Doug came up from North Carolina to go digging. In theory, it was supposed to dip a few degrees under 90 on Thursday, which is my official break off point for digging.
Reality, of course, was something different...
On the way out to the farms, the D.J.'s on all three radio stations I normally listen to could not get off the topic of the heat.
"If you have pets, be sure to let them into the house today ... or at least set out out a kiddie pool full of water in the shade."
"Call your elderly neighbors today, or just stop by to make sure they are all right, as today the heat index is going to shoot over 104 degrees."
"Never leave your dog in a locked car. On a day like this, even with the windows cracked, a dog can die in just a few minutes."
Right. It was going to be a hot one. Got it.
By the fourth of fifth warning, I was starting to laugh. I was doomed.
Doug was exactly where we agreed to meet, and so too was Gordon, his Kill Devil Terrier.
I always laugh to see Gordon, as he is one of those dogs made for Hollywood -- a terrier with a very intelligent face and oversized ears that signal like a sailor on semaphore duty. He loves Doug, and he is both very good-looking and comical at the same time; a nice combination.
We parked our vehicles at the edge of the farm at 8 am and it was already creeping past 80 degrees.
I figured we would hunt the forest between the river and the fields of new corn and ripe, dry wheat. We might do all right. After all, I had not hunted this river bottom area before, but I had scouted it while out foxing this winter, and there were holes.
Of course, this was not winter! The nice trail and sparse forest which had been there in the cold of January had now fallen to thick jungle growth. It was an amazing transformation.
We found a lot of deer trails, but a deer only stands three feet tall at the shoulder and I am 6 feet. With a shovel and pack on my back, and a six-foot digging bar in my hand, it was not always easy going. Doug was carrying a pack full of water as well as the posthole diggers, which weigh 15-pounds. We were both tottering through some pretty thick stuff in some pretty opressive heat. But at least we were in partial shade. Walking the open fields was beyond consideration.
To make a long story short, we went over hill and dale, through dense breaks of multiflora rose, and over and under twisting hawser-thick vines of wild grape and bittersweet. We found a fair number of holes, but nothing at home.
Sweat was pouring out of me. Doug seemed to be fairing a bit better (he is 10-years younger and 20-years fitter and his pack was a little lighter), but he agreed that the heat was a killer, and the forest brush we were wading through was a monster.
We quit the river bottom forest, and hiked up to a field of uncut winter wheat that was brown and dry and probably should have already been cut. We ducked into a small stand of planted pine for a water break. I checked the time. It was only 9 am!
Jesus, it was hot. Sweat was pouring out of me like I was a boat that had sprung a leak. I pulled out an old bandanna and placed it under my hat in an effort to keep the rivulets of sweat out of my eyes. I tried to remember what the newspaper had said this morning. Was it going to be 90 degrees by 9 am? Something like that. I was pretty sure we had already hit that mark!
We walked around the wheat field, checking the forest edge for holes. We found hole after hole but still no one was home.
By now the bandanna on my head was soaked and my own sweat was dripping out of it. My forearms were pretty scratched up from the multiflora, and between the sweat and the blood, I was attracting flies. Nice.
The dogs, of course, were traveling farther than we were, looking into holes, ranging left and right, and having to wiggle through thick brush on eight inch legs. It was not easy, and all three dogs were panting like steam engines, but they kept going.
We watered up a few times, but we kept on slogging forward. We were putting in some miles and finding quite a few holes, but still nothing was home!
Somewhere along the way I lost my hat. It says something that I knew some stray bit of bramble had plucked it off my head only a 100 or 200 feet back, but I could not find it and I was really too hot to care. The bandanna would have to protect my chrome dome.
At last we swung up through a patch of forest I knew, and we descended down into a hedge that I have hunted before.
God it was hot! I was boiling inside, and my feet felt like lead. Doug was doing a bit better, but he too was soaked and starting to feel it.
Of course it was in this hedge that Mountain found. Yahoo! We downed tools and cleaned out a tight pipe where Mountain was digging -- a very solid mark.
This den pipe forked left and right, but Mountain clearly wanted the right fork and she slid in and disappeared. I boxed and marked her only two feet down. Thank you Jesus!
The ground was as hard as concrete, but our enthusiasm was great despite the fact we were both faded as boiled spaghetti.
Doug starts a hole. Mountain is below ground.
Doug started to dig while I supervised from a sitting position while sweat poured off my head. I counted the number of flies I was killing while Doug did the tough work.
After Doug had taken a foot off the top, I used the posthole digger to knock another 6 inches or so into the pipe. Perfect! This was going to be an easy dig.
Famous last words.
We pulled Mountain and bored out the hole a bit more. Mountain went back in and started to dig. We pulled her again to see where the pipe went. Had the groundhog walled itself in? Hard to imagine with the ground this hard!
Doug poked around in the hole, and then I poked around in the hole, and then Doug poked around in the hole, and then I poked around in the hole. What the hell? This pipe went nowhere!
We let Mountain back in. Though she was dead tired and hot as a firecracker, she continued to dig like mad in an area spread over out over just six inches. A solid mark.
I have never won money betting against my own dogs, and Mountain has seen more than a few holes. I would trust her. If she says something is there, it is.
We jammed that bar left and right, up and down. We expanded the hole. We guessed the groundhog might have gone up the left pipe which might have circled around to the right pipe, but never connected. Maybe Mountain was following the sound. It was a theory.
We sank another hole about eight inches back from where Mountain was digging, and barred left and right. Nothing. We excavated the ground between the two holes, making a trench, and still Mountain marked hard . Pearl rolled in the dirt we were excavating. She smelled it, and a couple of times she walked around on top and seemed to give a tentative mark to something below. But we could not find the pipe.
What the hell?
We dug. We gave it all. Our holes did not look like much in the end because the ground was as hard as concrete, and we were soaked with sweat and as weak as old men when we started.
And then we both knew. We were done. We had been beaten.
It was 1 pm and we filled in the hole. We were both very hot, tired, and disappointed.
After we filled in the hole, I looked around for Mountain, but she had abandoned us.
We humped it back in the general direction of the truck, and after we had gone about a football field from the hole we had been digging, we downed tools in a thicket of small trees and tall brush in order to drink a little water and call Mountain to our side.
After about 10 minutes, Mountain trotted back to us from up ahead and to the right. She had been looking for more game while we filled in the last hole. She did not look like she had found.
We shouldered up the tools and headed back to the truck. We finally hit a clear trail about a half mile from the truck. It was only then that I realized Mountain was not with us.
No worries. We had just spent the last five hours walking without finding anything to ground. It was not likely she would find between where we last saw her and the truck. She would catch up with us at the truck.
By the time we go to the truck, I was not sure I could walk another 100 feet. I was smoked.
I put Pearl in a crate with water and tossed the tools into the truck. Doug followed up behind me, but there was no Mountain bringing up the rear.
I whistled and called, and we drank water and waited a few minutes, but sill nothing.
I told Doug to go on home, and I would head back and find Mountain, but he said "don't be ridiculous." He was going back with me.
I soaked a towel with water and laid it out over the top of Pearl's crate to make a "swamp cooler". I partially rolled down the front four windows while leaving the back top half of the tailgate entirely open. Air would draft through the truck and Pearl would be cooler than she had been in the forest.
We went back down the hedgeline next to the wheat field, with Gordon trailing Doug, and me calling and whistling for Mountain.
A half mile back down the path, I called it quits. This farm was 3,000 acres (more than four square miles). We had last seen Mountain within voice range of where I was now too pooped to stand, and she knew which way we were going.
If she could not hear me, it was because she had found, and she was underground. She would have to come out.
This was a waiting game, and in the shape I was in, I was not up to traveling through the brush listening. Not right then, at least. I felt like I was on the verge of a heat stroke.
Doug was better off than I was, and he roamed left and right up through the thicket of small trees and tall brush that we had come down earlier. Later, when we met up again, he said he knew how cooked I was when he spied me sprawled out like a dead man in the cool weeds, still calling and whistling, but with my head staring straight up at the sky.
Yeah, heat exhaustion will do that to you!
I laid down and tried not to move. I felt like I was going to go to sleep. Flies buzzed all around me, but I did not care. I was just waiting for the vultures!
After about 20 minutes, I got up and looked around. My temperature had dropped a bit. I called for Doug, but he was out of ear shot.
I ranged around, and then I heard a call from Doug. He had found Mountain! I followed his voice, and sure enough, he was just about where we had downed tools waiting for Mountain after that last futile dig.
And yes, Mountain was underground.
It says something about my condition that when I got up to Doug, I did not even look to see where Mountain had gone in. I could hear her baying a bit, and she seemed in fine fettle.
I sat down on the ground, scootched my back against a small tree, and pulled out my locator box. "Now's a good time to practice locating a dog to ground," I said to Doug.
And he did. She was only two feet down. Excellent.
Of course, we had no tools. Bummer.
I tried to call Mountain out, but she was not having any part of it. She had walked a hell of long way to be where she was right now, and she was not going to come off it easily.
We rested (did I mention that it was really hot?) and after about 15 minutes Doug suggested he go back to the truck for the shovel. Capital idea, I said, not offering to make the journey with him. Give me half an our or so, and I might be up for that run, but my internal temperature was still way off the grid, and I knew it.
Doug, the hero, headed off for a shovel. I sat very quietly back from the hole, hoping Mountain would come out on her own. But, of course, she didn't.
I closed my eyes and everything slowed down. I do not think I fell asleep, but I was not all there either. That said, I did hear the clang of metal on metal as Doug came back. I called, and he circled his way up through the jungle growth. He had my entire pack on, and the posthole diggers too. Everything but the bar.
Did I mention this man is a God? True!
The temperature had dropped at least 10 degrees since Doug left, and it was getting a bit overcast as well. I felt better. I could dig now, and so we both took turns doing that.
The ground was rock hard, and it took a half hour to drop a hole that was only 18 inches deep.
By now, Mountain had been underground since 1 pm and it was about 3:30, but she was right where we had bored a hole, and we pulled her out, still eager for battle.
We agreed that for story value we had to get this one.
Mountain had taken a bit of stick while underground -- a puncture just above her eye and another right along the bottom of her cheek. Nothing serious, but this critter was not going gentle into that good night, nor was it going to get away. Game on!
We tied Mountain up, and felt up the pipe with the long trowel until it hit fur. Right. Mountain had been about 6 inches back -- a sensible distance. We put Mountain back in to make sure the critter was still alive, and a massive squall told us it certainly was!
Just then there was thunder.
"Now we have some drama," said Doug, and of course he was right. A few drops of rain began to fall and the sky darkened.
We sank another hole about two feet back trying to get behind the critter, but that was about 6 inches too far, and so we had to expand the hole a bit.
And there it was!
I sat on the ground with the snare at the ready, while Doug poked it in the ass with a stick to get it to bolt out of the first hole that we had drilled on top of Mountain.
And sure enough it did bolt -- and almost into my lap!
It was a raccoon.
I thought I had heard a coon squal, but I still assumed it was a groundhog since raccoons in the ground are not too common in the middle of summer.
We sorted things out, gave Gordon a short "schooling lesson" with the coon, and then filled in the hole.
The raccoon changed the entire tenor of the day. We had fought the weather and, thanks to Mountain and Doug, we had not been beaten (though I certainly was!).
Doug and I got back to the truck where Pearl was fine. We drank water, checked over Mountain, and I told Doug that he was not driving back to North Carolina. He was coming home with me, we would order Chinese and throw down Slurpees on the way home.
We stopped at the nearest 7-Eleven for a cold drink. We were both covered in sweat and had dirt ground into our clothes. Our forearms were scratched and bleeding. I had had my boots off, and I walked into the store with just my socks on my feet. Adding to the picture, was the fact that I had an odd little limp where I had pulled a groin muscle earlier in the day.
With massive cold drinks in our hands, we sat outside the store with our legs splayed out over the sidewalk. I am sure we looked for all the world like homeless mental patients.
A man in a suit came over from the gas pumps.
"Should I ask him for a dollar," I asked. Doug thought not, but he agreed we both looked the part.
Of course, the drive back to my house was a nightmare as it was the middle of rush-hour and we had to negotiate the D.C. Beltway. What had taken thirty minutes at 7 in the morning, now took more than an hour.
But we did, eventually, get back home, and we got all three dogs bathed and bedded, and the Chinese was delivered with the speed of lighting, and there was a lot of it, which was exactly what was needed.
All's well that ends well.
For the record, Thursday was the hottest June 24th in the history. The previous record was set in 1894. The temperature at 2:30 pm was 100 degrees, and at 7 pm, it was still 90 degrees. With the "heat index" (a function of temperature and humidity) it was over 104% in the shade. No wonder we felt completely smoked after eight and a half ours of work in it!