A Christmas Tale

This is a long one, but well worth reading if you own a hunting dog.

Monty and I took a final trip to the woods in search of our feathered friends last Thursday in northern Vermont, with Rudy and Greta sitting this one out. We still didn’t have much in the way of snow on the ground, and the temps were nice - 30s and sunny when we left the truck - which meant almost ideal conditions for late season grouse hunting. The action was pretty hot to start off - 13 grouse harassed in only 1.5 hours of hunting (
that’s a pretty good average!), with two birds making it in to the hunting vest for the journey back. Monty did a very good job, and even made a great retrieve to hand on the last grouse attempting its escape through thick softwoods.

It was precisely at this point that things went bad ... horribly bad. Shortly after his grouse retrieve, Monty went off in search of more prey (
at least two of the grouse from the last group of six that we flushed had flown in the direction that he went) and in a short time he had established another point. I moved in the direction of his beeper collar through the thick firs, eventually emerging only to have him bark, break point and rip off through the woods in pursuit. What was he pursuing? I’ll never know for sure, but I suspect it could have been a deer or moose that he was chasing. In any event, he quickly was out of my range and ignoring my commands to break off his chase. In a short time, he was gone, and it was incredible how quickly this all happened.

A lost dog in September or October is one thing, but a lost dog in late December is another thing entirely, especially in the north woods. The amount of coyote sign that I had seen while hunting that day had also been alarming, so the prospect of not finding Monty before dark that day was not acceptable for me. However, as the sun set that day, it became more likely that Monty might be spending a night alone in the woods for the first time in his short life.

A couple of times in the fading daylight and growing darkness I came close to finding him - the beeper collar was sounding off, so I knew that I was within a quarter mile of Monty (that’s the beeper collar’s range), but he was never
real close, and he certainly was not close enough to be seen. The major physical barrier preventing me from getting closer to him that night was a swiftly flowing stream dividing the cedar / fir swamp that we were in, and I decided against crossing it in the dark without a flashlight. By the backlit screen of my GPS I made it out of the woods and back to my truck by 6:30 PM that night, leaving Monty behind. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.

Returning two hours later with a few friends and family members, we decided to go back near the area I was hunting in on ATV. While this helped save a lot of time, it still didn’t help us locate Monty - we never heard his beeper collar sound off, and after two hours we decided to head in for the night and try again early on Friday morning. Needless to say, this is when a lot of morbid thoughts enter your mind - packs of coyotes, bobcats, a failed attempt at a stream crossing, or even a misstep in to a trapper’s set up all seemed like likely endings for Monty. Then the inevitable realization that you may have hunted with your best buddy for perhaps the last time crept in to my thoughts too. That night was certainly tough on Monty, and just as bad for all of the rest of us too.

On the bright side, the over night temperature never dropped below thirty, which is pretty rare up here at this time of year, but it did snow 3” - 4” of heavy wet snow, covering any tracks from the day before. I brought Rudy with me early Friday morning, hoping that he would pick up Monty’s scent, but instead he provided me company in the woods, and pointed a few more grouse as well. With the daylight I was able to trek back in to where I had last heard the beeper collar, and finally cross over the stream. Others in the search party rode ATVs down the nearby logging roads, or got the word out of Monty’s disappearance in the town of Norton, VT. We even had the U.S. Border Patrol keeping an eye out for him in their travels - the whole effort was impressive.

The swampy maze continued on the far side of the stream to my dismay - in two and a half hours of trudging through it, I never heard the beeper collar or cut a single track; canine, deer, moose or otherwise. It was pretty quiet and lonely out there to say the least, and was getting depressingly monotonous (
think about the thickest cover you can imagine, with blowdowns and slash sprinkled throughout, with a few inches of snow on top of that and you’ll get the picture). Countless whistle blasts and calls were met with silence, and once again my thoughts were turning to the dark side. With my batteries running low in my GPS again (I had already changed them out once that morning), I decided to head back toward the stream and back to the truck to make alternate plans with everyone again.

It was at this point that things took a good turn. I tried getting back across the stream at a different point than my first crossing, and I ended up falling in briefly. Scrambling out of the water, I continued up the bank to locate my first crossing point, continuing to blow my whistle for Monty. One of my whistle blasts was greeted with a human shout, which was followed by another, and I headed in the direction of the noise. In a few minutes I blew my whistle again and was within fifty yards of my friend Chris, who had come in on ATV behind my tracks and then followed my tracks through the swamp on foot.

Chris said my name and then I heard a clearly audible beep. There was Monty, no worse for the wear, happily greeting his hunting buddy Rudy and running around as if nothing too momentous had happened. Chris was about an hour behind me in the woods, on my exact trail, when Monty came running up behind him following a shout for him. Monty was tentative at first, but then quickly decided Chris’s company was worth having out in that wilderness, and stayed with him back toward the stream. We finally came within hearing distance of each other, and that’s when the reunion took place to my great relief. Less than an hour later, we were back at the trucks, anxious to get the word out that Monty had found us.

By the way, Chris is an experienced deer hunter, and agreed that the terrain that we were looking for Monty in was some of the worst he’s encountered in the north country. It was truly a miracle, maybe even a Christmas miracle, that we were able to get Monty back that day - the temp dropped to around 0 degrees that night. Also, Monty’s beeper collar surprisingly stayed on for 22 hours straight without draining the batteries down, which was also fortunate. His Christmas gift will be a little late arriving this year, but I’m sure he’ll enjoy his new
Garmin Astro GPS unit when we’re out in the woods from now on ...