By Brian Paglia
The bucket seemed odd. Shane Brown noticed it as he pulled his state-issued Ford F-150 truck up to a closed dirt road at Dawson Forest Park. It was 1:45 p.m., with a clear sky and a soft heat alleviated by the breeze coming off Lake Lanier.
So far, this Monday had been uneventful, which is pretty standard for a game warden with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ law enforcement division. The action comes on the weekends. This past Saturday, Brown had spent all night looking for two kayakers who were reported missing only for them to turn up the next morning unharmed after a night of sleeping in the woods.
But the action can also come almost anywhere and at any time. It is part of what Brown, 33, loves about this job. It can come during the fall and winter hunting seasons for waterkafowl, deer and bear. It can come in the spring and summer with fishing and boating. It can come from hurricanes or snowmageddons. Or it can come in the form of an empty bucket next to a chain-link fence under a canopy of oaks and pines.
Brown parked, got out and walked somewhat sideways toward the bucket. Nearby was a pink bowl with crumpled aluminum foil inside. The bucket was white and empty. He looked down.
“I don’t know,” Brown says. “Hmm.”
Brown proceeded down the winding path in the 25,000-acre forest. Behind the fence was a colossal concrete building nearly camouflaged in the trees. It’s left over from when Lockheed owned and used this portion of the forest to experiment with creating nuclear aircraft in the 1960s. Lockheed sold it to the city of Atlanta in 1971, and the city has leased it to the state for recreational use, so Brown occasionally has to come here and kick out kids who have climbed over the fence curious about the foreboding structure.
“I wouldn’t want to be messing around with an old nuclear facility,” Brown says. “That’s just me.”
There is no sound but the crunch of Brown’s boots on the path. Much of Brown’s time on the job is spent in solitude, particularly in his truck. He works out of Dawson County, but his work section also includes DeKalb, Rockdale, Gwinnett, Forsyth and Hall counties. Some days, he, or the other five game wardens in his work section, covers them all. It’s a busy and diverse terrain for just six game wardens to cover, which partly explains why the Georgia Department of Natural Resources is looking to fill 50 positions to begin training in January 2019.
With such an expansive territory to cover, Brown has plenty of freedom to do what’s needed depending on the season. Now is the middle of the boating and fishing season, so on this Monday, Brown leaves Georgia State Patrol Post 37 around 10:30 a.m. to make a sweep of several parks around Lake Lanier.
He starts at Lower Pool West Park near Buford Dam, where he finds a family and two other men fishing. He asks to see their fishing licenses. Most pull it up on their phone with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division’s app.
“Y’all caught any fish?” Brown asks.
“Nothing,” says one of the men. “And I was the first one here!”
Brown leaves and heads to the Buford Trout Hatchery in the Chattahoochee River Club. The facility has up to 1 million trout in its long rectangular pools, and it’s right on the river bank, so Brown often patrols the spot for anyone fishing. No one is, though, so Brown talks with Travis Taylor, who works at the hatchery about a recent state park fishing event for kids near Amicalola Falls.
By 12:19 p.m., he’s at Little Ridge Park, off Bald Ridge Creek, where he asks a lady preparing to kayak if she has a life jacket. She does, and they small-talk about the lake level that is still 3 feet above full pool.
By 12:27 p.m., he’s at Mary Alice Park, where he spots a lady towing a tube on a personal watercraft all alone. Without a second passenger to observe the tube, that’s a violation. But Brown is land-locked, and he radios to see if there’s a Forsyth County marine unit nearby to no avail.
By 12:40 p.m., Brown is at Tidwell Park, on the mouth of Young Deer Creek, where he checks a man’s fishing license and warns some people with inflatables they can’t be more than 100 feet from the bank without a life jacket.
“With all the drownings lately, no, we’re not going out far,” a woman says. “I promise you.”
Brown heads to Bald Ridge Campground next. He checks on a man’s fishing license while getting attacked by a chihuahua. It’s an ordinary day, not like ones he has as a member of the sonar team trying to find bodies or murder weapons. Or, the times he deployed for hurricanes Matthew and Irma to South Georgia, chain saws in tow, and aluminum boats and supplies to live for a month while clearing roads and helping emergency personnel in and out of precarious areas.
This job and life makes sense to Brown, who was born and raised in Dahlonega. His dad and uncle took him hunting and fishing “when I was old enough to walk,” and he learned both on the Chestatee River and then the lake. His grandfather owns a cattle and chicken farm, so he learned hard work, and that sometimes hard work is required on animal time, not human time.
That upbringing suited Brown well for his current job, and maybe he’s known it for a while. Recently, Brown found an assignment he did in seventh grade. The question: What would you like to be when you grow up? His answer: A game warden.
So Brown is at ease as he walks through Dawson Forest, until he reaches a pier. He walks down the steps to find a man, woman and two kids fishing.
“How are ya’ll?” Brown says. “You caught any fish?”
“No,” the man says.
“Why not?” Brown says.
“Well, because I lost my line,” the man says, “right there in the trees.”
Brown asks the man for his fishing license, but he has none, he says. On vacation from Pennsylvania, he says. Brown asks to see some identification, and the man produces a Georgia state ID card.
“How about we walk up to my truck,” Brown says.
They leave behind the man’s wife and two kids and walk back up the path, small-talking about police radio codes and raising daughters and the man’s commercial roofing business and outstanding warrants, of which the man says he has none that he can think of.
When they reach the truck, Brown gets to the point.
“What’d you put in your pocket when I was down there?” he says. “Were you smoking marijuana earlier? Cause I smelled something that smelled like marijuana. If you are, just be honest with me.”
“No sir,” the man says, as he pulls out a cigarette butt.
The two laugh. Brown gets into his truck, closes the door and checks on the man’s record. It clears, and Brown hands him back the license and printed warning about the fishing license.
“Something just seemed a little off with the situation,” Brown says.
He heads out of Dawson Forest, stopping to check on two older women’s horseback riding licenses. He gets back on Buford Highway to return to the state patrol post. There’s paperwork left to do from incidents during Memorial Day weekend.
When his day started, and he was on a bridge looking at Buford Dam and feeling the breeze and watching the rushing water, a woman going for a jog stopped to take a picture of the dam.
“I’m just gonna scoot in,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“No, go ahead,” Brown said. “You picked a pretty day for a jog.”
“I want your job,” she said.
“It’s good on a day like this,” Brown said.