Eight Foot Dig

It was the first week in March when I headed out to a small patch of woods near my house in order to look for any signs of emerging groundhogs. My intent was to explore and maybe do a little hole-bolting with my tiny Jack Russell terrier who is so small she never gets stuck anywhere (a chest size of under 13 inches).

Groundhogs are normally found in farm fields, orchards and hedgerows, but along the river they are also found in rocky dens at the base of the cliff faces where it is dry enough to make a reasonable den. They are also found farther back in the woods where the hills are steep enough to drain off the water that is anathema to any denning animal.

On this day we were headed uphill from the river to the forested slopes, and to a series of groundhog dens we had worked lightly the previous year.

The first hole we hit was a large den pipe located about 50 feet uphill from a creek bottom. The den was located on a broad earthen bench on a forested slope. Below the bench the ground pitched steeply down to a creek, and above the bench it rose to a forested ridge line.

Sailor, my little Jack Russell, slid into the den pipe as smoothly as a silk scarf slides through a bracelet. She was out of sight in a second.

I waited, but there was no sound. After half an hour I wondered what she was up to. Another half hour went by before she popped out of the hole, looked up at me, and then turned around and slid back into the pipe, again without a sound.

An odd dog.

We had worked this den a few weeks earlier and had bolted a red fox out of it, and she had not opened up then either -- a peculiar thing. This time, while Sailor was underground, I tried to locate her with the deben locator box. The tiny radio collar on her neck said she was 12 feet deep.

Wow -- this den was a lot deeper than I thought! It could be that Sailor had been barking down there and I had not heard her. 

I sniffed the den entrance, but it did not smell life fox -- a slightly skunky smell -- but very much like groundhog.  There were a few feathers at one of the den exits, but they were very old and mixed in with the Fall leaves. Feathers are hard to date as they don't break down very quickly, and these had been under the recent snows which made them even harder to judge. I decided they were old -- maybe 6 months or older. Despite the fact that we had bolted a fox from here a few weeks earlier, I still did not think this was a regular fox den. We had been having horrible weather, and when ice and snow storms come on fast and hard, a fox will tuck into any old groundhog den it comes across.

When Sailor finally emerged, I grabbed her and tied her up, convinced nothing was home and she was simply goofing off -- a little too eager to spend some quality time underground after two months house-bound by heavy snows and ice.

As I tied up Sailor, I let my border terrier, Trooper, off-leash to nose around.  He dived down the den pipe and came out with a rat.

While I puzzled over this (Did he just kill this rat a second ago, or did she pull it dead from the den? Did Sailor kill it when she was underground?) Trooper dove back down the pipe.  Despite his enormous size (15 inches tall and a 19" chest) he disappeared entirely from view.


This dog was too big to go to ground, and had no locator collar on to boot.

I backed off and waited. This will normally get a dog to come out.  I waited an hour.  When Trooper did not come out, I decided he was probably stuck down there -- I could hear him snuffling and whining.  I waited another 15 minutes and then decided I would have to go get tools and dig him out.

I stuck up the two den holes with thick sticks and went off to get tools.  I came back with tools, but left Sailor crated in the car -- I could get her out later if I needed her, but she barked too much. I needed to listen to what was going on in the hole if I was going to get Trooper out in any kind of reasonable time.

I had been gone about 40 minutes when I got back to the hole.  Sticks were blown out of one of the holes I had carefully sticked up.

Good news!  Trooper must be out.

I listened to the hole and heard nothing.  Quite certain Trooper had exited, I called and whistled, and then headed out into the woods in a series of widening circles.  I was sure Trooper would come running as soon as he heard my calls.

I called and walked and called and walked and there was nothing.  My feet began to hurt from edge-walking along the side of the steep hills.

Still no dog.

Finally I went back to the car and extracted Sailor, the little Jack Russell, from her crate and brought  her back to the den pipe.  I sent her down the pipe.  Just as she entered the den pipe, a large fox sprang out through the sticks stuck up in the other hole entrance.  The fox bounced up the ridge like a springbok, and then it was gone.

What the hell!?? 

Had a fox come back to the den since I had left it?

While I puzzled this, Sailor had worked her way through the pipe and had now exited through the same hole the fox had taken. She started to sniff frantically along the ground for signs of the fox, and I picked her up before she bolted off.

I already had one lost dog -- I sure as hell didn't need two lost dogs.

I went back to the hole Trooper had entered and I listened again.  Nothing. I banged on a root by the entrance and now a snuffling sound came out of the hole.

Since there had just been a fox in there, I knew it probably wasn't a groundhog. It must be Trooper. Instead of Trooper exiting the den through that first sticked-up hole, it must have been another fox -- two of them jungled up down below. This den must be a lot larger than I had imagined.

I cut a three-foot deep trench one and a half spade blades wide, and five feet long.  I barred around in the trench tying to find the den pipe.


I filled in the hole, and just as I came to the end of the fill I saw the fox that had bolted out of the den earlier.  It was jogging downhill from me, just above the creek.  As I watched, it slipped below the hill and into the creek bed, and I lost sight of it.  This fox was staying close -- there must be kits inside the den.

I dug another three-foot deep trench closer to the entrance where Trooper had entered.  Maybe it wouldn't be so deep here.  This time I was lucky -- I barred into the pipe and it was about four and a half feet below the bottom of my three foot cut.  I dug hard and fast.  The soil was very soft until the last two feet and then it got dry and the loam gave way to a hard sandy substrate.   As I got deeper, the hole got narrower and after I popped into the den, I realized it was too tight for me to get down there to pull the dog.

I took off my vest and shoved it in the hole to keep back the dirt, and then I dug out the sides.  I pulled the vest and then went into the pit head-first to try to feel which direction the pipe went.

Almost too late I realized I was in trouble -- I was exhausted, head down, and with all 200 pounds of me trying to jam my head into the pipe.  I could suffocate.

It was with great difficulty that I was able to push and claw my way out of the hole and back onto my feet -- a little too hard to do, and a little too close a call.

I blocked up the hole with my vest again and cut two steps into the side of the hole. I rammed my shovel into the hole sideways to use it as a handhold while I tried to probe around at the entrance to the pipe.  As I got my head down, something moved in the hole and I realized it was Trooper.

Trooper struggled towards me for about 10 minutes and his nose finally popped into view.  Thank God!  We were going to be OK.  Somehow Trooper had turned himself around in the den (how I will never know) and he was now trying to exit up the pipe that he had entered from.  I reached in and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and yanked on him very, very hard hard.  He squirmed, and then he was past me and into the other side of the pipe.  By the time I got out of the pit, Trooper was sliding out of the den on his own, and shaking the dirt off his coat.

Thank God!  Both dogs were out and OK.  Somehow, without a locator collar, and through only God's grace, I had cut into the very constriction point that had been blocking Trooper from moving forward. 

With both dogs tied up, I took a small rotten stump and several thick sticks and repaired the den, packing the area over the sticks with a thick bed of leaves to hold back the loose soil.  I was exhausted, but happy both dogs were out.  The dirt went back in fine, and afterwards I scattered leaves over the top of the den to make it look as natural as possible.  I brought the rat I had tossed off to one side, and laid it at the entrance to the den that the fox had bolted from.  If this was a natal den, they should at least get their rat back.

God bless these poor fox -- the dogs and I had put them through a lot.

The dogs were tied up and I wanted to rest, but instead I walked down the hill towards where I had seen the fox jogging past.  About 35 feet down the hill, under a rotten log, I found a collapsing groundhog pipe.  I now suspect that this part of the pipe had once connected to the den up top but with nonuse it had caved in at the point it exited the earth. Most of this den pipe was probably intact, however. Somewhere up that pipe had been the two foxes that had bolted from the den earlier -- and perhaps some kits as well. 

Sailor had probably found this pipe but I could not hear her barking under all the dirt overburden. She had stayed down there an hour waiting to hear me digging, and had finally come back up to the surface to see where the cavalry had gone off to.

Trooper too had probably found this pipe, but he simply couldn't get down it. I suspect he had spent most of his four hours underground trying to negotiate the right-angle curve into the longer pipe.

What had looked like a simple two-eyed sette on first inspection was in fact a three eyed sette that was a heck of a lot larger and deeper than I had imagined.  This den might be 20 feet deep at spots, and spread out in a rough oval 30 feet by 60 feet.

Aching from exertion, I packed up and headed back to the car, making sure I had my deben box and my car keys -- both jettisoned from my vest when I used it to stuff up the dig hole.

With both dogs, the shovel and the bar it seemed longer leaving than it did coming.  I had been fresh in the morning, and in a focused panic coming back up with the tools.  Now I was very tired and wanted nothing more than a shower and as much Advil as the box said a human could take in any 24-hour period.

When I got home I realized Trooper's eyes were a mess with a lot of dirt in them.  It  took three flushes to get it all out, but in the end he was fine. Trooper was underground four hours, and at least 3 hours of that time was due to my stupidity.  From now on, even if I'm just going down the road to do a little bolting, I'm putting the shovel and the bar in the car, and a mattock too.

Better safe than sorry.  And better a tough dig than a dead dog.



Sailor and Trooper inside a hollow tree trunk..