The Ghost of Waterloo Sinks

Two veteran coon hunters face their scariest night ever.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

"He's dead. I know he's dead."

Gary Hern sat on a hill, staring into the blackness of a 20-degree night. He was soaking wet but he wasn't feeling the cold. "Might as well go home," Hern said, his voice trailing off.

His friend Bill Hatley didn't stir. He didn't want to believe what was growing more obvious with every passing minute-Red Eagle Dick, the most promising young coonhound either of them had ever owned, was gone. Dick had been winning in the competition hunts and was well on his way to becoming a champion, but he was every bit as much fun on a midweek pleasure hunt, which was what this night had begun as. Red Eagle Dick and his brother Sam had struck a hot trail almost the moment they had hit the woods. In minutes the dogs had a big coon up a tree. The second chase was quite different, more like listening to a country music tape that has abruptly jammed. Both hounds, plus Sparky, a trainee, were baying loudly, working the trail with deliberation. Suddenly their voices became muffled, then all was quiet.

It was as if the dogs had fallen off the face of the earth. And maybe they had. Hatley and Hern were hunting in sinkhole country. Huge limestone formations lay under the hills and bluffs bordering the Mississippi River's "American Bottoms," where they were hunting in southern Illinois. Great funnels-anywhere from 15 feet to 50 yards across at the top-had sunk into the earth, sucked down over time by water moving through subterranean caverns. The bottom of a sink may have no hole at all, or one the size of a groundhog den...and its opening can be big enough to swallow dogs and hunters alike. The greatest fear lies in what's below. Is it just a gap between rock layers or is it a cavernous bell-shaped hole from which nothing can climb out?

The odd thing about this situation was that both men had hunted this particular farm near their Waterloo, Ill., homes for years. No sink had ever caused them serious problems before. But on the hunch that there's always a first time, the two hunters headed in the direction from which they had last heard the hounds, spreading out to achieve a better search pattern.

Hern found a tiny stream of water flowing down a shallow draw from the base of a hill. The stream was about where the hounds had stopped baying, and it was a logical place for coons to travel.

Hatley was closer to the hill when he stumbled onto the stream. He was about to cross when he thought he heard something. Was it his imagination or did he detect the far-off sound of muffled barking? It's easy for hunters with lost hounds to hear barking in every breath of wind. Hatley stopped. There it was again but where was it coming from? It sounded so distant yet so near, more to his left, but the hill was on his left. Hatley's headlamp followed the stream as he turned. Under a rocky overhang, water flowed out of a hole just big enough for a man to crawl through. Kneeling down for a closer look, Hatley could clearly hear the hounds inside. In all their combined 21 years of hunting this area, neither hunter had discovered, or even heard about, this cave.

Now the dilemma magnified. Who would go inside? Both men suffer from claustrophobia. Hern thought his affliction was more severe. Anyhow, wasn't Hatley wearing the hip boots?

He could kneel in the stream without getting soaked while crawling through the entrance. Hatley went in for a look and found a large room with a high ceiling just inside the opening. Water covered most of the floor. He tried not to look at the walls, which seemed to close in on him. Four raccoons were perched on ledges but they weren't budging. They seemed more afraid of something at the other end of the cavern than they were of him. A dead coon lay at the edge of the water. Hatley quickly backed out to report his find.

"It's downright eerie in there," he said. "Piles of coon dung are scatred on a sandbar. Three-inch clumps of white, thin-as-thread fungus are growing out of them. If I didn't stand perfectly still, the air would make them wave back and forth like tiny cobras. And the noise is deafening! The dogs are fighting something way back in the cavern but the sounds gather up and fire down that tunnel louder than if you were standing right in the middle of the fracas. Hern, I could hear splashing. They're fighting in the water."

A large coon can drown a dog. The ringtail climbs on the hound's head; sometimes it curls around the head. If the dog's feet can't touch bottom, his head goes under. The dog may fight the coon by trying to bring its front legs out of the water to splash mightily on the surface. But the paddle power of a hound's paws is not strong enough to sustain this action for more than a few breaths.

Hern blanched. His fear of tight places was truly even more intense than Hatley's. To make matters worse, just a week before, spelunkers from St. Louis had ventured too far back while exploring an Illinois cavern. Their batteries gave out and they were trapped in the darkness for two days until they were rescued. Nobody would know that Hern and Hatley were in any cave anywhere, much less this one with its well-disguised mouth.

But all of Hern's fears paled against his greater concern for the magnificant young hound. "Let's both go in as far as we can," he said. "We'll stay out of any branching tunnels to keep from getting lost."

Once inside, the big room narrowed to a passageway. It was still easy to walk through but much tighter. The sounds of fighting dogs were amplified by the narrowing space and multiplied by echoes running in and out of side tunnels and up and down the cavern. Sixty yards down the passageway, the cavern opened out into a second room half the size of the first. Hern looked up with relief. This room had a taller ceiling. But what was this, stars? Real ones. Suddenly he realized he was looking through a hole at the bottom of a sink.

Beyond the room, the cavern shrank back down in height and width and the water became deeper. Fighting his immense fear of being buried alive, Hern told Hatley to stay put while he went ahead. "You know you can get out from here. If I get into trouble, you may have to go for help."

Hern bent his head to avoid the lowering ceiling and began wading forward. The farther he walked, the deeper the water became and the more he had to bend down. Finally, the water was at his crotch, and he was bent at the hips with his back rubbing the ceiling. He was cramping.

Suddenly, the roaring of the hounds and the splashing intensified. Whatever they were fighting had broken away and was leading the chase right to him. Gary clamped his hands over his ears to ward off the deafening crescendo. Then all fell deathly silent.

The two men called to each other but with all of the reverberating echoes, neither could understand what the other was saying. Hern called to the hounds but there was no response.

Unable to tolerate his cramped position any longer, he made his way back to Hatley. The two called again and again. At last they could hear splashing in the distance. The hounds seemed to swim awhile, then splash through shallow water. The minutes dragged as the dogs slowly made their way back. Finally, the dogs emerged from the darkness... Sam...then Sparky...but no Dick.

Hern was worried. There wasn't a sound back in the cavern to suggest that Red Eagle Dick was still alive. "Maybe he bluffed the other hounds off the dead coon," Hatley encouraged. "He's probably still chewing on it."

Hern didn't believe it, and Hatley doubted his own words.

Hatley brightened again. "Hey, you know what? I'll bet there are more sinkholes into this cavern than the one we're standing under. If the hole is to one side like this one, and not somewhere in the center of the roof, a dog could climb out. Maybe Dick found one. Let's get out of this cave and see."

On the hill above the cave entrance, they called and called while searching the landscape with their headlamps. Dick was not outside. They sat down and waited. Hours later, they were still talking about all the ways Dick might have gotten himself killed. They thought of the total darkness in a cave. Could a dog find his way out in complete absence of light? Could a person feel his way out? Was Dick trying to do that? Both men were too sad to remember that a hound could just follow dog scent back to the mouth of the cave. Hatley was out of cheerful ideas. Hern was certain his dog had been drowned by a coon and maybe something bigger. A bear had been sighted farther south. More recently, somebody said they had seen a cougar. "Dick's not alive," Hern said sadly. "And we'll never know what killed him."

The two men stood to leave but before they turned away something splashed water at the cave entrance. Both headlamps snapped on as one and the twin beams struck a huge, white, billowy reflection. It seemed to be floating or drifting instead of walking. Both men were gripped by a sudden chill that had nothing to do with the 20-degree temperature. Could this ghostlike creature be what killed Dick?

The apparition turned. It was levitating up the hill. Two eyes reflected from the formless cloud. Both men froze in awe.

And then the Ghost of the Waterloo Sinks emerged...a frightened, tail- between-the-legs Red Eagle Dick, hot from finding his way out, wet from the cave and steaming when he hit the cold air.

In the years that followed, the rambunctious Red Eagle Dick maintained a somewhat safer, saner life. Dick got his championship. And his grand championship. And then he went on to take coon hunting's most coveted title: American Coon Hunters Association (ACHA) World Champion.

Eventually, at a Professional Coonhunters Association hunt and auction, Hern received a bona fide $83,000 bid on Dick. It was very tempting, but Dick was the dog he had searched for all of his life. Hern refused to give him up for money.mewhere in the center of the roof, a dog could climb out. Maybe Dick found one. Let's get out of this cave and see."

On the hill above the cave entrance, they called and called while searching the landscape with their headlamps. Dick was not outside. They sat down and waited. Hours later, they were still talking about all the ways Dick might have gotten himself killed. They thought of the total darkness in a cave. Could a dog find his way out in complete absence of light? Could a person feel his way out? Was Dick trying to do that? Both men were too sad to remember that a hound could just follow dog scent back to the mouth of the cave. Hatley was out of cheerful ideas. Hern was certain his dog had been drowned by a coon and maybe something bigger. A bear had been sighted farther south. More recently, somebody said they had seen a cougar. "Dick's not alive," Hern said sadly. "And we'll never know what killed him."

The two men stood to leave but before they turned away something splashed water at the cave entrance. Both headlamps snapped on as one and the twin beams struck a huge, white, billowy reflection. It seemed to be floating or drifting instead of walking. Both men were gripped by a sudden chill that had nothing to do with the 20-degree temperature. Could this ghostlike creature be what killed Dick?

The apparition turned. It was levitating up the hill. Two eyes reflected from the formless cloud. Both men froze in awe.

And then the Ghost of the Waterloo Sinks emerged...a frightened, tail- between-the-legs Red Eagle Dick, hot from finding his way out, wet from the cave and steaming when he hit the cold air.

In the years that followed, the rambunctious Red Eagle Dick maintained a somewhat safer, saner life. Dick got his championship. And his grand championship. And then he went on to take coon hunting's most coveted title: American Coon Hunters Association (ACHA) World Champion.

Eventually, at a Professional Coonhunters Association hunt and auction, Hern received a bona fide $83,000 bid on Dick. It was very tempting, but Dick was the dog he had searched for all of his life. Hern refused to give him up for money.