Canal Lateral Loire, north of Decize, France. October 20, 2013.
We pointed our canal boat north and were sipping coffee as we made the only ripples on the still silent canal. The rain clouds hung low on the east, curtaining off the sun and casting our canal, lined by tall oak, willow and locust, into a glomming of grays, browns and silver. We were alone without another boat or person in sight.
Suddenly there were competing ripples ahead in mid-canal, ruffling the smooth waters. “A duck,” I predicted. Then, “No, it’s way too large.” We cut the engine to idle and eased ahead. Here, in the center of the canal was a wild boar, thrashing the water, agitated by his condition and our presence.
We’ve seen wild boar occasionally in the forests of France, Austria and Hungary. I’ve drunk slivovitz with professional boar hunters in Romania after being called outside of a mountain lodge to admire the product of their hunt. And, I’ve eaten my share of wild boar prosciutto in Italy and pate in France. I’ve never found one in the middle of a canal.
I’ve drunk slivovitz with professional boar hunters in Romania after being called outside of a mountain lodge to admire the product of their hunt. I’ve never found one in the middle of a canal.
How this one got there I don’t know. They are intelligent, wily, animals. But even intelligent beings make mistakes, and being there was clearly a mistake. A surprisingly good swimmer, we had come across him as he moved from side to side of the canal–a good 40 feet across, longer when swum at a diagonal as he was doing.
In the hundreds and hundreds of miles of the French canal system, there are sometimes breaches in the sides. Not many, but some. There are places where time or accident has worn down the precision of the canal’s sides leaving a gap, a space, a place to gain a grip on solid land.
In this section, the repairs had been recent. Huge slabs of corrugated iron sheeting 3/8ths of an inch thick, 3 feet wide and10 feet long had been pile driven along the banks to make a continuous, interconnected and seamless wall separating water from land. A foot and a half above the water level stretched the shoreline. All silt had been removed, leaving nothing to stand on below and nothing to reach above. No easier to scale than the walls of a canal lock, these were maddeningly tempting with grass and plants growing to and over the edge, with trees rising in plain view. No breaks. No breaches. No reach for him to pull himself to safety.
I’ve helped out with pigs and hogs on farms. I’ve herded them out of holding pens, down loading chutes, and into semi-trucks. Domestic hogs are smart, wily, and when provoked, often set on mayhem or homicide. Once I had to leap to the side of a chute and pull myself up one-handed to avoid the slashing vengeance of 700 pound boar which still had one razor sharp tusk and a demonstrated determination to use it. That I was able to grab on to a piece of horizontal planking and pull myself up one-handed is witness to his ferocity, and my fear, not my strength. I had no illusion that this wild relative was any different.
We tried to maneuver our blunt-nosed, thirty-five-foot-long canal boat in closer to assist. I had a twelve-foot cane pole we’d fished out of the water several days earlier. I hoped to place the pole on the canal’s edge, giving him something to brace himself on as he occasionally threw himself at the edge hoping for a low spot or breach. He wanted nothing of it. When we drew close, he turned and attacked the blue rubber bumper hanging from the boat and designed to protect its sides from scuffs with lock walls and canal edges.
I considered trying to slip a mooring line under him or loop it over his head. Nearly impossible to do with this frightened and angry swift swimmer, it also raised the question of how would I leap from boat to shore and pull up this 90 pound piece of panicked muscle only to end up just feet away from him–and between him and a dry land escape route as he sized me up with beady eye and sharp tusk.
For half an hour we made attempts at rescue. Our only result was making him more angry and more frightened. He was still swimming strongly, but his breathing had become ragged. Fatigue and hypothermia were on their way. We were doing no good and apparently some considerable harm.
Reluctantly, we shifted to neutral as he doubled back on us and passed by our stern. For a long while we could hear his huffing breath and make out his occasional leap for the side as he swam on towards a breach or oblivion.
POSTSCRIPT: October 29, 2013. Just visited the wonderful Maison de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of the Hunt and of Nature) in Paris and later took the subway (Metro) back to the apartment we are staying at.
The museum of the hunt paid full attention to the wild boar, devoting a room to the fierce beast. One display states that in ancient Greece only the lion and the boar were considered worthy of the pursuit of nobles.
The two accompanying photos from the museum show a full sized boar, stuffed and mounted there, and one of a number of oil paintings of boar hunting, a topic which occupied artists for centuries. Note the look of fear on the hunter’s face as he moves for the kill, accompanied by other hunters, fierce dogs and servants.
Coming out of the Metro, I noticed a poster pleading for people to be more polite and less like beasts on the subway. And, the characterization used to portray that beast? The wild boar.