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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.