Linda Hipkiss pulled off her jet-black riding hat and stroked the mane of her palomino, Hannah.
"She's 22," Hipkiss said, "and she turns into a young thing at these events."
So does Hipkiss, who at 52 actually is among the younger two-legged creatures participating in a Long Lake Hounds fox hunt -- a genteel but grueling twice-weekly pursuit across the western suburbs' pastures and forests.
She grew up in England, the hub of fox hunts. But Hipkiss had to move 4,000 miles west to participate in the rich tradition.
"I never did this in the U.K., because there were no hunts near me," she said. "So this is heaven."
For her and nearly three dozen other Twin Citians on a recent Saturday, heaven is rising early on a brisk, misty morning, donning breeches and jodhpurs and chasing after, well, a stinky sock.
It turns out that the quarry at Long Lake Hounds hunts is not the traditional fox, but a sock that has been soaked in fox urine and dragged along at the end of a ski rope.
"Every once in a while we'll see an actual fox," club veteran David Stene said. "We haven't caught one of those yet," he added with a chuckle.
An offshoot of the Long Lake Trails Association, whose riders looked more like cowboys than landed gentry, the Long Lake Hounds were formed in 1959. Ever since, club members have brought thoroughbreds, draft horses and the occasional mule (Earl, the preferred mount of now-retired Dr. Chuck Gehrman) to race across land dominated by split-rail fences.
Twice a week from July 4 through Thanksgiving, club members gather to relish the sights (hills and dales, fields and forests) and sounds (horses' hooves, hounds' howls, huntsman's horn) -- and the adrenaline rush of guiding a half-ton animal that's galloping and leaping toward the quarry.
"I'd have to say it's as good a day out as you can have on a horse," said James Cullen of Independence, who has participated in fox hunts on four continents.
The hounds are blessed
Fog clung to the taller clumps of grass as the Long Lake Hounds members pulled off a dirt road into a gnat-happy clearing. They gently squired magnificent horses from their trailers and prepared their mounts and themselves. Hearty hugs were shared, at least among the ground-bound.
Stene adjusted his scarlet coat and top hat, and waxed effusive about the canine companions -- hounds, not dogs, he insisted.
"The real treat is when you hear them howl," he said. "Hounds are incredible athletes. They can run for hours. These are the most documented breed of dog in the country. George Washington had one of the first packs of fox hounds here."
Club master Cindy Piper rode about briskly and purposefully.
"I have to make sure everybody is turned out properly, because I'm the uniform Nazi," she said with a smile.
At 8 a.m., the group gathered near David and Kitty Crosby's home in Hamel, where the Long Lake Hounds have ridden for a half-century. Retired chairman Ben Jaffray handed out medals of St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters, to new members, and all hands enjoyed a traditional nip of sherry (or apple juice).
"Good morning," Piper fairly bellowed, "and welcome to the 52nd Blessing of the Hounds."
Still as statues, the riders didn't even flinch when the Rev. Michael O'Connell of north Minneapolis' Church of the Ascension mentioned "dumb animals" in his reading (they knew better, of course).
Soon the huntsman's horn blared in the distance, indicating that lead hound Colonel had picked up the scent and "given tongue." Secondary howls, aka "honoring the scent," followed, and the horses were off.
The group divides into "fields," based on whether they will be pursuing the huntsman closely and jumping.
"One field goes fast, one goes medium, and I go slow," Piper said.
Two riders called "foxes" had dragged the "stinky" over a wide swath -- the Long Lake Hounds have agreements with 371 property owners, who are rewarded annually with a (nonhunted) turkey -- and the pursuers curled through terrain that Hipkiss said "looks just like the English countryside, only without hedges."
A communal experience
Spectators can view much of the proceedings by driving to vantage points, earning them the nickname "hill-toppers."
What they see is not as orderly as one might expect. One horse hesitated at a jump, prompting its rider to shriek, "You son of a bug!" When the hounds and horses become scattered or tired, the hunters might stop, regroup and get the animals some water.
Occasionally, a hound gets lost.
"They are seeking the line, and some of them are thinking they know more than the others," Piper said. "We have had times that we had to take their trailer back [to the dropoff point], open the door and leave it there overnight. And at some point, they'll crawl in there."
Eventually the hounds find their "quarry" and get to chow down on raw meat as a reward. It's Piper's favorite moment.
"I love the coming-home part," she said. "I've had a wonderful communion with my horse. I have watched the hounds work, and I'm seeing all the smiles on the faces."
Hipkiss shares that warm-and-fuzzy communal feeling, with a dollop of nostalgia.
"What I enjoy the most is that it's all about a shared experience with an animal that I love," she said. "I also love the spectacle, the jackets and the scenery. It's like looking at the wall of a pub, at those old hunting prints."