Hunting bears with hounds is never easy when you're the slowest mutt of the pack.
My breathing was shallow and ragged, and my thighs were on fire. Up ahead the short, choppy barks of the dogs indicated they were staring at the bear in a tree. I was maybe 400 yards from the finish line.
On the final sprint I stumbled across a shallow, fast-moving creek in a rocky ravine.
Unable to resist the ice-cold water, I stopped long enough to splash my face and soak my bandana. The 85-degree heat was taking its toll on me.
Then it happened. As I stepped over a log on the creek bank, a rattlesnake buzzed a mere six inches from my boot. A girl-like scream came out of me, and the serpent slithered into a hole under the log, tail buzzing.
What's a rattlesnake doing at 8,500 feet? I wondered as I continued up the hill. A rattler was the last thing I expected to see on a hound hunt for bears in the rugged mountains of southern New Mexico. But it, along with that cold water, might have revived me enough to finish the race.
Trailing bears with dogs is an endurance test that's all about getting there. When dogs strike fresh scent, you have no guarantee of finding a bear in a tree at the end of the race.
Many times you don't. Bears can run short distances as fast as a quarter horse, and they can maneuver across rock slides and through briar thickets with amazing agility.
Not only are bears tough, but so are the men who hunt them. Take the two experts I hunted with last year. Tanner Allen, 26, has owned his own hounds since age 14. Today he has a kennel of 18 dogs. Year-round he feeds those dogs, tends to their injuries, exercises them, and even sleeps with them. He's tough. He's a guy who can repair his truck, chase dogs all day without a sip of water, and then cook dinner over an open fire at dark -- day after day, and always with a smile.
Soft-spoken John Evert, 28, has a similar resume. He started trailing bears and cougars with his own dogs as a teenager. He's modest, but his hounds have treed more bears and lions in a calendar year than some houndsmen will see in a lifetime. Like Tanner, he hunts with a mix of walkers, blue ticks, red ticks, black and tans, and red bone hounds with names like Bell, Socks, Buda, Nevada, Ranger, and Pee Wee.
On the first day of our August hunt, the dogs howled and barked from their perch on top of the dog box. They smelled bear, and 20 yards off the road we found a half-eaten mule deer. Sign revealed that a lion had caught the young buck, eaten half, and then buried it, and then a bear had claimed the carcass.
For two hours, dogs and men ran the track, but we never made contact. Hot and sweaty, we rounded up panting fidos, watered them at a mountain tank, and ended the hunt for the day. The midday temperature had got too hot for running dogs.
On day two, as our rig rounded the high mountain road near the decaying buck and wind currents drifted uphill, the hounds sounded off like trumpets. The carcass had been dragged 100 yards since the previous day. The hounds barked a riot. Tanner and John loosed all nine hounds.
The chase was fast and furious as it rounded the mountain below us and then crested a saddle at 9,500 feet, where we could hear the dogs below us barking treed. Three treacherous rock slides and 1 1/2 miles of briar thickets later, we were staring at a pumpkin-headed boar in a pine.
My friend, Steven Tisdale, was toting a recurve, anticipating a close shot. From his position above the tree on the steep sidehill, Steven stood a mere 12 yards from the black boar, ideal recurve range.
As Tanner and John tied back the dogs, the bear got nervous. He'd been in the tree for at least an hour, and he'd had enough.
"Shoot! He's coming out," John and Tanner shouted. "Shoot now!"
Steven's first arrow buried behind the shoulder. As the big boar snapped at the shaft, Steven's second arrow hit close to the first. When the bear hit the ground, he raced away with the speed of a racehorse. Steven and Tanner pursued with two of the dogs, and by the time I caught up, the bear was dead.
The old boar had a head of Boone and Crockett proportions and a glossy black coat. A deep, white scar between his eyes testified to some serious fighting. His front pads measured about five inches across. We guessed his weight at 325 pounds and figured that, with another two or three months to fatten up on acorns, he would have weighed 100 pounds heavier. He was the sort of seasoned bear that's tough to tree with anything less than exceptional dogs.
By the last day of the hunt, I had not killed a bear. We'd treed a small brown boar the day before but had elected not to shoot him. Now, at 8:30 a.m. on the last day, the dogs struck scent off a high mountain road. Maybe this was my chance.
The chase went steeply uphill through an old burn and across fields of rocks. For a long, sweaty hour, we trudged up through the tangles of underbrush and skeleton-like black trunks of charred pine trees.
When I was only 200 yards from the tree, Tanner saw the bear climbing down and cussed our luck. Through a gap in the thick pines I saw a black bear run down the hill, 12 barking hounds in hot pursuit.
"Once they jump out of the tree, that's sometimes it," Tanner said in a dejected tone as if he'd failed me. "You don't always catch a bear a second time."
Still, we couldn't stop now and continued pushing up the canyon. My legs felt like noodles until I found that cold creek and angry rattler. Maybe they gave me the jolt I needed to last another 20 minutes and catch up with the rest of the party.
After two hours of hot pursuit, we all stood staring at a black blob halfway up a pine, a big-headed boar with large feet but a lean body. The year's drought had been hard on bears. Little food and excessive heat meant even the big ones were thin.
With the dogs tied away, John gave the order, "Any time you're ready."
When my arrow smacked the bear's chest, the tree erupted. Pine needles and bark showered the dogs, and when the bear hit the ground, the dogs went berserk. The chase was over.
With a burning sun overhead, I shouldered a heavy pack. A thick bear hide rolled up inside caused the straps to bite deep into my shoulders. I was drenched in sweat and panting like one of the dogs. Steven could sense my exhaustion.
"This is no hunt for wimps, is it, Ray?" he said as we gathered gear and dogs.
We walked off the mountain together, Tanner and John at the front, Steve in the middle, and a dozen exhausted but happy canines weaving single file through the charred timber.
I was last in line, the slowest member of the pack. When you hunt bears with dogs, getting there is the hardest part. Except for getting back.
The author lives in Amarillo, Texas, with his wife, daughter, and three dogs. The dogs prefer sleeping and eating treats over trailing bears.
Author's Notes: On my 2008 bear hunt, I carries a 61-lb. Diamond Marquis bow, Gold Tip Pro Hunter 5575 arrows, and 100-grain SlickTrick broadheads. Steven used a 45-lb. Wingrecurve, Gold Tip wood-graphic carbon arrows, and NAP four-blade Razorback broadheads. For more details on this great hunt, contact: Bridger Petrini, Tri-State Outfitters, PO Box 70, Raton, NM 87740; (575) 445-0200; www.tristateoutfittersusa.com.