Book excerpt

Like a fox on the run

Red fox. Photo: N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission

The following is excerpted, with permission, from The Margins of a Greater Wildness: Nature Essays on Stanley Creek and Beyond, a collection of essays on local topics from the Stanley Creek community in eastern Gaston County, where the Rankin family has lived for many generations.

Most people around the Gaston County town of Stanley today know nothing about fox hunting. No one hunts foxes here anymore. Once upon a time, however, the woods and fields rang with the sound of barking, galloping hounds consumed with a desire to catch a fox. Running for its life and with brilliant unpredictability, the fox confused and exhausted the hounds and, rarely, ran a dog to death. Who would be the victor? Who would lead the race? Would the hounds overtake their quarry? Would the fox at last run safely into a hole in the ground? Fox hunters listened intently, engrossed in the drama of the chase. Sometimes the urge to join the pack was simply irresistible. Younger hunters occasionally broke loose to run with the dogs. The men...the hounds...they had all gone wild just like the fox.

These were not the horses-and-hounds events of the English gentry, but a less formal, Carolina-style venture. And although these last fox hunts took place more than 50 years ago, David Helms (b. 1941) vividly recalls the fellowship, freedom and wild communion of fox hunting with his brother Ernest “Buck” (b. 1937) and other local fox hunters. For three years in the late 1950s, the Helms brothers hunted their pack of foxhounds one weekday and every Saturday all year long. As lean, fleet-footed young men, they sometimes raced alongside the hounds. Listening to the hounds, running with the hounds, and in the company of other devoted fox hunters, the Helms brothers were never more fully alive than when chasing foxes. The memories are still strong and stirring.

The 1950s were still prime years for fox hunting around Stanley and, indeed, throughout North Carolina’s Piedmont. Small family farms covered the landscape, and most farmers were more than happy for foxhounds to roam their property. Foxes were vermin, raiding chicken coops and killing rabbits and quail that farm families ate. Nearly the entire countryside was available to fox hunters as one, enormous hunting commons. Not only was there ample hunting territory, hounds could run safely across sparsely traveled roads. N.C. 27 was the only paved local road. All others were sand-clay roads and vehicles moved slowly. No other big game animals were present to tempt or confuse fox hounds. Overhunting had eliminated once common whitetail deer from the Piedmont, and coyotes had not yet arrived. Fox hunting reigned supreme and unchallenged.

Of all his many hunts near Stanley, David Helms’ favorite may have been one during the Christmas break in which only he, Buck and their friend Henry Smith participated. David and Buck were perhaps 16 and 20 years old. Henry owned one fox hound named Joker. The Helms brothers loaded their pack in a trailer – the young dogs were about 18 months old – and drove out to Essie Carpenter’s, parking at an oak tree beside the road. Miss Essie had given the Helms boys permission to hunt there. It was a cold morning, and frost covered the ground. Miss Essie had a tenant living in a log house about a half mile off the main road, and the Helms boys turned out about 12 dogs and followed them toward the house. Smelling nothing, they took a turn south, crossed the Rhyne-Mauney Road, and went down to the town water works across the Lloyd “Fuzzy” Brown farm. Still nothing.

The hunting entourage walked from there to the Glen Rowland farm, which was on N.C. 275. Still no fox. From there, they walked to Dave Smith’s big, prosperous farm. As David Helms recalls, “The dogs have not smelled the first thing... kind of lost interest – no scent. Then all of the sudden, the old King dog barked a few times. Then he barked a few more times. About a minute later, he barked a little bit farther. The next thing you know, the young dogs know he’s right, and they fall in with him. And I mean running. In minutes, we were at Glen Rowland’s lake, which is off Highway 275. The dogs came back across by Fred Moore’s and went all the way back to the South Fork River, and ran up and down the river.”

At this point, the three fox hunters were far and getting farther from where they had started. “My brother Buck took off to get his car at Miss Essie’s, which was probably two and half to three miles over there to his car. Henry Smith and I ran behind the dogs. We never could catch up with them because they just kept getting farther away. We came out on the Willis School Road. ... Buck picked us up. We pulled over beside the road right there and the dogs running off down there in the river bottom at Hardin. We were spent. We had run ourselves ragged to catch up to the dogs. But see, our dogs were close enough to our home on Mauney Road that we weren’t worried about them getting home.” Here we have the essence of fox hunting – absolute freedom and wild abandon. Three young men on Christmas vacation running with the dogs after a fox across a familiar landscape, running to exhaustion, happy in the chase and their exuberant fellowship.

The Helms brothers’ season of fox hunting happiness lasted only three years. Buck was married and father of a growing family. Fox hunting took men away from their families and occasionally their work. Keeping a pack of foxhounds was expensive. Although his wife was understanding, at last Buck realized he had to choose. He chose his family. David stopped, too. The call of the wild is always in conflict with the demands of domestic life.

Soon enough, fox hunting would disappear completely from the Stanley countryside. More cars, moving faster, killing dogs. Fewer farms and more new landowners objecting to noisy dogs disturbing them. Rebounding deer and new coyote populations confusing and distracting foxhounds from their ancient rivals. After the 1960s, fox hunters became scarcer. Those who persisted began to hunt inside gigantic, fenced enclosures (sometimes several hundred acres in size) where foxes and coyotes were released and dogs ran protected from dangerous highways. As coyotes escaped from these pens, they multiplied and further compromised fox hunting on the outside.

What has been lost with the disappearance of old-time fox hunting from the rural landscape? The answer depends on perspective. From the hunter’s viewpoint, his hunting fraternity, the immediate encounter with nature, and the wild communion are all gone. The world is tamer and less interesting. The foxhounds no longer enjoy the chase. Their world is duller and less fierce. Automobile noise has replaced the voice of the hounds. Whether the fox’s world is less desperate and deadly is open to question. It is obviously true that foxhounds no longer kill foxes in open spaces. Automobiles still do, and likely account for more foxes’ deaths than foxhounds ever did. Modern humans find this less disturbing than the brutality of traditional fox hunting. Maybe so.

 The Second Coming may yet allow the hound and the fox to live in amity. Or, perhaps, paradise will involve fox chases that never end in death. How the new creation will reconcile the violence and the joy of wildness is a mystery.