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."

Many American colonists needed all-purpose "varmint" dogs for their survival. Any hound that could scare animals up trees suited their purpose, so they threw English foxhounds, Cuban bloodhounds, German boxers, and red Irish hounds into the canine melting pot. By the early 1800s new American breeds had begun to emerge. In the Great Smoky Mountains the descendants of a German immigrant named Johannes Plott used their schweisshunds as the foundation for a breed of brindle-colored dogs soon famous for hunting bear. In the Ohio Valley a scout and Indian fighter named Simon Kenton helped to breed the first black-and-tan coonhounds, known for their magnificent ears and sensitive noses. In the Louisiana bayous the descendants of French trappers bred bluetick coonhounds that could nearly pass for Lafayette's pure Gascon hounds. The United Kennel Club now registers six coonhound breeds--English, Plott, bluetick, redbone, black-and-tan, and Treeing Walker--but the elite American Kennel Club fully recognizes only black and tans. One bluetick owner told me, "The AKC would rather register some strange, furry little animal in China than the dogs that helped build this country."

Most coonhounds are still proudly plebeian. Loose-jointed and ungainly-looking when loafing on a porch, they turn sleek with purpose on a hunt. Nose to the ground, pendulous ears stirring up day-old scents, they howl into the woods whenever they smell success. Advertisements for dogs in magazines like American Cooner and Coonhound Bloodlines invariably show them at the height of their powers: paws high up on a tree, eyes rolling backward, neck streaked with drool. "My cold-nosed, cat-footed, bawl-mouthed, chop-mouthed, pressure-tree Grand Nite Champions breed true every time," an advertisement may say. Loosely translated, this means "Like their parents, the puppies I'm selling have a good sense of smell and durable feet; they should bawl when they strike a trail, switch to a bark when they tree a coon, stick by the tree until the owner comes, and, thanks to all these qualities, win the highest honor available in the coon-hunting world."

Sandy, Sondra Beck's dog, is the latest model in coonhounds, bred specifically for competitive hunts. Trim and light on her feet--more foxhound than bloodhound--Sandy doesn't waste time worrying out cold trails inch by inch, as a "cold-nosed" dog would. She skims over the terrain to home in on the freshest, "hottest" scent and run it down as quickly as possible. Some hunters miss the behemoths they grew up with and the epic hunts those dogs used to lead, but Beck has no regrets. "Those black and tans, they might pick a trail three days old and howl and boohoo over it for hours and hours," she told me on the way to the coon hunt. "I don't have any time for that. I need my dog to move that track."

TWENTY or thirty pickups arrived before us and were gathered in a crooked half circle in front of a corrugated-aluminum shack. Here and there hunters slouched against fenders or tugged on their hip waders, killing time as the sun crept behind the blackjack oaks. Though they looked as ragged as sharecroppers, few had spent less than $10,000 on coon dogs and hunting gear, and some had spent much more. Their hounds, tied to tailgates with frayed lengths of rope, could fetch up to $20,000 apiece from a breeder. Their mud-spattered trucks were crammed with electronic gear: radio-tracking systems, lamps with interchangeable lenses, and collars that can give a small shock if a dog barks up the wrong tree. When competitive coon hunters aren't demonstrating such gizmos, they are usually discussing their dogs' sperm counts. Many of them regularly send their champion studs to a place like Galaxie Genetics Reproductive Center, in Ohio. There employees collect a dog's semen in a plastic vagina, package it in "straws" chilled by liquid nitrogen, and send it off by courier for next-day insemination.

As the first fireflies rose to meet the dusk, light streamed from the shack's open door, drawing a swarm of restless hunters carapaced in crusty overalls. Inside, a few of their wives and children were serving french fries and chili dogs from a plywood stand. Beck, as usual, was the only woman in hunting gear. "A lot of the women, they try to learn to love coon hunting 'cause that's what their husbands do," she said. "But there ain't no natural reason to like it. Stumbling out there in the night just to listen to a dog howl--it just don't make sense." Women who are "born lovin' coon hunting," as Beck says she was, may be less enamored of the gossip they tend to create. Vickie Lamb-Deal, a coon hunter from southern Georgia, remembers getting an anonymous letter from some of the wives of coon hunters in her club. "They told me that I had no business hunting with men, that I should form my own club with other women," she says. If they had just stopped to think about it, Lamb-Deal went on, they would have realized that the swamp--with the mud and the bugs and the snakes--is "the last place" you'd choose to flirt with someone's husband.

Beck has never had that kind of trouble. With her pixieish features, cropped blonde hair, and easy, joshing style, she is a perennial and unrepentant tomboy--ignored by the girls, adopted by the boys. "My sister was different from me--feminine and all," she says with a smirk. "She was the type, you'd say 'spider' and she'd run a mile." Beck's own children were "town kids by nature who just happened to be raised in the country." When Beck took them out on their first hunt, her son disappeared in the middle of the night. She found him sitting in a patch of grass, reading a Hardy Boys novel with a penlight. He is now a computer programmer in Dallas.

A television and a satellite dish are the only signs of technology on Beck's sixty-acre farm near Antlers, Oklahoma--"eighteen miles from the nearest loaf of bread." Goats, orphan calves, bobtail cats, and a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig named Louise wander around her mobile home. Most of them are strays brought in by the local game warden. In the morning, when Beck leads her puppies into the woods for a run, the pig and some of the goats usually tag along.

"We're a different breed out here . . . beyond civilization," Beck likes to say. She can still walk out of her house and hunt for three days and nights without seeing another house, supplementing her supplies with dewberries, sand plums, possum grapes, and wild persimmons. She lives a short hike from some of the state's last virgin bottomland forest, but she knows it won't be long before the old-time landowners die off or sell out. Within a generation the land around Antlers may be not so different from the land in central Ohio, where a coon hunter I know named Berton Oney has sent his English hounds after coons for the greater part of seventy years. "I'd say we have lost three quarters of the territory where we used to hunt," Oney says. "Most of our woods are so small you can only hunt them for an hour before you have to get back in the pickup."

Longtime hunters like Beck and Oney live in a limbo between two eras. As Oney puts it, "The sport seems to get bigger all the time and the terrain gets smaller." Fifteen years ago, when coonskins sold for thirty or forty dollars apiece, Beck earned her Christmas money coon hunting. (Winter, when raccoon pelts are thickest, is the official commercial coon-hunting season.) Some of her poorer neighbors went further, decimating the local raccoon population. ("You couldn't really blame them," Beck says. "A man could work all week for a hundred dollars and then go out and make as much in two hours in the woods.") But as anti-fur sentiment has risen and fur prices have plummeted, many have given up on coon hunting. "I think on the whole coon hunting has probably declined," says Tom Dooley, a former manager of coonhound field operations at the United Kennel Club.

At the same time, competitive hunters have embraced coon hunting: the number of licensed UKC coonhound events grew from 5,428 in 1984 to 6,751 in 1994. A way of life is evolving into a sport--a wilderness fix for those who can't live eighteen miles from the nearest loaf of bread. Beck still spends more time treeing raccoons on her own than in competitions, but these days at Christmastime she puts out feeders for the raccoons rather than selling their hides.

In a sense things are coming full circle. As parts of America grow to be as tame as England, and as coonhounds are bred to look more like foxhounds, so too has coon hunting begun to resemble fox hunting. Solitary hounds carefully sniffing out trails are disappearing, replaced by packs of frantic dogs, expensively equipped, earning points in national competitions. Coon hunters may never wear scarlet coats and black caps, but twenty years from now their clothes may share some of their other gear's sophistication, growing as costly and understated as the Orvis outfits favored by fly-fishermen.

THERE is less than half an hour left on the judge's stopwatch, and we have yet to see a coon. We hoped to surprise a few munching on ripe mulberries in a nearby grove, but the dogs led us to huge, crooked post oaks instead. We probe their branches with the beams of our headlamps and blast on whistles designed to sound like an injured animal (raccoons are inveterate rubberneckers), but though the dogs bark with real conviction, our lamplight catches no glimmering, inquisitive eyes. Slogging back to the road through a marshy meadow, the dogs and their owners look equally abashed, their shapes stooped and spectral ahead of me.

"Well, Katie, I don't know what the hell you're doin'," one of the hunters tells his bluetick. "But it's about time you treed a damn coon."

Beck doesn't talk to her dogs much on a hunt, "but I like 'em to talk to me a little bit more than Sandy's been doin'," she says now. At moments of unseemly quiet hunters used to comfort themselves with tales of raccoon subterfuge--of animals jumping from tree to tree or running down gravel roads to hide their scent--but competitive hunts, with their quick-treeing dogs, have changed the character of coon legends. Hunters now talk about how tough coons can be in a fight, how they can whip almost any dog one on one. A week earlier Beck was at a hunt in Paris, Texas, where four dogs chased a raccoon into a lake. Clumsy in the water, while the raccoon was in its element, the dogs had to content themselves with swimming around it and barking. The coon bided its time. When it noticed that one of the females was tiring, it calmly crawled onto the dog's head and drowned her.

Halfway back to the trucks the dogs seize upon another trail. As the minutes tick off on the judge's stopwatch, we listen to them toiling through the mulberry grove, their voices now exaggerated, trying to convince themselves as well as their owners. Fireflies drift above the marsh grasses like torches carried by a distant search party. Then comes a blaring squall from far to our left, well away from the other dogs.

"Tree, Sandy!"

While the other dogs were wasting time on cold trails, it seems, Beck's dog peeled off and found a coon on her own. If so, this is a "split tree" in coon-hunter parlance--the crowning skill of a well-trained coonhound.

But Beck is suspicious. She has a dog named Alf that will bark 135 times a minute when he trees a raccoon. Sandy isn't usually so exuberant--she averages eighty or ninety barks a minute--but on this night she is downright taciturn. We try to follow the sound of her voice, but minutes go by without a bark. When Sandy starts up again, her voice has a hesitant, faltering quality, like that of a child who is knowingly telling a lie but can't seem to remember the truth.

"Please, y'all, don't judge her by tonight," Beck says, scissoring her legs across a barbed-wire fence. Sandy isn't the quickest dog in her kennel, but she is usually a "classy" tree dog: up on her hind legs, propped against the trunk, head thrown back as she barks. By the time we reach her, however, her pose is hardly self-assured. Cowering against the base of the trunk with the rest of the dogs, Sandy looks up at Beck, clearly disconcerted. Her only consolation is that the other dogs don't know what to make of the situation either.

We strafe the branches with our headlamps, hoping for a glimpse of flashing eyes. Like Sandy before us, we whoop just once at the sight of scuttling forms, and then realize our mistake. These creatures are too small, too indifferent to our lights and noise, to be raccoons. The fringe of folded white fur along their sides eventually gives them away: flying squirrels. We trudge around the tree, gathering the dogs, dumbfounded. In thousands of hunting hours few in the cast have seen a flying squirrel before. Beck looks up at the squirrels one last time, shaking her head. "I know my dog didn't tree those things," she says. "They don't hardly touch the ground to leave a scent."

No matter: Sandy has won the cast, if only with provisional points. And though we have seen no raccoons, the dogs at least were convinced that they saw one earlier. After hours in the dark, with only their voices to guide us through the forest, we are inclined to believe them. In a sport so dependent on the imagination, why rob ourselves of a happy ending?

Illustration by John Nickle

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1996; Barking Up the Right Tree; Volume 227, No. 1; pages 94-98.