On the morning of the first day, the hunting party starts on the island's north side, not even three miles from camp, but the swamp is so dense in places that the only way to access some areas is by going all the way around the island by boat. The hunting party, nine men, travel in a hodgepodge armada of flatboats that draw only four inches of water and can move through most any creek, provided it is wide enough.
The success of the journey is entirely dependent on the tide, and today the window is narrow. So, after a nine-mile ride, we tie the boats up in a creek with high red clay banks and try to make the best use of our time. For the first two hours there is not even a hint of hog. The only boar we see is a stray brown piglet so tiny even the catch dog all but ignores it when, in a total panic, it scrambles in between and past us. Determined to find a pig, Boyd announces that he's taking the dogs into the heart of the swamp. This is what passes for a plan on a boar hunt: the guy with all the dogs heading off alone into the deepest filth in order to drive a boar, notorious for fighting, not fleeing, out of hiding and onto higher ground.
This strikes me as something of a challenge to my Yankee manhood – and, as such, irresistible. I follow him as he disappears into a thicket of young oaks. Just walking through the swamp requires judgment at every step. Each time your boot disappears under the black water there's no telling whether you will need to pull yourself free or lose your balance entirely. Boyd, however, simply leaps from the base of one sapling to another. After 20 minutes, he is so far ahead of me I can barely see him – and then the dogs begin barking. "Hog!" yells Boyd.
A few moments later, the baying starts. My instinct is to run, but the closest I can get to moving faster than a crawl is hand-over-handing through the saplings and dead trunks, pulling myself along as much as walking. So much muck is splattering on my face that I stop trying to wipe it.
Boar hunters who reject the gun or bow for the blade make an awfully big deal about the knives they use. Bloggers devote thousands and thousands of words and hundreds of jpegs to their pig stickers, which often bear more resemblance to swords than knives. Some are 10-inch brutal, cold steel weapons; others are handcrafted with polished, scalloped blades of stainless steel fixed to exotic woods with bulbous pommels.
The knife in my hand now, though – a paltry six inches – has an entirely unappealing prefab orange plastic handle, a waffle grip perfunctorily stamped into it. With the notable exception of its viciously serrated spine, my pig sticker, little more than a shiv, hardly seems up to this task.
There is a proper way to stab a boar to death. The pig will die instantly if the blade pierces its heart. The efficacy of a proper strike is why knife hunters consider their method the most humane. And there is, it is said, no mistaking a proper heart strike. "You don't have to go all Norman Bates," says Boyd. "Just thrust and press down. Pull the blade. Watch for the plume."
My first strike is high, piercing lung, not heart. There is plenty of blood, but it's not arterial. The boar, seemingly oblivious to the hole I have opened in its chest, is still lunging at the dogs, who shake their heads violently whenever their jaws lock. The pig squeals, pulls loose, and bites back. If I were nervous, and I was, I am not anymore. I am confused, absorbed, and desperate to stop the battle in front of me.
Sure of my footing, I bend my knees and lean in for my second strike, a hound's jaws snapping inches from my head. I aim and plunge the knife a full four inches lower than my first thrust. I pull the blade. More blood but no plume. I step back, next to Boyd, still panting from the race to get here and only noticing this now. "It's okay," says Boyd. "She'll die soon now."
"You know, Allan," I say, after a brief pause, watching the pig fight on, listening to the battle, "if it's all right, I'd like to try to finish this. Can I try the other side?"
"If you like," says Boyd, immediately grabbing the boar's right leg, stretching it out, exposing the vulnerable hairless patch on the pig's right flank. My third strike is also high, but the fourth is true. What little life it has bleeds out in one beat.
"Dead pig, dogs," says Boyd, his voice little more than a whisper. The dogs fall silent, shrugging off the combat. They shake their blood-soaked heads as if tossing aside a daydream, stand still for one moment with their noses in the air, and then cruise off silently through the swamp for another boar.
"You know, you bring a hundred guys out here, most all of them will not do what you just did," Boyd says, gripping me by the shoulder. I am pleased that he is pleased, but I'm not particularly happy. I've made a hash of the perfect kill, and I am worrying that I have fouled the meat, ruined it with adrenaline by letting the fight drag on.
We start calling to the members of the hunting party who have spread out all over the center of the swamp trying to find us. On my knees now, between the pig and a cypress I'm leaning against, I've finally caught my breath as Bubsy, Farmerie, and the five other hunters converge on the site. "You okay?" asks Farmerie, looking from me to the boar, both of us on the ground. "Sure," I reply, offering a thin smile.
As with all hunts, it's after the kill that the real work begins. But even pulling a full-grown mule deer off a snow-covered Montana mountainside is child's play when compared to dragging a boar out of a massive swamp. When we agree on a route back to the boat, Boyd pulls out an extra-large choke chain. I assume it is for a dog, but the dog that fits into this chain I have yet to meet. The necklace is clipped to a short nylon leash secured to 18 inches of branch, and, two at a time, we take turns on what is called the drag.
The sow is dead at 11:24. Dead low tide is at 12:33. Bubsy's 23-year-old son Ross figures that the boats will be stuck at least 10 minutes before the tide is out. We are 1.7 miles away from the boats. We'll never make the tide, Ross predicts. Boyd shushes him. "We might if you grab that pig from the Yankees."
Hip waders are useful right up until you walk through waist-deep water. After they've been topped you're essentially carrying a bucket of water on each leg. The first time I top mine, in front of Boyd's 17-year-old son Chase, the boy smiles sympathetically and says, "That's exactly why I just wear football cleats and jeans. I don't look as cool as you 'hunters,' but I can follow the dogs all right." With that he marches off with my sow, gliding atop the same mud that I sank in up to my belt.
The tide is now so low in the creek that most of the boats need to be dragged a half-mile out by at least two men. Every member of the hunting party can tell a story about getting hung up in the mud for six hours at a time, sometimes just at dusk, waiting for the flood tide to release them. That specter shortens just about everybody's temper, but all four of the boats manage to pick their way back to camp as the light starts to fade.