Char came down from Illinois to attend the JRTCA's 25th Annual Nationals trial, and I took the day off to go digging with her. The weather called for rain, but I told Char the weather reports did not mean too much around here, and that we'd probably get by with an overcast day before a good evening thunderstorm, which is exactly how it went.
We met up at Stups Market, and then headed a few hundred yards up the road to a little farm where I have been digging in recent months. Pearl is still knitting up from a dig two weeks ago, so I left her in the truck (Char bred her, and she's been a great dog for me), and we took Mountain and Char's Rue up a hedgerow to see what we could see.
Within the first five minutes Rue bolted a nice groundhog up a tree, and Char got a picture. Excellent!
We found the next groundhog where I thought we would -- in a trash-strewn hedgerow in the middle of two recently cut-over bean fields. The dogs bolted this one too (a very BIG groundhog!), and it dashed out and slid under a half dozen coils of old rusty barbed wire and into a cascade of steel and iron car parts, rotting fence posts, old tires, and broken bottles.
Mountain located this groundhog again, but after moving a couple of big rusty barbed wire coils, and seeing what was below that, we decided to give this groundhog best and move on. Why put a dog out of action working barbed wire, broken glass and trash when the day was still so young?
We rolled on across the top of the field, and down the middle. I swear, if we had a dollar for every piece of fox and raccoon crap we saw, Char and I both would have had gas money for a week.
The fox and raccoon are definitely marking every scrap of territory on this farm. And who can blame them with such nice fields of soy and corn bordering a narrow meadow with a stream running down the center? The soil here is pretty friable, and the drainage is very good. There are not too many trees, but the ones standing are often huge. This is about as good a farm as I have found for fox and raccoon. And the groundhogs are thick on the ground too.
We headed down to the edge of the soy field after banging around another recently occupied sette that had a slightly skunky smell to it.
Mountain located in another nice big sette along the fence line. She bayed it up and we downed tools, located, and dug to her. To make a long story short, this sette had two nice groundhogs in it, and both were accounted for, one by Rue and the other by Mountain. Rue did an excellent job of holding her hog while we finished up with Mountain's and could devote our full attention to her end of the pipe. Both dogs came away from this dig without so much as a nick for their efforts.
After the dig, I walked down field for a quick bathroom break, when I saw something white ambling my way -- a skunk. "Lace up the dogs Char," I yelled back to her "We have a skunk coming down the fence line. " The skunk hardly seemed to care about me. I ran back for the camera and took a few quick shots, as this skunk was almost completely white on top. A nice little freak of nature -- the kind of thing that awakes the raging 10-year old bug-collector inside of me.
We repaired the den we had dug up, and had just finished gathering up the tools, when Mountain began poking around a sette about 12 feet away. She slipped underground, and from the sound of it she began to dig on a bit.
No worries. We relaxed, waiting for her to find and open up if she did. In the interim, we took a few pictures of the two hogs, gabbed, and rested a bit.
It was then that Char noticed the white skunk coming back down the fence line, and so I grabbed a heavy board-like piece of bark with the idea of either changing the skunk's trajectory or its perspective on life. I was tossing the chunk of wood at the skunk's head (and missing by about three inches), when Char yelled back to me, "SKUNK in the ground with Mountain."
I jogged back to the hole, and sure enough there was the faint smell of skunk coming out. Mountain was baying a bit, but then she fell silent.
We boxed, but the collar seemed to be working intermittently, and so while Char cut away at the entrance hole which seemed to have the most sound coming out of it, I barred down to where I thought the den pipe was.
I think the bar had just popped into the den pipe, but I was not absolutely certain, and was about to bar again three inches over when Mountain began to bay a bit closer to the hole where Char had been cutting away.
Excellent. A baying dog is a living dog with some oyygen.
I ran over to where the sound had been coming out, and Char and I both cut back on the pipe entrance until Char said she could see the skunk, trying to exit, head out.
Mountain was baying a bit more now. I relaxed. No worries. If you can see the skunk and hear the dog, it's probably not going to end bad. This was going to be a bolt.
Char backed away from the hole, and I waited for the skunk to clear the pipe before I tried to nail it with the digging bar. I missed, and the skunk bolted for another pipe with Mountain chasing on after her. Char just managed to grab Mountain before she went to ground a second time, and we collared her up and checked her over for damage. She was stinky, but otherwise fine.
Mountain has been skunked a few times before, and does not seem to be overly sensitive as some dogs are. I checked her over, and she did not have the yellow spray marks on her chest or head that would suggest she got a full-on hit at very close range. I suspect the skunk was three feet ahead of her when it blew its load -- a good thing, I can tell you, as a full load to the skin is a lot of toxin (skunk spray is almost pure sulphuric acid) and stink. I collared her up and tied her to the fence twenty feet away, and in a few minutes she was rolling in the grass trying to get the stink off. She was going to be fine.
We filled in the skunk hole, checked Mountain again (no burning of the corneas), and decided to hit the trucks to swap out dogs and get a cold drink or two for ourselves.
At the truck we ran into the farm owners, and after a nice visit with all the dogs, we left them to hit the other side of the creek with Smudge and Sassy.
Smudge is an older dog that has had the good fortune of finding a home with Char, while Sassy is the one-year old full sister (out of a different litter) to my Pearl.
We walked down the creek bank, and there were a lot of holes over the space of 500 yards, but all of them were blank. I have taken about 30-35 groundhogs out of this creek bed over the last few months, and it seems I have made a some small dent in the population. Still, the stream bank is not completely blank, as I have bolted a few that got away as recently as last week, and the week before that.
From our side of the creek we could see some of the exit holes on the other bank, and so when we saw a really nice sette under a huge old elm tree on the other side, we decided to cross over and check it out.
Smudge waded over ahead of us and noodled up the bank through the thick maze of roots. Char followed directly behind, while I rounded and went up the bank a few yards upstream. By the time I got top side, Smudge was in the ground and baying up a storm.
When I say this was a big elm tree, I'm not kidding -- it was six or seven feet through the middle, with the top broken off about 25 feet up. Smudge sounded like he was inside the trunk . I circled the tree looking for a way in. There was a small soft-looking spot at the back base of the tree, and I started to pull away some matted leaves to see if I could find a hole when a large raccoon stuck its nose out. Yow!
I don't know which of us was more freaked out by what we found on the other side of that thick plug of leaves. The raccoon, of course, was not expecting to see a 200-pound human. On my end, I am hyper-aware that we have a lot of rabid raccoons in our area, so I try to stay away from the business end of raccoon with my bare hands. Yes, yes, any mammal can get rabies, but raccoon are positively dizzy with the stuff around here.
Anyway, the raccoon darted back in the tree, and I now knew what we had inside. I reached into the hollow with Char's scraper and pulled out some dirt and a chunk of rotted wood. The pipe did not appear to be very big and it seemed to jog to the left.
I boxed to locate the dog and the locator said Smudge was about two feet inside the trunk from the left side, but it sounded like he was also a foot or two down in the ground below that. Maybe more.
I barred on the left side of the tree, and cut through some smaller roots until hitting hard massive trunk wood. I tore off some pretty decent chunks of wood, but there did not seem to be any weakness to this side of the tree.
While I was slamming the posthole digger and bar into the roots and trunk with almost total futility (and doing some sawing too, it should be said), Char had stuck her spade into the hole where I had seen the coon nose, and pulled out quite a bit of dirt. After looking into the hollow of the hole, however, she decided she had probably blocked off the pipe as she could not tell which way it went. I checked it out and she was right. Where DID the pipe go? I could not tell either, and poking around inside the trunk, everything felt pretty solid. The coon had tried to exit from here, but where it had gone to was a complete mystery.
About an hour had gone by, and Smudge was still baying up a storm, especially when we banged on the trunk a lot. Smudge clearly had the raccoon cornered, he was not backing off, and the raccoon was business-end out. Air was apparently not a problem, and it sounded like Smudge had a good location to work from. What to do?
I suggested to Char that we pull off about 80 feet, sit down, and see if the dog would come out on his own if he didn't hear us banging about on top with our tools. Some dogs will exit after a while if they do not hear humans digging or talking.
Thirty minutes later, Smudge had not moved and he was still baying up a storm. Hmmmm. We seem to have a dedicated working dog here! A new plan of attack was clearly needed.
I went back to the original hole at the base of the tree, and moved a large trunk and branch that had been serving as a porch over the hole. With the branch and trunk out of the way, I had a better purchase on the hole, and I used Char's scrapper to pull out a big piece of old rotten wood and dirt. I dug a bit more, my arm all the way in, and banged out pieces of old rotten wood that were large enough to make an apple crate out of. I put in the shovel and brought out a lot more dirt too. I was digging and banging around inside the trunk blindly, but I was definitely removing material. If nothing else, I was creating more air space inside, and that could only be good. Plus, I was doing something.
Char got a light, and I shined it up into the pipe, and now I could finally see the top of Smudge's wagging tail peeking out over a piece of rotten timber. He was clearly doing fine.
I pulled out a little more dirt and wood, and shone the light about some more. Now I could see that there was a wall of rotten wood and dirt between the dog and us. I explained the situation to Char, who scooted in to take a look. While she sussed out the situation, I explained our plan of attack in my best Ronald Reagan voice: "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
And so we did.
More wood and dirt came out of the hole, and in the end it was clear Smudge had the raccoon, still unseen, pinned down in a hole somewhere near his feet.
I reached in with the snare pole to pull Smudge out (he was farther in than I could reach), and he got the idea that I was not happy with where he was ensconced, and so he bolted out of the pipe, very hard and very fast.
In truth, when Smudge exploded out of the trunk, I was not sure if it was the dog or the raccoon coming out. And believe me when I say it mattered to me quite a lot at that moment!
When my heart stopped skipping, we got Smudge leashed up, packed up the tools, and decided to leave the raccoon for another day's sport. As a general rule, raccoon and fox do no harm on our farms, and I find it best to let them go. A living fox and raccoon is the promise of another day.
Smudge looked fine coming out of the hole, but in fact he was ripped up a bit at the gum line, and he started to swell up on the walk back to the truck.
Char cleaned him up and loaded him up with Clavamox, but when I saw him at JRTCA Nationals the next day, he was still swollen and tender. None-the-less, he picked up his Bronze Medallion for all of his previous work in the field, and I will say that no one could question that he was a true working dog!
A permanent hat tip to Char who has beautiful small workers, and knows what to do with them! Come down when it's cold, lady, and we'll see if we can put something up.