Some days are just different. Take January 27th for example. I was up at 5 AM bright eyed and bushy tailed. I had some things to do online prior to doing data entry on my Quick Books program as part of getting ready to get all of my information together for the upcoming tax season. I would be spending most of the entire day inside, something I dread, but getting some of these tax preparation issues behind me sounded like a good idea-especially because it was -6 degrees outside. My two bloodhounds, James Fenimore Cooper and Adia, layed around both sides of my desk chair. My hounds love to hang around at my feet, sleeping more often than not.
I had just finished my second cup of coffee, answering some business emails and doing a silly post on Facebook. While opening my Quick Books program the phone rang. It was 8 AM exactly. My veterinarian was on the other end of the line. Her male Mastiff had been missing all night. She had let it out at about 10 AM. She was worried sick. She wondered if she could bother me to bring one of my bloodhounds over to see if we could locate her dog Bubba. I told her I’d be there within an hour.
I puzzled over which hound to bring. Adia was principally an air scenter and if we couldn’t pick up a good track she might prove more useful. Cooper is a very good ground scenter. I knew if we could pick up a track he could stay on it. And then I remembered the biting cold. Cooper has longer hair, a thick coat, and the frigid temps don’t bother him as much. Adia is a southern lady and from a different genetic stock. Her hair is short, she barely sheds at all, and her tolerance for the cold is definitely not legendary. On this fact alone I selected Cooper.
I told Cooper we had a mission. He looked at me like he had no idea what I was talking about. He tilted his head and then went and stood in front of the door. It was then that I knew he was up for the task or at least that is what I told myself. I brought along one of my vests to put on Cooper. Bloodhounds are deep chested dogs and although he does not have a 54 inch chest like me I thought the garment would go a long way to keeping him warm in the subzero temperatures.
My veterinarian, Sharon, lives directly south over the mountain from me. It’s probably about 3 miles as the crow flies but about 12 miles by road. The area to the north of her (essentially my back yard) is a vast area of woods. It is rugged mountainside, about 18,000 acres of deep woods with only a few decrepit woods roads that intersect any part of this forested terrain. I brought a compass, map, and GPS unit in case I needed it. I’m old school. I prefer a map and compass. A GPS can be a life saver but it can also be a royal pain. Getting good readings in thick forest was not part of the engineering plan when these were designed.
Cooper and I arrived at precisely 9 AM. Sharon greeted us and was visibly upset. I had her tell me every single detail of what happened the previous evening. Any little clue that I can decipher from information given to me can help a great deal. Bubba was laying next to Sharon when he suddenly wanted to go outside. He walked to the door with his head down. When she let him out into the darkness he headed right into the woods. His normal pattern was to come back to the door and asked to be let inside within 10 minutes. He never returned.
Sharon had spent much of the night searching for Bubba. It was brutally cold, perhaps 10 degrees below zero with a stiff wind. The night was pitch black. She went out several times with a flash light, tried to follow his tracks, and called as she moved along in the dark forest. Sharon barely slept that night. She put up some posts at surrounding area Animal Shelter and Dog Rescue websites in hopes someone would find Bubba.
Sharon also has two other large dogs. She has a female Mastiff that is about Bubba’s size. She also has a Great Pyrenees who wanders about the property a little. This is his instinct. His job is to protect. The other two dogs and Sharon were his sheep. This posed a problem. The area immediately around the house was solid dog tracks, all of them really large. We brought the Pyrenees outside. I examined his foot print. Both of his feet were quite large. I did notice that the right foot had one long toe nail on the secound (inner) toe. This would help me discern his track from Bubba’s in the woods. The female mastiff stayed close to home and I did not think her tracks would be found out in the woods.
I asked Sharon if Bubba had anything in particular that only he used. The dogs shared most things but after pondering for a bit she went and retrieved Bubba’s water dish. She handed it to me and I held it in front of Cooper. Cooper gave it a real good whiff and then looked directly into my eyes. I asked him if he had the smell and he looked off into the woods. I knew he had the scent. We put my vest on Cooper. It sagged well below his chest. He gave me a dirty look. Cooper likes to look sharp and this garment did not fit into his idea of a sharp looking bloodhound. However, I noticed he did not protest. He knew it would help to keep him warm on this bitter day.
Right from the beginning Cooper got on the freshest track. There were dozens of tracks going every which way but Cooper stayed on one trail. He lead me along as Sharon followed. We headed directly into the woods where eventually we ran out of other dog tracks and we felt that we were only following the tracks that Bubba made. I stopped to examine them. Large, in fact, very large, no long toenail on the left foot, and the prints were generally clear. Cooper, impatient, pulled hard to remind me to keep my mind on the task. He looked right into my soul with his droopy brown eyes and seemed to be saying “Come on man! We’re losing time!”
The tracks went deeper into the woods in an easterly direction. I could tell that Bubba had been moving slowly. There was not much distance between his steps. A healthy dog of this size should have about a 54 inch gait from back to front at a normal walking pace when accounting for all four feet. These tracks were less. In most areas the gait was more like 44 inches. This meant he was moving slowly, even poldding along. I did not see this as a positive sign. I told Sharon he was moving slowly (and in my mind I thought that he might be in trouble). The tracks wandered. This is not particularly unusual for a dog, but these wandered severely. The tracks had no foucus. It seemed as if Bubba might have been at least slightly disoriented.
After a while we came to an old stone wall. These monuments of hard work can produce a barrier to wildlife movement but a healthy dog Bubba’s size should be able to cross this is a step, a hop, and another step. The tracks went to the stone wall at a right angle. I could see where he put first the right paw on a low flat stone that was part of the stone wall and then the left paw found its mark. I could tell he put the right paw up first because the track was clearer and entrenched deeper meaning all of his weight had been on this paw for a moment. The left track was clear, not entrenched, and had no other distinguishing characteristics. Bubba did not climb over the stone wall but rather hopped back down to the base of the wall where he followed the western edge of the stone wall in a southerly direction. Cooper, nose to the ground, led the way. Eventually there was a place where some of the stones in the wall had toppled over. Bubba chose to cross here. I understood that it was easier for him to cross here. This was also not a good sign.
From this point on the track gait shortened up even more. It seemed like he was just ambling along very slowly. I could see that his weight was centered on the back of his feet, not something I wanted to see. Had the weight been more on the toes, indicating a more lively step, it would have given me a little more confidence that he would be alright when we caught up to him.
We went through a large patch of hemlocks where there was little snow. Cooper kept his nose to the ground while moving his 140 pound frame quickly through the forest. Cooper doesn’t “sound” consistently like some bloodhounds. “Sounding” is a very distinct, deep, bloodhound bark that can’t be imitated by any other dog. It is music to my ears when I’m working Cooper and Adia together. Adia loves to “sound” and Cooper will always join in. But today my big old red bloodhound was not sounding. He was snorting a lot, something bloodhounds do when they are on a track. Cooper stayed right on the track where no tracks could be seen as we navigated the multi acre hemlock grove. As we came back out into the hardwoods we could see dog tracks again. They were large, had a very short gait, and we were certain they belonged to Bubba.
Just into the hardwood area we found a spot where Bubba laid down. The snow was only lightly matted so I knew he only stayed down for a few moments. I inspected the area for urine, blood, any clue that could tell me what was going on. There was nothing. At least there was nothing that I could see or understand. Cooper spent a good deal of time smelling it and then gave me a sideways glance. Cooper, literally, will never look me straight in the eye when he has a secret. I took this as a not so good omen. Cooper moved on with even more determination, every breath exhaled creating a large cloud in the cold, bitter, air.
As we moved along I tried to comfort Sharon by telling her we were still on a good track and we’d stay on it until we found Bubba. “We’ll find him” I promised her. And inside my heart I hoped that Cooper and I were able to join this wonderful dog lover with her long time pal, Bubba.
Working the track in the hardwoods we came across a large number of deer tracks, fisher tracks, and coywolf tracks. Some were more recent than the tracks we were following but James Fenimore Cooper did not get distracted. He kept his nose constantly to the ground, his head moving side to side, steam billowing out of his large nostrils in the blue, blue cold, we moved forward through the deep woods. As we moved along I realized that all of our tracking had been downhill. Bubba was without a doubt moving along the path of least resistance.
Near a small intermittent stream we found a spot where Bubba had laid down a second time. He had stayed a little while at this spot. The snow was packed and I could see that he had tried to stand up and had difficulty. I knew this because there were four or five rear paw prints next to each other indicating that he had stumbled and was having a hard time supporting his weight. I knew now without a doubt that Bubba was in trouble.
After he stood up his tracks wandered around in a couple of broad circles. The result of this was that his tracks crossed over previous tracks which made trailing the huge dog difficult. Cooper never missed a beat. At one intersection I wanted to go east and my hound wanted to go south. I tugged on the leash. Cooper gave me a very dirty look and I realized that he knew best. Sure enough within a few minutes we were on a clean track.
The tracks came to the road that Sharon lived on and disappeared because they had been obliterated by the tire tracks of her neighbors. Cooper stayed right on what seemed like an imaginary path wandering back and forth down the road. The track was nearly twelve hours old by this time but Cooper showed confidence. Cooper’s skill rejoined us with paw prints where Bubba went back into the woods again to the south of the road. He was still going straight down hill.
His tracks were now even more deliberate. He had a very short gait. He frequently stopped but did not lie down. Whenever he stopped I could see frozen drool in the snow. I did not tell Sharon this. The thought of what this meant could remove all hope. There was some part of me that was hanging on for a perfect find; a perfect ending.
We passed between two houses. The track was leading towards a swamp. The terrain was steep enough where in places I slid on my rear end while holding Cooper’s leash. We arrived at a level topographic bench; a flat spot on a steep hill. There was a steep cut in the topography below us where a hemlock swamp stood. Cooper, for the first time air scented. He put his nose up into the air and drew in a long breath. As he exhaled he turned and looked at me. Eye to eye he was telling me he wanted to go off track. I considered doing this but I decided not too. I pulled on him and directed him to the track. He wasn’t happy about my decision but followed Bubba’s track diligently. Sharon was not too far behind.
We went downhill in a westerly direction along a gentle slope for a couple hundred yards and then the track did a switch back to the east. It continued down hill. Sharon was now directly behind Cooper and me. Cooper stopped and air scented again. I looked into the swamp. At first my heart jumped for joy but before I spoke I looked harder.
Bubba was lying in the mud. I could see he wasn’t moving. Bubba had passed on.
Sharon could not see past me and I gently told her Bubba was dead. She looked at me in disbelief and then looked towards his body some 60 yards away. Sharon ran to her friend, perhaps with some hope that he was still alive.
This was immensely sad. Cooper and I walked up behind Sharon. She held the massive Bubba in her arms telling him how much she loved him. I put a hand on her shoulder. What do you say when someone loses a best friend? I just said “Sharon, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry.”
Cooper smelled Bubba. He whimpered. Still, I praised him. He had done such a magnificent job.
Sometimes doing a good job doesn’t bring a good feeling, at least not right away.
It was then that Sharon thanked Cooper and I for bringing the two of them together. She told us we had saved her from worrying and suffering by not knowing what happened to her dear friend. Not knowing would have been the worse pain of all.
We went back to Sharon’s house where we retrieved an ice sled from the back of my truck. I brought it hoping that if Bubba were hurt I could bring him home safely withough worsening his injury. I also knew there was a chance I’d be bringing back his cadaver. There’s always that chance when a pet (or a person) has been missing over night, especially if it has been extremely cold.
Getting the massive dog’s body into the ice sled took some effort. Sharon helped me roll Bubba into the sled. Dragging the heavy sled up a steep hill for an extended time proved to be all I could muster. At 62 years old I’m not as strong as I used to be. Still, as a 250 pound former power lifter, I was strong enough. When we reached the road and muscled the sled into my truck my body was completely spent.
Cooper watched as we loaded Bubba into the truck. I’ve never seen him look so sad. We brought Sharon and her good friend home where she made arrangements for his remains. A good friend and Sharon’s Dad were at her house now. I knew she was in good hands, said my goodbyes, and we departed.
On the drive home we drove by the spot where we had loaded Bubba into the truck. Cooper put his nose into the air, took a few breaths, and started to howl. He howled mournfully until we reached a paved road some five minutes later. As he howled I cried. If anyone had seen us they would have thought it was a strange scene indeed.
The recovery was reported online and Cooper’s efforts were well received amongst animal lovers. We received well over 100 messages mostly from people we will never meet or know. Those who commented were remarkably generous calling Cooper referring to him as a true hero and wonderful dog. Of course, both he and Adia have always been wonderful to me because I know how great each of them is when it comes to working the woods. I’m not sure how Cooper understood all of this but I can tell you with certainty that he was strutting around for a few days.
Oh, and Sharon bought Cooper a nice new vest for cold weather tracking. One that actually fits him. Now I’m going to have to work on my foot speed so that I can catch the big fellow each time I want to put the vest on him. Of course after trying it on Adia just loved the way she looked it the new red vest. Perhaps Adia can use it on the next find.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in February 2014. Dedicated to Bubba and Sharon, may they live together in spirit forever.