“We come here from time to time,” a new voice answers.
“Are you here with your families, or just a guy’s getaway?”
“Either way, we’re just minding our own business.” I expect this is their way of indicating I should do the same.
“Nothing wrong with that.” I step near the stream, head towards no one in particular, just to explore the area. Perhaps I’ll cross over in a narrow spot and circle around the back of the trio.
As I wander, and I turn my back towards the man on the log, I see him reach down around his feet, then kick something to the side. God bless my peripheral vision. I make a note to check back there on my return from the far side of the spot, but it will take a bit as there are still plenty of trees between here and there.
Propped up on the back side of one of the trees, I spy a fishing pole with bait still dangling from the line. Again, I follow the guidance I’ve been given and remain up front about what I observe.
“I see you’ve got your poles out. How’s the fishing today?” I watch as the group exchange unspoken indicators as to how to answer. Finally, one speaks up.
“Nothing much in this creek worth fishing,” one of them offers.
Another counters his friend’s comment. “What he means is we’ve not done any fishing since there isn’t much visible worth even casting a line.”
“Never hurts to be prepared just in case the fish change their mind, right?” This time I get no answer. I force myself to take a deep cleansing breath to help me remain calm. “Do you gentlemen have your fishing licenses handy?”
Now we’re getting to the crux of the situation. From the far side of the bank, the one man, who upon a closer glance appears to be the oldest, counters my request.
“We aren’t fishing, so there’s no need for you to be checking our licenses.”
I see this isn’t going to be a simple check of the situation, and I’m going to be questioned on the specifics of the circumstances.
“That is true, sir,” I add the title respectfully, whether he deserves it or not, “however, there’s water dripping from the pole over there, so the odds are someone was tempted by a trout up here on the creek. If one of you happens to have his current license, that’s all I need to see.”
I’ve given them a couple outs. First, even though they all ought to have licenses, with my not having seen who exactly pulled that pole from the water, they can always say the guy with the valid license was the only one fishing, and I’d accept that at face value, even though I doubt that’s what’s actually happening here. Second, I’m not going to ask to see every license, even though it is within my rights as a Forest Service employee to ask for them. Curiously, none of them reach for their wallets.
As I circle back closer to the water, I see a glint of something shiny in the water – a stringer with two fish tugging towards the water hoping to make a getaway. I’m secretly glad to know my spidey sense isn’t wrong.
I don’t say anything about my find, but move closer to it so that it is not a secret that I’ve seen it. There’s a couple rocks placed strategically to hide the line attaching it to a nearby branch.
“So, how about those licenses, gentlemen?”
Again, the small band of campers makes no effort to accommodate my request. Finally, I spot the stash: a camouflage blanket set back in the shadows with what appears to be a tackle box hidden underneath, and who knows what else. I’m getting scared about what I might find, but this is my responsibility to check out the situation. I hear movement from the men as I wander back to the cache.
“Any problems if I look under the blanket, gentlemen?” I certainly don’t need their approval, and I certainly don’t think they’re gentlemen, but nonetheless, I attempt to keep the situation low key. As I lift up the corner of the blanket, I can tell from their faces, they certainly have objections.
The first glance reveals several other poles. I look back up at the men and, for the third and most emphatic time, ask for their licenses.
“Gentlemen, based on what I’m seeing here, you will all need to produce your fishing licenses.”
“Look,” one of them finally replies. “We don’t have our poles on the water, so I don’t think we need to show you anything.”
“Well, sir, that’s where we don’t necessarily see eye to eye, because I see four men, and four fishing poles, not to mention a couple successful catches already in tow.” I point to the stringer, and while tempted to put my hands in my pockets to look calm, I think it’s better to keep my hands in plain view. Besides, I’m anything but calm.
I see the men giving looks back and forth, as if they have a secret unspoken language, that loosely translated means, “Now what the fuck are we supposed to do?”
Finally, one man on the other side of the water crosses, splashing, and approaches me, but stops when he gets within about fifteen feet. I can still see the other two behind him, staggered between the trees.
“Look, bitch, we aren’t bothering anyone here, but you are pissing me off with your nosey ass coming around here for no real reason.”
Oh crap, this is exactly the situation I knew would happen at some point as a woman working solo in the forest, but now that I am in the moment, I wish it wasn’t happening right now. I need to keep my wits about me and stay grounded.
“Well, now, we received a report from some other campers, so I suppose someone along the way was bothered by something going on. And whether or not that was you all, I’ve stumbled upon some unauthorized actions if you all are unable to show me your fishing licenses.”
I decide that the best course of action is to at least finish assessing the situation, so I lift up the entire blanket and I do find the stash of fireworks, as well as a couple of handguns. Let’s just guess there are more from where those came.
“Okay. Fireworks are not permitted on the Bighorn National Forest, so it appears that there are several violations here.”
“We have a right to do whatever we want if we’re not causing any damage, we certainly don’t have to change our plans just because you have a log up your ass.”
“While we certainly want you to enjoy your time in the forest, when you book your reservation to camp here with us, you agree to follow the guidelines set forth for the forest. Unfortunately, I am going to confiscate the fireworks, and issue citations for them, as well as fishing without a license.”
“Fuck you.” I’m not even sure which one of the men tossed the latest f-bomb, but I know I’ve used up about all the more courage I brought with me. I wish my truck is closer, but at least I still have a radio with me.