This past week, a beagle won the Westminster. That’s good.
I have a soft spot for beagles, and although I’d rather see one running low through the snow on the trail of a snowshoe hare as opposed to jauntily trotting around in a show-ring, I couldn’t help but smile to see the Best in Show ribbon next to the stately little canine.
I enjoy beagles. Real beagles. Working beagles. Not a Puggle (that wholly unnecessary Pug/Beagle cross), or a beagle/collie hybrid, or anything like that. Nope, for me it is a low, sleek, tri-colored beagle with stern eyes, a keen nose, and a stiff-flagging tail. Now there are many, many breeds of hounds and working, scent-tracking dogs, and they all have merits, but my affinity for beagles comes from the same place as my love of hunting at large, and that is from the earliest memories I have of the outdoors.
I was at a very young, impressionable age when I first got bundled up and ventured down the road with my father and Chum the beagle to ramble through snow covered cedars and bare winter hardwoods in search of snowshoe hares. I learned patience, perseverance, and early lessons in bushcraft all to the ringing music of a baying and tonguing beagle. The hare would make wide circles, through the hardwoods and cedar edges, and the persistent sing-song howls and “ba-rooo!” of Chum would grow ever closer. As the dog came nearer and nearer, Dad would move his .22 from a cradle carry to a two-handed ready position and his eyes would scan the snowy ground for the ghostly movements.
“Stand still” he’d softly hiss at me. I had a problem with that then, and I still do.
If I was lucky, stock-still, and attentive I’d pick up the prey first, but more often than not it was the smooth mount and swing of Dad shouldering his rifle that tipped me off to the approach of our quarry. Sometimes the rabbit would dodge and evade the volley, and Chum would run single-purposed after it as we moved to reposition ourselves, but often the crack of the .22 would be the last thing the hare would hear. When that happened Chum would run up and nose the lifeless animal, snuffing and whining, while Dad would pat the dog’s side and tell him he what a good job he did. I’d be tasked with carrying the rabbit, and before long we’d cut another track and Dad would give the command that Chum, and frankly I, loved hearing.
“Hunt ‘em up. Go on. Hunt ‘em up now…”
And we’d begin again, Chum tonguing and baying along, Dad and I trying to get ahead of the next loop that the rabbit would run, and the rabbit doing his best to get around both of us.
Chum was high-strung and a typical beagle. He was single-minded when on the trail, and more than once he ran off and couldn’t be immediately brought back. He was rough around the edges and wasn’t the best with kids, but as soon as he had gone hunting with you, his personality turned around. He had snarled and barked at me more than once, but after I began joining him and my Dad in the field, things got better.
Some say that the beagle scores low on intelligence scales relative to other dogs, I’ve heard that beagles are temperamental, annoying, noisy, and prone to erratic behaviour. I’m not an animal psychologist and certainly not an expert on dogs, but the handful of beagles I’ve hunted with were sure happy to be running in the snow and that’s about all I’m really concerned about.
Chum was lost many years ago, while running deer in Central Ontario. It was never confirmed if he took an injury and couldn’t get home, or if he was picked up by other hunters, or maybe he ran afoul of wolves or coyotes. He was fairly old by that time, and I remember hearing about Chum being lost from Dad. It was sad, losing a hunting buddy, and for a few years we ran a mutual friend’s beagle, and although that dog was an eager runner, he was overweight and struggled to keep the levels of endurance that we had been spoiled with when Chum was on the chase. When that next beagle inevitably went on and died, no subsequent dog replaced him. With the loss of the beagles, came the loss of the earliest form of hunting I’d known. Winter weekends running snowshoe hares with a baying dog had been a sporadic holiday-season occurrence before, and with no dog they disappeared outright.
I made forays into the bush with a .20ga on a few December afternoons looking to jump ruffed grouse and track a rabbit on my own, and while the thrill of getting close to game was still there, something was missing.
It wasn’t long before I came to the realization that it was not just shooting rabbits that I enjoyed. Others before me had fallen under the spell of it, and I’m not the last to be drawn in by the howl ringing in the crisp, still winter air. There was a quiet joy in watching the icy blue skies of a late December afternoon slowly turn to red and purple to the soundtrack of Chum the beagle.
My current job and home situation precludes a beagle of my own, as I find an inherent cruelty in keeping a running dog like a beagle in a small backyard in the city, and my heavy travel schedule combined with the activities of two rambunctious young boys doesn’t leave much time for a recreational hunt after snowshoe hares.
But the day is coming, I can sense it like an inevitability. And then I’ll say “Hunt ‘em up” to a beagle and cradle a rifle while I watch the white-tip of a tail take off through the bush and I’ll hear the howling again. And it will be great.