The cadence and tone of the bawling dogs in the distance heightened yet again. One shrill, savage voice echoed over the rest, riding the cold current of air down the mountainside and carrying with it a message as legible to the houndsman as if it were written on the snow before him in blood.
“Ruger’s got him!” said Jason, my guide and houndsman. As he spoke, the dog’s dire situation sunk in. “He’s been climbing trees lately. If we don’t get up there fast, Ruger is dead.”
I looked down at the story of tracks at our feet and followed them up the boulder-studded mountain looming above. There could be no negotiating. When we turned those dogs loose on the track that morning we committed ourselves to a path we could not know and to an ending as unpredictable as the wilderness itself. I’ve often heard it said that cat hunting with dogs is anti-climactic, that once the cat is treed the hunt is over. These people have never hunted with a tree-climbing Walker.
Just two hours earlier, in the darkness before dawn, the hunt itself had nearly been grounded. Jason, a friend of a friend who used his title of outfitter as a scheme to hunt cats for a living, said the conditions had to be perfect to have any chance at success. He said we needed fresh snow, no precipitation, little wind. Having never hunted with him, I was somewhat skeptical, for people faced with miserable conditions are notorious for their excuses to stay out of them. And there was no denying the white-out blizzard that was turning false dawn into false dusk.
But then, under heavy influence from a pleading choir of dogs, Jason popped the driver’s door and proclaimed that the weather would break. With that we unloaded the snowmobiles, strapped a box stuffed full of revved-up hounds on a sled and took off with engines roaring, hell-bent at frightening speeds for whatever lay ahead. I hoped it was a cat.
The trick, then, was locating tracks. For this we needed snow, luck and the only thing that has been added to cat hunting in recent history: the snowmobile. Of course it can’t go where paws can, so boots must follow, but snowmobiles, like it or not, are used these days for their ability to cover ground. When and if you cross a track and deem it of proper size and freshness, the hounds are released. Then you must keep within reasonable range of them on foot as the cat leads the dogs through every harrowing gauntlet it knows.
Utah, just south of Salt Lake City, is the definition of “rugged country,” and for that the cats owe the country their livelihood, for they can live there without constant encroachment from man. Even with the best dogs and conditions, cats routinely use this country to evade their only natural predator. I don’t think the reason this area is sparsely populated by man is its distance from the coasts. Rather, I was thinking as I hoisted my muzzleloader and pulled myself up the ledge, it is because it’s just so darn hard for humans to live on rocks.
As my eyes cleared the rock face, I noticed a suspicious, snow-sloughing cedar tree at the center of attention. It shook violently under the stress of multiple occupants jockeying for position amid its branches. A mob of jealous hounds at its base provided constant, jaw-snapping commentary. In short, all hell was breaking loose.
Though I couldn’t see it, I knew the cat was there. I could feel its hatred, a deep, natural loathing as justified as its instinct to survive. Then I saw the lash of a tail and the flash of those wretched fangs. And there it was: Felis concolor, mountain lion, wildcat, puma, catamount, panther. A cougar, a mysterious legend of the West that humans have naturally feared since the dawn of mankind. Only recently have we become so removed from nature that we do not fear them. This was confimed when I reached the tree and couldn’t believe my eyes. Jason later argued that he did it out of respect for the cat and for the love of his dog.
The lion, the dog and the hunter were stacked in the tree with the dog trying to get the cat, the hunter trying to get a fistful of dog and the cat trying to get a peice of the dog and then get out of there. I was underneath, stripped down to a soaked undershirt and panting like a fat man, shuffling back and forth trying to get a clear shot.
Ruger barked like a hound possessed as he picked and spiraled his way up the tree with the athleticism and blind determination that marks his breed. Luckily he met an impasse a mere foot below the swiping forepaw of Satan himself, who sat above, waiting with those contemptuous green eyes. I don’t think cougars are necessarily evil, but this one could’ve convinced an atheist.
I was confident I could extinguish hell’s little flare-up with one pull of a trigger, but having never hunted with me, Jason was skeptical, for editors are notorious for botching high-pressure shots. But I was too fatigued to be nervous, and I wasn’t really in any danger, anyway. The houndsman, however, was nearing danger’s threshold with each ascending step. His lead hound was a whisker from certain injury.
Finally Jason grabbed Ruger around the hips like a parent peeling a kicking and screaming child off the monkey bars and leapt from the cedar. “Shoot!” he yelled just before his boots touched the snow.
I complied, and if there was ever an anti-climactic moment, I missed it.