When Does the Ferry Leave? a short reminisce by Bill Hebner

The Washington Department of Game had a long tradition of employees working together on lake rehabilitations, game check stations, and poaching night patrols. Game warden stories were an important part of every work and social occasion.  We think it is time to share some stories. 

This first story is about Mel Sharp, one of Bill’s mentors (Sig Bakke was the other.) Bill learned lots from both and the three of them shared many adventures, most involving violations with greater resource impact than this one but, this was one of Bill’s first lessons.   Mel’s wife, Delores, is a member of ARFWE and Bill dedicates this story and any future “Mel” stories to her. Delores, like so many spouses, supported their dedication to work and tolerated their many practical jokes.

Depending on popularity, Bill could be enticed into writing and sharing more stories. We welcome others to share their stories too.

Bill Hebner and Lora Leschner

Wally Kraemer was the Chief of Enforcement and Assistant Chiefs Wayne Wendt and Dave Schultz oversaw our cadet class.   There were about a dozen vacant enforcement stations to be filled with this cadet class and Oroville was one of them.  To me, Oroville was heaven on Earth, and I was already living one lifelong dream, how could I be so selfish to wish for my dream station to be awarded at the same time?  Acquiring your first dream station was usually a 10 year long process that started with graciously accepting your first duty station wherever it was, working hard at catching poachers and waiting patiently for your ideal station to become vacant and then hope you have enough seniority and work record sufficient to be awarded a transfer.   Towards the end of our training, each cadet was called out of class to be informed of his station assignment.  I was one of the last to be called and remember looking  Assistant Chief Dave Schultz in the eye (someone I admired, and respected and that once worked the Oroville station himself) informing me that I had been selected to fill the Oroville station.  I was so excited my throat was dry and could hardly speak but somehow managed to get the words out to thank Dave and assure him I would not let him down.  Dave went on to tell me that I had a lot to learn and that there was a seasoned game warden who lived in nearby Omak by the name of Mel Sharp.   Dave described Mel as one of the best game wardens in the state and that I could learn a lot from him and that I would do well to work with him as much as possible.   

I can still remember the first time I met Mel.  It was a beautiful fall day in September and the two of us spent the day together on the Sinlahekin Game Range monitoring the 10 Bighorn Sheep permit holders who were all hunting the cliffs on the east side of the valley. I quickly became mesmerized with Mel’s welcoming and disarming demeanor.    Mel was in his late 50’s, about 6 foot, 225 pounds, had black hair (Ronald Regan style), had penetrating blue eyes rimed with heavy black colored glass frames, was a coffee lover (usually always two thermoses), almost always sported a smile and had a deep baritone voice and an infectious chuckling and rolling laugh that originated somewhere deep in his chest and rolled out melodiously.  Mel presented a delightful first impression to me and everyone else he met that only grew more appealing in time.   Mel was committed to seeing humor in everything and forced those who were around him to do the same.  He was the consummate optimist and never, and I mean never, did I hear him say a disparaging word about any of his coworkers or anyone else for that matter.   Wildlife Control Agent Ron Friesz and I often talked about Mel missing his calling, he should have been a therapist as he could make anyone in his presence happy and joyful.    

Yes, Mel was a nice guy, but he was no push over.  Mel could read people like no one else I had ever met. He was literally a living and walking lie detector.   No one could pull the wool over on Mel.  He had values and morals of the highest degree; he was as honest as the day is long.  Mel did his job with firmness and what separates him from most is that he did it with a listening ear, while being sensitive and respectful to all, including to the most despicable violators.   I idealized him simply because he was a 30 year veteran game warden and everything that came with that but when I was exposed to his genuine character, his generosity and respect for his fellow mankind, I became a Mel Sharp fan through and through.  Mel was deservedly held in the highest regard by his community members and everyone else who met him.

One of my first game warden lessons, was an incident where Mel and I were working together during a late deer season in the mountains near Bonaparte Lake east of Tonasket.  This was a late deer season open only to the taking of whitetail buck deer (closed for mule deer).  On this day, we were in Mel’s patrol car, an early 70’s dodge coronet because I was a new officer and already had driven my allotted mileage.  Mel claimed to always have extra and available mileage.  Although he was mindful of the mileage restrictions, he often stated his philosophy as, “mileage restrictions are good as long as they don’t get in the way of doing the real work.”    

On this Sunday afternoon, the two of us found ourselves set up at an intersection of several gravel Forest Service roads high up in the mountains.   Our strategy was to stop and check hunters as they were headed home and slowed or stopped at the intersection.   As two hunter vehicles approached simultaneously, Mel greeted and spoke with the occupants in the first vehicle and I took the second vehicle.  The second vehicle was a larger Travel-all type truck with 4 middle aged male passengers in it.  As the travel-all approached and before stopping, the driver opened his window, stuck his head out, and asked me, “When does the ferry leave”?  Mel was engaged in his hunter interview with the first vehicle occupants and I was unaware he was overhearing my conversation.   I responded politely to the driver by explaining I had no idea when the ferry left, that there are not any state ferry landings anywhere close by.  The driver explained that they thought they were late for their ferry departure and that is why they were in a hurry.  Being respectful of their haste in catching a ferry, I began interviewing the hunters hurriedly, determined that they were all 4 hunting, and according to them they had not harvested anything.  I am sure they showed signs of nervousness but at the time I did not notice it or go on alert (recognizing nervousness was a skill Mel helped me develop and hone after this).  After all, this was an expensive new truck, these were well groomed professional appearing citizens, outfitted in expensive hunting clothes and who all seemed reasonable and cordial.  To be sure, I walked around the rig and looked through the windows of the travel-all and did not see anything that looked suspicious.  To my inexperienced eye, things seemed to be as they had been explained.  I asked to inspect their licenses and tags and did not notice any discrepancies or did I observe any blood on hands or fingers.   I wished them good luck next time hunting, a safe drive back to the coast and a wish that they caught their ferry.  They thanked me and left in a hurry.

Mel concluded his contact and walked towards me.  Mel was on point, was suspicious of my contact with the hunters in the travel-all.  He asked, “Did that guy ask you if you knew when the ferry leaves?”  I told him, “Yes.” Looking in the direction of the departed travel-all, he asked me if I was sure they had not done anything wrong?  I explained that their liecenses were in order, that I walked around the vehicle looking through the vehicle windows and did not see a deer.  Then Mel asked, “what did they have in the back of their rig”?  I explained that it was pretty much a mess, that they had all their camping equipment thrown in the back in a disorderly fashion.  With that Mel was obviously stressed, pacing, looking down the road in the direction the travel-all departed and suddenly yelled, “Get in”.  I jumped in his patrol car and Mel sped off after the travel-all that had a substantial lead on us by now.  As Mel sped down the road, he kept mumbling to himself, “When does the ferry leave”?  Then he asked again if they told me they were in a hurry.  I said, “Yes, how did you know”?  With that Mel sped up even more, he is now sliding around the corners on the gravel road with coffee thermoses and aluminum coffee cups clanging as they rolled side to side on the floorboards in the backseat as Mel sped down the road trying to catch up with the travel-all, mumbling, “When does the ferry leave”?  I am hoping we do not meet an oncoming vehicle.   I asked Mel if he thought they might have a deer under all their camp equipment clutter?  He said, “without a doubt”, mumbling “ When does the ferry leave”?, and speeding up even more making me feeling foolish and horrible that I let these guys go without a closer look and, very nervous about sliding off the road.  Mel went on to explain the gear they had piled up in disarray in the back of their rig is what he refers to as a “cougar kill”.  Often, people who stack their equipment like that are hiding something underneath.  You add that to the fact they were in a hurry, they were nervous and their voluntary and out of place question, “When does the ferry leave”?, you can bet they have an illegal deer.   Down the road we go, faster and faster, for what seemed like an eternity but only about 10 minutes when we finally caught up to the travel-all.

Seeing the travel-all in front of us and closing the distance, Mel’s gazed focused on the travel-all was like a cougar about to pounce on a deer, he muttered to himself one more time, “When does the ferry leave” as he turned on his emergency lights to pull the rig over.  Luckily, the suspects were not up for a chase and pulled over, the hair raising ride was over.   Mel and I got out of his patrol rig and Mel, maintaining his usual calm exposure, explained to the driver who he was and that he needed to confirm the information they shared earlier.  The driver started out by saying the four of them hunted deer all weekend and that they had not killed anything.  Mel chuckled at the driver using that all familiar deep rolling laughter, told the driver that he has been doing this work for thirty years, that the hunter wasn’t a very good liar, and offered him an opportunity to start over, this time with the truth.  The driver melted, said, “You got us”, got out to the truck and displayed a huge four point mule deer that they had killed sometime over the weekend and had it hidden and buried under their camping equipment.  As soon as I picked my jaw up off of the ground, as he often did, Mel had me write out tickets to the four hunters for possession of closed season deer as he visited/cajoled with them and eventually had them load the deer up on top of his patrol vehicle.  After it was all said and done, the hunters all shook our hands, thanked us, and headed down the road.  Mel and I got back in the rig and continued our patrol and as he turned his patrol car around, he mumbled, “When does the ferry leave” and laughed, this time louder than I had heard him laugh all day.

I learned a lot that day.  Mel and I often brought up and laughed over the phrase, “When does the ferry leave”?   We even used the phrase during other contacts to alert one another of something suspicious and for the other to go on alert.   Mel taught me many things over the years on how to be an effective game warden and more than that, a better human being.  For that, I am forever grateful but more than that, I could not have had a better friend.