For 38 of his 52 years, Oscar Cronk Jr., Maine wilderness trapper, has been spending most of fall and winter in the woods. Since 1968 he has been going to his camp in the vast wilderness waterway called the Allagash. Late every October he kisses his wife, Edie, goodby, throws his hound, Emerson, in the back of his Chevy pickup and drives 250 miles from his home in Wiscasset on the coast to the camp in northwest Aroostook County. The route takes him into Quebec, past desolate, windswept farms sculpted by snowdrifts. The truck leaps over frost-heave ripples on the road much of the way, and Emerson, from his dog box, yelps like a child on a roller coaster. They rejoin Maine at the remote customs station of Daaquam and drive the final 18 miles over a frozen logging road that leads to the camp just across the St. John River.
Cronk's cabin lies in a pocket of spruce trees 100 yards off the road. It measures 16' x 30' and has two rooms and is insulated. There are two easy chairs and a fine porcelain stove with propane burners as well as a hearth for wood. From inside the cabin the sun can be seen setting among the spruces through a window with a bear paw print on one of its frosted panes. The camp even has the luxury of an outhouse. Cronk calls the camp his mansion, and it is, compared with the old camp, which had a wood stove made from parts of a junkyard car. In the old place, on cold mornings, the cracketycrack of Cronk's drinking water freezing in its bucket would assure him of where he was.
Eight months of the year Oscar and Edie operate their store, Cronk's Outdoor Supplies, in Wiscasset, but for the other four Cronk runs his Allagash trapline—for muskrat, mink, fox, marten and coyote in fall, beaver in winter. His territory lies in the 1.25 million acres owned by the International Paper Co. Cronk pays an annual fee for his campsite. He is permitted to trap there, drive on the IP roads and cut as many dead and fallen trees as he needs for heat. Says Cronk, "I don't believe you could come into a bigger piece of wilderness than the Allagash here. It's just hundreds of square miles of nothing but woods."
The woods are mostly spruce fir, beech and cedar, and at their thickest, Cronk calls them "black groves." The local game warden calls the area "Mother Nature's vengeance." On a clear winter night it can drop to 40° below, and the black groves creak. The wind spins the snow into devils that whirl across clearings, and branches cry out in the dark with sharp cracks. No one stirs but the owls. "She's a cold, cold country," Cronk is fond of saying.
He is a sturdy and handsome man, six feet and 195 pounds, with broad shoulders and powerful legs from winters of chopping wood and snowshoeing. "I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but I could still snowshoe with the 25-year-old Oscar Cronk," he says. His face is weathered and creased at the temples, but the impression it gives is of good health, not erosion. His nose is shaped like the beak of an owl. Sometimes he wears a beard and looks almost professorial, but when his face is clean-shaven, the chiseled features are striking and Indian-like. In fact, one of Cronk's great-great grandmothers was a full-blooded Indian—Penobscot, he believes. When he snowshoes hard, his cantilevered eyebrows catch the sweat from his brow like awnings, and the droplets form ice balls that dangle before his eyes like the long icicles hanging from the eaves of his camp.
Beaver trapping isn't an everyday winter pursuit at the camp. There are slack days because of weather or other jobs to be done or the beavers' disinclination to be trapped. On such days Cronk often goes bobcat hunting, which is where Emerson comes in. Emerson is a 'cat dog. Says Oscar, "If you want to go bobcat hunting, the first thing you need is a dog that hates cats."
They call the bobcat the "woods ghost." Men have spent their lives in the woods and have never seen one. Cronk himself will never know how many times he has snowshoed past a bobcat watching from a black grove. They are also called wildcats. They hunt both night and day but do most of their napping at midday, returning to one of their dens—more like favorite sleeping spots than any sort of formal home—if they can.
The bobcat, Lynx rufus, generally weighs between 15 and 30 pounds, though it can be as heavy as 50. Bobcats got their name from their bobbed tails and/or bobbing running style. They have a low profile and light step, on big paws that float on the snow. They prey on anything from mice to deer. A 'cat will pounce on a deer's neck and wrestle it to the ground for the kill, evoking the image of a wild ride through the woods and ghostly screeching from the black groves in the dead of night. Bobcat fur is brownish, spotted and tufty and periodically in demand by man, the adult 'cat's only predator. Bobcats are trapped and hunted for their pelts, which are used for coats.
The rattle of the old alarm clock in the dark chill of the camp wakes Oscar. He throws off his blankets and goes into the kitchen in his long underwear, his slippered feet padding on the cold plywood floor. He lights a gas lantern and restokes the stove to heat a heavy iron teapot. He scrapes some ice from the window with a fingernail, shines a flashlight out into the night and reads -19° on the thermometer mounted outside on a tree. Then he goes back into the bedroom and shadowboxes to loosen up, dancing in his long Johns and flicking jabs at the broad shadow thrown against the wall by the lantern light.
He makes himself a breakfast of grapefruit, bacon and eggs, baked beans, home fries, toast with jam and coffee. By the time the dishes are done Emerson has come out of his doghouse and is wailing hoarsely, his chain clanking on the frozen snow as he eagerly paces back and forth, sensing this will be his day out.
Cronk usually begins a day of bobcat hunting by cruising the logging road in his truck, his 12-gauge shotgun on the floor beside him, looking for the tracks of a 'cat that may have crossed the road during the night; if he doesn't find any he will continue the search in the woods on snowshoes, leading Emerson. Cronk drives along the road at 15 mph, peering at the sunny side. Emerson sits up next to him, sniffing at the window as if he could pull the scent of the hated 'cats right through the glass.
Evenings after beaver trapping, Cronk takes Emerson for road work to keep him in shape for chasing 'cats. He drives a few miles up the road and releases Emerson to run behind the truck back to camp, a workout Emerson handles with the ease of youth. Half bluetick, half treeing Walker and now 4½ years old and weighing 50 pounds, he was the pick of his litter, in Cronk's eyes.
"I watched all the puppies and then I came back to Emerson," he says. "The thing I noticed about him was that he would do what he wanted to do. He walked around and he was very aggressive, always using his nose, always smelling something. He had a salt-and-pepper coat I liked. He had these funny webbed feet; they were kind of freakish, but I knew they'd be great in the snow. I said, 'Boy, it looks like that might be a pretty good 'cat dog there.' But I finally chose him because of his eye. The left one was brown but the right was milky blue, what I call a 'watch eye.' That's supposed to be a good sign. I remembered that and I said, 'Maybe there's something extra in that pup. We'll see.' I knew one thing: With that eye he looked some funny."
Emerson is just beginning his bobcat-hunting career. This season, the winter of 1980-81, is his first as starting 'cat dog. Cronk's best hound had been Hollis, who treed 15 'cats in his eight years. But Hollis died of gastric torsion—a twisted stomach—and Emerson became top dog. Though he was a rookie, he was not 'cat-less, having treed one in each of the previous two seasons during his apprenticeship under Hollis.
"They're hard to come by, 'cat dogs," says Cronk. "I'll bet I've had, all told, at least 25 dogs, and I honestly could only count half a dozen that could track 'cats. They say that you only have one really good 'cat dog in a lifetime, but I don't believe that. I've already had Hollis, and before him Riley, and I think Emerson will make me a third."
Oscar and Emerson find no 'cat tracks along the road this morning. Cronk stops the truck a number of times to examine the snow. Once he stays in the truck and sends Emerson out to check a track; the dog returns, uninterested in the scent—probably rabbit. Another time he stuffs his muzzle in a print, sniffs and snorts a while, emerging with the hair around his nose covered with powdered snow, like a sugar doughnut, and gives an unsure bark, his "watch eye" on Cronk to see if he has gotten it right. Cronk bends over the print, his bare hands in the snow as he lowers his nose nearly as deep as Emerson had. He comes up shaking his finger at the hound. "That's trash," he says to the dog. "It's a fox track. Things like that, foxes and coyote, we don't want. We got to be specialists." Emerson trots back to the truck, satisfied he has shown Oscar he is on the job. "Emerson's a sensitive dog," says Oscar. "He only needs scolding, not striking."
That afternoon they trek into the woods. There are coyote tracks galore, so they know that the snow, although deep, can support a bobcat. The sun shining through the trees paints zebra stripes on the path. The temperature is still well below zero. Cronk chuffs along in the powder, his plaid woods jacket open and flannel shirt unbuttoned at the chest, exposing his long Johns. As he works up a sweat, ice balls gather on his eyebrows.
Cronk sinks to his shins with each step, the snow on his snowshoes feeling like ankle weights as he walks. The cold dulls Emerson's nose and hurts his feet; following in Oscar's path, he hops as if he has been given a hotfoot. And Cronk begins to think the 'cats are holed up anyhow—at least for another day. They normally start moving the second day after a storm, which this day is, but the snow hasn't fully settled yet; if a 'cat traveled now, he too would sink into the snow in some places. His chest would ball up with the snow and he would get wet—distasteful business to a 'cat. Cronk is aware of all this, of course, but he is satisfied to be "cutting the country"—breaking a trail for the next day. He looks at this day as reconnaissance—just a little exercise. He hopes the sun will settle the snow and the 'cats will come out that night, making tomorrow a better day.
As the afternoon wanes, the air grows crisper. They have been in the woods four hours, outdoors for eight. The sky is pinkish in the west and cloudless blue in the east, where it holds a pale moon high. It's nearly sunset when they arrive back at the truck.
Though they haven't found a track, it has been a good day's work, and Emerson gets his reward as they drive back to camp. "Good doggy," says Cronk, watching Emerson gulp down a Mystic Mint wafer. Emerson sniffs in Oscar's pocket for more cookies, then licks the snow off his master's wool pants and curls up next to him. He plops his chin on Oscar's thigh, and with a contented sigh his eyelids droop over his funny-looking eyes.
There are chores to be done before dinner. First start the fire. Then hike a quarter mile to the underground brook for water. Then feed Emerson. Cronk scoops raw beaver meat from a big plastic jar and mixes it with dry dog food. "Good rich protein," he says. "If the little fella gets to runnin' a 'cat tomorrow, he's gonna need somethin' under his collar." After he eats, Emerson dozes on the soft recliner by the stove as Oscar prepares his own dinner: pork chops, boiled potatoes, canned corn, biscuits, brownies and a big dill pickle, which he munches along with the meal as if it were a bread stick.
Cronk believes he would have enjoyed trapping more in the '30s. He prefers the old ways, and his style is only lightly touched by technology. In his overnight survival pack he carries matches, not a lighter, and surplus C rations. He had a pair of state-of-the-art long underwear once, but says they made his back ache. His snowmobile is 15 years old and looks it. He got 125,000 hard miles out of his last pickup before the frame finally sagged, but even the new Chevy is a two-wheel-drive, because it's simpler than a four-wheel-drive.
Cronk doesn't even own a decent radio. His is an ancient transistor with baling wire for an antenna. It receives just one, sometimes two, stations and only at night, and they're both French-language stations. Next to no outside contact means no weather forecasts, but that doesn't bother Cronk. His attitude toward nature is one held by the best outdoorsmen; whether it is respectful or wise or merely fatalistic or even shortsighted, it is, simply, submit. When the weather changes, you change.
Every week Cronk drives 30 miles into St. Camille in Quebec for gas and supplies and a phone call to Edie, but otherwise his only information from the "real" world comes from a stack of old tabloids of the kind found in supermarkets. In the winter, Cronk knows only two worlds: the wilderness and the one about to be attacked by UFOs. He doesn't need more company than Emerson. He had a partner at the old camp, but he doesn't really miss him. And there's no economic necessity for him to spend every winter at camp. The price for beaver pelts dropped drastically two winters ago; Cronk could have stayed in Wiscasset, but he needs winters at the camp for his soul.
Cronk is an outdoors-man of considerable repute in the state, known through his store and the writings of a regular column called "Maine Traplines" in the monthly tabloid The Maine Sportsman. Each year since 1971 he has hosted "Cronk's Trapper's Days," a convention of sorts for trappers, who have come from as far as Arizona to meet him and mingle with other trappers. For years he held Maine trapping license No. 1, a privilege that goes with being president of the Maine Trappers Association, a post he held from 1964 through 1978. The membership during that period grew from 50 to more than 1,200. He was a founding member and, until 1978, vice-president of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, an organization formed in 1975 to resist threats to hunting and trapping. And believing it would improve his communication with legislators as well as help him in his efforts to edify the public about trapping, he once enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course. At graduation he was voted most likely to succeed by his classmates. "I could get in front of 5,000 people today and speak to them if I had to," he says, "but leave me alone and I'll crawl back into my hole." As a political leader, Cronk was popular and known for his reasonableness—he likes people, but often sided with the animals. But despite his ventures before the public, he has led a relatively sheltered life.
Having avoided the worst of it, Cronk's reception of the world is with unreserved optimism and untarnished faith. Like Davy Crockett, he sometimes runs across the Big Mike Finks and usually recognizes them, but he sees their good parts and gives them the benefit of the doubt. He has the kind of trust and integrity that make it easy for him to follow his own golden bobcat-hunting rule: Follow your dog to the end of the world. Still, he knows that disillusionment lurks out there in civilization, so it's easier to deal with the wilderness. Emerson and Mother Nature are a lot safer.
Cronk has had a stomach ulcer since he was 19. He believes it's hereditary and he treats it with good humor, like a pesty old dog. He also has high blood pressure, which he was afflicted with when he was politically active. "I found out my insides didn't like me involved in a lot of wranglin' positions," he says. "Now I only do what's necessary for the business."
When Cronk backed out of politics, Edie took over, and in 1981 she was elected president of the Sportsman's Alliance. She's considerably more militant than Cronk had been in advocating the causes of hunters and trappers. She's a strong and attractive woman with jet-black hair, a quick and spirited wit and a hale voice that can be mistaken for Cronk's over the phone. She has been his business partner since they were married in 1960; he was 30, she 21. The next year they opened Cronk's Outdoor Supplies, and now Oscar sticks mostly to the field work while Edie manages the store. "I couldn't do it without her," he says. "She's very much a part of my life, even though we spend so much time apart. She's sort of a special woman."
Cronk's Outdoor Supplies does a modest retail trade in items ranging from Maine honey to dog collars to suspenders to arcane outdoors books, such as Oscar's own Cronk's Scientific Raccoon Trapping and Cronk's Scientific Muskrat Trapping. But most of the business is in mail-ordered trapping supplies, from a catalogue the Cronks write themselves. Oscar is renowned for his scents and lures. He has more than 100 formulas, secret combinations of animals' glandular secretions. In summer he spends hours in the store's basement mixing up the musks and pouring them into little brown bottles. The odors are wafted upstairs through the floorboards, giving Cronk's Outdoor Supplies a scent of its own.
The camp is warm and cozy and slightly smoky. Ice has formed in thick designs on the inside of all three windows; outside, the thermometer reads -15°. Dinner is finished and the dishes have been washed, and the old alarm clock has been set for 5 a.m. Cronk climbs into bed in his long underwear and reads a while, the hissing lantern lighting the pages of a tattered green book titled Famous Frontiersmen, Pioneers and Scouts. Cronk collects such books. Before he turns out the lantern, he performs his bedtime ritual—a woodsman's way of dealing with nature. After having cheerfully excited his ulcer with things like pork chops and pickles, he rubs his belly to stir up gas, belches a few times to release it, and then fades off, snoring peacefully, a brace of as-yet-to-be-skinned beavers piled at the foot of his bunk, keeping him company as he sleeps soundly.
Next morning: another huge breakfast, including two thick slices of toast made of Edie's homemade wheat bread, topped with blueberry jam. "As busy as that woman is, rarely do I have to eat store-boughten bread," he says. In the woods, snowshoeing across a clearing toward what he calls a "cedar swamp," Cronk rubs his belly as he walks. Even when not tending the ulcer, he pats it a lot, as if he were making sure it was still there. Security is strength, and strength comes from a full stomach. As with Popeye and spinach, he figures that sandwiches and cookies during the day give him "stayin' power," and he always carries some in the woods, tucked inside his shirt against his belly to keep them from freezing.
Cronk is clearly hopeful this morning and having a good time, though it's 10° below, a fresh snowfall still hasn't settled and the wind feels like pins stuck in his cheeks. "Rabbit tracks comin' up," he announces like a tour guide, as if rabbit tracks were wondrous. He could be the ultimate scoutmaster. He gets no saltier than "son of a bee," and most things are "she" to him: the weather, the truck, the wood stove, logs for the wood stove, the carburetor on the snowmobile. Dogs, cats, birds, beavers and male people are "fellas," and he imparts the obvious about them like tips from a scoutmaster: "A fella should always warm up his truck on a cold morning or she'll let him down someday."
He stops at a frozen brook, slips off his snowshoes, scrapes away the snow with a leather-mittened hand and chops a hole in the ice with his knife. He kneels on all fours and sticks his face into the hole as if he were saying hello to the little fellas down there. He comes up grinning and wiping his chin. "Ahh, that's some good," he says. "It's the most elegant-tasting water you ever drank."
A bobcat hunter begins at first light because the sooner a track is found the hotter its scent will be. If the track was made early he'll have the 'cat's full hunt to unravel and re-live, and he knows he'll likely need all day and be led over tarnation. Starting early helps him get home before dark.
The dog's mission isn't an easy one. To start with, snow is a poor retainer of scent. Then, the wily 'cat may walk in another animal's tracks; he may circle around in his own or backtrack in them; he may even leap from a trail to a tree to another trail, making the dog think he's chasing a cat with wings. Cronk tells of one dog-wise 'cat that headed straight for the railroad tracks when he knew a dog was on him. He'd pad along them, leaving the dog futilely sniffing cold, bare steel. Two dogs got run over by trains before the hunters figured it out. The next time, they lay waiting for the 'cat and picked it off the rail like a target in a carnival shooting game.
The poor dog's frequent frustration is understandable. He might be led on his belly under thickets the 'cat weaves through easily. He might have to flail over logs the 'cat jumps effortlessly. The snow might be so deep in places, the dog will have to burrow like a mole. And he might finally find himself in a cedar swamp or black grove, standing bewildered in an utterly confounding crossroads of animal tracks, including his own. Meanwhile, the 'cat may be off somewhere smirking, and even may be watching.
Wishful thinking sometimes overcomes a dog. When he finally didn't know where to turn, Cronk's old dog Hollis used to bark up the nearest stout tree until Cronk came along, then look at him as if to say, "Well, the 'cat was up there."
Dogs are also often carried away by their enthusiasm. They sometimes literally get lost in the pursuit; a hunter may spend his day—or night, depending on how faithful he is—looking for his dog. So he usually keeps the dog leashed until a 'cat is jumped or the scent gets so hot the dog begins dragging the hunter. After unleashing him, the hunter may lose all contact with the dog. Or he might be able to hear and follow the dog's voice, and even interpret it; a hunter can often guess the state of the chase by the bark. A dog's voice might reflect everything from confusion to dismay to frenzy—to exhilaration if the 'cat is treed.
The 'cat usually trees only when he tires of the chase or can't lose the dog. But sometimes he'll stand his ground at the base of a tree. That worries hunters, because they are usually too far behind in the chase to prevent a fight. "A 'cat's a rugged animal," says Cronk. "A dog like Emerson probably wouldn't have a ghost of a chance. The average 15- or 20-pound bobcat could lick him. A 30-pound 'cat would probably kill him. A bobcat fights just like a house cat. He rolls over on his back, and when the dog dives on him and tries to bite his neck, he pulls the dog against him with his front paws and works his hind feet like pistons. He cuts the dog's insides right out.
"To me, the most thrilling moment in the hunt is when the dog jumps a 'cat. Maybe it's been an hour and you've heard nothing of him, maybe two hours. You keep listening; you strain your ears—and suddenly you hear his voice. Gee, what a pretty sound that is. That's when my old heart starts thumpin'. That's when the race is really on. The hunter has been cut out of the game until then. The dog and the 'cat were having their own race out there; you're left behind. But now it's no longer just the dog and the 'cat. It's the dog, 'cat and hunter. It's a threesome there. To me, that's the most exciting part because you know that you're going to be an important part of what finally takes place. When you see a 'cat treed staring down at you, it's worth every step of the way." And one wonders how he can stare back at the little fella and blow him to smithereens.
If only the 'cat could be interviewed. Does he know he could outrun the dog if he ran directly cross-country? Does he know he could kick the insides out of the dog if he wanted to? Does he know there's a man with a gun back there following the dog? It's the dog's determination against the 'cat's cunning. And it's considered a game by the man, although no one ever asks the 'cat if he wants to play. At times it may look as if the 'cat is making a game of it, considering his control of its course, but it can't be a game because the 'cat can't win. The best it can do is break even. And the hunter can't lose because breaking even is the worst he can do.
Cronk doesn't see it as a no-win situation for the 'cat. Even if he gets killed in the end, the 'cat is ahead of the game, Cronk figures, having lived free and exciting years in the wilderness. "I don't get a kick out of killing animals," he says. "The shooting part is what I get the least satisfaction out of. When I'm chasing a 'cat I can't think, 'Boy, I'll be glad when I shoot you.' Sometimes I look at him and think what a pretty animal he is. He's really a beautiful animal, and sometimes I look at a bobcat and think, 'There's a wild animal.' "
No one really knows how many bobcats there are in the Allagash; how do you count ghosts in the woods? The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife divides the state into eight wildlife management units. The Allagash area, Unit 2, contains 8,503 square miles of bobcat habitat, and the department's best guess is that there is at least one 'cat per 10 square miles. In the last three seasons, poor for hunting because of either too much or too little snow, 47 bobcats were taken in Unit 2, 31 by trapping and 16 by hunting. (Cronk estimates he has killed about 100 in his lifetime.) The average bobcat harvest in recent years has been 400 statewide, a figure considered "healthy" by Maine wildlife officials.
There was a bounty on the bobcat in Maine from 1909 to 1975, instigated by deer hunters, because every deer killed by a 'cat was one less for them to shoot. Politically powerful because of their numbers, the deer hunters prevailed upon the state legislature to maintain the bounty—since 1935 an insultingly low $15—until the bobcat became a conservation cause. In December 1981, as a result of a suit originated by Defenders of Wildlife, an injunction was issued by a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C. banning all exports of bobcat pelts. The ban was lifted a year later by the same court after Congress established a new law liberalizing the standards by which the Department of the Interior can determine whether allowing the export of pelts from a state would be detrimental to a species.
At the court hearings Defenders of Wildlife had unsuccessfully challenged the government's interpretation of the new law. Now Defenders has appealed that court's ruling and is awaiting a decision on its request for an emergency injunction to reinstate the ban pending a higher court's ruling.
Whether their pelts can be exported or not, Cronk doesn't worry about the bobcats' future in Maine. "The 'cats survived through the '30s and '40s," he says, "when there was a lot more hunting than there is now. They're tough; they couldn't survive these conditions if they weren't. They'll be here forever."
Last season a bobcat pelt might have brought a Maine hunter or trapper $80, down from as much as $300 in 1979-80. It takes a dozen pelts to make a full-length coat, which can cost $8,000. It's beautiful but not very practical because bobcat fur doesn't wear well; like that of any cat, it looks scruffy when it gets caught in the rain.
When the export ban took effect in 1981, the bottom dropped out of the bobcat pelt market. Today the bobcat invariably costs the hunter money in time, travel and equipment that he cannot hope to recoup, which means that for most the hunting now is done for fun, not economic gain. In the leather-bound Bible by his bed, Cronk is, reassured by Genesis, Chapter I, Verse 26, which says God gave man dominion over animals. He believes that means animals were put on earth for man to use, period. From a scientific standpoint, he believes in the "harvest theory," that by the careful culling of a few animals the whole crop will be strengthened. He defines a conservationist as someone who doesn't kill an animal that can't be spared, and he considers himself a strong one. Of his "Maine Traplines" column he says, "The most satisfaction I get is when I write about wildlife conservation."
Cronk sees himself—and his camp, truck, snowmobile and shotgun—as part and parcel of the balance of nature, and believes any changes he makes to that balance already have been allowed for. God certainly knows that men, dogs, shotguns and bobcats are all down here mixing it up; do you think hunting was an oversight?
Cronk and Emerson never got their bobcat that season of 1980-81. The next winter, after a busy fall trapping season—three coyote carcasses hung against the camp to feed the chickadees—Cronk had more time for bobcat hunting because of continuing low prices for beaver pelts. As late as mid-January, conditions were no better than the previous winter. There was unremitting cold and deep powder snow. So he had a lot of time to spend writing his third book, Cronk's Scientific Beaver Trapping. He set a few beaver traps, at the game warden's encouragement; the beavers were busily damming the streams, and if they weren't controlled there would be flooding over the logging road in the spring. Selling the traps just before Christmas, Cronk had spotted the tracks of a 'cat on the road by Moody Bridge over on the St. John. He figured its hunting ground must be near the river to the west. That was the 'cat he would be after.
The alarm rattled at 5:30 the next morning, and Cronk threw off the blankets, restoked the stove, put on water, checked the thermometer and shadow-boxed. It took an hour to make breakfast, and as Cronk and Emerson left camp at 7, day was breaking. It was 22° below. The Chevy moaned before it cranked over and fired, knocking, its thickened oil reluctant to leave the pan. A cloud of condensation floated from the exhaust and surrounded the pickup, as if the truck were trying to wrap itself in covers.
Moments before the sun rose it drew a hot pink band over the end of the logging road. There was an eerie blue hue covering the woods. But an hour later Cronk was reaching for his sunglasses from the dash, and the snow was shining as if it had been sprayed with a thin coat of tangerine lacquer.
Cronk spent most of the morning cruising up and down the road, fruitlessly checking the sunny side for tracks. By 11 the sun was high enough to light the north side of the road, so Cronk checked it as well. By 2 he had covered both sides for nearly 10 miles and had twice snow-shoed into likely areas in the woods, all to no avail. He sat in the truck and ate two baloney sandwiches and pondered strategy as Emerson gulped chocolate-chip cookies. He was thinking of calling it a day, but Emerson seemed pretty enthusiastic, so he decided to take one more close look by Moody Bridge.
There Cronk finally found the track. It was a faint one, a few dents in the snow as if made by a bouncing Ping-Pong ball. He had missed it in the morning shadows. Cronk studied the track and followed it backward toward the woods. "Yep, that's our bobcat," he said. "My guess is it's a little one, about a 12-pounder. I'm sure the track was made sometime last night, so he's got a big head start." Cronk went back to the truck and led Emerson to the track. The dog's mismatched eyes widened before he stuffed his nose into the print, burying his face until his ears lay flat across the snow. The scent was cold, but he knew what it was; he popped up and howled to claim the discovery.
They took off on the track of the 'cat. The leashed Emerson followed the path flattened by Oscar's snowshoes, and was soon covered with the snow that flipped up from the tails of the shoes and comically floated down on him. Sometimes he would take the lead, porpoising in the powder, his tail rising from the snow like a periscope. He was silent as they walked, the track being too cold to excite him very much; the only sound in the still air was the muffled crunch of snowshoes.
Following a 'cat track is a lot harder than looking for one. It's the 'cat's route now. He meanders through alders and bushes, around trees and under boughs, over logs and across catwalks spanning brooks and gulleys. At times a machete would be useful to the hunter. Cronk and Emerson were literally walking on the tops of trees—a flimsy floor formed by the snow-covered boughs of three-and four-foot-high spruces. When they missed a bough, the bottom would collapse, and Cronk sank to his hips while Emerson dropped out of sight altogether.
It's difficult to imagine the bobcat going any slower than its pursuers; it's a case of the tortoise chasing the hare. The only way the 'cat will get caught is if he stops to nap. The hunter could be hours and hours behind, and for all he knows the 'cat is still moving, hopelessly beyond reach. But there is also a chance the 'cat is still in the area—maybe circling back—and that he might be jumped at any moment. At times like these, man's tenacity must match his dog's optimism.
The sun started sinking fast at about 3. It had been a virtually cloudless afternoon, with the temperature 12° to 15° below. Occasionally the sun had crested the spruces around a clearing, but not for long and never by much; in January there are no high noons in the Allagash. Cronk and Emerson stood at the edge of one clearing and watched the sun drop. The spot seemed a wilderness Utopia. They rested, listening to their panting breath as it froze in the pink air. Then they heard a logging truck grumbling along on the road a mile off. When they continued on, the track mercilessly cut back into the alders in the thicket in the cedar swamp.
Cronk had felt it coming. It was about 4 when the track led them back to the road. The moment they broke out of the woods onto the snow-bank at roadside, the sun set behind the trees beyond. It was as if this really had been a game to the 'cat. He had taken them for a gentle ride, tormented them in the bushes for a while and smugly deposited them back at the start, safe and sound and precisely at quitting time, just to let them know he had controlled every step. The delicate paw prints in the snow vanished into the well-traveled glaze of the road. Emerson was left standing there, his nose pointed to the sky, sniffing madly for ghosts.