a band of Roosevelt Elk moved through the park in their never ending quest for food.  I believe this was the first time I’d actually watched the elk feed off the bane of foresters and loggers all over the Pacific Northwest, Devil’s Club (Oplopanax Horriblus).  As the Latin name would suggest, this is, indeed a horrible plant.

Devil’s Club is a low shrub that grows up from the ground in a bowed, sweeping arc.  The stems from the ground to the leaf whorl are from six to ten feet in length and are totally covered over their entire circumference and length in tiny, loosely attached thorns.  At t

Devil's Club... OUCH

he very upper end of the upswept stalk, a single whorl of large, deciduous leaves surround the stalk and the flower and meristem, the area of new growth emerges from the center of this whorl.  A red berry, the fruit of the plant emerges in early summer and ripens later.  It is this delicate center portion the elk cannot ignore.  I have watched them for hours as they gingerly reach out and up toward the plague of thorns, thorns

Devil's Club Thorns

that are designed with minute barbs such that should one stick in skin, or even in clothing, it will patiently work its way into one’s body creating a festering, suppurating wound, and carefully pluck that tender new growth with the delicacy of a surgeon opening a living heart.

By sitting totally still and watching closely, we saw the beauty of the wild at work here.  We watched new-born calves, only minutes old, on rickety legs suckle life-giving milk from patient mothers who did all they could to sustain their offspring.  Young bulls, antlers just beginning to grow, bounced and gamboled in play in the manner of all youth.  And, watching it all with a careful eye was the herd’s lead cow.  We watched as the cows barked and mewed at erring calves.  We watched as the cows communicated one with another as they shifted slowly along their route… a route so old in time that none here

Very Young Calf

even knew why they did it so… it just was.. and is.  Occasionally, the lead cow, one so much larger and heavier than the rest that she appeared to be of another species entirely, would bark out a warning and all eyes would be on her as she assessed that which had alarmed her.  Soon, no predator having been detected, she calmed and returned to feeding whereby all with her did likewise.

Once, in this idyllic week, a bachelor herd of five mature bulls moved up the creek and through the park.  Two of these five had to have weighed over fourteen hundred pounds.  Their antlers, just beginning to grow were heavy at the bases and, I was sure, would be at least six points on a side when full growth was accomplished in the next couple of months.
That the elk used this area repeatedly came to me very early in my enjoyment of this park.  The first night there, I cleared the ground where my tent would be set up, spread the ground cloth and erected my US Army surplus pup tent.  Inside, I spread my US Army surplus

Bull in Spring... Antlers just beginning to grow

down filled mummy bag next to my companion’s US Army surplus down filled mummy bag.  From all outward appearances, all things were equal and thus did this misapprehension last until darkness had fallen and we retired to our respective bags.  Immediately upon crawling into mine and zipping it up, I discovered the subtle, but distinct difference between mine and my companion’s bag… Hers had no lump under it, mine did!  Immediately on discovering this anomaly, I quizzed her about the possibility of trading bags for the night as one US Army surplus mummy bag was pretty much like every other US Army surplus mummy bag and surely she’d find this one more to her liking.  Her rejection of this premise was instant and unremitting and, I felt, a bit harsh as well.  I really saw no reason for her to cast aspersions on my analysis that, in making this particular bag, that, perhaps, the maker had forgotten to remove the chicken from the feathers…

Since it was obvious that I was stuck with the bag with the chicken still attached, I went about making the best of it.  I wriggled and

US Army Surplus Pup Tent

squirmed about until the blessed bird was no longer pressing between my shoulder blades and curled up around the offending lump.  Please believe me when I say that wriggling and squirming sound much easier when one is not encased in a US Army surplus mummy bag.  The mere act of moving is difficult at best and sometimes borders on impossible.  Suffice to say that in this semi-U position, coiled fetally around the offending lump, I spent a not so comfortable, but passingly torturous night that lasted at least one hundred hours.  Whenever I tried to move to alleviate the pressure on over stressed muscles or joints, that knob was back again!  By the time the sun rose, that lump had increased my vocabulary by at least five new words!  That was not a bad thing, I suppose, though it might have been better had the five new words combined for more than twenty letters.  Being an ex-sailor and a logger, I really didn’t need to learn any new words of that sort.  Their proclivity for jumping out at socially inappropriate times rendered them a major liability!

First light brought with it my emergence from my exile and, while I usually handle the breakfast chores in camp, this morning I delegated those duties and set about delving into the mystery of the immovable lump.  By daylight, I had determined that the offending lump was not in or part of my bag.  I had found that even with me and my bag removed, the lump was still there in the ground cloth that served as a floor to the tent.  I started by removing the bags, then the ground cloth and what I found surprised me.  It appeared that a small root or shoot was sticking up from the ground.  Now, since it had not shown above the ground level when I laid the ground cloth, it must have been there, just at or below the surface, waiting for my weight to bring the surface level down below its level.  Thinking this would be the work of but a moment, I took my sheathe knife that I always

Shed Elk Antler

carried at times like these and began the task of digging down far enough that I could cut it off and I could fill in over it and that would be the end of that.  Wrong!  The deeper I dug, the deeper the shaft went… and the larger it became.  By the time I had dug down about eight inches, I finally realized what I was dealing with.  I was excavating the tine from an elk antler.  By the time I had moved the tent, the ground cloth, both US Army surplus mummy bags and about twenty cubic yards of soil, I was amazed.  What I had allowed to disturb my night’s sleep was the very tip of one tine on a single six point elk antler, much like the one pictured above!  Believe me when I say that the second night was much more comfortable in my US Army surplus pup tent and I kept that antler for several years.  In fact, I collected them until I had quite the pile of them.  I gave them away to the Buckskinners I knew who used them in making 18th century period clothing and accoutrements to their black powder rifles and lifestyle.


I continued to return to this place for a number of years, the last time in about 1986 and I hope it is today as it was then.  One day I’m going back there just to see, if I should be allowed to live so long, but in the interim, it lives well in my memory… just a bit west of US Highway 101 on a tiny creek between the Bogachiel and Hoh Rivers… my own little corner of Eden.

Archery – An Ancient Sport in a Modern World

February 2, 2009 by  



Making That Dream Hunt an AFFORDABLE Reality


Thom Cantrall


As the warm, late-summer sun slipped slowly behind the ancient cottonwood and box elder trees that lined north-central Montana’s Milk River, the big buck at last slipped out of the low brush, easing himself further into the open of the alfalfa field. Each step brought him closer to the round bales of hay I was using as cover. And, to what I hoped would be his demise. [Read more]

Life in Blue Hole

October 10, 2008 by  

Blue Hole

JB Sander's Haypress

JB Sanders Haypress


Thom Cantrall

Boonville is small town with a history... and my family is a major part of that history. It lies in a valley along Anderson Creek about a hundred miles north of San Francisco in the coastal range.

[Read more]

Wildlife Management – for Wildlife’s Sake

October 9, 2008 by  

The Following is an excerpt from Chapter XL of the book…

At this point, the two couples have been on a National Tour describing their experiences with the Sasquatch Family and in a couple of interviews have been treated quite roughly. Now, they are in Los Angeles and are about to try again… [Read more]

The Bear Facts

October 5, 2008 by  

The Bear Facts

P.O.W. Blackie

P.O.W. Blackie


Thom Cantrall

The sun had passed its zenith and the tide was busily filling the inlet slowing the fishing to the point that it was time to find other things to do for a time. Besides, after four days of fishing, the freezer was full and there was no more room to store the salmon we caught. Those fish caught in the morning had been filleted, wrapped and stuffed into the overcrowded freezer awaiting our trip home in two more days.
[Read more]

Halloween at Sea

October 4, 2008 by  

USS James Madison SSB(N) 627

Ship's Patch

“Halloween at Sea”


Thom Cantrall


“But Sir,” objected the Petty Officer to our Officer of the Deck, the one person in charge of the ship in the Captain’s absence, “it’s Halloween and the whole crew in wanting all-night movies to celebrate, since we cannot go trick-or-treating.”

For his part, Lieutenant Ranes was not averse to this, but the Executive Officer’s standing order was for one movie at 1900 (7 pm) and one at 0100 (1 am) and the latter for qualified men only. After listening closely, albeit with a slight smile, to the man in front of him, he responded, “I can see that you’re serious about this and it does bear further investigation. I’ll call the Exec and see if he’s agreeable.” [Read more]

Hey, I’ve Written a Book, Now What?

September 29, 2008 by  

Ghosts of Ruby Ridge


Welcome to my corner of the world.  As usual, this site is under construction. This web site addresses not only my books, but pages for the major themes presented within the book as well as some of my short stories.

Most prominent is a treatise on Cryptozoology especially as it addresses the search for and the research on that creature we call Sasquatch.

Next is a page of Archery and another on the facts that surround hunting as a tool of the wildlife managers.  Please bear with me as this scenario unfolds.

The book will be released date of  7 Jan 2016 but it is now listed on   I now have it available through this website.  To order, just click the “Buy Now” button above.  This transaction will take place through PayPal, but you do not need to be a PayPal member, just use your Credit Card or Debit Card to make the transaction.  If you would like the book dedicated to someone in particular, just drop me a message below or email me directly at, I’ll help you get what you want.

Thom (Twangg)

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