KEARNEYSVILLE, W.VA. -- The plan was for a little autumn rabbit hunt on the abandoned farm Dudley Smoler used to hunt here as a boy. Only the weather stood in the way.

A cold front was bearing down from Canada. The chance of rain before the day was through was 100 percent and behind that lay the bitter northeaster that, in the end, dropped more than a foot of snow on Washington.

Nasty weather coming, no disputing. And if it had grown ugly by the time we passed through Charles Town, it was downright scary when we hit Kearneysville, with wind whipping rain and sleet along in horizontal sheets.

"We can't hunt in this," said Mason Lusk, who has rabbit hunted this part of the world for more than half a century. "The best we can do is sit back, drink some coffee and wait."

But when Smoler popped out of his car at the meeting place he had other ideas.

"Rabbits are going to be running in this," he said with a broad grin. "I've got us a good place to go. You just follow me in your car."

Lusk looked as if he'd encountered a madman. "In all my years," he said as we drove along through the frigid, howling tempest, "I've never seen a man hunt rabbits on a day like this. Not even if he drove 100 miles to do it. And this man is in his own town."

But his surprise turned to utter, stark amazement, as did mine, when Smoler climbed out of his station wagon at the hunting place wearing a pair of green cotton work trousers, leather boots and two flannel shirts, turned his dog loose and took off hunting.

By now, rain and sleet cascaded down in wind-driven sheets. It was 34 degrees. Every weed and bush was drenched and almost icy, the ground lay somewhere between soggy and frozen, no relief was in sight and this man was taking off to hunt with no hat, no gloves and no coat on.

As I hurried into layers of rain gear and wool, Lusk suggested we keep to the edges of the thickets and hope the dogs run any rabbits out to us in the clearing. If we slogged into the weeds, he reckoned, we'd be soaked in minutes and have to quit.

He was just finishing this reasoned dissertation when Smoler disappeared into the thickest honeysuckle patch around, hurrying his dog into a likely-looking rabbit cover, oblivious to the drenching he was assured. His hair already was plastered to his bare head and steam rose off his saturated shirt in clouds.

This was no ordinary man, we began to realize. Smoler works as a bird-hunting guide at the nearby Prospect Hall Hunt Club, and I remembered club member Steve Boynton describing him as "the strongest man I've ever seen."

He is huge, with a great, bear-like upper body the size of a whisky barrel. And if he looks like the folk-legend logger who stirred his coffee with his thumb, now he was proving it was more than a passing resemblance.

Watching Smoler roll along for the next couple of hours, evidently impervious to the cold and wet, gleefully chasing the dogs whenever they raised a rabbit while I shivered and shook along the edge of the thickets, I decided I must be a total wimp. Then I remembered a comforting fact: Big people are built for bitter cold.

There's even a scientific theory on the subject, it turns out. Bergmann's Principal maintains that the higher the latitude (and colder the climate), the bigger the creatures that will prosper.

It explains why, in the Arctic, the successful mammals are polar bears, seals and whales, said Jay Sheppard, who works in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered species division. "Forgive the pun," he said, "but it's abundantly clear that a little blubber, if not a lot, is a very valuable insulator.

"In addition to the advantages of insulation and stored energy that a layer of fat provides," Sheppard said, "bigger creatures do better in cold climates because they have a better ratio of surface area to total volume {which means they store heat better}.

"It's like putting a big rock and two small rocks in a fire. If you take them out, the big rock will still be warm hours later, but the little ones will be cold. The reason is, the small rocks have more surface area and the heat dissipates quicker."

Out in rabbit country, I definitely was a little rock, losing heat in a hurry.

It wasn't easy, but Lusk and I managed after a couple of hours to angle the hunt back toward the cars. We'd started two rabbits but hadn't fired a shot.

I climbed into the car to change clothes, thinking I'd go back out dry and try some more. But once inside, I knew I wasn't coming out again.

After a while I heard a tapping at the window. It was Smoler, grinning.

I rolled down the window.

"Great day for hunting, isn't it?" he said.

He wasn't kidding.