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On The Track Of The 'Cat
Sam Moses
January 24, 1983
In the snowy stillness of winter in the immense Maine woods, Oscar Cronk and his hound Emerson pursue a quarry as elusive as a ghost
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January 24, 1983

On The Track Of The 'cat

In the snowy stillness of winter in the immense Maine woods, Oscar Cronk and his hound Emerson pursue a quarry as elusive as a ghost

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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.

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