You never want a customer to go home empty-handed. Pap’s always made it a point to do our best to make sure they get what they came for.
Some old-schoolers might mock us for our methods. They say it’s not “real hunting” since we rely on technology as much as we can to turn the odds in our favor. We set up caches of food in plastic fifty-gallon barrels and mount a motion-activated camera in a tree. We used to tempt the bears to visit with candy or stale donuts until the laws were changed. Now we’re not allowed to use processed bait, no peanut butter or Milky Ways. Pap was furious. He says that our family has hunted this land for generations. But he’s had more than a few skirmishes with the sheriff, getting busted multiple times for hunting out of season. Now we’re forced to use corn or overripe apples and peaches to grab a bear’s attention. While our improvised compost bins shoot off plenty of stink, they aren’t nearly as effective at luring the bears as the junk food was.
That’s where the high-tech gear comes into play. We’re strategic about where we place the bait—usually right outside the protected government land where the bears are plentiful. Pap’s still sore about that, too. “What gives them the right to take away our land and our right to make a living?” he’ll ask. “It ain’t ’merican.” The bears seem to know where they’re safe. Since we can’t always go get them in the protected areas, we do our best to encourage them to come out and visit us instead. They can’t seem to help themselves with the lure of an easy meal.
As soon as a bear goes in for a snack, the camera catches him in the act. Then, the morning of a hunt, we’ll drive out to see which sites had any recent visitors. That gives us a log of when a bear visited the area—and hopefully enough of a scent to cut the dogs loose on its trail. That’s when we go to work.
We get all kinds of customers during the season. They come from all over. Some of them come year after year: a tradition. Pap relishes making a big show inside our old timber lodge, sharing stories of hunts past to build up the anticipation about what’s about to happen. This one customer, a guy from Atlanta, laps it all up. He’s mid-40s, maybe 50. Overweight and balding, milky skin. Like shaking hands with a beached trout. Talks a lot about making money. He reminds me of Ned Beatty’s character in Deliverance, so I come to think of him that way. He’s so excited he can barely touch his eggs and grits. Grease drips down his wrist from the piece of bacon he’s waving around as his microphone. Been chattering on about how he wants to feel something inside that he’s lost living in the big city. Figures shooting a bear will make him feel manly again or something. He clearly went shopping to prepare for the event: his safety-orange vest and puffy hat still out-of-the-box crisp.
Ned says he’s hunted bear before. He’s hoping to bag a trophy this time. Plans to mount the head in his office. “I reckon, my friend, that the odds are in your favor,” Pap tells him. “We been seeing tracks of a big ’un hanging around these parts, maybe a three, four-hunnert pounder. Let’s just hope he’s been hungry and the dogs’ll sniff ’im out.”
Ned’s eyes light up at the possibilities. He mimics planting a rifle butt into his shoulder, aiming up into a tree, and squeezing his finger. Pow, he mouths, then smiles and wipes the corner of his mouth with his sleeve. It’s almost as if he’s salivating.
“Sun’s coming up soon,” I say to him, as the steam from my coffee tickles my beard. “You ready to do this?”
“Yes, sir,” he says with a little too much verve. As he stands up, his belly catches the edge of the table, spilling shit everywhere. “Sorry. Guess I’m a little anxious.”
I realize I’m in for a long day.
I start loading the pickup truck. It’s an old hoss of a Jeep with lifted tires that have a red-brick-thick tread designed to grab mud and slick rock. I turn the key and get the heater going—doing my best to serve my customer—before rounding up the dogs from the yard. Spread out in the fashion of a military camp, each dog has its own barracks-like structure to guard and duck into to escape foul weather. It’s a wasteland devoid of anything green. Everything’s been trampled or shit on. Even the nose-stinging wisp from my cigarette can’t distract from the smell percolating from the soil.
My family has been breeding hunting dogs for generations. Most of the time, they stand or lay around—noses twitching and eyes peeled for any action. They’re thick-legged, floppy-eared, and brindled. Meaty around the chest. Loud, too. That’s their secret weapon—scaring the hell out of anything they come across.
Year after year, my ancestors would select the strongest and smartest dogs and mate them together with the hopes that their offspring would inherit those traits. I’ve heard stories that when my family moved to the region from Europe, they brought dogs with them to help hunt and guard the family from the perils of the wilderness. They called them bloodhounds, which was a term for any dog that hunted by smell. Others, such as Plotts, took the name of the families who bred them. It’s unclear what their original breed was, maybe a Mastiff, but they were valuable—especially for a family intent on staking out a homestead in the untamed mountains.
I whistle to grab the dogs’ attention. I make the rounds to grab their leads as I gather the pack for the hunt. I’ve selected Lady and Scout to keep a couple of the younger dogs, Dred and Rock, in line. They’ve run before, but never faced off against a bear. They’ll learn something today. I funnel the pack toward the Jeep where we have our dog boxes mounted in the back. They’re basically aluminum shipping containers with air holes punched in that plug right into the bed of the truck. I coax the dogs one by one to leap up and then guide them in, their noses soon poking out of the air holes. They know something is up and they’re getting riled.
Once I get the dogs loaded, I direct Ned into the passenger seat and yank the Jeep into gear. Pap starts up his own truck and takes off in the lead. Over the years, we’ve cut in some tracks to link together base camp with the traps. And by cut in, I mean we’ve felled a couple of trees and then driven our trucks over whatever was left. Ned has gone silent other than emitting a guttural wumph every time the Jeep fails to hurdle a rock or pothole. As he rolls down his window, I’m not sure the shit smell is coming from the dogs anymore.
After driving for about an hour, bouncing around on the forest road, I see Pap’s truck parked next to the red ribbon we tied off to mark the side trail to the honey pot we set for the bears. I pull the truck into the tall grass next to the road, sliding into a half-frozen divot my truck made the last time I was here. As Ned levers himself out of the cab, Pap says, “Let’s see what these critters been up to.” The dogs, jacked with anticipation, are already howling; pushing their snouts out of their cages, drinking in bear scent. “Yee haw,” whoops Pap after he reaches the crime scene. The barrel where we stashed the goodies is a wreckage. Several scat piles—sludgy clumps of semi-digested berries mostly—add to the mess. Thanks to the rain from the other night, it’s easy to see where the bear sunk his paws into the muck. We can also see which direction he fled back into the woods.
Pap bends down with a groan—his seventy-five-year-old knees popping like bubblegum—and presses his hand into the track. “Goddamn, this is a big ’un,” he says to Ned. “You see how he twists his rear paw out when he walks. Means he’s probably old and wily. Gonna give us some sport trying to run him down. You done won the lottery.” Ned smiles and wipes his lips.
I return to the truck to unleash the hounds. They’re making a god-awful racket and it’s tough to get their boxy GPS collars on when you’ve got the decibel equivalent of an air raid siren blasting in your face. Once I’ve got them outfitted, I tie a leash to the collars of the five dogs to keep them from charging off too soon. They’re yanking me, hard. They’re ready to run. At the honey pot, they lower their noses into the dirt—vacuuming up whatever hint of an odor they can. Their eyes roll back in their heads as they unleash their thunder.
The game plan works like this: We let our most senior and reliable hounds—Lady and Scout—go first. They’re the strike dogs. Dred and Rock tag along behind them. We’ll watch the pack on the GPS until they stop moving—which means they’ve found something. Then, we’ll send in the other hounds as reinforcements as we follow along with rifles at the ready.
I unclip my line and let them loose. A missile launch—WHOOSH—off they go, running down a trail only they can see.
Hunger drives the bear. Berries, acorns, roots, grass, insects, maybe even a carcass of a critter the other forest denizens have overlooked—whatever it can find. As the temperatures cool, it becomes ravenous. It wanders along its range, walking miles every day in search of calories. Always so, so hungry. Hungry enough to kill.
It needs to eat, maybe as much as twenty thousand calories a day—or about forty Big Macs. If only it was that easy. But out in the woods, there are no drive-thru windows for man or bear, so it lumbers on. A breeze from the north cuts through the glen where the bear ambles; shaking the parched beech leaves and scattering some to the ground like golden feathers.
The breeze brings something else: a hint of a meal. It’s said that a bear could beat a bloodhound in a smell-off; it can track food from several miles away. The bear lifts its head into the air, sniffs hard, grunts, and changes course to head up over to a nearby grassy bald scratched into the top of a bony knob.
There: buzzing. Yellow-jacketed fighter planes zoom in and out, flying sorties. As the sun rises, these bees can get ornery. Itching for a fight. The bear ambles over to a small hole in the ground. The bear turns its paw into an excavator’s scoop, plunging claws into the soil and tearing back a few inches. It sees dinner. But first, pain. It pays the price for this invasion, as dozens of winged attackers swarm and dive. While the bear’s thick pelt deflects many of the stinging blows, its face and fleshy nose remain vulnerable. It needs to work fast. The bear isn’t interested in the bees; it wants their larvae—a succulent treat. As it grubs through the dirt, grunting, the bees continue their attack—desperately buzzing and probing to drive off the invader—the bear strikes pay dirt. The nest. With a flick of its paw, it brings the oozing mass into its maw, crunching through the papery nest to squeeze out the juicy guts inside. Even as the bear relishes its meal, the bees remain on the attack, oblivious to the fact that their mission has failed. Huffing and swatting the air around his face—already swelling from multiple strikes—the bear picks up speed and ambles off in search of its next meal. First, a pause to sniff the air. To listen. Dogs coming. The bear huffs and trundles off into the understory toward the creek below.
It’s a long way down, a mile or two of steep decline, but the bear is well engineered for the journey. It squeezes between thick trunks and plows over small shrubs, its heavy fur serving as armor against the thorny defenses. The bear pauses again, listening and sniffing. Dogs, getting closer. It picks up its pace toward the water.
“They’re headed off toward the crick on the far side of that bald,” I say. “Rough ground to cover.”
“Yep,” Pap agrees as he spits some Redman juice into the dirt. “Close to that damn park border.”
It doesn’t take much to get Pap started talking about the past. Mostly how it was better before. Before they started setting quotas for the hunt. Before they told us where and when we could hunt. Before they turned all that prime hunting land into a national park. Before all these people in their crinkly colorful gear started trekking up in the woods. He remembers. “These used to be our forests,” he says, “Our mountains. And now there’s a bunch of hippy-assed hikers up in here. It wasn’t like that back in the day, no, sir.”
Pap is not too fond of how property taxes have gone up either. It puts pressure on him to bring in paying customers to keep up. “It’s our goddamn land,” he’ll say on one of his rants. “Our people have been here forever.” He’s fuming about animal rights folks saying that what we’re doing is wrong. “Don’t they understand that these bars will be taking the doors off their precious homes and digging up their pretty little backyard gardens in no time?”
I have learned over time to let him shoot off his mouth till he’s out of ammo. If I interrupt, I’m liable to become his newest target. Pap spits again. “You ready to git after ’em?” he asks Ned, who nods and smiles—wiping his lips again.
We mount up in our trucks, only this time I take the lead. I roll down my window and listen for the dogs as I drive—using the GPS unit now mounted on my dashboard as an additional guide. The road will run out soon, after that we’ll need to follow on foot. I know it’s going to be rough on Pap out in this part of the forest. There are no real trails to follow other than those left by the bear and the deer. The rhododendron and the laurel thickets can be impassable in places, their snaking and intertwining limbs creating picket fences, which means detouring and adding miles to the chase. Another day at the office.
The pack tears into the bald—their howling and barking snowplowing songbirds, bushy-tailed squirrels, and ground-hugging varmints before them. Once the pack hits the grass, the noise cuts out. The dogs spin in circles, sniffing madly, looking for a scent trail. Then Scout, lean with droopy ears and blotchy spots rippling across her ribs, gets the whiff they’re looking for. Howling, she leaps into a gap between two pines—tracking the bear’s path. The pack soon follows. They streak forward with reckless abandon and obsession.
My face throbs where it got whacked by a birch branch I failed to duck below. I’m leading the way, my machete hacking away at vines and limbs to help clear a trail for Pap and Ned. It’s cold out; every breath smokes out of my mouth and nose. It’s cold enough to knock the leaves down from their roosts. They’ve been transformed into a toy chest of treasures spilled out over the trail: golden arrowheads, bronzed canoe paddles, and even orange-ish manta rays seemingly plucked from the depths of the seas. We’re inching along the rocky lip of a ravine. I’m listening as much as I’m keeping an eye on the GPS. Looks like some of the dogs have split up. Fifty feet or so down is a creek the GPS labels as Gunstick Laurel, but Pap calls it Popcorn’s Hidey-hole on account of some old-timer who used to make his shine somewhere around here. It’s a classic Appalachian waterway, chockfull of ground up glacial bits and trout. An endless ribbon of quicksilver spilling through the mossy debris. It’s still morning, so the light slants in through the canopy, shrouding the scene in a misty glow. Peaceful as a chapel. I have to remember to come back here and fish.
I’m ripped from my reverie by a high-pitched yowl, and then another. I recognize Dred and Rock’s bellows: deeper pitched than Lady’s. Are they hurt? Are they frustrated? Are they on the move? No, they might have treed a bear. “They got something,” I tell Pap and Ned. “This way. They’re close.”
After we pick our way through a maze of tulip poplars, red and white oaks, and maples mixed with the thorny underbrush rooted to the ridge—zeroing in on the booming echoes—we take in the scene. Four dogs, howling and leaping at the base of a big pine—tearing the bark off in chunks with every failed attempt to scale the trunk. Rock’s bleeding, badly; the skin along his jaw is flayed open. He must have tussled with the bear. Adjusting our sights, we see it—the bear—perched up about fifteen feet, its back planted against the tree, nervously grunting and snapping its jaws at the interlopers below. “It might be that big ’un,” says Pap. He turns to Ned and says, “Go get your prize.”
Ned was way ahead of Pap. He had his rifle loaded and aimed right at the bear’s chest. A big hairy can’t-hardly-miss-if-you-tried target. Just sitting there. In these moments, I’m reminded that it’s the dogs that are truly the hunters. We’re simply the executioners.
“Hold your fire,” I holler at Ned. I grab the dogs by their collars, wrench them over to the side out of the line of fire. Ned looks up and smiles at me, winks, and steadies his aim. The bear grasps the branch and huffs and snaps toward the dogs—who, no matter how I twist their collars, keep lifting their heads to bellow. Pap is over behind Ned, his rifle loaded as a backup.
BANG. The shockwave boxes my ears. Then, stunned silence. A beat later, a crack of a branch as the bear falls, dropping onto the ground with a WHOMP. The dogs swarm the bear, tearing into its fur and flesh as if it’s their favorite chew toy. But the bear gets up quick—and hurtles itself toward the embankment. Whatthehell?
Ned starts to line up another shot before Pap grabs the barrel and pulls it down. “You might hit the dang hounds, you fool.” The bear swipes wildly with its claws, swatting itself free from the dogs, before somersaulting down the steep slope of the embankment—disappearing into the brush. The dogs holler in protest, peeking over the ledge, then peel off downstream to restart the pursuit.
“I ain’t seen a bar do that before,” Pap says as he tends to Rock, who lays on the ground whimpering. “That was the darndest thing.” Ned looks pissed that he missed out on his trophy.
Yeah, pissed, I think. I hope the dogs are doing okay. “How’s Rock?”
“I figure he’ll live all right,” says Pap. “But we’ll see if he has any fight left in him after that. We’ll stitch him up and get him back out there to find out what he’s made of.”
Pap’s right, you never know if bleeding makes a dog tougher or makes him skittish. We’ve seen plenty of dogs that had loads of potential—fast and tenacious as hell—but whose spirit gets broken along with their bones. We’ve also seen dogs that become monsters. The same is true with men. They begin to crave the taste of blood.
The bear continues its escape, driving its bulk forward—first hurtling down the steep embankment and then along the creek on flatter ground, leaving clawed imprints in its wake. Its shoulder bleeds, but it’s not a mortal wound. Its thick pelt, inches of fatty padding, and bad aim saved its life. It crosses the creek, nimbly darting around several boulders, heading towards a stand of stout tulip poplars with trunks covered in thick vines buzzing with bees. The bear shimmies up, up and up, huffing away until it finds a branch thick enough to support its bulk. Now it sits still, a smudgy extension of the tree, almost invisible, waiting.
I’ve pulled some silvery duct tape out of my pack to use as field dressing, to keep Rock’s flesh together where the bear shredded it open until we can properly stitch him up later. He’s squirrely, whimpering and panting like mad, so Pap’s holding him down as I rrrippp off some makeshift bandages.
Ned’s anxious as hell to follow the dogs—to claim his prize. He’s paid big money for this guided hunt. He keeps pacing. “C’mon, I know I hit that mother hard,” he says while pointing his rifle barrel down at the creek below. “No way I missed. I’ll wager you a hundred bucks we find it down the bottom of this cliff. Make it a thousand. Let’s go.” He stretches his lips in a greasy smile, oblivious to the dog suffering in front of him.
You know that old saw that says the customer is always right? I doubt they ever had a customer disrespect their dog. I wrench myself up into a crouch, arm cocked, “You son of a…”
Pap grabs my sleeve and pulls me back down. “You hold your hosses, young feller,” Pap says to Ned in a tone that would crack glass. “Our hound here is stove-up good. We’ll git after your bar right quick.”
Ned ain’t pleased. He opens his mouth, “Now see here…,” but shuts it after Pap flashes him the glint of his ice-blue eyes—hard eyes—staring back beneath the brim of his camo-colored cap. Pap moves his free hand to the hilt of the knife strapped to his leg to help eliminate any confusion. Ned turns his body and takes a few lumbering steps in the direction the dogs went. Then he stops. Yanks his hat off and spikes it into the ground. Mutters something to himself. He’s not used to being ignored—or following orders. He’s also probably too afraid to venture ahead on his own.
Smart move, city boy.
I let Pap finish binding Rock’s wounds as I walk off toward the trucks to try and cool my jets. Breathe deep. Let the woods wash over me.
Growing up with mountains and a forest in your backyard instead of tall buildings and traffic jams shapes the way someone like me looks at the world. Unlike city folk, I learned early on how to tell the difference between the rhythmic beeping of a nuthatch and the multi-note burst of the chickadee. How the shriek of a jay differs from the piercing cry of a hawk. Or even how goofy high-pitched laughter of monkeys escaping from a zoo is really the call of the pileated woodpecker—which dips and rises as it darts through the forest canopy. Or when you hear the first peepers—embryonic frogs poking up from the muck—you know spring is near. Older and wiser relatives taught me how to hunt for sang and edible shrooms like morels or chicken-of-the-woods. Most nights, sometimes even during the steam of summer, you’ll catch a whiff of wood smoke, then taste the ashy grit between your teeth. You learn how to grow corn and beans and squash—what the Cherokee called the three sisters. You think nothing of not having to lock doors or to worry that someone will steal your stuff if you leave it out front of your house. Your neighbors are usually your kin. Same as your dogs—which are everywhere. Some dogs are wired for home, inside pets. They might like to run, but they always stay close home. Then you have your hunting dogs, the ones that work for their living.
In my family, you also learn how to hunt. Not for sport: for meat. Yeah, I learned to fish, too, but the native brookies are small, and you’d need a dozen or so of the hatchery supplied trout to feed a family. Hunting season was like making the trip to Walmart. We needed to fill a few carts so we could stock up the deep freeze. And in order to hunt, you needed to learn how to shoot.
I think my first lesson started at about age six: Shooting at a hay-bale target with a twenty-two rifle. That progressed to a thirty caliber, topped with a scope. Later came shotguns and even the forty-four hand-howitzer Pap brings out for special occasions. Once he felt like I could shoot, safely and accurately, Pap brought me on my first bear hunt—baptizing me into a religion.
But these hunts have never been about the kill for me. Especially these days. After you’ve spilled the blood of men, something changes inside of you. At least it did for me. Now it’s all about the chase. The thrill of running after your dogs as they bolt down a trail doing what they’re born and bred to do.
I look forward to the spring every year when we start training the new dogs how to hunt. Bears aren’t in season—at least officially. When Pap’s playing it safe, he’ll hook the tanned hide of a bear behind a truck or ATV and lay out a scent trail into the woods. It’s all about breaking in young pups so they learn from the veterans like Lady. It warms my heart to see a young hound tear into the brush—all legs and ears akimbo—picking up the trail as they go. Pap taught me you wait a bit and then cut in another experienced hound as a way to push the youngster into the hunt, in case they were dawdling—hunting butterflies or frogs instead of bear. If the pup keeps lagging instead of following the older dog’s lead, then you might have a lost cause on your hands.
I remember the first time I took Lady out. Her nose immediately went to the ground and she started baying, which was kind of funny because she was this little thing. She had spirit right from the start. When you’ve hunted long enough with your dogs, they teach you the power of listening. Similar to deciphering the bawling of a baby. Is she crying or crying for a reason? My ears help me visualize Lady humming along, nose scraping the ground as she follows a cold scent, or, when she’s got a bear or something else that’s recently passed by—a hot trail—she ratchets up the volume. The savagery of her bay cuts right through you.
Now, out on the trail again, we’re in something of a fix. Lady and the other dogs are on the hunt, too far away now to hear, and I’m having trouble getting a reading from their GPS collars. Some kind of weather must be interfering with the signal. Could also be that the bear is on the move. Fast. I wouldn’t have bet Ned could miss making a kill shot at the bear at that range. He must have winged it, pulled high at the last second. Goddammit. At least they’ll be a blood trail to follow. But a wounded bear is a dangerous bear.
An hour or so later, the bear, still wedged in the tulip tree, tests the air, working its nose. The low gurgle of the creek is broken by the piercing cry of a hawk, circling above, looking for a meal. Then comes the frenzied chattering of a squirrel terrified of becoming one. The bear shifts its weight, grabs the trunk with all fours, and quickly lowers itself to the duff below. It sniffs again, running its early-warning system through a full cycle. All clear. It grunts. Time to find more food. Hunger drives the bear forward.