One Fox on foot more diversion will bring Than twice twenty thousand cock pheasants on wing.
The old dog fox lay dozing in his covert, snugly wrapped in his red brush as he dreamed slow dreams of mice and grouse and the plump, warm rabbits that seemed to have fled the land. Then, through the drift of toothsome images, came a sound that spelled danger: the raucous approach of a hunt. But this was frosty Minnesota, not merrie England, and the clamor that snapped the fox's ears erect was neither the bugling of hounds nor the brazen winding of a huntsman's horn. Instead he heard the tremulous tantivy of a dozen unmuffled snowmobile engines and the snarl of a circling plane. The Aitkin hunt was afield, with ice on its eyebrows and vulpecide in its heart.
Minutes earlier the hunt had sallied forth from the Aitkin airport parking lot, a motley assemblage of butter-yellow Ski-Doos, red Rupp Sno-Sports, blue and white Polaris Mustangs and black Scorpions. Their tanklike treads churned a fine white chop behind them as the sleds roared toward a rendezvous where the spotter plane had located the fox. A cutting southwest wind had moderated, and the temperature—25° below the night before—was up to zero, yielding a halcyon day despite the snow flurries. Leaving one man afoot to guard the road with a shotgun, the huntsmen vaulted up the roadside bank into the deep snow, then angled in file along a hedgerow, which masked their movements from the fox's keen eyes. The plane, a blue and white Champion mounted with skis, dipped and wheeled above the covert, and the sleds turned abreast to drive their prey into the open. Then they charged: thumbs down on the throttle triggers, each man erect over the saddle, the skis bucking and the spindrift whipping against their faces, eyes crimped against clouds of exhaust and bits of snow crust. There were sudden gestures as the fox broke cover, but not a man yelled, "Tallyho!" Engine noise would have drowned the ancient cry even if some Aitkin huntsman were demonstrative enough to utter it.
Simply stated, the aim of the chase was death to the fox by one of three means. Easiest and least rewarding would be to drive the fox into range of the roadside gunner, who would drop him with a Magnum load of No. 4 shot from his 12-gauge pump gun. Messier but more challenging would be to ride the fox down and pin him beneath the cleats—relatively unwounded in the soft snow—so that he could be clubbed to death at leisure. To that end, the huntsmen carried bats, tire irons and lengths of rubber hose loaded with metal. Most daring of all would be to roar up behind the running predator, grab him by the brush and brain him against a convenient tree or fence post.
This fox preferred none of the three fates available to him. He pelted away in long, arcing leaps for a nearby woodlot, his tail streaming grandly behind him. Though the machines had superior speed in the straightaways (up to 30 mph), the fox possessed all the open-field moves of a furry Gale Sayers. For nearly 20 minutes the animal had the best of the race. Three times he circled through the woodlot, leaving riders stalled and cursing in the brushy draws or spilled in chilly humiliation when their sleds hit hidden tree stumps. Then, as if contemptuous of his pursuers, the fox cut into the open. One sled bore down on him, the driver leaning hard to the left as he made his grab for the tail, his right thumb gunning the throttle—a narrow miss. Cutting for cover with a quick little zig-out, the fox bounded toward the road. An instant too late he spotted the gunner standing at the roadside and cut back toward the dense brush. The crump of the gun flattened the fox in the snow, his long-fanged jaws open, his lips curled in a reddening rictus.
"He could have gone to ground anytime he wanted," said one of the riders. "There's dens all over the place around here." Another hefted the animal. "He's an old 'un—look at the trap scars on his legs!" The plane swooped low over the field, then dipped its wings in salute as the pilot headed off to search out a new target. Someone passed around a bottle and, while the huntsmen enjoyed their stirrup cup, snow drifted lightly into the fox's open mouth.
There is no denying that a hunt by snowmobile is both grueling and thrilling. The frigid temperatures, the elusiveness of the prey, the tricky winter light, the ditches and rocks and hidden barbed-wire fences encountered in the chase all combine to make a snowmobile hunt no easy piece of slaughter. Yet though it is sporty, is it truly sporting? In the ethics of the hunt (an element that many animal lovers consider a contradiction in terms) purists condemn any use of artificial motive power: polar-bear hunts by helicopter, lion hunts by Land Rover, deer hunts by swamp buggy are all regarded as anathema. Many state game departments forbid the harassment of any animal by motor vehicles, and the most enlightened are even considering a ban on snowmobile use for bounty hunting. "It's a cruel way of doing things," says Conservationist W. L. R. Rollmann of Wisconsin's natural resources department. "It's a pretty inhumane way of having sport."
By contrast, the adherents of the snowmobile chase, and of the machine itself, offer many arguments in its favor. Old English fox hunting, they point out, ended with the hounds ripping the fox to tatters, and the lead dog making off with the "mask," i.e., the fox's gnawed head. And, if the alternative to varmint hunting by snowmobile is trapping, which fate is cruder: A heated chase that terminates in sudden death or a night of panic and misery in the jaws of a steel trap? Even those snowmobile hunters who, like the English, respect the fox are likely to place more value in the chase than they place discredit in the kill. Bob Allison, the Minnesota Twins' outfielder, has hunted foxes by snowmobile for more than three years. He always kills with a rifle and contends that the fox has a better than even chance of escape. "What are outdoor lovers and hunters to do in winters like this?" he asks. "Sit inside by the fire and look at television?"
There is plenty of television in Aitkin, Minn. (pop. 1,829), a town about as distant—across the longitudes of culture—from the English fox-hunting capital of Melton Mowbray as Davy Crockett stood from Queen Victoria. A weatherworn farm-and-fishing crossroads some 150 miles north of Minneapolis, Aitkin huddles below the corkscrew bends of the Upper Mississippi in a rolling land of beef and dairy farms, second-growth woodlots and lakes rich with fish. Its name, like that of such surrounding hamlets as Cutler and Hassman, Malmo and Dad's Corner, clips the ear with the no-nonsense ring of the Northern frontier.
On a winter's day in Aitkin, with the thermometer on the red brick bank building showing a steady sub-zero, a visitor walking from Vern's Bar & Grill (billiards) to Fred's Cafe can raise a bumper crop of icicles on his mustache (if he is fool enough to wear one). In Fred's itself he can turn on to the country-and-western music moaning from the jukebox, tune in on a grunt-by-grunt account of last night's wrestling match with McGregor High or drop out on the next Greyhound to Duluth (Fred's doubles as the local bus stop). Then again, he can wheel out his snowmobile and go hunting with the local gentry.
These are no pink-coated dukes and duchesses but rather a crew of wind-burned mechanics, miners, telephone linemen, Hereford growers, automobile dealers and kids in love with speed. In pursuit, if not in demeanor, they share a common bond with Jorrocks, the Active master of fox hounds in R. S. Surtees' 19th-century novels. As Jorrocks said of his prey: "In the summer I loves him with all the hardour of affection: not an 'air of his beautiful 'ead would I 'urt; the sight of him is more glorious than the Lord Mayor's show, but when the autumn comes then dash my vig how I loves to pursue him to destruction." Ditto the huntsmen of Aitkin.
"I hold no brief for the fox," says Marvin Carroll, who serves as de facto master of the Aitkin hunt. "In temperament he's half dog and half cat—with the worst traits of both. He's sneaky and he tortures his prey." Carroll, 51, is a blue-eyed, churchgoing outdoorsman built like a pine stump. He works for the telephone company, but his true vocation is the extermination of the fox.
"Twenty years ago you rarely saw a fox around here," he says. "We had small game galore then: partridge, sharp-tail grouse, pheasants, rabbits. Then they started turkey farming near Aitkin and the foxes came in. Now the game bird population is way down and you almost never see a rabbit." Carroll also claims that foxes are indirectly responsible for a high deer kill by "brush wolves" (coyotes). "The wolf kills a weak deer, eats some of the meat and caches the rest. Along comes Mr. Fox and digs it up. The wolf has to kill again, sooner then he might have otherwise."
Few naturalists would deny that the fox is an accomplished thief and a voracious eater of carrion. Some do, however, dispute the fox's reputation as a murderer of game birds. A New York conservation department study in the central part of the state some years ago determined that the ruffed grouse population fluctuated in keeping with its own cycle of highs and lows despite an abundance or dearth of foxes in the area. Naturalist Adolph Murie, who spent many years studying the foxes and other animals of Alaska's Mt. McKinley Park, depicts the animal primarily as a diner on mice and ground squirrels, with a diet-etically balanced taste for blueberries as a change of pace. Many states have taken the fox off the "vermin" list and eliminated the bounty placed on his head. Carroll and his Aitkin cohorts would like to see the Minnesota fox bounty restored. As it is, they get only $7.50 to $10 for each fox pelt they take (about 100 a year), and a bounty would greatly enhance the popularity of the chase.
The Aitkin hunt also pursues coyotes whenever it can (though the price paid for "wolf" pelts rarely exceeds $5). Other snowmobile hunters tackle the true timber wolf in the upper reaches of the state. Don Hanson, 40, a mechanic with the Wold Implement Co., tells of an impromptu wolf hunt near Bemidji:
"My uncle was bopping through the woods when he bounced this timber wolf bitch. He chased her back and forth across a mile-wide field for nearly an hour before she was played out. Finally she fell down in the snow. He didn't have a gun with him but he'd seen this heavy stick in the snow while he was chasing her. He got it and came back to club her to death. But when she showed those choppers he had second thoughts. Luckily a friend who'd heard the chase came by on his Arctic Cat with a pistol."
Bloodthirsty as they sound, the hunters of Aitkin have a true concern for the preservation of wildlife. Even Marvin Carroll admits that the unrestricted spraying of insecticides probably has more to do with the decline of game birds than does the fox. And he speaks with pride of a deer-rescue operation conducted by Aitkin snowmobilists during the severe winter of 1965, when deep snows sentenced the deer to death by starvation and pneumonia.
"A couple of the guys went into the woods on snowshoes, while a plane spotted the deeryards for them from the air. They marked the worst-hit herds and then went in the next day on snowmobiles dragging toboggans. They'd come up on these dying deer—too weak to get up—and lift them just as gentle onto the toboggans. They took out a dozen or more, gave them each a heavy shot of penicillin and warm milk. All of them pulled through except one doe who gave birth to two fawns before she died."
So how does one judge the morality of the snowmobile hunter? By his engine or by his heart? Each beats as fiercely as the other, and the mixture of fuels produces both a soul-stirring noise and a whiff of pollution. Perhaps only when the fox is gone and the chase is over will the judgment become clear. Before then, it might well behoove the huntsmen of Aitkin to heed the dactylic advice of Egerton Warburton. After all, one can always stock pheasants, but who has stocked foxes?