Sunday, March 12, 2017
SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Dave Kruger stands in the barn before he goes fox hunting. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
MISSOURI VALLEY, Iowa — The riders had a choice: port or sherry off a silver tray.
On a snowy morning in January, about two dozen members of North Hills Hunt gathered in the driveway of a property about 30 miles northeast of Omaha. They wore helmets and riding pants, coats and boots. Nearby, their horses stood tethered, waiting. They were ready for the day’s fox hunt.
The riders huddled up, sipping wine or beer, discussing what to expect. Behind them, in the nearby kennels, more than a dozen hounds barked. They were ready, too.
But fox hunting isn’t really about hunting foxes. It’s about camaraderie and tradition, about catching up with friends. This morning was no different. So the hounds and the horses would have to wait.
Since the 1960s, the members of North Hills Hunt have roamed land in Nebraska and Iowa on horseback, following a pack of foxhounds with hopes of chasing woodland prey.
But not foxes, said Dave Keffeler, one of the masters of North Hills Hunt. Coyotes are a far more common quarry, he said. Even so, hunts rarely end with a kill.
It’s more about the experience. And, of course, the spectacle.
“We’re just having fun out here,” Keffeler said.
Carine Stava jumps as the North Hills Hunt go fox hunting. The group is comprised of members the North Hills Hunt and uses hounds to pursue in Iowa and Nebraska. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Nancy Evans, left, Breanna Osborn, center, and Helen Smith, right, prepare to go fox hunting. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Morghan Herman prepares to go fox hunting. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
The season runs through fall and winter. North Hills Hunt members will travel to properties in Nebraska and Iowa, hunting where they have permission from landowners. Their kennels are located in Missouri Valley, where Dave Kruger, the huntsman, lives and cares for the hounds.
There’s a hierarchy in fox hunting. On any given hunt, Kruger is actually the only one hunting. He controls a pack of more than a dozen hounds — a mix of American and English foxhounds — with a brass horn that hangs around his neck.
The others in the hunting party are essentially spectators. But first among them is the master of foxhounds, like Keffeler. The masters are the senior members of the hunt, coordinating with landowners and making all the final decisions.
The hunt is divided into three “fields,” led by a fieldmaster. Those who have shown dedication to the hunt and have their “colors” — a blue collar with gold piping on a red jacket for men; same collar on a black jacket for women — can ride ahead of those without colors.
On the edges of the party are “whippers in,” riders wielding whips used to keep the hounds from straying too far. They don’t hit the hounds, said Samantha Moran, one of the whippers for North Hills Hunt. The whips are used to make a loud cracking noise that gets the hounds’ attention.
Fox hunting originated in Europe, when foxes that killed and ate farm-raised poultry proved a legitimate pest for farmers. It migrated to the United States during Colonial days. George Washington is said to have been an avid fox hunter.
Dave Kruger leads the pack as he goes fox hunting. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Dave Kruger releases the hounds before he goes fox hunting. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
People review a map as they prepare to go fox hunting. The group is comprised of members the North Hills Hunt and uses hounds to pursue in Iowa and Nebraska. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
North Hills Hunt is one of more than 150 active hunts registered with the Master of Foxhounds Association, the governing body of organized fox and coyote hunting in the U.S. and Canada.
The sport is not without opponents, some of whom find cruel the idea of a pack of dogs mauling a fox or coyote to death. But Keffeler said the group so rarely kills an animal that it’s largely a non-issue. Healthy coyotes, he said, will almost always outrun the hounds and make it to safety outside the hunting ground boundaries.
But the sport itself, he said, endures for several reasons. For one, it’s an excuse for riders to ride.
“Trail riding is kind of like going to the grocery store with no money: You walk around the aisles but you don’t buy anything,” Keffeler said. “With fox hunting, you get to see the hounds working, doing what they were bred to do.”
There were no coyotes killed that January day when North Hill Hunt set out around the Missouri Valley hills. But it made no difference to the riders.
Kruger yelled to the 18 or so hounds as they fanned out to find a scent.
“Good lad! Good lad!” he said — maybe. It was hard to make out the words.
“Every huntsman has different lingo they use with their hounds, and it’s not English,” said Larry Stava, who, along with his wife, Carine, owns the Farm at Butterflat Creek, a horse boarding and riding facility. Carine often takes her clients on hunts. Larry sometimes follows the hunting party in his truck, snapping photographs.
People from the North Hills Hunt go fox hunting in Missouri Valley, Iowa. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Helen Smith, below, and Samantha Moran, right, prepare to go fox hunting. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
Different people find different things they like about the sport, said Camie Stockhausen, who runs the North Hills Hunt website. Some are out there just to ride. Others are more interested in the hounds, fascinated by how they work as a group.
“They’re little warriors,” Kruger said as he offered the pack treats during a break in the day’s labor. The dogs, after all, were entitled to a rest, just as the riders were.
The hunting party is followed by a “whoopee wagon” — a car, carrying food and water, along with beer, wine and spirits — that the riders take advantage of during breaks.
The horses seemed indifferent to the pack of dogs scampering near their hooves as the party stopped for a whoopee break. Kruger called the hounds in, and their muddy paws dirtied his red jacket as he handed them their hard-earned rewards.
Kruger could identify each hound by name — Daisy and Donovan, for example, the noses of the team. And Magic, who earlier that morning escaped from the kennel before her companions, eager to get started.
Mason Herman, 10, sits on his horse during a break as the North Hills Hunt goes fox hunting. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
The North Hills hunt comes down the hill. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD
One of North Hills Hunt’s fundraising strategies is to auction off naming rights to members, with some paying several hundred dollars for the chance to name a hound.
The day wore on with a few memorable moments. Keffeler, the hunt master, ended the day with a brown sleeve on his red coat when he fell from his horse to the snow-soaked ground.
It was something to talk about — to laugh about — after Kruger blew the long, sustained horn blast that signaled the end of the ride. It didn’t seem to matter in the slightest that the “hunt” had been anything but. They would eat and celebrate together later all the same.
The horses were tied to their trailers, the hounds went back to the kennels, and the riders filed inside, leaving hoofprints, pawprints and footprints in the snow.
Members of the North Hills Hunt ride as they go fox hunting in Missouri Valley. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD