Hunt Report: Postcard from the Polar Vortex
Even a windchill of 10 degrees couldn’t keep a few hardy (or foolhardy?) foxhunters from Tennessee Valley Hunt from their sport last weekend. Photos/story by Gretchen Pelham.
Top photo: Phillip and I, before the hunt
Forecast for Saturday at the 10AM meet time: 26 degrees with 13 degree wind chill from 40 mph wind gusts and 69% chance of snow.
Official dress code for the day that was sent out the members, “Bundle up like you’re headed to the your first strip-poker tournament.”
The Tennessee Valley Hunt cast its Penn-Marydel hounds out on January 25, 2014 in less than ideal conditions. For various reasons, we could neither delay the hunt until later in the day nor postpone it till Sunday. The wind is a tricky thing – you can have a little wind kick up and ruin your day’s hunting because it steals the scent right off the ground. Or you can have an epic day’s following hounds rocking on a HOT line in terrible winds. So we at TVH decided to take our chances and hunt. The Masters, however, did waive our normal dress code.
And so began the contest for “The Rider Who Is The LEAST Likely To Lose At Strip Poker” and the “What Were They Thinking?” award for the person wearing the least amount of clothes.
I also wore about every warm thing I owned, including Carhartt coveralls and coat, an ear band, a neck gaiter, a wind breaker with a hoodie (to go over the helmet), two pairs of gloves, insulated breeches, Smart Wool socks inside of a pair of insulated Mountain Riding Boots and those little heat packets on both feet. Since I looked like a hillbilly from the Polar Vortex, I decided to be rebellious and not only put a black, square pad on my pony (instead of the white fleece) but I also left my hair long. Flowing tresses are a no-no if you’ve ever read your Wadsworth (THE manual on foxhunting).
I was so proud of my ensemble that I took a picture of it the night before. I was sure I was wearing enough items of apparel that I would never lose at Strip Poker.
When I woke up early the morning of the hunt, Bert told me I was insane. The trees were slamming against the house in the wind. When I went down to catch my horse, he looked at me like I was insane. And promptly ran to the other side of the field.
I drove to the meet and laughed at the other members who had arrived ahead of me. They all looked like the Carhartt version of the Abdominal Snowman. We agreed that we were all insane.
Two members, however, wore the usual dress code with only a few added neck and head gear. Okay – so that was a new level of insanity to ride without the Carhartts in that weather. I was starting to feel a bit normal compared to them.
We cast the hounds in the woods by the lake in an area that we call the Bermuda Triangle. It is so named because many times the hounds will drop off top of the ridge, down to the lake, and seemingly disappear. Their full voices are silenced by the ridge top, and it is impossible to ride down there to them in most places. But not to worry, as the lake forces the quarry to always run out of the Triangle. So they only disappear for a little while. And the foxes LOVE the Triangle.
But on this day we flushed out a big coyote within five minutes of entering the Triangle. He promptly ran out across the pipeline. Joint Master Rosie Merle-Smith was whipping-in and almost went hoarse from yelling out the Rebel Yell after the view. It was far too cold to be screaming at the top of your voice. I was leading the Field of seven hardy members and one guest clearly crazy to come out on a day like that. There were also three people on foot following the hunt (they stayed much warmer than us) and four staff including the professional huntsman, Ryan Johnsey.
I didn’t intend to lead the Field as this was my horse’s first hunt since Thanksgiving (he had recovered from a broken tooth that required a hole drilled into his skull – OUCH!), but somehow I found myself in the lead with no-one else really begging to step up. I think they were waiting for me to provide the entertainment with my just-body-clipped horse, fresh from two months off, in the freezing wind. HA! I showed all of them – my horse was perfect and never tried to buck me off. Now the following day when we went for a hack around the farm, now that is a different story.
We followed the pack in full cry on the coyote as fast as I dared. The ground was frozen, and I mean frozen. The place where we were is a public place, so the usual mud bogs on the trails were pocked marked by countless hooves. And those deep hoof prints were all frozen in place. Not fun. My horse is shoed with borium and studs on his shoes, but even he was slipping on the tundra. So I walked all the bogs and only cantered when I knew the ground was pretty level and straight.
We went from one end of that peninsula that just out into the Tellico Lake to the other. The pack lost the coyote when he left the woods and went into the open crop lands. The wind was howling out in the open. But the Penn-Marydels worked and worked that line all the way to the boat plant building. They didn’t open up on the line again, but they followed it with their noses down, feathering their tails all the way.
When a hound knows that a scent line is there, but it’s just not strong enough for them to follow it at speed and risk over-running the line, they will work it quietly. How you know that the hounds are working a difficult scent line is by their tails – they will feather their tails back and forth when they just get a whiff of the line. They will lose the line here and there, but will pick it back up in places. Think of a cold line like a trail of popcorn, spaced very apart. A strong scent line will be like a red carpet stretched out in front of you, so easy to follow that you can run as fast as you can and not lose it.
So while the Field was walking out in the open along those cropped fields and getting colder by the wind gust, the hounds were working very hard and never gave up. Their effort was rewarded as they hit again near Pig Gulch. There is some debate if this was the same coyote or a grey fox, as the quarry was never seen after this and ran in tight little circles that greys love. However, coyotes can fool you and run tight after that.
But we didn’t care – it meant we could go faster and warm up! The pack went back towards the Triangle to circle around and around as fast as they could run. And to the credit of whoever named Bermuda Triangle – most of the staff couldn’t hear them for a time. But we knew they were down there, and the hounds were having a ball roaring around in the Triangle.
Eventually the hounds lost the line again, and after four hours of freezing our digits off, Ryan called the pack in. It was the coldest hunting day, yet we stayed out for four hours. I only had one field member go in because her horse cast a shoe. Otherwise everyone toughed out the weather.
Our Honorary Secretary polled everyone riding on how many pieces of apparel (boots and helmet included) they were wearing. I just knew I would have the most at 15 items – NOPE! The winner of the “Least Likely to Lose at Strip Poker” was the guest who joined us. She was wearing four coats and four pairs of socks. FOUR! How does one fit four pairs of socks into your regular riding boots? Or move your arms with all those coats on? And she did not look like Randy, the little brother from A Christmas Story when his mother dressed him for his walk to school.
I almost won the “What Were You Thinking?!” award for having the least amount of items on, but one of our Whipper-Ins beat me out. John Niceley was only wearing 14 items. So basically my bra lost me the gift certificate to Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy more clothes. There is a joke in that, but I’m still warming up from the day to think of it.
Gretchen Pelham, MFH
Tennessee Valley Hunt
Gretchen is one of the five Joint Masters of the Tennessee Valley Hunt. She is a photographer and always hunts with her large 20D Canon camera and zoom lens shoved down the front of the her hunt coat (including this day she fell). Sometimes she even remembers to put the digital card in the camera. She is known as the Naked Foxhunter from a series of articles she has written for The Chronicle of the Horse. Her other hunt pony Ziggy writes a blog for the foxhunting magazine Covertside. Occasionally Gretchen manages to finish a hunt without falling off, but that is not as often as she would like.
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