By Chesley Oxendine
TAHLEQUAH — Sequoyah Park went to the dogs Saturday morning as a crowd of hounds arrived with their owners for the annual Red Fern Festival dog contests.
Early gloomy weather, which eventually gave way to a thin, chilly rain, couldn’t quell the dogs’ enthusiasm, nor hamper the rest of the event.
Now in its seventh year, the Red Fern Festival was host to a range of vendors, games, music and activities for visitors to Sequoyah and Norris parks.
In addition to fairground staples such as funnel cakes and a bouncing castle, it had the recently re-opened Dream Theater on Muskogee Avenue, where visitors could view repeated showings of the 1974 movie, “Where the Red Fern Grows.”
The festival also included a car show and barbecue cook-off. Even Mayor Jason Nichols got in on the fun with a dunking booth.
Guests could either throw softballs or pay for a “free dunk,” in which they simply pressed a button to drop Nichols into the tank.
However, the most popular event remained the dog contests, which organizer Jimmy Lee said mirrored aspects of raccoon hunting.
The dogs competed in a variety of events including treeing, a swimming race, and “fast bark,” which tested how many times a hound could bark per minute. Owners paid $5 per dog per event, with the cash divided into prizes for first, second and third place.
More than 100 people gathered along the creek bank to watch the event, which Lee said was no surprise.
“You sometimes see 400, 500 people out here over the course of the day,” he said.
It’s what brought Chris Ballard, his wife, Janine, and their family from their home in Minnesota with their blue tick hounds George and Dot.
Both dogs are young — 6 months and a year, respectively — so Ballard said he was concerned how they would deal with new territory during the contests.
“In Minnesota, there’s three feet of snow, so I haven’t had the chance to take them out hunting,” he said. “I’m hoping they can see a coon and go.”
However, Ballard said winning wasn’t the main goal of participating.
“I’ve got my son and little brothers with me,” he said. “I’m hoping to get them into it.”
Lee said promoting raccoon hunting as a sport remained a big part of the yearly contests, especially in attracting younger participants.
“It’s important to get kids interested, and it keeps them out of trouble,” he said. “They end up coon hunting instead of smoking or getting into things at night.”
That rang true for Stilwell native and contest hopeful Jeff Bigfeather, who said the sport kept him away from less savory activities.
“I’ve done this my whole life,” he said. “Even in high school and college, and it kept me out of the bars and other places.”
Bigfeather entered his two English red tick hounds, Big Mac and Boodan, into all five contests. He said the dogs were the product of a long pedigree.
“These dogs have a 15-year bloodline,” he said. “It took 15 years of breeding to get these two.”
That kind of enthusiasm fuels the dog contest’s popularity as a central attraction of the Red Fern Festival, Lee said.
“I was worried they would want me to shrink it down so that all these people wouldn’t come over here,” he said. “But no, they said this festival was about coon hunting, and so I could do what I wanted.”