Hunting Monsters in the Night

CrossFitter Mel Soria puts his functional fitness training to the test in the backwoods of Georgia, chasing down prey that's as delicious as it is dangerous

The boar.

The boar.     Photo: Mel Soria

The feast.

The feast.

The hunters.

The hunters.

It’s 11:30 p.m. and I'm running so hard that I can taste blood in my mouth. My headlamp gives me about 20 feet of visibility, but there’s so much sweat pouring down my face that I might as well be blind. I take the seven-foot spear I’m carrying and sweep away the thorny brush in front of me and press on. In the distance I can hear that the dogs have cornered something monstrous. They’ve only got a few minutes before they’re torn to shreds by it but they’re still over 200-meters away—uphill.

That’s right, I'm on a wild boar hunt in rural Georgia and I'm sprinting toward a very big, very angry, and very dangerous beast. And when we meet, I’m going to kill it— with my own two hands.

THE CAGE
In college, I had an anthropology professor tell me once that “man built ‘civilization’ as his armor, but now it’s become his cage.” I had no idea what that meant at the time, but in late 2007 I finished grad school, moved to Los Angeles, and entered the workforce. All of a sudden I was attending endless production meetings, driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic, wolfing down fast food, and dealing with some not-so-awesome co-workers.

I began to understand what that professor was talking about. I saw it all around me—the institutions society had built to protect us from the wild (urban sprawl), prevent our illness (over-medication), and feed our hunger (nutrition deficient foods), were, in fact, killing us. I felt trapped. The malaise of modern life began to set in and I didn’t know how to handle it. For close to a year I meandered through my days in a state of numb, low-grade depression.

Unexpectedly, my salvation came to me in a question: “Wanna try out this new thing I’ve heard about called CrossFit?”

A friend of mine had been looking for a way to lose weight and asked me to tag along for moral support, to be his "workout wingman" if you will. I said yes, and the next thing I knew I was walking into a nondescript industrial space deep within the San Fernando Valley—Valley Crossfit—and trying out my very first workout of the day (WOD).

I vaguely remember the workout being as many rounds as possible (an AMRAP) of heavy deadlifts, running, and pull-ups. Like many first timers, I expected to score way more rounds than I actually did. It was a massacre; soccer moms were running laps around me. The weight was unforgiving and the clock ran down with the cadence of cruel honesty: 5 ... you ... 4 ... are ... 3 ... not ... 2 ... in ... 1 ... shape.

It was a revelation, but for all the hostility that the workout 'gifted' my body, by my side were complete strangers who, through their example and gasping breath, pushed and encouraged me. In that brief 15-minute timespan these people became my fellows, and although I got smashed, I was grateful for it.

CrossFit's mandate to train functional movement made so much sense to me—what use was it to lift a million pounds if you couldn't jump over a box? The idea of lifelong fitness being your inherent birthright was profound. And then there was this attitude of indomitability and inclusion. It was contagious—almost tribal. Something very primal in that space they called a “box” was happening, and it all clicked inside me.

Within weeks my fitness level sky-rocketed—but what was more astonishing was how my mental state had changed. I achieved a resiliency against the stressors I encountered every day. I was learning to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. It wasn't that the traffic or work was getting any better or worse, but it just didn't bother me as much anymore. If I could get through workouts like “The Filthy 50” (a benchmark CrossFit workout), then I could get through anything.

Three years later it’s 2011 and I’m turning 30. I’m in better shape than when I was 18 and to celebrate this rite of passage I’ve convinced my pals, Jeremy, owner of CrossFit Annandale, and Dylan, a garage CrossFitter, to go on this boar hunt with me. It seemed a better option than a bar crawl, which is what some of my other friends had suggested. Plus, I was looking to try something new—and I had never gone hunting before. Ever.

So here’s the rundown: In the American South, the wild boar population is seeing unprecedented growth. And they are seen as a pestilence. A hybrid of ultra-aggressive Russian black boar stock and domestic feral pigs, American wild boars (aka Razorbacks) decimate hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland and wildland a year. In addition, with their razor sharp tusks, wild boar pose considerable danger to any farmer or outdoorsman they might encounter.

In an effort to keep the razorback population in check, plantation owners often invite professional hunting outfits onto their property and allow them to take down as much game as they can. We attach ourselves to such an outfit. Seasoned hunting guides Ronnie Habgood and Scott Laster use specially trained hounds to track and pin-down their quarry, and then they carefully seize the animal to quickly dispatch it with a dagger. We've hired them to take us on, with one minor adjustment—I've opted to use a spear instead.

Ronnie's a powerfully built man in his 40s, a good ol’ boy in the best sense of the phrase. He's the type of guy who looks you straight in the eye when he shakes your hand with a vice-like grip. Scott's a few years younger, stout but fast, and he always finds a reason to smile.

Before we head out they instruct us on how to harvest a hog—what to expect, how to approach it, and where to make your incision. They know everything there is to know about their sport and they're veteran coaches of it.

THE HUNT
Daylight hours in November mean deer season in Georgia, so for our safety we have to hunt at night; the risk of accidentally getting shot during the day is too great. There's a chill in the air when our party enters the forest and I'm not sure if I feel excited or terrified. We unleash the bay dogs and they take off. It's recently rained and the soft earth muffles the sound of their paws sprinting in and out of the darkness, muzzles in the air searching for any trace of a pig's scent. The hounds are remarkable, specially trained to stalk our prey in utter silence until they've cornered it—they're the ninjas of the canine world.

Along with Ronnie and Scott, Ronnie's son in-law, Chase, 24, has decided to join us tonight. By his side he holds a rippling pit bull named Joker that wears a Kevlar vest. The pits are the muscle to the hounds' speed, and they're released at the last moment to clamp onto a hog's snout, greatly reducing its ability to swipe at you with its tusks. “Chase is a fitting name for a hunter,” I say when I meet the younger man. “Well, Catch would be better,” he says.

The boys and I chuckle at that and the guides can sense our apprehension—we are, after all, going monster hunting in the middle of the night—and the joke is a much-needed bit of humor to lighten the mood.

"Who's up first?" Ronnie asks. "The spear-man, the birthday boy," Jeremy answers. I raise my spear into the air. "Birthday boy? By the end of the night, you'll be more of a birthday man.” Ronnie says. Only half paying attention, I nod in response as I stare into the darkness in front of me.

The chatter eventually dies down. The dogs are hundreds of yards away by now, in all directions, stalking our prey. And although they have GPS collars to track their general location, there's no way of telling which dog's caught anything except when it barks. So we listen intently, waiting for one of them to bay and lead us to a cornered hog.

As we trudge deeper into the forest, something special happens. Slowly, our bodies become aware that they’ve traversed the divide between the modern world and nature, like they’re waking up from a long sleep, remembering things long forgotten. In the silence your senses sharpen—things become clear.

My eyes begin to adjust to the low light and I can see shafts of moonlight cut through the forest canopy. Every once in a while there’s enough sky to see a thousand stars pin-hole the curtain of night. It's beautiful. I can feel the consistency of the ground beneath my feet in detail and I shift my weight accordingly as I trek through mud, stream, and rock. I can hear leaves sway in the wind and every twig that snaps beneath my heels is like a firecracker exploding.

"Shhh! Listen!" We freeze. Desperate to detect any sound, we whip our heads to and fro; the spotlights from our headlamps dance on the pine trees standing sentinel above us. At first all you can hear is the hollow void of emptiness, but then, like a cry reaching back from the Stone Age, you can hear it; a low rumble of barking and howls followed by the squealing roar of a monster erupts into the night air.

"There! They got one! 400 meters that way!" Scott checks his GPS tracker as he points to my left. We take off.

Like phantoms, we disappear into the night, flying toward the baying hounds. Truthfully, I don't know how we're doing it—how I'm doing it. I'm moving so fast that I can barely register what I see before I negotiate it, but somehow I flow over the terrain. It's all subconscious, a million years of instinct propelling me forward; there is no thought—just action. I hurdle logs, climb over boulders, duck at the last second under branches. I weave in and around tree trunks and long jump over streambeds.

I use my spear as a counter balance when I scree-hop down a slope and then rip through a cluster of bushes that morph into a hill. There is no delay as I tear up the incline, my boots kicking dirt up into the air. I can feel adrenaline surge through my body (it numbs the burning in my legs) as my sense of perception reaches out into the dark like radar. I know exactly where everyone else is, their panting beacons in the night. The hill levels off as our footsteps quicken and we're accelerating.

"Stop! Listen again!" Scott commands.

We skid to a halt. It's hard to listen with my heartbeat thundering in my skull but eventually my hearing shifts, keying on the battle raging in the distance. The dogs and hog are closer, but they've moved. They're more to our right now.

But there’s no time to waste. We need to get to the fight immediately because the hounds are in danger and every second counts. Unlike the pit bulls, who wear Kevlar vests, the hounds wear no protection—they need to be fast. (In an open field a wild boar can easily outrun any dog.) They're trained to not engage the boar, just keep it at bay—thus their moniker—but eventually the boar will try to gore its pursuers. Just last year, Ronnie's prized hunting dog, Rufus, was found dead, sliced open from chest to throat by a bull hog.

Scott checks his GPS again, locks on a new heading and shouts, "200 meters that way! Up that hill!" We set off at a sprint again, but this hill is far steeper than the last. My lungs are on fire and fatigue is setting in. But unlike everything else tonight, this feeling isn't new to me—CrossFit's intense WODs have made sure of it. We suck it up and power through.The sound of the dogfight grows louder and louder as we crest the hill, and it's clear that this boar is pissed.

Chase is right in front of me when he releases Joker. The pit bull shoots forward like a rocket. I round a series of large oak trees and finally come upon the scene. Dogs are flying off a dark figure. I can only describe it as pure and raw violence. The beast is a sow, a 90-pound female, and she fights like a demon. Locked in mortal combat, she bellows a cry of rage and fury. Animals are not like men. They cannot lie. Every gesture dog or hog makes declares a murderous intent. The dogs who've been thrown off rear forward to renew their attack, snapping their jaws, and clawing at the she-monster. In return, the sow bites back, kicking and ramming her missile-shaped head at anything that moves.

"Kill it!" I hear someone yell.

Everything is in slow motion now. It's the moment of truth; it's time to answer the question I've been asking myself ever since I decided to go on this hunt: Can I master my fear and do what must be done? Can I end this creature's life with dignity? Or have I been lying to myself all this time and actually belong in that civilized cage, afraid to earn my place in the natural order of things? There's a reason why we chose Ronnie and Scott's hunting outfit to go on this trip—it's because you do it with a blade, close up, no guns. If this boar dies, it'll be looking me in the eye when it does. The sow stares at me now, proud and full of wrath, unwilling to yield to death.

I calm myself, forcing long and controlled breaths. My heart is beating a million miles a minute, but it begins to slow. It's essential that my spear is steady; the brawl is so frenetic I could accidentally impale a dog. I pull the sheath off my spearhead and, without looking, hand it to Dylan. I bury my self-doubt somewhere deep inside me and make my approach. Four or five dogs have clamped onto the sow and she's pinned down, but she's still powerful and thrashing. I gently lower my spear, touching the tip behind her right armpit. I aim for the shortest path to the heart and I stab, piercing the jet-black hide.

THE FEAST
The evening following the hunt, we're home celebrating our harvest at a dinner party surrounded by family and friends. We talk about hunting ‘til dawn, running/hiking over 15 miles in the dark. We remember how hard it was to drag Jeremy's kill (a 130-pound behemoth) up and out of the little valley we caught it in. The food is deliriously good, a feast of boar meat—every bite pure satisfaction.

There's laughter and high spirits. Dylan's mom is as impressed with her son's exploits (his catch is a magnificent silver and gold 60-pounder) as much as she's relieved that we've all made it back in one piece. Our friends are happy to relive the whole experience through the lens of our memory, though they don't envy our lack of sleep or the cold we endured. We toast to our good fortune, beer bottles clinking.

As the festivities carry on I can't help but reflect on the entire experience. The hunt was a true test of General Physical Preparedness (GPP). Before I found CrossFit I wouldn't have ever dared to do something like this—wouldn't be able to do it. And once again I can see the direct impact my improving fitness has had on the quality of my life, and I am thankful. Most importantly, I realize that the civilized cage I've so resented no longer exists for me. Through training, I've unknowingly removed its door, transforming it from a prison to a shelter, where I can come and go as I please. Make no mistake, I have no desire to live completely wild, to abandon all the great things modern life has to offer me—namely milkshakes and central heating. But now I can say that there is a balance, a state of readiness and freedom that allows me to bridge the modern world and the natural world. Being healthier, fitter, has made me at peace in both environments.

I look out the window. It's raining again and I swear that I can hear the baying of hounds. I'm tempted, but I turn back to the shining faces of my friends and the feast laid out before us and I am content. Of course, we talk about going on another hunt one day, but for tonight I will eat, drink and be at rest—after all, I've got a WOD to hit up in the morning.

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