Catch yourself up with the mental anticipation and cheese-filled musings of Day 1.
At oh-eight hundred hours Tuesday morning we rendezvoused with our field guide, Mike, in the living room of the lodge. Surrounded by the staring masses of taxidermied bison, deer, and elk, Mike — a thin, jocular fellow with a penchant for both toilet and hunting humor — laid out the day’s agenda. To suss out skill level we’d take target practice with a .243 Winchester (the firearm that would accompany us on the hunt) before heading into the preserve for the better part of the morning. Outside, Mike drew a large cross on an 18 by 20-inch swath of paper and tacked it onto a sheet of plywood so bullet-tattered it could have passed for latticework. In turn, we each braced the gun against the railing of a deck-like blind fifty yards from the target and squeezed off our best effort. New to the game (I’d only ever fired a shotgun at a bottle of water prior to the trip — though to be fair I terminated the bottle with extreme prejudice), no one was more surprised than me when my shot struck closest of the bunch, a mere ½ inch left of dead center. Mike, apparently inspired by my accuracy, declared that it was time to hunt.
We entered the preserve through a large metal gate on its western front and immediately split into two groups. Daniel (armed with the rifle), Steve, and Nick set up camp in a 15-foot-high tree blind sparsely surrounded by leafless maple and ash trees, while Mike led Bryan and I on a trek around the preserve’s border.
We’d do our best to track down and flush out one of the larger packs of boars. We quietly moved through densely packed pine forest, brief grassy clearings, and low, muddy bogs, all the while scanning the horizon for flashes of black. Mike relayed to us that the tan-hued early spring ground cover would work to our advantage, highlighting the boars’ near-black hides. After six clicks (and nearly two hours’ worth) of uneventful walking, Mike came to an abrupt halt, crouched, and motioned towards a jumble of fallen trees some hundred yards ahead of us. Bryan and I followed suit and gazed down Mike’s outstretched arm to target what he’d seen. In and around the felled oaks we spotted a small pack of boars — had they not been rooting in the dirt and jostling each other, I’d never have noticed them. Mike waved his hand to indicate we were moving again, this time heading slightly left of where they camped. We’d only taken a few steps before we were spotted: The pack took off in a fury of broken branches and turned earth. For the next hour we tracked the boars and repeated this exercise as if chasing a repellent magnet across a table; the boars kept their distance as we methodically pushed them towards our boys in the blind.
As we drew nearer to the blind, I was on alert for the violent crack of the rifle — an indication that Daniel had, at the very least, seen the boars. But it never came. When we finally arrived back at the stand we learned that while our tracking had been successful — they’d seen the harbingers of the pack thirty minutes before our arrival — the boars had hugged close to a thick tangle of low brush and kept their distance. During the debriefing a new plan was hatched: As a group we’d head towards the southeastern edge of the preserve, a low range of muddy earth, dense brush, and thick pines, an area where boars often take refuge during the hotter stretches of the day. If we stalked quietly, Daniel might have a shot before they noticed us and disappeared.
With Daniel and Mike leading the group, we crouched under low branches and slogged through troughs of mud and snow — our unseasonably warm spring having had little impact in this well-shaded corner of the preserve. We walked this way in near silence for the better part of an hour. Just then we heard a rustle in the undergrowth fifty yards ahead of us. We each instinctively froze and waited. A minute later, a large charcoal-colored male emerged from behind a rotted tree stump and stood motionless before us. I noticed details through the gauntlet of saplings that divided us. Long white tusks curled like a grin from his lower jaw; dried mud, anchored by thick bristles, formed a cracked armor on this flank and neck; his right front hoof, socked with black, appeared like a bridge support, rerouting the flow of a small stream of snow run-off. I broke from my near trance-like state when, out of the periphery of my vision, I saw Daniel raise the rifle to his shoulder. The metronome slowed as we waited for the shot. Then “crack!”. The once cool, boggy air turned sulfurous and turbulent as the shot left the barrel, grazed a sapling and thudded into the decayed stump. It seemed that even before the long-dead tree exploded with new energy, the boar was gone — a streak of black quickly obscured by wood and leaves. We each began breathing again and let out a collective sigh of equal parts excitement and disappointment. Daniel’s shot was true, but deflected. The good news? It was time for lunch.
Other than the breakfast-time target practice, the only shooting I’d been doing all day was with my Nikon D90. The mottled sunlight flitting through the leaf canopy had offered great conditions for capturing the action. On our way back to the lodge for lunch, Daniel asked if he could borrow the camera to take some shots. I handed it to him and he passed me the rifle to carry. With the rifle open, unloaded, and draped over my forearm, I walked alongside Nick back to camp. Nick was in the midst of telling me a promising joke about shrimp and white wine when I felt his hand land firmly on my chest, as if he were driving and had to stop abruptly. I looked to his face but his gaze was fixed in front of him. I jerked my head to follow his outstretched index finger and landed my focus on a full-grown Russian boar rooting in the grass at the edge of a massive clearing. We were about a hundred yards away from him, but the woods were bare and his silhouette was clear. From somewhere I was handed two bullets. My heart tightened with adrenaline and my hands instinctively went to work. Moments later the nearly 400-pound animal collapsed to the ground.
While I’ll never forget taking the shot, I also don’t remember many of the descriptive details surrounding the moment.
I’ve come to realize that that’s how it works: Shooting and killing something forces extreme, almost myopic focus.
I don’t remember the weight of the rifle, the smell in the air, or even the presence of my comrades. But even now I can close my eyes and see the scope’s crosshairs painted across the boar’s shoulder. I can feel the trigger give and the scope go black.
I have a blurry, grainy montage in my mind of loading the gun, pulling back the hammer, and readying myself — but the fatal shot itself? High definition.
We spent the rest of the afternoon field dressing, skinning, and quartering the boar. We saved most of the internal organs — the heart and liver are destined for an Italian ragu featuring dark chocolate, while much of the intestine will case a few types of fresh and dried sausages. The hind legs will emerge twelve months from now as boar prosciutto and the belly will be split between rashers of bacon and pancetta.
The night of the hunt we peeled the tenderloins from the carcass, seasoned them with coarse salt and pepper, and grilled them over a hot wood fire. The meat had a texture like that of beef and a richness of flavor I had never expected from pork. I’m excited about how our cured efforts will turn out. We’ve got a few more surprises in the works and will be sharing all of the recipes on our DIY blog. We will keep you posted when they go up.
While my motivation for the trip had been the opportunity to cook with a whole animal, I now find myself thinking more of the hunt itself. Stalking and shooting a living thing is an intense process with complex consequences. It’s something we plan to repeat, so stay tuned for our next adventure.
Photos by Steve Klise