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.