Each episode of Tennessee Uncharted documents the experiences of Erick and his crew across the State of Tennessee. This is the full text of the short story that resulted from their adventures in Wayne County.

I always feel at home in a small town. The kind of place where the country is never too far away.  Where roads outside of town are narrow and the fields are wide. There’s something about a small town that always makes me relax. It’s quieter, calmer.  The air feels lighter. More often than not, the people are kind, and they’re rarely in a hurry, and for me, comfort and peace are never hard to find.

So I guess it goes without saying that I feel right at home here in Wayne County. It’s a very rural area, and even though it’s the second largest county in TN, it only has a population of around 17,000.  But what it lacks in people, it makes up for in beautiful scenery.  

However, there are some new residents that are causing a lot of major problems for the people here. These newcomers are disrupting the peacefulness of this small town. In fact, you could say that they’re going hog wild. And while Wayne County may look like “God’s Country”, in recent years it’s been more of a “Hog Heaven”.  Because amongst this beautiful landscape, tens of thousands of wild hogs are wreaking havoc, causing extensive damage to crops and wildlife habitat, contributing to erosion and water pollution, and carrying at least 45 different parasites and diseases that pose a threat to livestock, pets, wildlife, and in some cases, even human health.

On today’s episode of TN Uncharted, we’ve traveled to Wayne County to get a closer look at one of TN’s biggest wildlife woes, and what’s being done to try and get it under control.  

Hog Trapping Technology:
Wild hogs may call the US home, but technically they’re not a native species. In fact, they’re invasive. first introduced to the US in the 1500s by Spanish explorers and later domesticated on farms.  But unlike many other mammals that man has taken it upon himself to import throughout the course of history, pigs are highly adaptable, meaning they can spread rapidly when released into the wild, sometimes doubling even tripling their population size in a single year’s time.

But in case you’re wondering, a growing population of wild hogs does not mean more bacon.  In fact, due to the potential disease these hams can carry, it’s very dangerous to eat them.  

Unfortunately, Wayne County is not an isolated incident.  Wild hogs are present in nearly 80 of TN’s 95 counties. A number that’s grown dramatically from just 15 counties less than 2 decades ago.  

In 1999, TWRA made an attempt to control the expansion of the wild hog population by opening a statewide wild hog season with no bag limit.  Unfortunately, it was during this period that the wild hog population expanded the most, with disjointed populations emerging in areas of Tennessee where they had never existed before as the result of illegal stocking by individuals whose goal was to manufacture local hunting opportunities.  In order to remove the incentive to relocate wild hogs, new regulations were enacted in 2011, making it illegal to possess, transport, or release live wild hogs.

If you’re thinking to yourself right now that this issue doesn’t affect you, because you’re not a farmer or a landowner…You couldn’t be more wrong. Because when a farmer’s field is destroyed by wild hogs, that means whatever they tried to plant didn’t survive, ultimately driving up prices at your local grocery store. In fact, to put the issue into dollars and cents, wild hogs are currently causing around 1.5 BILLION dollars in damage annually.  That’s right…1.5 BILLION!  

Hog Trapping at Night:
Since most wild hog activity happens at night, the crew and I went into TNU stealth mode and headed out with TWRA to see first hand what trapping looks like. And given how alert and easily spooked wild hogs can be, it looked a whole lot like a covert mission carried out by an elite task force.

We slowly pulled into the farm with our lights off and quietly shut the truck doors.  The moon was full so we had to move quickly and quietly.  On the sly, we made our way across the field to our blinds.  It was all pretty exciting at the beginning. But then the cold started to set in.  

Now we were prepared for the hogs, but we definitely were not prepared for the cold. This was by far the coldest segment we’ve ever filmed, dipping well below zero in just the first few minutes of what ultimately turned out to be quite a waiting game. I did learn a few tricks to help battle the cold while we were out there, though.  Altoids can do a great job keeping you awake, and their strong peppermint flavor can really help warm up your insides on a cold night.  Plus your breath smells fantastic.  So periodically throughout the night, in the dead silence, you could hear the soft rattle of peppermints coming from my little tin as I pulled them out of my pocket.

After several very long hours, we gave up.  Something had spooked the sounder and they were hours late for the nightly arrival the trap cams had documented for over a month. And, as if to pour salt in our frozen wounds, the very next night, they ended up trapping the hogs, 39 of them in fact-- the largest sounder recorded in TN to date. We may not have been able to help with the hogs, but we sure did get a good story out of it.   

It’s very clear to me that trapping is not an easy process.  And it can’t be done in just one night. It’s a year-round battle. Proper trapping takes a lot of patience, and definitely a lot of warm clothes.  One night was all I needed to see of hog trapping, but the folks at TWRA have a lot more cold nights ahead of them.  Once again, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and respect for the men and women of TWRA, and the long list of daily sacrifices they make for the wildlife and habitats of our TN.

Learning How to Play the Dulcimer:
Being a traveler, I am often a stranger to the world around me. From country to country, state to state, and even town to town there are many different words, accents, and languages, that separate us, but amongst all those differences there’s something that connects us all…Music. It serves as a warm welcome to even the weariest of travelers. And tonight I’ll take any kind of “warm” that I can get. So I’m stopping by to hang out with a group of hometown folks called the TN Valley Strummers, who are finding new beginnings in the strummed strings of an old TN tradition.  

I wasn’t really expecting to be very musical tonight. But amazingly I was able to play along with a few of the songs almost immediately. It was pretty inspiring, and a lot more than what I expected. And what blew me away the most, was the fact that many of the people in the group had only been playing a few years. Music is such a huge part of my life and it’s always inspiring to share it with new people. Tonight I feel like we really connected with this community, and if music truly does help define an area, well, Wayne County sounds pretty darn good to me.

TN Fitness Spa:
Welcome to TN Fitness Spa, a week-long, all-inclusive fitness program that provides healthy meals, comfortable lodging, and 6 to 8 hours of workout classes a day, six days a week…That’s right folks, you heard me, “6 to 8 hours of workout classes a day!”  Now after almost freezing to death last night, I was really looking forward to a relaxing day at the spa, but it turns out, I’ve got a little more work to do before the pampering can begin.

Let me just start by saying, today was one of the most active days I’ve had in a long time.  It started at 6 am with the first of 3 showers in the day.  After breakfast, I went on a 3mile walk in the rain where I met Bitty from Canada. At 90 years old, she was an inspiration, doing things that people half her age couldn’t do. Then it was off to my first ever water aerobics class, called “Aqua Tabata”.  Now I thought this was going to be pretty easy, but let me tell you, water aerobics is no joke. By the end, my muscles were so tired I was pretty much just trying not to drown,  next was a class called “Sports Stretch”.  This too seemed like it might be pretty easy, but unfortunately, I am the least flexible person on the planet and just attempting to touch my toes can often be exhausting. After lunch, my next class was “Agility Aerobics”, which was basically an obstacle course, but for me, it was a course in learning how to sweat profusely. But again it was a blast. To cool down and try and catch my breath, I then checked out “Tai Chi” for my last class of the day.  Then finally just before dinner, I wobbled my weary bones over for a well-deserved massage at the spa. My marathon workout day then ended with the Old School Dance Party, proving there’s nothing the Electric Slide can’t cure.  At 8 pm, I was ready for bed. I was worn out.  Even my teeth were tired. But amazingly, I felt better than I’d felt in a long time. Wearing a new smile, I laid in bed eating 800mg of ibuprofen and a big bag of peanut M&Ms without any guilt, because I knew I’d earned it.  

One of the most amazing things about the last 2 days is how nice everyone has been. It really does feel like a Summer camp for adults. I’ve felt encouraged as well as challenged. And the energy here is undeniably positive. Even the grounds at TN Fitness Spa are uplifting! The highlight is without a doubt the amazing Natural Bridge that’s on the property, which is the only known double span natural bridge formation in the world, formed over millions of years by a freshwater spring nearby.  

As I look around, it’s clear to see that there’s a close connection between the power and energy that’s in nature and the power and energy that’s inside of us.  We can do amazing things with our bodies, however, just like this amazing natural bridge, it takes time.  It doesn’t happen overnight.

This is a place of healing. A place where you can get away, get fit, get strong, and rejuvenate. It’s a place where you can get back to nature, but most importantly, get back to yourself. It’s not just about losing weight, it’s about improving your overall well-being… Mind, body, and soul. And not to mention, have a lot of fun doing it.

On this episode, there were a lot of big surprises. Over the last year, I’ve heard a lot about the “hog problem”, but I had no idea how bad it really is.  I had no idea how much devastation these hogs can cause, or the lengths TWRA is going in order to stop this problem. But once again, even in the midst of an ugly issue, the beautiful spirit of TN remains strong as ever. You can hear it in the soft strums shared among friends and see it in the headlights of civil servants returning from a long day’s work hours after their families have gone to bed. You can even feel it in the support offered by friends face their foes and fight for fitness.

I can’t promise that there won’t be more struggles ahead—more challenges to face and answers to find. But what does seem certain after all of my travels so far, is that we will overcome them. Together.