Free barking

Bonnaroo breaks the bank. The near-$200 ticket begins a financial plunder of the pocket, and an eventual $1,000 weekend (or relinquishing of first-born rights) becomes reality for some festivalgoers. So with prices ascending each year, the budget-minded scope for fests on the cheap.

Found hounds: Anticipating the upcoming Coon Dog Day in Saluda, these Bassets and beagles raised a ruckus on Lexington Ave. At the 44th annual celebration, you’re most likely to see Treeing Walker hounds, still the dog of choice for raccoon hunters. But hounds of all stripes can be spotted there. photo by Jonathan Welch

And, for some reason, the lower the price, the higher the oddity factor. This seems especially true for events dedicated to the animal kingdom.

Rodent aficionados can demonstrate that there’s more to life than cheese at the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Annual Show in Hacienda Heights, Calif. Those desiring to numb their private areas can participate in the International Camel Races in Virginia City, Nev., and anyone hankering to fling excrement can enter the World Cow Chip Throwing Contest in Beaver, Okla.

But if cross-country travel is another unnecessary expense, one can venture down to Saluda, N.C., on July 7 for a free (yes, that’s free) glimpse of the 44th Annual Coon Dog Day Celebration.

If hordes of Plott hounds chasing rabid raccoons down a street come to mind, trash the thought. There is a nightly hunt (which is part of a world qualifying event for the 2007 World Finals in Indiana) that spans two days—but the ringtails are only treed.

“No one is trying to hurt a raccoon,” declares festival organizer Monica Pace, a Saluda native. “It’s a hunt and the dogs chase them because that’s what they’re bred to do. If a PETA person came, they wouldn’t see any animals being injured.”

The bigger attraction is the Saturday parade, various vendors, all-day music until midnight, a 5-K run, a T-shirt contest, and a world-qualifying benefit bench show for dogs.

“Our bench show is a big attraction,” says Ronnie Mace, who runs the Central Carolina Benefit Coon Hunter’s Association. “It shows how athletic the dogs are, the structure of their body, and if they meet the breed standards. They’re competing for a show medal. It’s a signature series show. It’s the biggest thing that people see.

“The hunting part,” continues Mace, “a lot of the folks don’t get to see.”

Mace’s Association is huge benefactor of the bench show.

“Coon hunters will give more than any hunters out there. I don’t care who they are,” he asserts. “We give money to St. Jude’s, cancer benefits. We give away $25,000 a year to different charities.” (Recipients this year will include local cancer victim Vickie Hill.)

Proceeds aside, Mace shies from the bench competition in favor of the two-night hunt.

“The show is a different competition from the hunt,” he explains. “These show dogs, a lot of them live in the house. The dogs that hunt, they’re the ones behind the house. The hunting dogs are actually more valuable. These show dogs are world class, though. They’re shaped for winning shows anywhere they go.

“I don’t put my dogs in the show,” he’s quick to add. “My dogs hunt.”

His coon dog of choice is a Treeing Walker. Sometimes mistaken for large beagles, Walkers are identified through bicolor and tricolor markings. Considered excellent pets as well as agile hunters, Walkers are known to climb or stand upon a tree to hold the prey for their owner.

The event’s treeing tradition began in 1963 with a picnic to celebrate the end of raccoon-hunting season. Since then, the festival has adapted. As raccoon hunting became less of a lifestyle (as the desire for pelts and meat waned), Coon Dog Day started exhibiting traits of other festivals, like live music and vendors peddling a miscellany of artsy wares.

“Basically, [Coon Dog Day] is popular because of the arts and crafts they got up in the town,” says Mace. “I would love to say it’s about the dog hunt, but pretty much it’s not.”

The hunt is also overshadowed by the parade, which relies on being rule-free.

“[It’s] all over the place,” says organizer Pace. “It lasts about an hour-and-a-half. We don’t have a registration for it. You show up, they line you up, and you go. People drive tractors, motorcycles, kids ride their four-wheelers…”

Like Santa’s signature entry at a Christmas parade, a fake raccoon graces the last float.

“They won’t let us do a live raccoon anymore,” says Pace. “PETA put a stop to it about 10 years ago. They didn’t want the raccoon up there because the dogs were barking, and it got scared.”

The human ear, however, reacts warmly to the hounds’ baying. It’s a trademark sound of the festival, with various howls competing with the stage music on Saturday. Furthermore, the strangeness of the event slips away, since most everybody loves to put their four-legged companion on a pedestal.

“I guess I’ve never thought of [Coon Dog Day] as being odd,” says Pace. “I grew up with it. It’s been going on as long as I can remember. Everyone that brings their dogs here loves their dogs. They dress them up in bandanas; some of them even have cowboy hats.

“People adore their dogs, and they’re bringing them out to enjoy the day with them.”

[Freelance writer Hunter Pope is based in Asheville.]

The 44th Annual Coon Dog Day happens “all day” Saturday, July 7, on Main Street in Saluda (about 35 minutes south of Asheville, off I-26). The parade starts at 11 a.m. Music and square dancing run till midnight. Free to the public; entry fees apply for owners whose dogs participate in the bench show (1 p.m.), treeing contest (3 p.m.) and night hunt (7 p.m.). 749-2581.

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