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Bernie Kuntz: A long ago lion hunt

The hounds looked a sorry sight when we found them on the rim above Horse Thief Canyon in the East Kootenay of British Columbia. Mike, the big Black-and-Tan, was missing a part of his right ear. Mac, the smaller Black-and-Tan cross sustained a deep gash along the side of his neck, which later swelled and required a trip to the local veterinarian.

Mountain lion tracks told the story—the hounds had caught up to the cougar after a three-hour chase, cornering the big cat under a windfall only a few feet from the canyon rim. The lion had lashed out at the hounds, then leaped over the near-vertical cliff in escaping.

This hunt took place exactly fifty years ago—Dec. 28, 1967 near the headwaters of the Columbia River. I was 18 years old, had hopped the North Pacific passenger train and rode it from Jamestown to Sandpoint, Idaho, then took a bus north into British Columbia through Kimberly, Radium Hot Springs and met guide Jim Thompson at the small village of Edgewater.

In examining a 1977 column that I wrote about the hunt, I said that Jim "removed his greasy hat and sat on a deadfall. He lit a cigarette, spit out a bit of tobacco as he checked his hounds, and said, 'Yeah, this is cougar hunting. For casual hunting I recommend going for moose, grizzlies and stuff like that, but for real sport, hunt cougar.'"

I had found Thompson's name in a small ad in the back of OUTDOOR LIFE magazine and booked the seven-day hunt for $350. My license cost $25. The train trip was free because my father worked for the railroad. All told, I spent $410 on the hunt. A similar trip today would run $5,000 to $7,000.

But back to the hunt. The chase had started earlier that day when we picked up the track where it crossed a logging road. It was late afternoon when we skirted the rim, dropped into the canyon and backtracked along the base of the cliff to once again put the hounds on the track.

This time the chase was short. The hounds were soon barking "treed"—a short, choppy bark distinctly different from the melodious baying of the hounds on a fresh track. When we arrived at the scene of the fracas, the lion was perched on a limb 20 feet above the ground. The big cat stared balefully at us and occasionally hissed and snarled at the hounds.

Jim leashed the frantic hounds and I settled into a steady shooting position and squeezed off a shot from my .243. The 100-grain Hornady took the cougar squarely in the lungs, but instead of toppling from the tree as I had expected, it leaped and landed only a few steps from me, whirled and disappeared into the timber.

We found the cat dead about 30 feet from the tree. It measured seven feet from tip of nose to tip of tail and weighed about 120 pounds. I had earned it, spending the entire day scrambling up and down mountains in a foot or more of snow.

I had the cougar mounted as an open-mouth rug. A decade later, our dishwasher overflowed in my Cheyenne house, dousing the rug. In the early 1990s I had a taxidermist replace the felt trim, but a procession of beagle and Labrador puppies has done the rug no good. Lucy, a black Labrador, managed to chew off one of the ears and damaged the edge of the hide.

Today, I have the old rug draped over a speaker in my trophy room, a reminder of the first time I hunted in the Canadian Rockies, when I was young and tough and could go all day, enjoying an adventure of a lifetime.