California Hound Hunt Offers a Trip Back in Time
By Gary Lewis
We topped out on a narrow road that shadowed a knife-edge ridge. Snow capped the High Sierras' granite peaks and lay like a blanket in the mountain valleys of the Tahoe National Forest.
Outfitter Andrew Gregory pulled his rig to a stop. James Drummond and 'Utah' Corey Kinross drew up behind and opened their boxes to let the dogs out for a run.
Lyn Hocker stepped out of Corey's truck, his eyes glittered. "There are some things you think you can never go back and do. But here I am."
Hocker, a native Oregonian, came by his first hound in 1963 at the age of eight, a gift from breeder Bob Ferguson, of Creswell, Oregon.
Sugar came with a disability – she had soft pads. That was the reason that the Walker/Red Tick mix was given to a young boy with no money or credit.
As soon as the pup was able, the young Hocker began to take it on the pavement. "I would take my bike and run the dog to the river every day. It was about three miles each way and I think it was those daily runs that toughened up her feet."
The boy, who had lost his father at the age of four, gained a constant companion.
"I used to curl up with Sugar in her kennel and go to sleep. When mom would come home from work, she'd wake me up and take me in the house, but I learned that whatever I put in to the dog, the dog gave back to me." What she gave back was music that reflected the tenor and tempo of the hunt. They chased bobcats, raccoons and bear. The money he made with raccoon hides paid for school clothes, dog food and a second pup.
When he was 14, the death of his sister forced his family to move and sell his hounds. In 1994, Oregon voters voted out the practice of hound hunting bears and cougars. He thought his days following the dogs were finished, but now, at the age of 54, he heard the music again.
We rolled down the western slope of the Sierras, strike dogs chained to rig boxes. Snow-sprinkled granite peaks and wind-twisted hemlocks gave way to oaks, pines and manzanita.
In a canyon, I caught the shine of a tin-roofed mining shack. We turned up a narrow canyon onto a once-paved Main Street and passed a dance hall, where an old upright grand piano rotted on the porch and a gaily dressed china doll perched on a barrel.
In its heyday, the mines paid an ounce a day per man. 1400 people used to live in the little valley. They came for the gold; we came for the apples and acorns and the chance to strike a trail. The trees planted by long-gone pioneers still produce tasty fruit and by the look of the sign in the yards of the clapboard buildings, the bears liked them as much as we did.
But the dogs on the boxes sniffed and looked bored. We crossed a creek at a bend in the road where, in another century, a stage coach driver negotiated the turn to see masked outlaws stepping out of the trees, guns held high.
Tank, a big Blue Tick hound, caught the scent of bear on the breeze, but we found a cub track. A mile on, the dogs sounded again. This time, Music and Mandy joined in. Gregory let the dogs into the trail one at a time. The race was on.
We caught the bear in a canyon on the other side of a ridge top, 70 feet up an old growth Douglas fir. The big chocolate sow had two cubs on the limbs above her. We saluted the old lady, leashed the dogs and headed back up the hill.
It was the next day when Kinross's dogs bounced a boar in a creek bottom. Gregory and I joined the chase at the end. Hocker slipped his rifle from the case and thumbed cartridges into the magazine. Gregory turned his dogs loose and we started away from the road and up into the trees, toward the music of the hounds a half-mile away.
There! Plotts and Walkers, Blue Ticks and Red Ticks circled a ponderosa pine or stood, with front paws against the bark and sang their pleasure in the chase. On a branch above the dogs was a bear.
After the dogs were leashed, commotion controlled, the bear turned broadside. Hocker found a rest against a pine tree, put his cheek into the stock and squeezed.
On the ground, he ran his hands through the long chocolate-colored hair. "The running and the treeing was exactly like I remembered it as a kid," Hocker said. "To get back out 40 years later, was every bit as sweet as I hoped it would be."
The third day brought me a six-foot, 300-pound-plus boar with a black pelt and a white 'V' on its chest. Gregory said it was the first 'black' black bear he had seen in six years.
The meat we would turn to burger and steaks, the fat would be rendered for biscuits and pie crusts. And the rugs will bring back memories of the music of the trail.