The 100th Opening Day of the Aiken Hounds
On a dry, sunny Tuesday in February 2006, Yukon Jack and I were milling about with a crowd of riders and horses at the Memorial Gate in the Hitchcock Woods, waiting for the Huntsman to lead her pack of hounds west on Devil’s Backbone to pick up the first line of the drag. It was my first time out with the Aiken Hounds and my first drag hunt, and I was just slightly south of terrified, mouth dry and heart racing. Although I was a joint Master and Field Master of the Fairfield County Hounds in Connecticut and no stranger to a hell bent for leather run to hounds on the scent of a coyote, I was certain drag hunting would be way more dangerous – fast, crazy, out of control. I envisioned myself hanging on to Yukon for dear life in a manner reminiscent of those old Irish lithographs depicting wild hunt scenes with riders in various states of panic falling helter-skelter into bushes, creeks and over fences as the field charges after a pack of singing hounds. Finally, Huntsman Katherine Gunter gathered the hounds and moved out, followed by the whips and then Linda Knox, Master and First Field Master. We trotted briskly to the show ring, where the hounds picked up the first scent and took off in full cry. Off we went behind them – galloping up to the Ridge Mile Track, down to the Tea Cottage and on to Rabbit Valley, jumping no less than 8 or 9 Aiken brush jumps on the way. Before I knew it, we had run three drag lines and were resting on our laurels at the kill. I was panting with exertion, covered with dust and high as a kite. Yes, it was fast, and maybe it was a little crazy from time to time, but I was never out of control – or if the truth be told – Yukon was never out of control. He carried me at a steady pace through all three lines (how could I have ever doubted him?) like the pro he is. It was a blast. I was hooked. The Aiken Hounds has a long and distinguished history in Aiken. The original Aiken Hunt was formed by Thomas and Louise “Lulie” Hitchcock in the late 1890’s as a live hunt. Hunting with the Hitchcocks was not for the faint of heart. Lulie, who shocked proper society by riding astride rather than side saddle, was an avid sportswoman and a fierce and accomplished rider, and all of the runs were fast and furious. After a brief hiatus during World War I, Lulie revived the hunt as a drag pack in 1914. Two years later, the Masters of Foxhounds Association formerly recognized the Aiken Hounds, and the rest, as they say is history.
On Thanksgiving Day in 2013, the Aiken Hounds celebrated its 100th Opening Day, and the citizens of Aiken showed up at Memorial Gate in record numbers to participate in a special Blessing of the Hounds ceremony with the 90 plus beautifully turned–out riders on their smartly braided horses. For me, Opening Day of the Aiken Hounds on Thanksgiving is by far the most exciting and pleasurable activity of the year, but this Opening Day was particularly moving. As I bowed my head and prayed for the hounds, the horses, the prey and my soul in the company of friends and fellow hunters, my eyes welled up with tears in gratitude for the opportunity to be part of such an historical tradition. I know from experience that maintaining a tradition of this significance is not an accident or an act of fate. To do it right requires devotion, time and commitment from the Masters and the Hunt Staff – and to all of them, Joey Peace and Larry Byers, Joint Masters, Katherine Gunter, Linda Hickey, Gerry O’Bierne, Freddie Gilligan, Gina Salatino, Ria Burton, Mike McCarthy, Madelyn Eaves, Brook Miller, Daniells Sertick and John Dunbar, I say “thank you” from the bottom of my heart. I am particularly grateful to Linda Knox McLean for the 20 plus years of service she has dedicated to the Aiken Hounds. Linda, like her mother, her grandmother and her great-aunt before her, has made the care and preservation of the Aiken Hounds a significant part of her life’s work. A very, very special thanks to you, Linda. So here’s the thing: if I hadn’t been a guest of Paddy Ann Burns on that fateful day in 2006 of my first drag hunt, I probably would have found some way to slink off into the bushes before the action began. Thank God I held hard and did not wienie out. Thank God for Yukon and Louie and Dewey Redbird for keeping me safe each season and making it fun. Thank God for all you brave, funny, crazy fellow hunters, whose friendship keeps me coming back year after year, and hopefully for many years to come. Tally Ho, ride safe and have fun. I hope to see you all decked out in traditional formal wear – black or white gowns for women and scarlet tails for men – at the special Centennial Hunt Ball to be held at the old Whitney estate, Joye Cottage, on February 15th.
Joanna Dunn Samson is a Joint Master of Fairfield County Hounds in Connecticut.
She spends 8 months of the year in Aiken with her husband, 2 dogs Maggie and Jack,and her 2 ponies, Dewey Rwdbird and Miss Congeniality.
Photographs provided courtesy of Barry Koster