A bear hunt along Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway turned into a dangerous rescue mission last week when the hunter’s pack of hounds got trapped in an icy hollow. First responders with the Glasgow Volunteer Fire Department were able to rescue all six of the hunting dogs over the course of two days, and the hounds were reunited with their owner on Thursday, Dec. 29.
“It was a mess,” says Fire Chief John Hill, who led the rescue effort near Glasgow, Virginia. “We live in a region where people are outside all the time, and we’ve rescued a lot of dogs in the past. But this was some of the most treacherous stuff I’ve ever been in.”
Back-to-Back Rescue Missions
By the time Chief Hill got the call about the trapped bear hounds on the afternoon of Dec. 28, the department had just finished rescuing another hunting dog. According to a press release on the GVFD’s Facebook page, the female hound, named “Bradley’s Hardtime Bonus”, had fallen into a cavernous hole in the ground the previous evening while hunting with her owner. By the time the volunteer firefighters arrived on Wednesday morning, Bradley had already spent the night underground.
Hill tells Outdoor Life that the rescue was straightforward. Five firefighters showed up, and one of them was lowered into the hole with ropes and a harness.
“She was so excited to see her rescuer descending into the hole where she spent the night,” the department explains in the post. “The crew from Rescue 2 was able to quickly bring her back above grade with no injuries. She expressed her gratitude with tail wags and licks!”
Little did the rescuers know that this mission merely a warm-up. Compared with the task they were about to face, saving one hound from a hole in the ground was a cakewalk.
Trapped in the Wilderness
Hill works full-time as a K-9 handler for the local police department, so he’s a dog lover at heart. He’s also a former bear hunter, and he’s familiar with the Thunder Ridge Wilderness from his days of running hounds after black bears. Located off the Blue Ridge Parkway along the Appalachian Trail, Hill says the wilderness covers some of the steepest and rockiest ground in the area. It’s not easy to reach or traverse, especially in the wintertime, when the National Park Service closes the Parkway to vehicles. So when he got a call last Wednesday about six hounds that had gotten trapped in the wilderness the night before, he knew the dogs were in real trouble.
“The [hunter] called and tried to tell me what was going on,” Hill says. “This was the second day the dogs were trapped in there. He had tried to go in to get them that morning, but he fell on the ice and broke his tailbone.”
The hunter, who lives a couple hours north of Glasgow, explained to Hill that his pack of 10 hounds were running a bear that Tuesday afternoon. The dogs had chased it well above the trail and they ended up in a treacherous patch of ice-covered rocks. Only four of the hounds made it through, and his GPS tracker showed that the other six were still hung up in the hollow.
It was after 3 p.m. on Wednesday when the hunter contacted the fire department, which meant that Hill and his crew only had about four hours of daylight left. It would take them at least a couple hours to reach the dogs on foot from the nearest trailhead, so Hill came up with a better plan. He called up the Park Service and had someone unlock some gates so they could drive on the Parkway. But between the snow and the deadfall covering the road, it was slow going. Hill says they had to clear at least 20 trees before they reached the closest point to the dogs.
“The dogs had GPS collars, so we put those coordinates in, and from that point we were only about 250 yards away,” Hill says. “But Thunder Ridge is straight up and down, and there was an inch-and-a-half of ice on every rock up there. The place where these dogs were, they call it Dark Hollow because the sun never shines in there.”
Down in Dark Hollow
Wearing ice cleats and harnesses, Hill and the other seven firefighters slowly worked their way up the mountain and then down into Dark Hollow using ropes. The temps were hovering in the 20s. As they followed their GPS unit toward the hounds, the rescuers yelled and tried to get the dogs to bark but they wouldn’t respond.
Hill was worried that they’d gotten there too late until he finally saw the hounds. They were still alive. Two were stuck in one area, with the other four trapped further down in the hollow roughly 80 yards away.
“Picture big cobblestones covered in ice. It was slick as it could be,” Hill says. “We could never have gotten in there without cleats and ropes.”
After staging at different points on the steep hillside, the rescuers were able to rope up the closest two dogs by nightfall. As much as Hill wanted to get the other four, he weighed the risks and decided against it. They would have to comeback the next day.
The sun was shining on the Blue Ridge Parkway when they returned to Dark Hollow the next morning, and the hunters joined in to help with the rescue. By midday on Dec. 29, the remaining four dogs had all been roped up from the icy hollow.
After more than 36 hours without food or water, the hounds were cold and exhausted. Fortunately, none of them had suffered any major injuries. And while Hill was glad to reunite the dogs with their owner, he also pulled the hunter aside to make sure he knew the danger he had put his hounds in.
“I don’t know how long they had run before they got trapped—I’m sure they were worn out before then,” Hill says. “But the hunter that I used to be, we never ran our dogs that high on the ice. The guy coming up here, he just had no idea the terrain he was getting himself into. We had a conversation about that, so I don’t think he’ll be doing it again.”