Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Root of the Problem

The bar is six feet long, the roots were 12 feet wide and over five feet high.

I met up with Chris at a general store in Adamstown, and he had Brick with him, a red fell terrier. I had Mountain and Pearl with me, both in fine shape and anxious for a day in the field.

We crossed the small bridge spanning the creek, and parked behind one of the outbuildings on the farm.

This farm used to raise calfs, but now it's corn on one side of a creek and soybeans on the other, with a narrow pasture down the middle on either side of the creek, and good soil almost everywhere. If there is a more ideal habitat for terrier work, I have not found it.

I did a thorough job of taping up the locator collars, as the dogs would likely be in and out of the water.

Finding holes was not going to be a problem. When the owner of this place first called me, she said she was anxious to reduce the number of groundhog settes along the creek, as they were undermining the bank. I was skeptical of this assertion until I saw the problem, but she did not exagerate or get it wrong; it is groundhogs causing the damage, not muskrats. And there are a lot of holes. Yahoo!

The dogs and I have been doing some abatement work on this farm for the last couple of weeks, and perhaps as a consequence we did not find anything for the first 200 yards or so. At a spot where I had found raccoons on a previous dig, however, Pearl slid into the earth and began baying.

I was surprised this sette was already reoccupied, but not dipleased; I had done a good job rebuilding the den, and I could not tell where I had cut into it before.

Pearl continued to bay, and I collared up Mountain, and then Brick was in another hole and baying, and Pearl came out and I quickly grabbed her and collared her up before she could try another entrance.

Brick was clearly on it, and baying. We boxed her, and then began to bar and dig, but then she stopped baying and came out and tried to get into another hole. I went over and undid Pearl, a more experienced dog, but she too seemed suddenly confused by the sette.

After a few minutes, it became clear that whatever had been there had either bolted off or dug in and bottled itself off with dirt. A bolt was my bet. This sette has an exit over in the ditch somewhere -- one of the coons had bolted out of there a few weeks earlier. I had not bothered to locate the exit then, and now I gave a half-hearted look for it, but still could not locate it. It was not an obvious exit. No mind; there would be other holes this day.

But luck was not waiting for us at the next hole.

We walked down the side of the creek, checking a few settes in the grass, and then Mountain began baying up a storm just slightly behind us. She was in the hedge along the creek, and as we approached a very large Sycamore tree, we heard Pearl open up as well.

Both dogs were in on it, wherever it was.

Coming up to the tree, I realized that what I had initially thought were stones were actually roots (click on pictures to enlarge). These massive roots had fused into each other, creating a solid floor of wood; you could not get a bar into a crack, much less a shovel or post hole digger.

There were two good-sized den holes at the top, rimmed by tree roots as thick as my calf and thigh. This was clearly an ancient sette that had been dug when the tree was young. How long had it been here? A hundred years was not out of the question.

The roots spread across the top of the bank about 10 feet long and four feet wide. Wow! This place was a fortress.

I slid down the bank to see if I could locate another entry hole, or at least get nearer to the location where the dogs were in and baying

As I came down the bank, I realized the roots of this massive tree went straight into the water.

For a second or two I was confused. Were the dogs on this bank or the other? The baying sounded like it was coming from the middle of the water.

I looked at the bank I had just come down. There was a solid wall of fused roots that stretched to my left, forming a solid wall 12 feet long and five feet high. Wow. It looked like something out of Angkor Watt.

I listened carefully, and now I could tell the dogs were clearly baying from within the mass of roots -- the water had been reflecting the sound off the opposite bank.

I listened and it appeared the dogs were baying right at the water line. I felt along the root structure at the water line, and found a very small hole on the far left side that looked like it might have been large enough for a rat to get into. I figured that might have been where Mountain entered. Or perhaps she entered from one of the holes on top. Who knows?

I listened with my ear next to the root mass, and it was clear Mountain was just on the other side, on the far right, but there was a lot of solid wood between us. A felt along the water line where the roots met the water, and there was a small slit there, about as wide as a pencil. I could feel a larger passage behind that slit. That was where Mountain and Pearl were located. Not knowing what kind of critter was up in there -- or exactly where -- I was not anxious to wiggle my finger around in the dark. The slit was too small to get the dogs out of, and rabies is a serious thing and far from uncommon in my part of America. The dogs are innoculated for rabies, but I am not.

Chris and I poked around for about 40 minutes, looking for any way at all into this sette, but there was no place to even start. We each had key-hole pruning saws, but you cannot saw into the middle of a 10-inch thick wall of wood that is backed by dirt if there is not even a starter hole to stick a blade into.

Poking around right at the water line, I located a small chink, in the otherwise impermeable mass of roots, and we managed to open it up to a fist-sized hole by alternatively smashing it with a shovel blade, slamming the cutter head of the bar into it, and sawing. If I lowered myself right into the water, I could just look up and see a bit of Pearl through the hole. She was above the hole and seemed to have plenty of oxygen and she was not anxious to come out. The action was inside! Though she was a bit shy of dry, she was in no danger of drowning.

Mountain was up the pipe in front of her, and though I could not see her, she was clearly face-to-face with the critter and going at it with voice and teeth. Pearl was behind Mountain and waiting her turn. From the sound of it, I was pretty sure the critter was a raccoon.

What to do?

There was no digging this sette, and after about 40 minutes looking for another alternative, I told Chris we should pull off and hunt Brick up the creek. If the dogs could no longer hear us, there was a chance they might come out on their own. Short of an 18-inch chainsaw (Chris suggested a 24-inch chainsaw would be a better idea) we were not going to get these dogs out through our efforts alone. Even if I had a chainsaw, I would be loathe to use it as I would be working blind and with no assurance I could avoid cutting a dog.

We walked up the creek with Brick and found many more holes, but Brick never pinged on a location.

We went quite a ways up the creek, but my terriers did not follow on after us. They were still that damn root sette.

After about a half hour, we crossed the creek at a low spot, and came back down the other bank towards the dogs. It was here that we located the Black Rat snake and a little farther on that we bolted a nice red fox from the brush. Excellent!

Brick followed the fox into the corn a ways, and I continued on, focusing on the opposite bank, and trying to remember exactly where the dogs had gone in.

And then I heard them -- still baying up a storm.

I stood on the creek bank opposite the enormous wall of roots and listened. Mountain and Pearl had swapped out positions, and now it was Pearl baying. Not knowing what else to do, I took out my camera and took a short video of barking roots (and an expectorating Chris). The dogs had already been in the ground about an hour and a half.

Chris and I waded across the creek and tried a new tack. I found a spot on the edge of the root mass about four feet up the bank. I could just get in a post hole digger -- a simple bore straight down, with no possibility of expanding the hole due to the roots. I got down about three feet, and then Chris spelled me and he dropped down another foot or so with a little help from the bar. In the end, he got down as deep as the water and gravel sand of the creek, but we were too far back from the hole and there was no way to improve the angle or expand the pipe due to the enormous roots.

We had bored a hole to nowhere. That said, the hole was not for naught. The pounding on the ground seemed to amp things up down in the root mass, and the critter and the dogs seemed to reach for a resolution beyond a stalemate.

At some point something happened, as Mountain was now suddenly baying higher up the bank and on the opposite side of the tree, while Pearl was still going at it in the location she had always been. This was not one raccoon, but two! Or maybe it was a pair of fox.

Chris and I discussed the possibilities. I did not think groundhogs would be paired up this late in July, and I did not think they were ever going to go into a sette this wet. Groundhogs want a dry sette if they can get it, and with the drought we have been experiencing, there was no reason for them to settle for anything else. But who knows?

A pair of young fox was a very real possibility, but it was a pretty wet sette for them too. Raccoons made all the sense in the world, and nothing else fit this location quite as well.

While Chris continued to plumb our hole to nowhere, I went up top to see if we had missed something where Mountain was now baying. We hadn't. The locator now said Mountain was only two feet down, but she was under at least 18 inches of solid root, and there was not even a crack in which to slip a saw blade.

I leaned back against the trunk of the Sycamore and tried to slow down my breathing. This was going to have to be a waiting game. At my age, you learn to wait things out. This too will pass. The dogs were not in distress, Mountain was a very experienced dog, and Pearl was pretty soft and would probably be fine despite her youth. The dogs could get out if they wanted to, and they would get out in time, of that I had no doubt. This was not a skunk, so no worries there. Except, of course, that I did worry because after a long time underground with two raccoons there was likely to be some damage to the dogs.

An odd noise came from over head, and I looked up to see a blue heron flying overhead squawking, legs trailing out the back. A nice bird, and very common in this area. I noticed a corn cob on the ground -- more sign that this was a raccoon, especially since the corn field was about 100 yards away. I leaned back against the tree trunk, closed my eyes, and tried to focus on my breathing. Time more or less stopped.

I do not know what made me open my eyes, or how long they had been closed, but when I cracked them open, Mountain was just slidding out of the pipe at the top of the sette about four feet in front of me. She was crouched low, trying to sneak out in order to find a new and different way back in, but a word from me and she knew she was busted.

I scooped her up. She was very muddy, and bleeding from her muzzle, but she did not look too bad. When I got her down to the creek and washed her off, I could see she had a good puncture on top of her muzzle, and a smaller one below; a classic raccoon or fox bite. With the cold water on her wound, Mountain began to bleed, but I knew it was mostly colored water, and nothing serious. The bleeding brought on by the cold water would help clean out the wound. I tied out Mountain on the opposite bank, and waited.

Pearl had stopped baying now, and I was pretty sure she would come out soon. And she did -- Chris scooped her up as she exited up top.

Pearl was in considerably worse shape that Mountain, with the right side of her muzzle pretty knackered. I got her down to the creek and checked her out; she was skinned up pretty badly on the right side of her muzzle, and there was at least one decent rip under her right lip. All in all, however, my first impression was that her injuries might look worse than they actually were. There did not appear to be any huge wounds, though it was a mess and a bit hard to tell with all the mud and blood on her. I would have to check her over more carefully at the car.

We packed up the tools and headed back to the vehicles, where I flushed Mountain's puncture with ProvIodine. I decided to glue her puncture shut, since it had been self-cleaning so well. I loaded her up on 500 mg of cephelaxin to obviate any chance of infection.

We washed off Pearl, and I looked her over as best I could, but there was nothing to be done with her wounds but to let time sort them out. There was some damage inside her right lip, and there was going to be a lot of swelling, but there did not appear to be any really deep damage. I pressured 500 mg. of cephelaxin into the back of her throat to obviate any start of infection.

At home, while washing Pearl, I found one good deep canine muzzle gash on the top of her muzzle, which sealed the deal that this was a pair of raccoons. A little ProvIodione, and then a crate was what she needed. And time.

Now, two days later, all seems to be moving forward to a place called fine. Mountain already looks and acts as if nothing happened to her. Glue is a wonder.

Pearl still looks pretty knackered if you look closely at the right side of her face, but you would not know there was a problem from her body language alone. There is still a lot of swelling on the right side of her muzzle, and there is a very large scab over the debraided parts on that side, but it appears to be healing well, and I have continued to load her up on antibiotics as a precaution. She is eating well, if a bit carefully. In fact right now she is in her little bed next to my computer, licking her paw and looking up at me in expectation of a possible Cheerio. Come on Dad, I'm an invalid!

I figure it will be at least three weeks off before Pearl sees the field again, but August is not a bad month for a vacation, even if you are a dog. Mountain can fill in the slack in the interim.

All in all, the dogs did three hours underground and never stopped working the whole time. For a small and young dog, Pearl did well. If we humans could have gotten to them, it would have been a 15-minute thing, but sometimes God tests humans as well as dogs. No one panicked, and each side of the team did his job as it could be done that day. All is well that ends well. More or less.


clandauer said...

Hoping for a swift and uneventful recovery to Pearl and Mountain. Despite the belief of some nanny types that kids and dogs should be shielded from all fun and any potential for harm, a few scars and even more fond memories are much better means to mark the days and years of life than empty and uneventful calendars.

Scars remind us that the past was real and that we can be wounded and still survive. Rarely will looking at a diploma or a license or even a wedding ring evoke a good story and a laugh like asking about someone's scars.

PBurns said...

Ain't that the truth!


bkasting said...

WOW! Thanks so much for posting details of your hunts. It seems I learn something from all of them.

I'm still a very green digger and to get caught in a scenario like this would be VERY stressful. Thanks for showing similar situations can be successfully resolved with patience.