They met in a bar, both of them crying in their beer over pending divorces, Marilyn Swing recalled the other day, and she and Leon Swing, her husband-to-be, fell so deeply in love they married 39 years later.
“He told me that night he was a raccoon hunter,” Marilyn said. “That’s how he tried to impress me.”
One can only imagine how lucky Leon must have felt when the otherwise buzz-killing I’m-a-raccoon-hunter pickup line didn’t send Marilyn careening toward the tavern’s swinging doors.
Instead, she accepted his invitation to spend a night in the woods chasing his baying dogs, who in turn were racing after fast-fleeing raccoons. Outfitted in hip boots and brandishing a miner’s helmet whose spotlight burned so brightly it was powered by a belted battery pack, Leon led Marilyn through bramble and bush, river and marsh, bushwhacking through the darkness in pursuit of his beloved bluetick hounds.
The night proved such a turn-on for both Leon and Marilyn that they soon threw in together on a 170-acre spread outside Bradford, Minn. Not long thereafter, Marilyn bought a hound of her own: a bluetick pup.
Marilyn was recollecting fondly these and other memories of her life and times with Leon, who died Dec. 3 from cancer at 77.
A past president of the Minnesota Coon Hunters Association, Leon also was a licensed United Kennel Club master of hounds and a bench, or show, judge. He toiled for a living as a field engineer for an electric cooperative. But more descriptively he was a dog man, through and through.
Given their proclivity for night hunting, coonhound owners and their charges are rarely seen in action by the public. An exception occurred years ago at Game Fair in Ramsey, where Leon, Marilyn and a handful of other coonhound aficionados demonstrated their handiwork to an enrapt crowd.
As originally conceived, the exhibition involved a caged live raccoon floating in an inner-tube-supported contraption pulled behind a boat. The plan called for Leon and a friend to row the boat across Game Fair Lake while a half-dozen barking hounds swam in close pursuit.
Upon reaching the lake’s opposite shore, the boat would turn back to its departure shoreline, where, before the hounds arrived, the raccoon and its cage would be hoisted by rope and pulley into a tree, presaging a hoped-for grand finale of hounds racing from the lake and barking at the tree’s base, as if they had cornered their prey in the wild.
“But the first time they tried it, there was a problem,” Game Fair owner Chuck Delaney said. “The dogs caught up to the inner tube and popped it, causing the raccoon to begin to sink.”
Thus unfolded the possibility of an alternative scenario in which a wide-eyed audience, children included, would witness the coon being drowned by the pursuing dogs.
“Leon and the other fellow with him in the boat tried to pull the raccoon into the boat, but the boat was being bombarded by the six dogs,” Marilyn said. “We thought for a while the boat would sink along with the raccoon. But everyone survived.”
Widely respected for their hound training and handling skills, Leon and Marilyn competed nationwide with their dogs. But they enjoyed as keenly their nights alone in the Minnesota woods, just them and their best friends.
Oftentimes during these excursions, raccoons weren’t killed. But if a farmer was losing crops to the ravenous omnivores and wanted them gone, Leon and Marilyn would follow their dogs to the base of a suspect tree, then shine a spotlight upward, looking for their masked foe.
In these situations, many raccoon hunters use squallers, a type of mouth call that prompts a raccoon to look toward the sound, causing its eyes to reflect a houndsman’s probing flashlight, giving away the animal’s position.
“I always used a squaller, but Leon was able to make the same sound with just his mouth,” Marilyn said.
Leon would shoot treed raccoons with a .22 pistol before tying up his dogs and skinning the animals on the spot, later trading the pelts to a fur buyer for as much as $30 a pop.
In more recent years, Leon and Marilyn ran a small cattle herd and have favored border collies over hounds.
“I was feeding corn to the cattle some years ago and this one big, old fat cow pinned my legs against the feeder,” Marilyn said. “That night I told Leon maybe we should get some dogs to help us with the cattle, and he said that might be a good idea.”
Leon had another good idea when he told Marilyn last spring they should get hitched.
“I said OK, but suggested it might be better to wait until 2019, then it would be 40 years exactly we had been together,” Marilyn said. “But he said no, he wanted to do it then.
“He hadn’t been feeling well, and all we had really been able to do together was go on ‘tool-arounds.’ We’d get in the truck and drive down logging roads and just tool around to see what we could see,” she said.
Leon Swing and the former Marilyn LeBlanc were married April 19 at their home.
In addition to his wife, Leon is survived by two daughters and four stepdaughters. Services have been held.