Monday, April 25, 2016

From California to Montana via Nevada, behind hounds all the way. Part One!

Have you seen the great gallop of The Man from Snowy River? I ask because that classic film has been mentioned quite a few times in recent weeks. Breathtaking as the Australian cowboy’s plunge down the mountainside might be, the likes of Lynn Lloyd would give him a run for his money any day. I have been whizzing around California, Nevada and Montana in recent weeks, hunting behind some intrepid huntsmen and setting hoof where no foxhunter has hunted before.

Across the wide prairies with, er, six couple of foxhounds...

The whirlwind began with the Tejon Hounds in central California, hunted for the first time this season by Tyce Mothershead, formerly of the North Hills in Iowa, and ably assisted by his wife Hilary as first whip and two-year-old daughter Finley. No hound would dare stray when being walked out by Finley and when the family saw a coyote on the road, her immediate reaction was ‘Tally-ho!’ It’s easy to see where her enthusiasm comes from, as in only a few short months her parents have absorbed the magic of this vast ranch with its dozen different fixtures, from the lush grasslands above the orchards to the north-west of the ranch’s central hills to the flower-strewn meadows on the southern desert side. Three days after closing hunt, Tyce, Hilary, Cary McWhorter of Full Cry and Mooreland in Alabama, Tejon cowgirl Kristy Pedotti and me mounted in the foothills to the west, with the great central Californian plain with its endless lines of almond and pistachio trees stretching out below and cloud-shrouded slopes above. Following on quadbikes were acclaimed photographer Sarah Farnsworth, perched behind Mike Campeau MFH, Sam Andrews, first whip of the Santa Ynez and soon to be of the Essex in New Jersey, with his photographer girlfriend Tiffany, and HC Bright, also of Alabama. When we awoke at 5.30am, the lashing rain and freezing winds were reminiscent more of England than California, where only a few weeks previously my car temperature gauge had read 82˚ after hunting with the Santa Ynez, so we got ready in a more leisurely pace than originally intended, and by the time we unloaded the horses the rain had stopped. I mounted tall Thoroughbred Joe, Cary the giant draft-cross Dutch and hounds were released.

The vast 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch

So far, so normal, but Tyce and Hilary were wearing jeans and cowboy boots, Kristy was in full Western gear on an impressively chilled and responsive quarter horse (he’s for sale, by the way!) and the hounds were not a typical pack of foxhounds. In collaboration with Peter and Amanda Wilson of the Grand Canyon Hounds, the Arizonan desert of which bears similarities to the dusty Californian slopes (at least, when El Niño isn’t chucking a last bucket down), sighthound strains are being introduced to this pack, making for an attractive and effective mix. When the grass is short and dry, coyotes are often more easily seen than scented, and the speeds attained by these leggy, fleet hounds can be spectacular. A patchy run got us all going, horses as keen as hounds, before we hit on a coyote and reached top gear in seconds. I overran a gate, Joe’s brakes not being his most finely tuned aspect, which opened up a gap between me and Tyce. A gap that gave me one of the thrilling runs of my life, as we left Cary and Kristy far behind and tore to the top of a hill, slowing momentarily before Joe sighted Tyce ahead and took charge, speeding down a stone-strewn slope, up to a deep ditch that reminded me briefly of Ireland before we flashed up the other side and caught up with Tyce, popping a coop and viewing the coyote as it raced along the side of a gully. It darted left and out of our sight, hounds in hot pursuit as we kicked on and upwards to the base of the hills, where Hilary viewed the coyote into a deep tree-lined gorge that led into a ravine. We gave it best, not wanting to lose the pack in the steep-sided hills, and stopped to gather the hot, tired and very happy hounds. The three of us were the only ones visible in the landscape, our horses far faster than the others and the quad-bikes. They eventually caught up!

Come on Dad, let's go! Horses and hounds keen as mustard

Pit stop at a handy pool

Full speed! 

Calling up hounds after Wil E. Coyote disappeared into the ravine

The photographers arrive at last and get to work!

The day wasn’t over by any means, and it wasn’t long before we found again, racing west down the grassland. I stayed on Tyce’s heels (not that Joe would have had it any different – being a huntsman’s horse, he couldn’t understand why he had to keep his nose behind another horse!) and was duly impressed when Tyce didn’t bother with anything as dull as slowing down before crossing ditches and steep gullies – man from Snowy River personified! As the sun came out, we hit another line in a rough covert that led past the orchards, circling at speed til the scent dried and we stopped for a welcome drink at a stream excitedly scampering with more energy than any watercourse I had seen in California. One last draw was in a great green field that led up to the foothills, inviting but treacherous, the unusually long grass concealing large rocks that prevented any speed faster than a careful trot. If hounds had found here, an aerial view would have looked uncannily like the velociraptor chase scene in Jurassic Park… It drew blank, but we were treated to glorious views as the clouds parted and a conveniently positioned herd of cattle took Tyce back to his cowboy roots. Hilary and I swung the long way round, following the fenceline down a slope that made the Hickstead Derby bank look like child’s play. Honestly, I don’t know what those showjumpers make such a fuss about!

Bit o' weather

Just your average hunt follower...

Cowboy Tyce heads to the last draw

Glorious grass, until you realise there are rocks lurking amid the green

As the sun began to sink across the central plain, we piled into Tyce’s truck for a magical drive up into the mountains in the centre of the ranch, stopping for windswept photographs amid slopes crowded with Californian poppies. Heading off-road to one of the highest spots on the ranch, the full moon rose behind bare trees as the sun sank in a blaze of gold and dusk turned the deep dells and pine-clad slopes purple. The wind meant the elk and wild boar were sheltering far below, but the wild beauty of this landscape, managed entirely for the game and thus unblemished by the hand of man, needed no embellishment. The Tejon Ranch is a magnet for hunters, who come to stalk the huge elk that grow to enormous sizes in these temperate climes and the gigantic wild boar, a pest throughout California for the damage they do to the land. The animals to be taken are carefully chosen, every hunt led by an experienced guide, and there is a strict limit to the numbers shot, so the resident populations of elk, deer, boar and turkey are as healthy as can be.

Into the wilds

Not the most expected sight: the giant pipes carrying two million
gallons of water a minute to the taps of California

A California poppy struggles to open in the gale

Photographer Sarah at work amid the poppies.
No colour adjustment done!

We hunted down there - the great run began from the knoll in the centre

Evening light on the central plain

Looking forward to seeing the results of this shot...

The wild interior

Tyce Mothershead: lord of all he surveys

The Moon rises

Tyce, Sarah, Cary and HC as the light falls

Happy quartet! Me, Tyce, Sarah and Cary

The following morning, yet another and very different side of the ranch was revealed to us, as Tyce and his trusty truck took us far from the road on the south, desert side of the ranch, past the ‘African savannah’ where Taylor Swift filmed her music video for Wildest Dreams, and into drifts of wildflowers, hundreds upon hundreds of vivid yellow and blue flowers carpeting the high-desert slopes. Tyce related stories of coyote runs into the valleys, remembering every twist and turn of the chase. We spotted one coyote and Tyce glimpsed a bobcat, though frustratingly it had disappeared from sight by the time I found the right spot. One animal I have yet to spot – one day!

Yes, those are all wildflowers

Obligatory model shot!

And again! Note our appropriately flowered shirts. No flies on us!

At last, enough warm sunshine for the poppies to open 

iPhone vs professional

Looking south to the desert

Sarah, Cary, HC and me with Tejon guide extraordinaire Tyce

It was nigh impossible to drag ourselves away from the flower-strewn slopes, but we had a long way to go – 450 miles up Highway 395 on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas to North Lake Tahoe. A slap-up breakfast at the Old Desert Café in the Mojave Desert set us up properly for a spectacular drive, snowy peaks to our left and sage-brush dotted desert to our right. A bleak world of blue sky, white mountains and brown desert, yet beautiful in its unforgiving vastness.

We just had to stop here!

And here!

Mono Lake with its weird salt tufa towers on the edge

Cary worked her magic with Google and found us a delightful place to stay, Rustic Cottages on the northern shores of the lake, with a wood-burning stove, comfortable beds and even enough snow on the ground for the requisite snowball fight. Friendly staff and a tasty breakfast made for a perfect night – I highly recommend staying here. We arrived in the dark, but in the morning the views from the beach yards from our cabin were as spectacular as I had been led to believe, the air so clear that the furthest shore looked mere miles away – it was more than 20. The water was crystal clear, too; indeed, the lake is 99.994% pure, only 0.004% less pure than commercially distilled water, and an awful lot better tasting. Being a hugely popular ski resort, I was concerned that the lake shores would be crowded and ugly with buildings, but it was quite the opposite – sitting in the warm sunshine looking out over this great bowl in the mountains, 6,000ft up, I couldn’t see evidence of another soul. The pine-clad slopes and sparkling peaks appeared empty of ski lifts and hotels, even though I knew they were there somewhere. This is a gorgeous place: I will be back. This time, however, only a brief stay was possible - next stop, Red Rock Hounds, Reno!

Lake Tahoe at last, and as beautiful as I hoped.
The mountains on the far side are about 20 miles away,
yet the air was so clear it felt as if I could touch them.

The delightful Tahoe Vista Rustic Cottages. Recommended!

Our cosy cabin, complete with snow for snowball fights.
By the time I took this pic, most of it had been used

What a view!

HC and happy girls