HIPPITY HOP AND AWAY WE GO – Islands Wayback

Rabbits of varied hues run rampant on San Juan Island in Puget Sound, and dedicated hunters with nets chase them in bouncing buggies through the moonlight—and through the looking glass

This story was first published in the Sept. 28, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Anyone lucky enough—or brave enough—to go on a San Juan rabbit hunt should begin by forgetting all the rules of hunting. Previous experience is a handicap. Marksmanship is unimportant. What the hunter needs is a stiff drink before starting out.

Experienced hunters may find this advice startling. I myself was surprised when I was introduced to it on a late-summer rabbit hunt on San Juan Island in Puget Sound. But any resemblance between this northwestern sport and other forms of hunting for anything anywhere is purely coincidental.

The hunt was scheduled to start at 10 o’clock at night, an unorthodox hour indeed, but certainly more civilized than the conventional predawn starts to which I was accustomed. There was another advantage—we had ample time to look over San Juan Island before dinner. Ever since leaving Seattle, some 80 miles south, I had been hearing about the innumerable rabbits to be seen on San Juan. But when we drove from the biggest town on the island, Friday Harbor (pop. 735), to Roche Harbor on its northern end we did not see a single one.

San Juan is the second largest (57 square miles) of a group of 172 islands that stretch like steppingstones from the mainland of Washington to Vancouver Island and Canada. Salmon abound in the surrounding waters, ducks winter along the black-sand beaches, snow is something that falls somewhere else and Santa Claus arrives each Christmas on a paddle-wheel ferryboat.

Back in 1858 the U.S. and Great Britain came close to fighting a war over a British pig that was shot on the island by an American settler after it had repeatedly rooted up his potato patch. The setler was named Lyman Cutler, and he offered to pay $10 for the pig when the British authorities tried to arrest him, but before the controversy ended nine companies of American infantry and artillery, plus a detachment of engineers, were lined up near Roche Harbor against five British warships with 2,140 men and 167 guns. After facing each other awhile, both sides reached the statesmanlike decision that no pig was worth a war.

Subsequently smugglers made San Juan Island a free port for opium, diamonds, dancing girls, Demerara rum, Chinese coolies, whiskey and wool. At one time the traffic in English wool reached such a volume that the San Juan sheep were considered a natural wonder, producing more wool per head than sheep had ever been known to produce before. The rabbits were a late arrival. During the heyday of the rabbit-fur muff some Belgian hares were imported into the island, and since there were virtually no natural predators and the climate was good and food abundant all year, the result was an incredible number of rabbits.

But as we drove along the roads bordered with green junipers and red-trunk madroña trees, the fabled rabbits were nowhere to be seen. Obviously, this was going to be another of those cases where we should have come last week or next week or when it was warmer or cooler or wetter or drier. And when preparations for the hunt began with a couple of old fashioneds it seemed simpler to go along with the group. As it turned out, I was glad I did.

A spectacular sunset on Roche Harbor and Vancouver Island, 10 miles away, brightened the otherwise gloomy outlook when my host, Bill Morrice of Seattle, said, “How about looking over a few rabbits before dinner?” Five minutes later we were driving along the same road we had traveled earlier. The only difference was that it was now dusk.

Bill said, “Ready?”

I said, “Sure,” but the skepticism was hard to hide. He swung the car onto a narrow dirt road and cut the speed to 20. It was like touching a match to a Roman candle. Rabbits exploded from one side of the road to the other. They erupted in waves, popping back and forth ahead of us for a good 20 yards. As the car moved forward, new waves shot from the hedgerows. Brown and gray and spotted and checked rabbits whizzed past each other at dizzying speeds, barely avoiding head-on collisions. Some scooted across the road inches from the wheels. Others seemed to clear the road in a single leap. They hopped, loped, bounced and bulleted by us with the erratic animation of an early silent movie.

Never had I seen so many rabbits of such spectacular sizes and hues. Six-pounders were average; eight-and ten-pounders were commonplace; some must even have gone to 15 pounds. Since most rabbits found elsewhere weigh perhaps two pounds, this was a formidable amount of rabbit jumping across the road. And the size of San Juan rabbits was only the beginning. They came in a selection of shades and colors that seemed to defy genetic unscrambling.

Bill was still laughing at me when we got back to the marvelous old Hotel De Haro at Roche Harbor for dinner. The hotel was named for Lopez de Haro, one of the first Spanish navigators to explore the islands, and is an old-fashioned building with vine-covered balconies, arbors, gardens and antique furniture. A full moon was just beginning to finger the fields when we set out for The Oaks, three miles south of Friday Harbor, headquarters for Hal Rogers, the island’s best known outfitter. Rogers was loading a bunny buggy as we arrived. The bunny buggy is his own creation—not that Detroit would want credit for it. The one we used originally had been a 1950 Dodge sedan. The make is not important, as long as it runs. A manual transmission and a strong frame, however, are important. The body is cut away from the front seat and replaced with a flat wooden platform set between the wheels. A box-like combination seat and rabbit cage is nailed to this platform, leaving an alley between the front seat and the box. The alley doubles as a footwell for the passengers and as a pulpit for the spotter, whose job it is to hang onto the roof with one hand and flash a spotlight around with the other, looking for the darting rabbits.

The driver and the spotter are equally important members of the team on a San Juan rabbit hunt, but the real star of the performance is the hunter. His perch on a bunny buggy is a metal tractor-type seat that juts out in the air alongside the rear wheel. It is rather like the fighting chair of a sport fisherman, except that it is a free-floating automotive fighting chair with nothing underneath it. The hunter sits in one of its slippery twin scoops, with his feet dangling disturbingly, and braces his weapon for the rabbits which the spotter locates.

This weapon, like everything connected with San Juan rabbit hunts, is no ordinary one. It is a gigantic salmon net, complete with a six-foot handle. Nobody on San Juan seems to remember who first thought of chasing rabbits with these nets, but everyone on the island seems to own one. The handle is about as wieldy as a two-by-four, and the diameter of the net is easily five feet.

 

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