Elijah Keller, an outside salesman for an electrical wholesale distributor, is 35 years old. Married to his wife Megan, the Kellers have three children: Anders, age seven, and twins Henrik and Ada, age five. Keller was born in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan in Traverse City but was raised in Cadillac. Today he lives in Tustin, Michigan in Wexford County. Keller, some could say, was destined to be a bear hunter and houndsman. His grandmother’s first cousin was Carl T. Johnson, an iconic Michigan outdoorsman for which the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center in Cadillac was named. Keller remembers meeting the famed conservationist as a child. Keller’s family came to Michigan in the late 1800s to early 1900s from Scandinavia, namely Finland, Norway, and Sweden as well as Germany. Farm and hunting dogs have been a part of Keller’s family from their earliest beginnings in the U.S. 

Keller’s hunting heritage provided many memories for the houndsman, whose 40 acre domicile butts right up to the Manatee National Forest. “We had a lot of snowshoe hares,” he recalls.  “My great grandfather, Carl Kangas, enjoyed running raccoons, hares, and foxes with his hounds. He ran a Walker and Bluetick cross-type dog and called them Walkers, although they looked like the English dogs of today. I never went hunting with him. His son, my Great Uncle Martin Kangas, hunted coons, foxes, and coyotes. I began coon hunting with my dad and Great Uncle Martin when I was very young. My dad didn’t have dogs until I got into hunting. In those days, they were hunting Black and Tan Coonhounds. Great Uncle Martin had a couple of registered Treeing Walkers, a Redbone and the Black and Tans. He never was a breeder but would pick up a good dog now and then.” 

From the start, hunting bobcats appealed to Keller. As a young man, he was consumed by sports and by running the hounds. “We began to transition more toward hunting cats,” he said. “I also wanted to run bears with the hounds at that point, but my dad said he didn’t have the money to let me be a bear hunter.” 

After a brief hiatus to play right guard on his college football team, Keller explained that there was only one hound in the Keller kennel, a great Black and Tan. “By that time, I was sure I wanted to be a bear hunter,” he said. “I had gone bear hunting with friends and right away I got a Bluetick. It turned out good enough that I knew I wanted more. Keller liked his Blueticks to be racy: built with good footspeed, good mouths, and excellent cold-trailers. “They have to rig hard, hunt with their heads up, and run to catch,” he said. He had a pup named Jess that he got when he was hunting with his partner Ryan Luhrs. “She did pretty good,” he recalled. “Not the fastest starter, but well enough that I kept her.”   

The man Keller calls his bear hunting mentor, Ryan Luhrs, can take the credit for producing the subject of our Legendary Bear Hound Series this month, the hound called Hatchet. His dame was Josey Wales; her family tree was strongly-rooted in the hounds of Clifford Garver who lived around Lake City and of John Ray, originally from Detroit, who moved to Lake City and then later to the eastern UP.   

“I hunted with Josey,” Keller says, “and she really excelled as a cat dog. She was extremely cold-nosed and very intelligent. If she opened, she was sure of herself. For a female, she was every bit as gritty as you would ever need. She could do it on her own. When on dry ground, on a running bear, she opened a lot. She had a bawl mouth on track: loud, clear, and clean. Josey was a houndy-type Bluetick, long and narrow-bodied with low set ears and deep flews.”   

“Hatchet’s sire, a hound named Buster, was owned by a local conservation officer,” Keller said. “Ryan knew the breeding and wanted to breed him for that reason. One hundred percent of the pups from the first cross of Buster to Josey made bear dogs. I want to say there were seven pups in the litter. Ryan originally kept three of them: Hatchet, a male named Ghost, and a female named Loki.” 

“The pups started early,” he said. “Right away, we worked them on small critters and coons. They were hell on wheels from an early age. Due to life’s circumstances at the time, I couldn’t take Hatchet as a puppy,” he lamented. “The pups had been born in March and Ryan wanted me to take him that fall. As we went into cat season, the pups were eight or nine months old. The first cat they ran, Hatchet and Ghost stopped it in a brush pile. Hatchet worked his way into the cat and went through it like a buzzsaw.” 

In the meantime, Hatchet had been sold to another hunter that continued to hunt the dog through the winter. Bear season started on July 8th and the guy decided bear hunting wasn’t for him. He had talked to Ryan about taking him back. Ryan told Keller, “You don’t have a choice. You are taking this dog.” By that time, Keller had moved and was able to adopt him. 

“From the first day I had him back,” Keller explained, “he ran and treed a bear with three other dogs. From that point on, he quickly escalated to being the first dog I pulled out of the box. I got him in late July, and before that following winter he was my sole cold-trailing dog, one hundred percent.” 

I asked Keller how Hatchet performed as a rig dog (the dog that is used to strike a bear track while riding in or on top of the dog box in the hunting vehicle). “We hunt in swampy areas with lots of creeks and in lots of plantation red pines on the higher ground,” he replied. “We can only bait up to 30 days before the start of bear kill season. From July 8 to August 8, let’s say, we rig, looking for tracks. When he would strike off the box, Hatchet would indicate that he had scent by giving a weak, whiney yelp. That was funny because normally he had a strong voice.  

“From the time he was three years old, I wouldn’t have to look for a track. I knew when he opened that he had a bear. Oftentimes, he was winding the track. He was a little tighter with his mouth on a cold track. When his mom Josey barked, she had it. Hatchet instilled confidence because when he barked, I knew he was going to jump the bear. If he opened on a cold track, it wasn’t a matter of if but when we would jump the bear. When the bear stayed on the ground and refused to tree, Hatchet bayed hard and he bayed tight. He was smart. He would work the bear close and hard, but he wasn’t suicidal.” 

“The number of bears that he treed on his own from start to finish, I couldn’t count,” Keller continued. “On one hunt in particular, which was about four years ago on the western end of the UP, it had rained hard in the early hours of the morning. We checked a bait and it had been hit before the rain. We checked other baits and it was the only one that had been hit. So, I told the rest of the group I would just take Hatchet in there. It was a rough bait to get to. He just seemed to know, even when he couldn’t smell it, where a bear would go. He would go to an area where he thought a bear would be laying up and he would start checking it. He opened one time. 

“I had a young gentleman with me that was a first-time bear hunter. Hatchet barked once, right on top of the bear,” Keller said. “He ran and the bear circled a big lake. He came back around it, and for some reason the bear decided to swim in the lake. As it swam, about ten feet behind was Hatchet swimming after it. They broke out on the other end of the lake and went to a walking bay. I was too far away from the truck to get the other dogs in to him.” My adrenaline was pumping as I tried to keep up with Keller’s story on the keyboard.   

Keller continued, “We got back to the truck and I radioed the other guys and told them which way the bear was going. I was experiencing major GPS malfunctions with Hatchet’s collar and couldn’t track him. We were in a very large section, so everyone in our party spread out. Hatchet had such a powerful voice and the other hunters began to hear him, miles away through the swamp. Finally, I devised a plan; I had to figure out the GPS problem. It had to be getting interference from someone. Separated from the other hunters, I pulled out the long-range antenna and it picked him up on the GPS at 1.6 miles. He hadn’t been heard from in over an hour,” said Keller, the frustration still in his voice as he recounted the story. 

“We were able to get within a mile from him in the vehicles and walked in from there. It turned out to be an average-sized bear of about 200 pounds,” he said. “I would like to say that was the end of the story, but it wasn’t. 

“When we walked in towards the treed bear, our shooter, who was a first-time bear hunter, was nervous. The bear was also nervous, snapping its jaws. I told the hunter, ‘Don’t shoot until I tell you to shoot.’ The next thing I know, I hear the rifle go off. The bear bails out and I have no idea where it’s hit. Hatchet and the bear are tumbling together. Our whole group was a mile into the swamp and we had no way to get help to Hatchet.” Hatchet walked and fought the bear for another hour and a half before Keller was able to put his tag on him. He told me that the bear tried to climb but Hatchet pulled him off the tree. 

Keller also told me about a hunt he took last fall with Hatchet. “We had a bear bail out of a tree and land on Hatchet. It was almost like the bear targeted him. It broke every rib on his left side and collapsed both lungs. He still made it across another whole section before I was able to pull him off the track.” 

As I spoke with Keller, he told me that he wanted to recall as much of his dog’s story as he could so that he wouldn’t discredit the remarkable hound. “We’ve been through so much together, it’s hard to remember it all. The number of people that were able to see their first bear because of that dog would be impossible to count. He was my buddy—that was it, more than anything. He was the greatest hound I ever had the pleasure of knowing. At home, he wouldn’t leave the kids or my side. He was great in the house and I could take him anywhere off leash.”  

Hatchet would have been 10 years old this year in March. “I put him down on Christmas Eve,” Keller said. “It was more painful watching him wither away. When healthy, he weighed 85-90 pounds. It was very hard.” 

In closing, Keller told me about the last bear they killed at the camp in the UP last fall. Hatchet went from start to finish on the bear. “In later years, he was losing step when fighting a bear closely and got whacked in the early training season. I laid him up but in the first week of kill season, I dumped two staple guns into him while putting him back together.”  

Hatchet was also an exceptional bobcat hound. He was very smart and would sight-trail a cat when he couldn’t smell them. The one thing I notice from doing these articles is that the good ones always have a common trait, namely intelligence. There’s no doubt that this was a hound that deserved the title Legendary Bear Hound in every way.