If you get lost in Ocala National Forest — get so lost you begin reciting the 23rd Psalm — Jeff Gier and his dog, Bubba, likely will come looking for you. Gier is a canine officer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Bubba is his amazing 9-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever.
Gier, whose name rhymes with "fire,'' patrols the edges of the 383,000-acre Ocala National Forest in his Ford F-150. Bubba pants in his backseat kennel and waits stoically for action.
People get lost in Florida forests every day. We just don't hear about them. They find their way out on their own or encounter another hiker who points them in the right direction. At home that night, the lost lamb has a story to tell over the mashed potatoes and meat loaf.
A dozen times a year or more, though, Floridians get so lost they need a special dog like Bubba to find them. Sometimes a spouse, friend or hunting buddy notifies authorities. In the Ocala vicinity, Jeff Gier's truck radio may crackle to life. Listening, he punches the gas, veers off the pavement and bounces along a pockmarked sand road in four-wheel drive.
"You ready, Bubba?'' Gier asks his dog.
Bubba is always ready. When Gier opens the back door, Bubba leaps from the truck and starts sniffing the air.
• • •
Gier, 45, has always been a dog person. Growing up in rural Ohio, he often had one mutt or another sleeping at the foot of his bed. His grandparents raised beagles and coonhounds. His uncle was a veterinarian.
As a kid, Gier loved camping, fishing and hunting — usually with a dog at his side. He worked his way through college by trapping raccoons and muskrats for their fur. After graduating, he was a ranger in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He moved to Florida in 1987 to join the state's wildlife commission. His intelligence and people skills earned him a number of promotions — and an office job. In 2004, he accepted a demotion so he could work outside again, joining the wildlife agency's canine corps. That's how he and Bubba became a team.
In 2004, when Bubba was 3, his owners gave him up for adoption. He was strong and high-spirited and ended up in the possession of the state's wildlife commission. From the beginning, Gier thought Bubba had the right stuff. But he was an overweight 128 pounds and older than the other dogs in canine training school, possibly too old to learn new tricks. He was considered a second-string dog.
When Gier's first pick flunked out on account of a poor work ethic, Bubba got his chance. Every day Gier brought Bubba into the woods for the famous "backpack" exercise. One pack always contained raw hamburger. "NO!'' Gier barked, tugging Bubba away from the ground beef. Down the line was the pack containing deer meat. When Bubba found the venison he received lavish praise and a rolled-up towel to play with.
Gier was training Bubba how to find illegally killed game animals. Bubba learned how to sniff out dead turkeys, ducks, alligators and bear. He was trained to find guns hidden by poachers. "Bubba is really special,'' Gier told friends.
Gier enrolled Bubba in a school to learn how to track people. He was one of only five dogs in Florida to complete a field test complicated by numerous turns, a change of terrain and tracks left by two people.
At home, Gier treated Bubba more like a high-maintenance athlete than a pet. In winter he slept in the house. In summer his home was an outdoor kennel where he could acclimate to the heat. He ate a special diet, routinely saw a veterinarian and exercised like an Olympian. Soon he was down to a muscular 100 pounds.
Bubba may have been special, but he was still a mischievous dog. Sometimes, when Gier let him out of the truck to answer nature's call, Bubba sprinted immediately to the nearest rotting catfish or squirrel for some spirited rolling. He loved nothing more than breaking his diet by wolfing down some hunter's castoff snack. After developing a skin allergy to beef and chicken, Bubba had to go on a fish-meal diet. "Bubba,'' Gier said, gasping as he rolled down the truck windows, "you have bad breath.''
Yet when Bubba found contraband deer or alligator meat, Gier always forgave the halitosis.
One time a hunter stopped by a gun shop to brag about the two black bears he'd bagged for the meat. Bear hunting is illegal in Florida. In the gun shop, another hunter was so offended he followed the braggart into the parking lot, wrote down his license plate number and called the state wildlife commission.
A while later, an officer found the hunter and confronted him. "I never shot a bear,'' the hunter protested. The officer found a suspicious mound of dirt. Under it was a bear carcass.
"Listen, it was an accident,'' the hunter explained. "I thought it was a hog when I shot it. I got scared and I buried it!'
"So you didn't kill a second bear?''
The officer called Jeff Gier, who brought Bubba, who found bear No. 2 in a matter of minutes. The scofflaw was arrested and convicted of killing a threatened species. His punishment included fines, the suspension of his hunting privileges and seizure of his $3,000 rifle.
• • •
In Florida last year, authorities mounted 853 search-and-rescue operations, mostly for lost boaters and folks who fell out of watercraft and needed help. A rescue mission to find a lost woodsman is unusual. Florida's most popular national forest, near Ocala, had more than 1 million visitors in 2009. Only seven got lost enough to require assistance.
One was Cleatis Kelly.
Born in Alabama, Kelly spent most of his adult life near Kalamazoo, Mich., toiling in the auto industry. On weekends he hunted, mostly for deer. Two decades ago, sick of the snow, he returned to Florida and bought property in Lakeland located conveniently near deer-infested wilderness.
"I have to say, I like to eat venison," he says. "I grind it into patties for hamburgers and I also make a good meat loaf. There is nothing like a nice venison loin, sliced thin and fried in a pan. In my opinion, a venison roast also is real special.''
Cleatis Kelly is 70. Every set of deer antlers on his wall has a story to go with it. They're Michigan stories. He has never killed a deer in Florida — though not for lack of trying.
"I spend six weekends a year with my brother hunting deer. He's gotten some but not me. It's just real hard in Florida. The deer are warier, I think. The woods are so thick you don't always get a clear shot. But it don't matter that much to me, to tell the truth. I just like being in the woods. I get out there early, climb a tree, and just wait up there for a deer to come along even if one don't come along.''
On a Friday in November, Cleatis Kelly headed to Ocala National Forest to meet his brother Tommy, who has a hunting camp near Salt Springs. On a previous trip, Tommy had seen deer tracks off Forest Road 10 near Juniper Prairie.
They decided they'd hunt about a mile apart in respective deer stands, ladderlike contraptions leaned against trees and climbed for an elevated vantage point. Next morning they woke before sunrise, ate breakfast and drove their trucks into the forest. Cleatis' tree stand was 600 yards from the sand road. Walking into the woods, he stopped every 100 yards or so to tie a pink ribbon around a pine. He'd look for the ribbons on the way out.
At 11 a.m. he followed the ribbons to his truck and drove back to camp for lunch and nap. At 3 p.m. he and his brother returned to the woods to hunt until dark.
Up in the tree, wearing camouflage, Cleatis enjoyed the chirping of squirrels and the squawks of blue jays. He never saw a deer, but he didn't mind. At dusk he left the tree stand and began walking toward the road.
It was dark. He'd forgotten his flashlight in the truck. He found the first pink marker and then the second. He couldn't find the third. He backtracked, but now he couldn't find the second marker or even the tree stand.
He'd left his compass back at the hunting camp.
• • •
At first he wasn't scared.
The road had to be somewhere ahead. And truth be told, he'd been lost before, once in the Green Swamp while squirrel hunting. It took a while, but he found the road.
Of course, he'd been younger then. Now his health issues included a bad heart and lungs weak from a lifelong cigarette habit. He stopped to catch his breath.
A twig cracked somewhere ahead in the dark.
"Hello!'' he called.
He was happy to have his gun along.
In the distance, he heard a gunshot. Maybe it was Tommy, signaling him. Cleatis fired his own gun and walked in Tommy's direction. After a while he began doubting that it had been Tommy who had fired. Everything felt wrong.
Something rattled the leaves in the underbrush. He hoped it was only an armadillo.
He and Tommy had seen bear tracks that morning. Black bears have never attacked a human in modern Florida. But there's a first time for everything.
Fighting panic, he remembered his younger brother, Roger, the best hunter in the Kelly clan. He always got a deer. Five years ago during a hunt in the forest, he dropped dead of a heart attack. He was only 54.
Cleatis Kelly has never been a religious man. But lost without a compass and flashlight in Ocala National Forest bear habitat, the old heart patient was surprised to hear himself praying.
• • •
At 8:30 p.m., Tommy Kelly called for help. A state wildlife officer showed up and took down the details before getting on the radio.
An hour later, Jeff Gier arrived. He opened the back door of his truck. A chocolate Lab hopped out. Gier got a leash on him.
A few minutes later, Bubba found the empty tree stand. He circled the tree, sniffing furiously. He started off into the woods, stopped, came back, circled again, sniffing all the while. He stopped, glanced at Gier. The glance was Bubba's way of saying, "I'm on his trail!''
Now Gier replaced Bubba's collar with a speh a special harness that wrapped around his chest. Bubba wouldn't choke when he pulled the 15-foot leash, and Gier, with all his might.
''SEARCH!'' Gier shouted.
• • •
A mile and a half away, Cleatis Kelly had given up, exhausted and downhearted. He had to rest. He sipped from his canteen and enjoyed a peppermint, his only food. He cut fronds from a palmetto and arranged them into a neat pile. With his cigarette lighter, he ignited a fire. Maybe someone would see it.
Maybe the fire would scare away the bears.
• • •
When Bubba is on a trail, his head moves back and forth in a sweeping motion. He stopped. Swept left. A few hundred yards later he stopped and swept right. Catching the scent, he forged ahead. Gier glanced at his GPS.
Kelly was walking in a classic "I'm lost" circle.
Gier didn't judge the lost hunter. A few years ago, Gier became lost while trailing a hog on his hands and knees through the palmettos at dusk. When he stood he had no idea where he was and what direction he was headed. His compass? Back in the truck. His light? Back in the truck. It took three hours to find a road and civilization. Now he always carries a light, GPS and two old-fashioned compasses.
Bubba, panting, bolted through the pines and palmettos. He bolted across a prairie. He crept through thick stuff, vines, scrub oak and cacti, probably passing a slumbering rattlesnake or two. Gier was worried. A dog like Bubba is so driven he'll run himself to complete exhaustion.
Then Bubba trailed Kelly back into the pines where it was easier going. Gier's light cast deep shadows. Bubba trotted across a smaller prairie.
It was 11:30 p.m. Bubba had been on the trail for two hours.
He trailed Kelly's scent across another prairie.
Gier stopped. He saw the flicker of a campfire behind the trees.
He shouted. Someone shouted back.
Bubba, excited, hauled the muscular Gier the way a powerful boat might tow a water-skier.
Cleatis Kelly fell to his knees and said, "Thank you, God.''
Seconds later Bubba burst through the palmettos. He began licking Kelly's face. He licked Kelly's face like it was the most expensive T-bone from Publix.
The old hunter didn't mind Bubba's stinky fish breath. In fact, he never noticed it.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727. Special thanks to Joy Hill of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.