by Terry Hodges
A still October night in the forest. The green patrol vehicle, a four-by-four pickup, was all but invisible in the darkness. Alert behind the wheel, Warden Josh Brennan, California Department of Fish and Game, peered down into the dark void that was the Feather River Canyon. Deer season was open, and Brennan knew that it was a good night for frustrated hunters to illegally spotlight a buck. So he was there to remind them of the law. He had chosen a high point, a log landing off Big Bend Road, a place that overlooked the canyon and the Feather River below. To the east he could see roughly two miles of Bardees Bar Road, with its many switchbacks, as it descended into the canyon. The log landing was a good perch from which to watch for outlaws, but he knew his chances for encountering spotlighters in the vast forests of the Sierra Nevada were never good.
But Brennan would put in the time, for he was a pro, one of the relatively few wardens who routinely worked alone at night, one of the few with the courage to face armed violators in remote places with no hope for timely backup. But luck was with him on this night, for a slow-moving vehicle appeared on Bardees Bar Road an hour before midnight. Brennan studied it through his binoculars. It was a quad-runner ATV carrying two suspects, the passenger actively shining a powerful hand-held spotlight first one way then the other, obviously searching for deer. Brennan watched as the suspects traveled to the bottom of the canyon and were out of sight for a while. Then he saw them again, apparently returning. They had not gone far when they stopped, their spotlight trained on something he could not see. Then two loud shots rang out, echoing off the canyon walls. Seconds later the quad-runner was moving again, traveling fast with just headlight and taillights. This in no way surprised Brennan, who correctly concluded that the suspects were in a hurry to get clear of the area and to stash any guns they had. He believed they had shot a deer and would return for it later. So, he remained where he was as they drove out of the canyon and away.
It was during the two hours that followed that something unexpected happened. Vehicle lights appeared on the same road between Brennan and the river. He watched as it continued all the way to the canyon floor and then out onto a gravel bar near the river. The headlights then went out. He reached for his binoculars and focused on the spot, but he could see nothing.
Several minutes passed then suddenly he was startled by a brilliant flash of light there, light that illuminated the whole gravel bar and much of the lower canyon. Throwing his binoculars to his eyes, Brennan saw a large pile of trash ablaze near a pickup truck. He recognized the truck immediately, a large newer model Ford F-250 diesel painted entirely in camo. Standing beside the vehicle, and also clearly visible, was the pickup’s owner, one Clinton Bates, a local dope grower. Brennan had encountered him on the road a few times, once just a week earlier. Due to recent changes in California law, the wardens now turned a blind eye to small-scale marijuana growing as long as the growers did not harm wildlife.
Brennan had reminded Bates of this unwritten understanding, and Bates assured Brennan that he was well aware of it. Brennan, despite his anger at seeing a pickup load of trash dumped by the river, drenched in gasoline and ignited, resisted the urge to immediately pounce on Bates. But he knew where Bates was camped in an old motorhome near his grow, so there was no urgency. He could deal with Bates the following day. It proved to be a good decision, for an hour later, the spotlighting suspects again appeared on the quad-runner, driving down into the canyon. Brennan watched as they traveled along, and soon the spotlight came on again. When they reached the area where the shots had been fired, they stopped and turned off their lights. Twenty minutes later, their lights came on again and Brennan watched them driving his way again. A few minutes later, the suspects rounded a tight turn and were suddenly nose to nose with Brennan’s patrol rig and drenched in bright emergency lights. They skidded to a stop and sat as though petrified.