Out in the country, away from the pollution of city lights, the stars ignite in the crisp black sky. The quarter moon reflects upon the still water of an isolated farm pond, the water of which is disturbed only by the subtle movement of the pond’s inhabitants.
Soon after sunset Thursday, as darkness replaced daylight, Boy Scouts of Troop 100 and their associates gathered at a willing farmer’s cow pasture, and began a ritual that has become a time-honored tradition in Hannibal:
The gathering of the frogs.
The Frog Jumping Contest, based upon Mark Twain’s short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” is as much a tradition during National Tom Sawyer Days as is the parade, or the naming of the official Tom and Becky. The grandchildren of former children who once jumped frogs line up to create their own memories of holding onto a slimmy-skinned frog, and at the ready set go, hoping that the chosen frog will jump.
The Boy Scouts have served at least partial sponsorship of this event for a dozen years or so, and Chris Doyle, troop leader, has turned the gathering process into somewhat of a science.
Each year, in the days prior to the event, he borrows the same small boat from the same friend who generously agreed to loan it to him the year before.
He contacts the same farmer, and reminds that farmer not to shoot when he sees Scouts with flashlights climbing over the fence.
He pulls out the flashlights from storage and makes sure the batteries are fresh.
A fellow Scout dad, Chuck Ehert, borrows from a friend what has become known as the “frog spa” in which to hold the frogs between capture and contest.
Then it’s time to go to work.
Scouts and dads carry the borrowed boat over the barbed wire fence and into the pasture, and then climb the fence themselves.
Only seconds pass before the cry of “eeewe” signifies the first step into fresh cow manure.
Chris Doyle then leads a trio into the boat, destined to skim the surface of the pond for the next two hours, in search of bobbing frog heads.
On the shortline, Heath and Brandi Ehret wisely used duct tape around their shoes and socks to prevent suction from pulling them off.
With Heath in the pond and Brandi on the bank, the question came up if Heath would trust his sister to lend a hand to help him get out of the muddy water. He thought, then declined her outreached hand.
Doyle chose this particular pond for the frog harvest several years ago, after driving by it at night. When his headlights hit the water’s surface, he could see hundreds of frog heads peeking out of the water’s surface.
“That’s the place,” he said, and has returned to this pond in subsequent years.
The experience of the frog harvesters paid dividends when identifying this year’s crop of frogs.
A rarity on Thursday evening was the moan of bull frog.
Instead, there was a steady chorus of “chift, chift, chift,” the cry of the smaller frogs dominating the pond.
Then there was the tiniest of frogs, of a size capable of squirming through the mesh collection bag. His high pitched call stood out from the rest.
Many of the frogs caught this year were quarter or half dollar size.
“Last year all the frogs we caught were really, really big,” said Kent Bross, one of the volunteers.
Not to worry.
Kids who rent frogs at the contest like the little frogs, deeming them cute. And the frog catchers agree, little frogs can jump as far or farther than their bigger counterparts.
By 11:15 p.m., Thursday, the Scouts and supporters had collected 61 frogs, with the final number expected to grow because the boat was still out on the pond.
The Boy Scouts will be offering the frogs “for rent” for a $3 donation. Registration is an additional $3. There will be two categories, 5 years of age and younger, and 6 years and older.
Registration begins at 10 a.m. today, and the contest begins at noon, rain or shine, on the parking lot at the corner of Third and Church streets.
Within an hour of the contest end, the frogs will be safely back into their native pond.