Anyone lucky enough—or brave enough—to go on a San Juan rabbit hunt should begin by forgetting all the rules of hunting. Previous experience is a handicap. Marksmanship is unimportant. What the hunter needs is a stiff drink before starting out.
Experienced hunters may find this advice startling. I myself was surprised when I was introduced to it on a late-summer rabbit hunt on San Juan Island in Puget Sound. But any resemblance between this northwestern sport and other forms of hunting for anything anywhere is purely coincidental.
The hunt was scheduled to start at 10 o'clock at night, an unorthodox hour indeed, but certainly more civilized than the conventional predawn starts to which I was accustomed. There was another advantage—we had ample time to look over San Juan Island before dinner. Ever since leaving Seattle, some 80 miles south, I had been hearing about the innumerable rabbits to be seen on San Juan. But when we drove from the biggest town on the island, Friday Harbor (pop. 735), to Roche Harbor on its northern end we did not see a single one.
San Juan is the second largest (57 square miles) of a group of 172 islands that stretch like steppingstones from the mainland of Washington to Vancouver Island and Canada. Salmon abound in the surrounding waters, ducks winter along the black-sand beaches, snow is something that falls somewhere else and Santa Claus arrives each Christmas on a paddle-wheel ferryboat.
September 27, 1964
Back in 1858 the U.S. and Great Britain came close to fighting a war over a British pig that was shot on the island by an American settler after it had repeatedly rooted up his potato patch. The setler was named Lyman Cutler, and he offered to pay $10 for the pig when the British authorities tried to arrest him, but before the controversy ended nine companies of American infantry and artillery, plus a detachment of engineers, were lined up near Roche Harbor against five British warships with 2,140 men and 167 guns. After facing each other awhile, both sides reached the statesmanlike decision that no pig was worth a war.
Subsequently smugglers made San Juan Island a free port for opium, diamonds, dancing girls, Demerara rum, Chinese coolies, whiskey and wool. At one time the traffic in English wool reached such a volume that the San Juan sheep were considered a natural wonder, producing more wool per head than sheep had ever been known to produce before. The rabbits were a late arrival. During the heyday of the rabbit-fur muff some Belgian hares were imported into the island, and since there were virtually no natural predators and the climate was good and food abundant all year, the result was an incredible number of rabbits.
But as we drove along the roads bordered with green junipers and red-trunk madro√±a trees, the fabled rabbits were nowhere to be seen. Obviously, this was going to be another of those cases where we should have come last week or next week or when it was warmer or cooler or wetter or drier. And when preparations for the hunt began with a couple of old fashioneds it seemed simpler to go along with the group. As it turned out, I was glad I did.
A spectacular sunset on Roche Harbor and Vancouver Island, 10 miles away, brightened the otherwise gloomy outlook when my host, Bill Morrice of Seattle, said, "How about looking over a few rabbits before dinner?" Five minutes later we were driving along the same road we had traveled earlier. The only difference was that it was now dusk.
Bill said, "Ready?"
I said, "Sure," but the skepticism was hard to hide. He swung the car onto a narrow dirt road and cut the speed to 20. It was like touching a match to a Roman candle. Rabbits exploded from one side of the road to the other. They erupted in waves, popping back and forth ahead of us for a good 20 yards. As the car moved forward, new waves shot from the hedgerows. Brown and gray and spotted and checked rabbits whizzed past each other at dizzying speeds, barely avoiding head-on collisions. Some scooted across the road inches from the wheels. Others seemed to clear the road in a single leap. They hopped, loped, bounced and bulleted by us with the erratic animation of an early silent movie.
Never had I seen so many rabbits of such spectacular sizes and hues. Six-pounders were average; eight-and ten-pounders were commonplace; some must even have gone to 15 pounds. Since most rabbits found elsewhere weigh perhaps two pounds, this was a formidable amount of rabbit jumping across the road. And the size of San Juan rabbits was only the beginning. They came in a selection of shades and colors that seemed to defy genetic unscrambling.
Bill was still laughing at me when we got back to the marvelous old Hotel De Haro at Roche Harbor for dinner. The hotel was named for Lopez de Haro, one of the first Spanish navigators to explore the islands, and is an old-fashioned building with vine-covered balconies, arbors, gardens and antique furniture. A full moon was just beginning to finger the fields when we set out for The Oaks, three miles south of Friday Harbor, headquarters for Hal Rogers, the island's best known outfitter. Rogers was loading a bunny buggy as we arrived. The bunny buggy is his own creation—not that Detroit would want credit for it. The one we used originally had been a 1950 Dodge sedan. The make is not important, as long as it runs. A manual transmission and a strong frame, however, are important. The body is cut away from the front seat and replaced with a flat wooden platform set between the wheels. A box-like combination seat and rabbit cage is nailed to this platform, leaving an alley between the front seat and the box. The alley doubles as a footwell for the passengers and as a pulpit for the spotter, whose job it is to hang onto the roof with one hand and flash a spotlight around with the other, looking for the darting rabbits.
The driver and the spotter are equally important members of the team on a San Juan rabbit hunt, but the real star of the performance is the hunter. His perch on a bunny buggy is a metal tractor-type seat that juts out in the air alongside the rear wheel. It is rather like the fighting chair of a sport fisherman, except that it is a free-floating automotive fighting chair with nothing underneath it. The hunter sits in one of its slippery twin scoops, with his feet dangling disturbingly, and braces his weapon for the rabbits which the spotter locates.
This weapon, like everything connected with San Juan rabbit hunts, is no ordinary one. It is a gigantic salmon net, complete with a six-foot handle. Nobody on San Juan seems to remember who first thought of chasing rabbits with these nets, but everyone on the island seems to own one. The handle is about as wieldy as a two-by-four, and the diameter of the net is easily five feet.
The story is that when the market for rabbit fur vanished, the farmers on San Juan discovered that they could not sell the rabbits, give them away or even eat all that they owned. As they pondered how to get rid of their inventory, the inventory was nonchalantly doubling and tripling itself. (A single doe can produce up to 10 little ones every 30 days throughout the nonwinter months. The babies she has in the spring can make her a grandmother by fall.)
In most parts of the country the normal mortality rate is high enough to keep the rabbit population under control, but when the farmers on San Juan opened their cages they turned their animals loose into a rabbit paradise without animal enemies, with an ideal climate and with choice pasture on the rolling farmlands and in the green woods. During the night the rabbits ate their way through shrubs, bark, grass, gardens, strawberry patches and geranium plants. By day they gathered under hedgerows and hummocks to rest up for another night of feast and flirtation. Shooting and trapping barely made a dent in the burgeoning brood. Finally, in exasperation, the islanders decided that if they could not get rid of the rabbits they could at least have some fun hunting them.
On the porch of Rogers' frame house half a dozen teen-agers in stretch pants were shouting, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" to the screams of a recorded quartet. An unidentified voice outvolumed both to yell, "Don't forget the coffee!" Rogers, who was walking past us, stopped suddenly and patted his hip, then motioned us aboard the bunny buggy and climbed in behind the wheel. There were 10 of us on our hunt. We cruised through a field while the spotter tried to pick out a rabbit in his light. When the spotter yelled, "Game!" the action began. Rogers threw in the clutch, stepped on the gas, and we were off. This was no air-cushioned ride through the moonlit countryside. When the farmers abandoned these fields they left behind them almost as many rocks, ruts, ditches and drainages as rabbits. At 40 mph any one of them was good for at least a bruise or two.
The rabbit usually takes off as soon as the light picks it up. Sometimes it shoots ahead so fast the spotter loses it, and sometimes it gets away by ducking into a hole or under a brush pile. Most of the time, however, the rabbit sprints straight ahead, then swings into a wide circle. The buggy goes breaknecking along behind until it catches up with the rabbit or cuts off its escape. At this point the hunter, brandishing his salmon net—or staggering under it—leaps from the still-moving buggy and drops the net over the rabbit.
At least, that is the way it is supposed to be done. I found the theory had a tendency to break down, however, when I practiced it. Sometimes a hunter may bounce out of his fighting chair even before a rabbit is sighted and the chase is under way. A good many passengers are lost this way. It is a split-second game. When the rabbit call is sounded, there is no time to check everyone's handhold. The more people there are aboard, the more likely one is to bounce off. But, then, staying on the buggy is part of the challenge of the hunt.
So is staying in the hunter's fighting seat. The jump-off itself, when the net is to be dropped over the rabbit, is merely the climax of these hazards. Between the bouncing of the buggy and the unbalancing weight of the salmon net, tremendous coordination is required to make the landing safely. A really skilled jumper hits the ground at full stride and keeps right on moving forward. The novice simply relaxes his death grip on whatever part of the buggy he has been anchored to and falls off, hoping to land on his feet.
Once on the ground, the hunter is faced with the problem of using the net. The simplest way is to tuck the end of the handle under the armpit for leverage, put both hands as far forward as possible on the handle so the net can be held high and run the final distance to the rabbit. As soon as the rabbit is overtaken, the net is snapped down fast. If everything goes right, the rabbit is trapped inside. Usually, however, the hunter winds up flat on his face.
Partly it is a question of lead. It is not enough to center the net directly over the rabbit. By the time you slam the net down, the rabbit is six feet ahead of where he was. Then there is the tricky footwork involved. If the hunter stops running in order to slam down the net, he probably will bring it down canted in such a way that the rabbit escapes under one side. On the other hand, if he does not stop running the moment it hits the ground, the weight of the net will drag him down with it.
Often during the hunt Rogers would whip out his flask and call for a coffee break. There are an unlimited number of coffee breaks on a San Juan rabbit hunt. As the night wears on and the flask wears low, the rabbits all get bigger and slower, the net gets lighter, the ground gets closer, the company gets funnier and even the ride gets smoother. But above all esthetic considerations, the San Juan coffee break has true medicinal value, particularly of a preventive nature.
"It's a real safety measure," Hal Rogers said. "You get a hunter out here who is all tense and tight and the next thing you know, we hit a little bump and he's broke an arm. You've got to relax in this sport; take it real loose and easy. Give that same man a couple of coffee breaks to relax him good, and he won't even notice if he bounces off the buggy. And let's face it," Rogers added thoughtfully, "if you are really serious about chasing rabbits, you're going to be bounced off sooner or later."
Later, I learned, is definitely preferable. By that time there had been about half a dozen coffee breaks. We had netted and stowed away 50-odd rabbits, which was about one-fifth the number we had chased, and we had each been at the net several times. Rogers' teenage daughter was spotting. Just as we turned into a new field she shouted, "There, Daddy!" Rogers stepped on the gas, and the buggy leaped forward. Suddenly there was a tremendous thud.
The next thing I knew I was shooting straight up into the air. The trip down was even brisker. Through a shower of comic-strip stars (the kind I use to credit to the artist's imagination) I surveyed the wreckage. The bunny buggy was nose down in a three-foot ditch. Its headlights sent a feeble white beam up out of the black cavity, and its rear wheels spun lopsidedly in the air. A flood of rabbits poured from a broken cage and tumbled in wild and furry confusion over me as I hung on the hunting seat.
There were bodies picking themselves up from the ground all around and hasty tooth, bone and bottle checks. The only breakage turned out to be a fifth of Old Grand-Dad.
The debacle, it seemed, was all caused by an innocent misunderstanding. When Rogers' daughter shouted, "There, Daddy!" she meant the ditch spotlighted dead ahead. To Rogers the call meant game. He responded as any good rabbit driver would. He hit the gas pedal hard and away we went. The buggy was roaring 40 mph when it hit the ditch.
Hartly Kruger, a young executive from Olympia, Wash., had been sitting in the hunting seat when the buggy and disaster struck. He was launched skyward from this precarious perch with the velocity of a Friendship VII after countdown. There was now no sign of him or the net anywhere. This was doubly remarkable because Kruger, a former University of Idaho basketball star, is 6 feet 7 inches, weighs 260 pounds and is much too big to lose sight of, especially on a moonlit night.
We spread out over the darkness, stumbling and calling his name. A muffled cry came from the depths of the ditch. Kruger was wedged into it so completely that only his long legs were visible. They projected into the sky like twin TV antennas in a prairie town. It took another coffee break and the disorganized efforts of the entire party to disengage him.
"That Kruger has a real talent for rabbit hunting," Rogers said admiringly, as we limped home. "He sure knows the secret of hunting loose and easy. Now, you bounce some other feller into a ditch like that and he'd get real banged up."
The praise was evidently too much for Kruger. He was speechless the rest of the evening. None of us did much talking. We just looked at the moon and now and again gently giggled.