On a clear winter day I can step out my back door and see the high ridge that runs from Richland Balsam to Old Bald, fifteen air miles from here. I'm more familiar with that area than with any other stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. And that could explain why one of my favorite chapters from Wilbur Zeigler and Ben Grosscup’s 1883 book, The Heart of the Alleghanies, describes a bear hunt on that divide between the Tuckasegee and the Pigeon River vallies.
I just re-read that chapter, In the Haunts of the Black Bear, and it has been on my mind all day. The party was camping out on Old Bald, on a night very similar to this one…cold and snowy:
It was one night about the 1st of December that we were in camp ; eight of us, huddled together under a low bark roof, and within three frail sides of like material. Around the camp lay seventeen dogs. The ground beneath us was cold and bare, except for a thin layer of ferns lately bundled in by some of the party. Before the front of the shelter, lay a great fire of heavy logs, heaped close enough for a long-legged sleeper to stick his feet in, while his head rested on the bolster log. The wood crackled, and occasionally the unseasoned chestnut timber snapped, sending out showers of sparks.
The temporary camp of a party of mountaineers on the hunt for Bruin, as viewed by night, presents a scene of unique interest. It is a shelter only for the time being; no one expects to return to it, for by the following night the hounds may be 20 miles away, and the drivers and standers toasting bear steaks in their cabins, or encamping on some distant height preparatory to resuming on the morrow the chase of a bruin who had through one day eluded their pursuit.
The best hounds, known as the "leaders," were fastened to poles stuck in the ground at the corners of our lodge. This was done to prevent them starting off during the night on the trail of a wolf, raccoon, or wildcat, thereby exhausting themselves for the contemplated bear hunt. The rest of the pack were either standing around, looking absently into the fire, or had already stretched themselves out in close proximity to it. "The way them curs crawl up to the blaze," said Wid Medford, "is a shore sign thet hits goin' ter be cold nuff ter snow afore mornin'."
A Haywood County native who had hunted on the mountains his whole life, Medford was the central figure in this expedition:
"Whatever I talk of as facts, you kin count on as true as Scriptur." Israel Medford, nicknamed Wid, the master-hunter of the Balsam range, is a singular character, and a good representative of an old class of mountaineers, who, reared in the wilderness, still spend most of their time in hunting and fishing. He possesses a standard type of common sense; an abundance of native wit, unstrengthened by even the slightest "book-larnin';'" is a close observer, a perfect mimic, and a shrewd judge of character. His reputation as a talker is wide-spread; and, talking to the point, he commands the closest attention. His conversation abounds in similes ; and, drawn as they are from his own observation, they are always striking.
That night as he sat cross-legged close to the fire, turning in the flames a stick with a slice of fat pork on it, with his broad-brimmed hat thrown on the ground, fully exposing his thick, straight, gray locks, and clear, ruddy, hatchet-shaped face, bare but for a red mustache, lighted up with youthful animation, he kept shaking the index finger of his right hand, while in his talk he jumped from one subject to another with as much alacrity as his bow legs might carry him over the mountains. "What I don't know about these mountings," said he, directing his keen blue eyes upon one member of the group, "haint of enny profit to man or devil. Why, I've fit bars from the Dark Ridge kentry to the headwaters of the French Broad."
The author described an incident from later during that same hunting trip:
Wid had been silent for several minutes. Suddenly he laid his hand softly on my knee, and without saying a word pointed to the dogs. They lay at our feet, with ropes round their necks held by the old hunter. Three noses were slightly elevated in the air, and the folds of six long ears turned back. A moment they were this way, then, as a slight breeze came to us from the south, they jumped to their feet, as though electrified, and began whining.
"Thar's suthin' in the wind," whispered Wid. "I reckon hits the music o' the pack. Sh ! Listen!"
A minute passed, in which Wid kicked the dogs a dozen times to quiet them, and then we heard a faint bell-like tinkle. The likening of the baying of a pack of hounds to the tinkling of bells is as true in fact as it is beautiful in simile. There is every intonation of bells of all descriptions, changing with distance and location.
It was a mellow, golden chiming at the beginning; then it grew stronger, stronger, until it swung through the air like the deep resonant tones of church bells. Did you ever hear it sweeping up a mountain side ? It would light with animation the eyes of a man who had never pulled a trigger; but how about the hunter who hears it? He feels all the inspiration of the music, but mingled with it are thoughts of a practical nature, and a sportsman's kindling ardor to see the "varmint" that rings the bells. It steadily grew louder, coming with every echo right up the wooded slope.
"They're on the trail now, shore," remarked Wid, "an hit-'ll keep the bar hoppin' ter climb this 'ere mounting without whoppin' some o' 'em off. I reckon I'd better unlimber my gun."
Suiting the action to the word, the old hunter laid his flintlock rifle across his knees, and with deliberation fixed the priming anew in the pan….