The first hunt of the season is a little like the first snow of the year in Montana. Everyone is surprised, like it snuck up on us without warning. We smack ourselves in the forehead, shake our heads and lament, “Happens every year.” We all temporarily forget how to drive. There is mass panic as we run around draining hoses, finding shovels, searching for boots and heavy socks, ordering firewood, and wondering how long we overlooked the appearance of #1 diesel at the gas stations. We are relieved when the next morning reveals a little green grass still in the yard and a second chance to get it right.
After months and months of sunshine and seemingly all the time in the world, I have to admit drawing hounds for the first meet of the season took me completely by surprise…again.
On Sunday, September 22nd we (Mark Carman, Britttany Baldwin, Cass Mitchell, Kim Day, and Wendy Fordyce) left the kennels (Nancy Carman holding down the fort) with seven couple, including two new entry Atlas and Asa (sponsored by Liz Richards) and Nelson, Fat Dan, Sparky, Ely, Zman, Apollo, Victoria, Uturn, Keg, Vann, Baritone, and another hound who has temporarily left my memory.
Admittedly, I have never, ever started young hounds hunting. Do they just naturally get it? And how will they know we’re not roading any longer, but actually hunting? Earlier, I had sat in the draw room staring into the kennels like an idiot as the hounds all vied for their chance to hunt that day, wondering how really to go about it. Remembering that for whippers in I had Britt and Cass, who had spent hours roading hounds but never really whipped in or had the chance to learn the country, and Mark as a first time field master leading Kim and Wendy, who had never hunted with me or at this fixture, I decided to play it safe. I pulled twelve old, fat, sweet, solid hounds and two puppies. What could go wrong?
As we left the kennels I tried to make a plan to stay in country that would be good for the whips and where I could see the puppies. I cast up Red Rock Canyon. Nothing. (Wondering…is Atlas slightly impaired or just a big happy goof? Or both?) We moved southeast and I dropped them in to Tried and True. Nothing. (Note to self: Never make poor Fat Dan do this again. Find him a couch, he deserves it.) We moved further south and crossed east over Green’s Canyon. The thick, tall stems from a bumper yellow clover crop were knee high. No self respecting coyote would go through this. (This is like new country here, old trails are covered and normal paths of migration are not here. Where are the coyotes this year?)
We climbed about 400 feet in elevation (a couple times) and gone almost four miles. There was water for hounds in the slick rocks on the flats, thankfully. The weather was creeping up into the “wish-I-hadn’t-worn-this-sweatshirt” realm. My horses were gasping for air despite my genuine efforts at getting them in condition. Shit.
But, Asa was amazing and every hound (well, almost every hound) was doing the job of helping the puppies figure this hunting thing out. We were actually having a nice time and there had been no cussing or tantrums. Yet.
The wheat fields in the distance had not been combined. I decided to loop around the north rim of Green’s Canyon and steer clear and south of the planted fields and the steep canyons. We popped up over the hill, both whips basically at my side as I thought, “Well, we’ll tour this a little more and go home.” Best laid plans. Suddenly, the hounds hit hard, fast, hot, and loud and were off to the south and straight down in to a steep canyon that could not be crossed by human or horse. So, of course I yelled to Brittany, “Get down there, stay with them, go south, fast! I need you on the other side like yesterday!” She looked at me in a way that said, “And how would you like me to sprout wings?” That was the last time I saw Brittany. (Not ever, just that afternoon.) We were literally in the middle of a rock pile, overlooking a cliff, hearing the hounds down at the bottom in full cry, and watching them start to climb out the other side. The coyote came in to view on the ridge above them.
This is a huntsman’s dream, right? Get two puppies on a good line with solid hounds to show them what to do. Show our newest members a grand time. Except, my heart was in my throat as I wondered how in the world we could get to them and fearing they were going to keep going south into Montolia, under a fence with no gates or coops and completely off limits that day. Shit, shit.
I took the field off the cliff, down into the bottom, and started out the other side into a half mile climb when my horse slowed from full speed to full slow. I was completely out of horse. Shit. I asked Mark if he had any horse left and he said enough to get to the top to be my eyes. We climbed out as fast as possible and then heard Cass tell us (from her northern bird’s eye view) that she could see the coyote and the hounds ripping through a wheat field headed south. Off we went, another half mile of climbing around the field and to the top of the next hill. I told Mark, who seemed to have half a horse left, that he needed to get to the fenceline or we would never see the hounds again…ever. (Later he told me he had thought…”Never? Like, never, ever? This is serious!” Admittedly, I have a bit of a flair for the dramatic.)
We all finally reached the fence where I believed they had crossed, our southern out-of-bounds boundary for the day, upwind and over the hill from where we had been. There was nothing. No sound. No sight. Shit, shit, shit. Mark started running the fenceline looking for a hole, or a low spot, or a gate. I went the other direction looking for a gate. None. (This is miraculously the tightest most impervious fence in the entire state of Montana. They could use it as the poster child for the legal definition of “fence.") Four hours later (okay, maybe 5 minutes) I started blowing and pulled out my wire pliers.
Then, over a hill about 1/4 mile to the south four hounds started coming back to me and the horn, Asa among them. Had they lost? I blew some more. They were gathering to me. AND THEN…a coyote on the ridge above them started yipping back at us! We could hear him and see him sitting right above the hounds. The cheeky bastard! Now what? I had already started blowing, the hounds had already started coming back to me, and I couldn’t get to them. I tried to channel my inner huntsman, but then realized I don’t really have one, so I decided to go with what I had started…keep blowing. The coyote kept chattering back at us. The hounds didn’t seem to notice. Weird. Cass and Wendy were at the fence now, watching for hounds as Kim and I kept the pack well off the fenceline and on some water. Mark was at the top of the hill behind us scanning for Brittany, who was still MIA.
Within a couple of minutes the pack was back with me, the coyote shut up, we all had a rest and congratulated the hounds. On our way home, we met Brittany and Fat Dan. It was a beautiful day, great view, good hounds, valiant horses, and the best of people.
I kept thinking, “Okay, I’m super proud of this pack and amazed by the A puppies. They all found and chased a coyote. I called them back, and they all came home with me. Way to go. Good huntsman!” The horned beast on my other shoulder kept whispering, “Yeah, but you called two puppies off a good line and a coyote because you couldn’t get there, hadn’t properly conditioned your horse, didn’t have enough staff, and hadn’t paneled your country. Bad huntsman!”
I’m still holding this debate with myself: Is it good or bad that my hounds can be easily called off a good line when it’s necessary, do it amiably, and do it over and over? I still marvel at them, even the puppies. They are so much smarter and more intuitive than I ever imagined a dog could be. They are able to beautifully meld their natural instincts with our schizophrenic desires. It is as if they want to hunt when we want them to hunt, they want to stop when we want them to stop, and in the end they really don’t care either way as long as we like what they are doing for us. And they are hunting really, really well..despite my best efforts at completely ruining them by my sophomoric blunders along the way.
Just like the day after a first snow, the day after a first staff meet is time to make a list of the things that must happen for us to be prepared for the season. I would really like to believe that this list is echoed across other hunts. If it’s not, I don’t want to know.
Condition hounds better
Condition horses better
Condition self better
Get staff to participate more to help with the above (and better learn the country and the hounds)
Spend more time with puppies
Maybe feed some hounds a little less
Make a big map of the country and disseminate it to members
Railroad more people into honorary staff positions, like whippers-in, field master, and secretary
Build coops and gates (railroad people to help)
Express eternal gratitude and heartfelt thanks to everyone who showed up for the day and made it so great
Send an apology letter to Brittany for sending her off into the pit of hell and leaving her there to fend for herself…and maybe a box of chocolates, or flowers, or tequila, or something
In the end, this is what staff meets are all about - learning, tweaking, changing, rinse, repeat. I’m not too proud to say that we really need the practice and the participation. We hope you’ll come join us. Add your take, your perspective, your joy and your triumph to The Story of Big Sky Hounds. This is how memories are made.
Next meet is Wednesday, September 25th 9:30am at the kennels.