Nov/Dec 2008Murphy's Lawby Ben McC. Moïse

There were days when everything that could go wrong did. One outing brought Murphy's Law into full fruition. I remember it all too well. It was the proverbial frosty morning late in the duck season. The Maybanks had invited me to stop by the old house on Jehossee Island on the Edisto River to have breakfast after my morning patrol. I asked my younger daughter, Sarah, then barely a teenager, to come along on the patrol that morning, after which we would join the Maybanks.

I woke Sarah hours before sunrise and headed for the Jehossee landing on Dahoo Creek. In the roughly forty-five minute trip from Charleston to the landing, I regaled Sarah with various scenarios of what we were likely to encounter. Every time I took people on the duck patrol, I was careful to let them know what to expect in advance, since once we launched and got into position, there could be no talking.

I was busy running my mouth as we turned off the main dirt road on Grove Plantation, heading down to the landing. It was one of those pitch-black nights when one could see only what was directly in front of the headlights.

My attention, normally devoted to negotiating the narrow road in the darkness, was distracted by my conversation with Sarah, and somehow I missed the small road that turned off to the right and ran along a fence line down to the landing. I noticed this lapse when the road I was on became narrower and narrower, almost disappearing in a dense grove of planted pine trees. At that point there was absolutely no place to turn around, especially with the trailer attached. Backing up was out of the question because of the limited visibility and the fact that there was a fairly deep ditch on one side.

Daddy's Law

Sarah Moïse Young recalls the same duck patrol her father, retired game warden Ben Moïse, wrote about in a chapter called "Murphy's Law" of his recent book, Ramblings of a Lowcountry Game Warden: a Memoir.

I remember being rousted from my bed that morning in the unwelcome pre-dawn and treated to an interminable lecture on what I was to say and do, when and if we encountered a hunting violator. At least I think it was interminable, because I'm pretty sure I fell asleep amongst the detritus of duck blind, down gloves, decoy netting and dog that consumed the front seat of Daddy's patrol car. When I awoke, it was to the headlights shining upon a solid wall of spindly, white, pine trees, behind us, only the inky blackness of dirt road. Daddy was gnashing his teeth to powder, so I figured that this wasn't supposed to happen, and wisely assuming it didn’t invite discussion, promptly fell asleep again as he wrestled car and boat trailer in a 270-point turn they never teach you in drivers' ed. Continued...

I got out of the car, detached the trailer, and began pushing it around to get it off the center of the road headed in the opposite direction. At that point I noticed one of the trailer tires had gone flat, adding greatly to the difficulty of moving it. After completing that maneuver, I then began the tedious and lengthy task of turning the car completely around on the narrow road without getting it in the ditch. With the car finally turned around, I drove just past the trailer and refastened it to the ball hitch. By the time we got to the landing the tire had come completely off the rim, a problem I figured I would attend to after the duck patrol. Sarah, being learned in the tales told by Uncle Remus, acted like ol' Brer Fox ("lay low and ain't say nuttin").

I turned around in the small parking lot and backed the boat down to the ramp. I got out, shined a light down toward the water, and saw that it was a little lower than half tide and going out. I stowed some gear in the boat and then slowly backed down the ramp, careful of the sheer drop-off at the end of the concrete ramp. Despite my attention the tireless wheel rim ran off the end. The trailer dropped suddenly to one side, and the water came pouring in over the transom of the boat. I continued backing to level the boat, and then the other wheel fell over the edge.

I had to get in the flooded boat, start it up, pull the plug out, and run up and down the creek for a few minutes to drain all the water out of it. I came back to the landing, tied the bow line to an old piling, and got in the car to pull the trailer up. The trailer wouldn't budge. The frame was right down on the ramp and the wheels were jammed behind the broken end, which was completely under water. Needless to say my pressure gauge was considerably elevated by that time, but I stoutly resisted the temptation to indulge in a good pressure-releasing cussin' fit. As for Sarah, she just continued to lay low.

I backed the trailer a little farther down the ramp, got out, grabbed the frame, lifted the good wheel side, and dragged it over where the wheel was sitting just above the broken edge of the ramp. I got back in the car and with a mighty surge managed to get the trailer up the ramp. I noticed that the collision of the tireless rim with the concrete ramp had managed to flatten the rim out at the point of impact, a condition that caused a distinct gash as I towed it across the grassy parking area.

When we went down to the boat, I noticed in the beam of my flashlight that I had apparently carried the plug with me after I had tied it up, and - owing to my lengthy exertions in extracting the trailer from the ramp - the boat had once more taken on a considerable quantity of Dahoo Creek water.

After running the boat up and down the creek once again to drain out the water, I approached the landing to retrieve Sarah, who was waiting there patiently in the dark and who was, no doubt, wondering if I worked this hard launching the boat every morning. We ran a short distance out of Dahoo Creek into the Edisto River and down a little farther, where we entered Fish Creek, which winds through the marsh on the western side of Jehossee Island.

Amid all the clamor back at the landing, I had already heard the distant sounds of outboard motors running in the river. As we got well into Fish Creek, I spotted the light of a blinded-up boat ahead of us. As we passed by, I could see that there was only one person in the boat. I slowed as we drove around his set of decoys, continued some distance away from him and steered the boat into a narrow side drain. I pulled the engine up and turned the boat around with my push pole. After turning off my lights, I pushed the boat back just far enough to look down the creek toward the other boat.

I slapped the surface of the water off the bow with the oar six or eight times to make it sound as though I were putting out decoys. Sarah and I then sat and quietly waited for legal shooting time to arrive. A full ten minutes before that moment, our man began firing at passing wood ducks. I stood on the bow to get a better look and saw him only a moment later dropping one and then another. I didn't see whether he had hit any with his first shots, but I did see him drop a third and a fourth, which - for wood ducks - made two over the limit.

I stepped to the back of the boat with the push pole in hand, stuck it over the stern, and leaned on it. The boat did not budge. The tide had left us high and dry. I got Sarah in the back of the boat with me to lighten the bow, and pushed with all my might, sinking the push pole about five feet into the pluff mud. What little forward movement I succeeded in gaining only served in pushing up a wall of mud in front of the boat.

I got my radio out of my boat box to summon another officer who I knew was working several miles up the river, thinking I could ask him to come over and make the apprehension. The radio battery was stone dead. Shortly after realizing that dilemma, I began to hear this eerie muffled moaning sound emanating from the direction of my daughter, who apparently could stand it no longer and was quaking from hysterical laughter with her head buried in the depths of her parka.

Not seeing anything one bit funny, I went back to the front of the boat with the oar in hand, scooped the pile of mud off to the side, and returned to the stern. Using the oar as a lever against the outside of the transom, I began to wedge the boat forward over the mud. I had already come out of my warm outfit, as I was sweating profusely.

I made agonizingly slow progress but finally managed to reach the mouth of the drain at the somewhat deeper main creek. Just about at the point where I was home free, the handle of the oar broke in half. More muffled squealing and hissing came from that headless insulated coat. It had almost taken on the tones of a steady rattling moan, with intermittent gasps for breath.

By that time I was light years ahead of anything resembling mere exasperation. I left the stump of my oar sticking up in the mud, wildly flung the handle out into the marsh, and grabbed the then very muddy push pole and continued my tortured journey down the creek toward the culprit, who was by then picking up his decoys.

When I finally got into some deep water, I let the engine down and pushed the starter, but it wouldn't crank. After a few minutes of that, I pulled the engine back up and resumed poling. I got close enough to call breathlessly over to the hunter and tell him who I was and that I wanted to check him before he left.

He waited as I approached his boat, and I told him that I wanted to see his ducks. He produced two woody drakes. I told him that I had seen him drop two more than that and that I wanted to search his boat. Well, I combed that boat from bow to stern. I made him take off his waders. I looked through his decoy bag. I looked through his boat box. There were only the two wood ducks, and those were the only ones he would admit to shooting. I could tell that any professional demeanor that I possessed was fading fast, and I sent him on his way forgetting even to check his gun and license or write him a ticket for the violation of shooting before legal hours.

The tide was still too low to get into House Creek at Jehossee, just a short distance down the river from the mouth of Fish Creek. On low tide House Creek becomes impassable with a profusion of stumps and waterlogged trees. Several more attempts to start the engine failed, and I wound up poling all the way back to the landing, fortunately aided by an incoming tide.

Since my trailer was useless and the tide was still low enough that the drop-off at the ramp was exposed, the only thing to do was to detach my trailer and hook on to one of the other trailers parked there at the landing. I knew the owner and was confident that he wouldn't mind. I carefully backed it down to the point of the drop-off and pulled the winch cable down to the bow eye of the boat.

There was a pretty stiff current moving across the end of the ramp, and I had tied the bow line of the boat to the trailer frame to hold it in place. I pulled the bow of the boat up at a steep angle to rest on the trailer skids, and began to winch the boat out of the water. I had just untied the bow line and was about to flip it back into the boat when the winch cable snapped, sending the boat stern-first into the water. As a result of the backward motion, I saw my push pole slide down the back of the boat into the water and go floating off with the tide. I was unable to retrieve it since the boat wouldn't run.

Sarah was sitting in the car, having reverted to her Brer Fox routine out of sheer exhaustion. At any rate, by now normal conversation was simply impossible because every time she looked over at me she broke out in uncontrollable laughter, scarcely able to catch her breath.

I got one of my big tobacco cups out of the car and bailed the water out of the boat. Then I cut the winch hook off the end of the broken cable and refastened it along what seemed to be a sounder section. By this time the tide had come up a little farther, and I didn't have so far to lift the bow of the boat onto the trailer skids. I never let go of that bow line either. After removing the gas tanks to lighten the boat, I successfully winched it onto the borrowed trailer and pulled it up the ramp. I tied the stern of the boat to a utility pole, pulled the trailer out from beneath the boat, and left it sitting there on the grass.

I reattached the borrowed trailer to the proper vehicle, wrote a note, which I put on the windshield of Jack Maybank's car, apologizing for missing breakfast and headed back to Charleston. I came back that afternoon with a new tire and rim. Sarah never again accompanied me on a duck patrol.

© 2008 University of South Carolina Press. Reprinted with permission from Ramblings of a Lowcountry Game Warden: A Memoir by Ben McC. Moïse, published by the University of South Carolina Press.


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