Trials and Tribulations of a Rookie

by WCO R. Vance Dunbar

On June 21, 1996, eighteen men and women were sworn to duty as Waterways Conservation Officers. We departed the state capital that day with lofty ideals in our minds, shiny badges on our chests, and fire in our hearts. We had just embarked on a non-stop, hair-raising, gut-wrenching journey on the green-line rollercoaster. A year's worth of ups and downs has taught us humility, among other things.

Since then, I've been a field officer. If ideals were blades, then the cutting edge of my thoughts have been tempered in some respects and melted in others. That's just gaining experience in the real world. I am committed to the resource and to those who choose to treat it respectfully and responsibly.

My law enforcement skills have been honed in the western half of the Northcentral Region. This area encompasses vast tracts of land where people can and occasionally do get lost. Too many of its inhabitants may respect the outdoors less. What I'm referring to is the belief that nature's bounty is infinite and that all things either in, on, or above the land are OK to exploit and to harvest. One needs only to look at the Susquehanna River in this region to realize that this mind set is intolerable.

One of the benefits of this line of work is the diversity of our duties. Most law enforcement professions sometimes operate on one of two levels­boredom or sheer terror. Our autonomy serves to bridge the two and allows us a continuum in which to work. For instance, an overview of my past 12 months includes: 24,000 vehicle miles, 294 boat law hours, 28 reptile and boating programs, three published articles, 162 citations, and twice as many warnings. With that much activity, some strange things are bound to happen.

A good boater knows to check the plug before he launches. WCO Tom Nunamacher and I were staring at each other in disbelief and uttering the words, "Is the plug in?" I was standing in several inches of water, in the middle of the West Branch of the Susque-hanna, while surrounded by thousands of people awaiting the annual regatta fireworks display. It could have gotten real messy. I dropped Tom off at the dock and he scrambled for the trailer. During our training they told us that if we took on water, we should get the boat on plane and the water would be sucked out the stern. I tried it and had a brief out-of-body experience when the bow of the boat shot skyward instead of forward. Visions of headlines and heartbreaks danced before my eyes, and phantom laughter echoed in my ears. Time stood still as the boat contemplated my fate­flip, sink, or stabilize. The gods grew weary of tormenting me and allowed the bow to drop and me to trailer the vessel without further incident. I don't know whose fault it was, but Tom still hasn't forgiven me.

Wouldn't it be nice if our memories had buttons that allowed us to fast forward, mute, tape over or delete some events? At the close of last year's season I starred into the lifeless eyes of a beautiful six-year-old girl with waist-long auburn hair. Her killer was still strapped into the driver's-side seatbelt of the rusty brown car she had called home for the last few months. Bottles of anti-depressants littered the vehicle floor. A sick and desperate mother, an apparent murder-suicide, and a Fish & Boat Commission lake. The event haunts my dreams.

At the beginning of last season I was battling ice and later mud. February is a good month to be at home in front of a fire, but I was at Ice Rescue Instructor training instead. Our hands-on portion involved going out on the ice, strapping onto a victim and being pulled into shore. Sounds simple, and it is, unless your victim weighs over 300 pounds. As we were being pulled in, I wound up underneath this guy and the ice kept breaking against my back and filling my suit with water. By the time we were "rescued," I was hypothermic and remained sore for a week.

Our patrol areas cover hundreds of square miles in some of Pennsylvania's roughest terrain. I rarely thought of the remoteness until I got a vehicle stuck in three feet of mud on an unnamed road in the middle of a state forest with no cellular phone and poor radio reception. I was imprisoned for six hours, but I learned to be thankful for small favors and big tow trucks.

You just never know when or where a WCO is watching you. We're expected to be knowledgeable about all things that deal with water. When a fish ladder was proposed at Lock Haven, it came as no surprise when we were asked to conduct a study on the aquatic life and habitat below the dam. There was really only one way to do the job right, so WCO Tom Nunamacher, WCO Bill Crisp, and I volunteered to don our scuba gear and check it out. Halfway through the second day, Bill saw something strange on the river floor. Close examination revealed it to be hooked shrimp attached to lines. Bill thought about tugging on the lines, but decided instead to follow them to their point of origin. Bill surfaced just five feet from the shore and scared the devil out of two men. It turned out that they didn't have fishing licenses and quickly fled. Although those two got away, it really made our day and I'm certain they'll think twice before they fish again without a license.


The author (left) and WCO Bill Crisp investigate the underwater surroundings at Lock Haven Dam on the West Branch Susquehanna River.

In addition to sinking boats, breaking through ice, getting stuck in the woods and scaring fishermen, we also present educational programs to schools and sportsmen's clubs. To meet this need I've developed a reptile program specializing in snakes and snappers. I decided to keep a supply of critters at home instead of probing the mud and rocks every time a presentation came up. Wild animals don't make good house pets, and I have some scars and stories to prove it.

WCO with turtleSomewhere in Potter County there's a smart old snapper that got the best of two WCOs. I fenced in a part of my yard and purchased a livestock well to house turtles. I'd lost three of them before I figured out they could climb. The phone calls started a few days after the first escape. People from all around town were telling me about these giant snappers digging up their vegetable gardens. I'd tell them how weird that was and how I didn't think they lived in this area. Then I'd get in my personal vehicle and try to find them. Three weeks of determined effort and some lucky breaks allowed me to catch one of the critters.

WCO Bill Crisp had a program to do and I lent him that same turtle. Bill had built a totally enclosed area, as mine now was. He knew what he was doing, but that turtle still had some tricks up his shell that we hadn't counted on. Within a week, the snapper had exhausted Bill's supply of fish and was reduced to table scraps. A large chunk of honey-glazed ham became a ticket to freedom when old snappy found an accomplice in a marauding black bear. The only way to get to the meat was to rip apart the cage. Now Bill has to deal with the phone calls.

When I reflect on these experiences, I understand how over time training blends with real-life experience. This is how rookies become veterans.

"Silicon Tail" and the Snake Man

I have a rattler tale to tell. One hot August afternoon in 1993, WCO Bob Norbeck found a timber rattlesnake in his barn. He had the pesky reptile by the tail until it darted for cover under a feed bin, but Bob wasn't left empty-handed. The snake pulled so hard that its rattle popped off. Bob managed to catch the snake and re-affix the rattles with silicon.

Four years later Bob called my house, "I caught Silicon Tail," he said. Its body is bigger around than my forearm and his disposition is a phenomenon of nature on par with tornadoes and flash floods. Maybe we shouldn't have taken him to that State Police Youth Camp Cadet program. Stan Hastings is the agency "snake man," and his experience is unparalleled. Whenever asked (someone always asks) he would hold up his hands and say, "Thirty years and never bit." He can't say that anymore. Old Silicon Tail bit him on the hand while he was attempting to secure it in a clear-plastic tube. A moment of silence and befuddlement followed, finally broken by Bob's scolding.

Silicon Tail did time in protective custody until Stan's swelling and temper wore off. Exactly one week later he stood before yet another group of wide-eyed Cadets and issued a challenge. Silicon Tail knew he'd met his match when Stan said, "This time, if you bite me....I'll bite you back."­RVD.

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January/February 1999 PA Angler & Boater

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