Barking Up the Right Tree

A night on the heels of America's premier female coon hunter

THE midsummer morning before their wedding, in an enchanted forest near Athens, Shakespeare's Theseus and Hippolyta can think of nothing more romantic than a hunt with hounds. "We will, fair Queen, up to the mountain's top / And mark the musical confusion / Of hounds and echo in conjunction," the Duke of Athens declares. Encouraged by her approving reply, he adds a few words that only a lover of homely dogs could appreciate: "My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind . . . / With ears that sweep away the morning dew; / Crook-knee'd, and dew-lapp'd like Thessalian bulls; / Slow in pursuit, but match'd in mouth like bells, / Each under each."

Tonight we are thousands of years and thousands of miles from the setting of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but the hounds still roughly resemble the Duke's description. Their voices hardly bring bells to mind, though. Distorted by distance and overexertion, their yips and squalls drift toward us in this midnight dark, rising to a pitch of pure hysteria. As the dogs lose the scent and circle to rediscover it, their voices lace together and unravel, climbing and falling through the stunted hardwood forest. Somewhere ahead a raccoon is scrambling to stay ahead of them, doubling back on his tracks or paddling down a creek, trying a few desperate tricks before crawling up a tree. For a while the dogs send reports of their progress. Then, abruptly, their noises fade, leaving us stranded in these strange woods.

"Which way did he go, George?"

"I can hear the blue bitch, but I think they're all lost."

"They'd get found if they'd come back this way."

dog picture The occasion is the first round of the Oklahoma State Professional Coonhunters Championship. Throughout these low-lying hills "casts" of four dogs--one per coon hunter--are competing to see how many raccoons they can run up trees. In a competitive coon hunt a judge starts his stopwatch when a cast is released and stops it when a raccoon has been treed or hunters have given up on a particular spot, repeating the process until two hours have elapsed on the watch. During those two hours the dogs try to rack up as many points as possible: the first dog to strike a trail earns 100 points, the second earns 75, the third 50, and the fourth 25. The first dog to tree a coon earns 100 points, the next one 75, and so on. If, as often happens, the treetop is too dense with leaves for a coon to be spotted, the dogs are awarded provisional points that can be used to break a tie. Even when they are spotted, the raccoons won't be touched: competitive coon hunting is a bloodless sport.

No breathless chase, no feats of marksmanship, no cathartic kill: for the dogs' owners, the thrills are nearly all secondhand. Standing in the dark, listening to distant baying, coon hunters piece together the story of a hunt, picturing themselves in their dogs' places, careening through greenbriers in search of a scent. To score points, a hunter has to hear his or her dog's voice through the hubbub, understand its every inflection, and tell the judge when the dog strikes a trail or trees a coon. Mistaken claims are severely penalized--barking at a false trail or barking at an empty tree can cost up to 100 points--and some dogs are given to ambiguity.

With our headlamps off I can just make out my companions: four coon hunters and one other observer, their outlines faintly phosphorescent with starlight. To my left Sondra Beck's sinewy shape is hunched over a cigarette ember. "I don't know what I'm doing with Sandy out here," she says. "She just had a litter seven weeks ago." Most hunters still prefer larger, more aggressive male coonhounds (though that is changing), but Beck has never had anything but females. They may be out of commission from time to time, she says, but they're less apt to pick a fight or get distracted. "Some folks say females are in heat twice a year but males are in it all year round."

In a sport that demands a certain irrational dedication--a willingness to endure solitude and sleepless nights in pursuit of nocturnal prey--Beck still rates as something of a fanatic. She began hunting with her brother at the age of six, and over the ensuing forty-seven years has almost never been without a dog. In the foothills of the Kiamichi Mountains, where she runs a kennel for a living, the raccoons are in a constant state of alert: Beck hunts more than 340 nights a year, most of the time in the woods behind her mobile home.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream the Queen of the Amazons claims to have gone bear hunting with Hercules and Cadmus themselves. But even she might have been reluctant to climb into a truck full of men in the dead of night, drive along deserted county roads, and walk into the woods for three to six hours at a stretch. In all her years of hunting Beck has never had another woman in her cast, yet she hasn't been daunted by the company or the competition. Over the past ten years she has placed first in the Oklahoma State Coonhunting Championship and second in the Texas State Coonhunting Championship, and she has beaten her own husband--also an accomplished hunter--in the quarterfinals of the Coonhunting World Championship. Long-limbed and gristly, Beck can out-hike most of her competitors, and her dogs are impeccably trained.

Good coon hunters can detect uncertainty in a dog's voice through a mile of forest and the din of other dogs. They can tell when a dog is "runnin' trash"--ignoring its training to trail a skunk or a bobcat--and when it has found more than one raccoon in a tree. They are only truly in the dark when their dogs are quiet--as the dogs tonight have been for a few minutes now.

A sharp, squeaky bark comes from deep in the woods, like the sound of an ax biting into hickory.

"Tree, K.C.!"

One by one the hounds' voices lift from the same point in the woods, sounding as hungry, if not quite as harmonious, as those of wolves. A typical dog's bark, seen on a sound spectrogram, is midway between a whine and a growl--a confused "come-here-go-away" sound. Domestication, some animal behaviorists believe, has turned dogs into arrested adolescents, oscillating endlessly between affection and aggression. But these coonhounds hardly sound confused. Though they have been bred as carefully as the crops in this once-wild country, and though their hunting has grown stylized and recreational, their howling still means meat.

We wait a few more minutes before switching on our lamps. Generations removed from people who hunted to survive, we can't expect to shed our own domestication. But in the dark, listening to those ravenous voices, we can imagine how doing so might feel.

COONHOUNDS, like Bowie knives and Winchester rifles, began as frontier tools--European designs adapted to the American wilderness. George Washington, whom one could call the father of coonhound breeding as well as of the country, received seven Grand Bleu de Gascogne hounds from the Marquis de Lafayette in 1785. Like Theseus, Washington owned dogs capable of a melodious noise--his stepgrandson compared their voices to the bells of Moscow--but he was less impressed by their hunting skills. Long-eared and tireless, Gascon hounds were famous for having the keenest nose of any breed and for having chased France's wolves to extinction in the Middle Ages. For centuries, however, they had hunted only things that stayed on the ground: hare, deer, wild boar. Once in Virginia, they ran into trouble. Raccoons, like bobcats, American gray foxes, mountain lions, and other native animals, have a penchant for hiding in trees. A dog without a treeing instinct might charge right past such quarry, or else abandon it before the owner caught up. Four months after receiving his French hounds Washington complained that he was still "plagued with the Dogs running Hogs."

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