Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Woodbrook Hunt Club celebrates 90 years of fox hunts, sans fox

Huntsman Sarah Glaser leads the hounds during the hunt for a drag hunt at Woodbrook Hunt Club in Lakewood on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2017.
Huntsman Sarah Glaser leads the hounds during the hunt for a drag hunt at Woodbrook Hunt Club in Lakewood on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2017. Staff photographer

Monday through Friday, Eric Stiemert helps run a sign company in Monroe.

But on Saturday mornings, at the Woodbrook Hunt Club in Lakewood near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Stiemert often plays the fox.

It’s a task he’s undertaken frequently over the past three years.

“Some things have to be maintained, at any cost, even if it’s archaic,” Stiemert told me after his latest exercise in animal role-playing, which involved running on foot while dragging a piece of burlap dipped in fox urine through the woods of JBLM, a pack of tongue-wagging foxhounds hot on his trail.

While it might sound a bit ridiculous, and for good reason, there’s considerable tradition in the way Stiemert spends his Saturday mornings.

You see, at the Woodbrook Hunt Club — which officially celebrates its 90th anniversary this month — members are dedicated to preserving the centuries-old sport of fox hunting. Decked out in formal attire, Woodbrook Hunt Club members and guests mount horses on Saturday mornings from October through April, using 88,000 acres, through an agreement with JBLM, to engage in what Stiemert describes as “the oldest sport.”

It’s like Downton Abbey, with a humble South Sound twist.

Oh, and no actual fox.

As it has since the beginning, Woodbrook Hunt Club uses real hounds, but fake prey. Stiemert, or whoever is playing the role of the fox on a given morning, lays what’s known as a “drag scent” for the hounds to track.

He’s a faux fox, in other words.

“We’re running like a fox, crazy like a fox,” Stiemert said.

Yes, he gets a head start.

“You would think it’s simpler, but it’s way more difficult,” he continued. “Because you have to orchestrate everything.”

On the Saturday that I was invited to witness the sport and tradition, the two-and-a-half-hour hunt spread over 9 miles by the time the dust settled, and the hounds had tracked Stiemert to his final destination. They were rewarded with a treat typically consisting of meat scraps and hotdog bits.

For riders, the festivities started in the rain, with the distribution of what’s known as the “stirrup cup,” a shot of port or sherry, and ended with a well-lubricated St. Patrick’s Day-themed “breakfast” in the Woodbrook Hunt Club clubhouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1997.

For longtime members such as Emily Rang, a former club president with more than a decade of hunts under her belt, describing the appeal of the foxless fox hunt is easy.

“I think people get different things out of it. A lot of people like to come and just watch the hounds work, like there’s actual sporting in watching hounds find a (scent) line. … You get to gallop after them in the beautiful woods of the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “And a lot of it is social. We’re all watching the same thing, experiencing a lot of the same experiences, and then we get to talk about it afterwards. … We’re just enjoying each other’s company, and sharing that passion for horses and then just being outside.”

For the foxhounds of the Woodbrook Hunt Club — 22 in total, cared for by kennel huntsman Sarah Glaser — the allure is also simple to understand. While Glaser says a significant amount of training goes into readying hounds for the hunt, most of it comes down to harnessing a drive the animals already possess.

“It’s an instinct, so it’s just honing in on that instinct to hunt,” Glaser said of working with the hounds. “Because we ask them to hunt a drag scent, we actually tweak their instinct a little and ask them to have trust in us that we’re sending them somewhere entertaining. But that’s the biggest thing, is making it all so much fun that they just want to do it.”

“They love the person who feeds them,” Glaser added. “But they absolutely adore the person who hunts them.”

Melody Fleckenstein has been the Woodbrook Hunt Club’s master of fox hounds for the past four years. Of this role, she said, “It’s basically running the hunting side. … That’s where the buck stops.”

Fleckenstein — who joined the Woodbrook Hunt Club “probably 20 or 25 years ago,” after previously belonging to hunting clubs on the East Coast — took a break from her breakfast to explain the importance of the quaint dedication of the club. She noted a history that goes back even further than the anniversary her club celebrates this year, dating to at least 1910, when noted Irish fox hunter and horseman Thomas Bryan, who was eventually responsible for naming the Woodbrook Hunt Club, hosted the Seattle Hunt Club on the prairies south of Tacoma.

The rest, as they say, is history.

“I think for all of us it’s huge,” Fleckenstein said of the tradition. “We’ve been hunting over 100 years — 90 years is when it was incorporated. And they’ve been hunting since the 1400s, so you know that all of this pageantry, the red coats … have been used for hundreds of years. So we are keeping the original traditions alive — the same way they’re done in France today and they’re done in England today.”

Plus, she added, “It’s an adrenaline rush.”

For horses, hounds and faux foxes alike.