7:15 a.m.: Meet my guide, Mark Miller and my mount for the day, a huge, gentle horse named “The Rockster.” Mark saddles me up and adjusts the stirrups for a perfect fit and then turns loose his nine, full-blooded Walker hounds, led by Sparky.
Miller then explains that his dogs run both bears and cats, and nine times out of ten, they will have a bear treed within the first 90 minutes of the hunt. Fortunately, I have a licenses for bear, cougar and bobcat.
8:00 a.m.: We dismount and lead our horses as we plunge downhill into a deep canyon to see if any bears have watered recently. I am proud of the fact that I can keep up with this leathered, tough man, 11 years my junior, and chuckle to myself that I have never been outwalked by anyone, even at the age of 61.
8:30 a.m.: We have ridden back up to the top of the ridge but further north of our descent, via a long juniper-studded spine. Bear sign is everywhere but it is days old and the hounds are lackluster though showing some interest. As for me, I have already found that the two bony points at the base of my butt-cheeks are screaming in pain every time they come in contact with the saddle; It is going to be a long excruciating day if the hounds do not find a bear soon.
9:00 a.m.: The hounds are striking enthusiastically
and sniffing the ground. As is always the case,
Mark dismounts and casts about to see what sign is
there. He discovers that it is a sow and her cub and
shows me the tracks, made sometime between last
evening and this moment. I am not interested in treeing or shooting a sow, nor wanting to waste valuable time following them, so Miller dissuades his packthe mountainsides are thick with oak brush, steep and covered in loose rocks.
By the second, brisk walk down a mountainside, I cannot keep up no matter how hard I try. Mark is 50 yards ahead by the time he hits the canyon bottom. I am chagrined at myself, so much for my smugness. 3:00 p.m.: We catch up to Mark’s oldest hound, a ten year-old veteran who lags far behind the pack because he is not only old but has been sick. He bravely plods along on the trail of his pack-mates, and now falls in behind us as Mark soothingly consoles the old pup.
The next three ridges are thick, rocky and steep. I now thankfully ride The Rockster up to the ridge only to dismount and thankfully place my feet on solid ground. By now I lag as much as a hundred yards behind Miller as we plunge down-slope on foot. How does the man do it?
We still cannot hear the hounds but the radio signals of all eight dogs declare that they have the bear treed. We must hurry, Mark urges me, but the slopes are too steep and thick for us (me) to ride the mounts down, costing us valuable minutes. Mark always seems to find an open path for us to negotiate.
4:45 p.m.: I am beat and approaching exhaustion, and to think, I was mountain hiking and crosstraining for six weeks before this day and I thought I was in shape.
5:15 p.m.:We are finally in the last drainage above where the hounds have the critter treed and Mark can hear them baying and urges me once more to hurry! Me and the old hound lag 50 yards behind my outfitter, vainly trying to muster some more strength for the last haul.
5:30 p.m.: We are riding the horses down the canyon bottom when we hit a deep drop off that neither the horse nor us can get around and we are boxed in. I can even hear the pack now and they are no more than a quarter mile away. We must dismount and lead our
Looking back, one week later, I know that I
gave it my all and could not have given one ounce
more. I guess that is why they call it “hunting” and
not “killing.” Oh well, maybe there will be another
day and another chase, but for now the old adage
10:30 a.m.: The hounds have hit another hot spoor and Mark checks the sand along a pool of water in yet another deep canyon. This turns out to be a bobcat, a smallish female. The pack runs it up onto a steep mountain- side and lose it as we wait for them. My butt is screaming at me!
Noon: Another hot trail and another bobcat; a male this time. Sparky and another hound have broken off from the pack and are following the cat and before long, we hear them bark treed about a half mile off and Mark declares that we will go take this critter as a reward for the two dogs.
Just as we start to follow, the other seven hounds start to bawl, cold-trailing what Mark thinks is a bear by the way they act. They are paralleling the other two dogs and soon are bawling non-stop excitedly. We move out briskly to follow the main pack, forgetting about the treed bobcat.
12:30 p.m.: The pack jumps the bruin and pushes
it close to the other two dogs and they leave the
cat to join the pursuit of the bruin as it leads the dogs
in a big circle around us, maybe a half-mile out. In
minutes they are all crossing over another ridge to
our north and heading west.
1:00 p.m.: Mark says that he thinks that it is a
juniper berry-eating bear; this kind stays leaner than
nut/acorn eaters and tend to run farther, faster and harder
and makes for a very, very long day. He also states
that usually when struck, most bears run up-canyon,
then tree; this one is running cross-canyons and ridges
and Miller is worried. We cannot hear the pack any longer and their radio signals tell us the direction they are going, and that they are getting very far out there.
1:30 p.m.: A pattern emerges. We ride to the top of the next ridge, dismount, listen, turn on the radio, then plunge on foot down into the next deep canyon. Always
steeds up the steep canyon-side covered in loose shale this time. Mark climbs out, while leading his mule and acts like it is a mere anthill. I, on the other hand, am laboring badly and not making much progress, even as the old horse nudges me with his nose. I am gulping for air in an anaerobic fit.
Did I mention that I had two heart attacks and two
surgeries in eight days and that they had happened just
two and a half months earlier? For the last 20 minutes
my heart has felt like it is being squeezed in a huge vice
but I do not take my nitro pills for fear that I will be too
dizzy to continue, nor do I tell Mark about my plight. I
have waited too long for this moment in the adventure to quit now.
5:45 p.m.: Mark waits for me to catch up and sees the anguish on my face. He orders me to sit and catch my breath, drink the last of my water and regain my strength. I readily oblige.
5:50 p.m.: I hear Mark say, “Oh no!” and I follow his gaze to see white spots coming at us in the woods. The hounds have broken off their treeing and are coming to us. We were only 300 yards from where they had the bear treed for the last three hours. Dang that cliff. Dang that steep canyon-side. Dang my heart and dang my being so slow and old. If we had been just 15 minutes faster. Mark has tried his level-best, but I blew it for not only me, but for the dogs and for Mark. I feel like pond scum.
6:00 p.m.:We remount and with all nine hounds in tow, we descend into the Mimbres River gorge. It is three long miles up to Mark’s place and that is a lot closer than going back for the trucks. Besides, darkness is quickly approaching. Disappointment is thick upon the both of us. To be so close and to lose the race. My heart discomfort is ebbing but not the screaming pain in rings through my tired brain, “Some days you eat the bear and other days the bear eats you!” Aaah, I love bear hunting!
Mark Miller is generally booked with repeat customers, but if you would like to take the chance, his phone number is (505) 536-9404.
As always, keep the sun forever at your back, the wind forever in your face, and may the Forever God bless you out there!