Tennessee Firefighters Rappel 35 Feet Into Possible Bear Den to Rescue Stranded Hunting Dog
When the Waldens Creek Volunteer Fire Department received a call about a dog stuck in a pit, rescue workers had no idea just how far—literally—they'd have to go before getting to a happy ending.
Over a two-hour operation, three rescuers rappelled their way into a cave surrounded by steep, unstable terrain—keeping an eye out for deadly rattlesnakes and territorial bears—to rescue Storm, a hunting hound who had slipped and plunged 35 feet to the cave floor.
"It takes years to train one of these hunting dogs. To lose something like that is like losing a family member. At the end of the day, we want everybody to go home in one piece. It's a really great feeling when you can make that happen," WCVFD Assistant Chief Steve Schmidt tells Daily Paws.
The call came into WCVFD at 2:30 a.m. on Monday. Initially, there was some confusion over whether the dog had fallen into a cave or a well, but either way, Schmidt knew there was nothing his crew could do until daylight. Once day broke, he—along with Capt. Jon Lanier and rope technician Scott Burroughs—set out to meet with the dog's owner.
The man had been out hunting the previous night with his trusty hunting hound Storm, a 60-pound doggo. Once the WCVFD team arrived, the hunter confirmed it was indeed a cave (not a well), located about 300 feet off the side of the road where the team had parked its vehicles.
"The dog had a tracker on it, and we were able to pinpoint its position because of that," Schmidt says. "We hiked down some pretty steep terrain to get to the mouth of the cave. Once we got there, the owner yelled for the dog and we could hear the dog barking, which was a good sign."
Peering down into the crevasse with flashlights, the rope team could see that the hole dropped about 35 feet deep. To make matters even more serious, the hunter made sure the crew was aware of its surroundings.
"He told us, 'These hills are filled with copperheads,'" Schmidt says. "And 'I don't know if this cave is a bear den or not, but I think it is.'"
Keeping themselves alert to the dangers, Schmidt, Lanier, and Burroughs set up a high-angle rope system to allow them to rappel down the cave opening.
Small, step-like protrusions littered the cave walls, which culminated in a larger ledge about 8 feet off the floor of the cave.
"I'd describe the makeup of the cave walls as granular with a little bit of shale," Schmidt says. "I've got some great hiking boots and it was still extremely difficult to keep a footing. So we think that Storm was tracking something down the slope at the mouth of the cave and just slipped."
The team lowered Burroughs down first, with Lanier following once he'd gotten to the bottom and located Storm. Surprisingly, despite the tumble down to the bottom of the cave, Storm was unhurt.
"He was in perfect condition," Schmidt says. "No issues, he just wanted out."
Initially Burroughs tried picking Storm up and lifting him onto the lowest ledge where Lanier was assisting, but the dog was too heavy to lift that high safely. Eventually, Schmidt rappelled down to join Lanier and Burroughs and the team slipped Storm into a harness so they could lift him to the surface via ropes. Finally, nearly two hours after they'd arrived on site, Storm was back on the surface and reunited with his human.
"The owner was beyond thankful," Schmidt says. "Even in their worst moments, people in these parts are always extremely calm and unbelievably appreciative of anything we do."
For Schmidt and the WCVFD, it's a great feeling anytime a call can have a happy ending. But coming on the heels of the devastating wildfire that hit the Waldens Creek area last month, even the smallest victories can feel huge.