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Backpacker Magazine – August 2009

Yosemite Rescue Dogs: Could This Dog Save Your Life?

Kristin Bjornsen hikes into the Sierras to meet Gus, a new breed of highly trained rescue professional that's already patrolling Yosemite for lost and injured backpackers.

by: Kristin Bjornsen, Photos by Mark Compton

Three-year-old Gus (Mark Compton)
Three-year-old Gus (Mark Compton)
Bigelow preps Gus for a 250-ft rappel (Mark Compton)
Bigelow preps Gus for a 250-ft rappel (Mark Compton)
Bigelow and Gus (Mark Compton)
Bigelow and Gus (Mark Compton)
Gus works on his climbing (Terry Butrym)
Gus works on his climbing (Terry Butrym)

The 58-pound Australian shepherd is rappelling down a sheer cliff near 2,425-foot-tall Yosemite Falls. Actually, Gus's owner, Mike Bigelow, is doing the rappelling, while the dog–suited up in a chest harness that connects to Bigelow's waist harness by a loop of 8mm rope–dangles between Bigelow's legs. Gus had been fine at the top of the cliff, where Bigelow had clipped him in and then leaned out over the void. And the 3-year-old pup kept his cool as they zipped down the rope. But when I asked them to pause so I could snap photos, Gus started whining–a high-pitched whimper that startled hikers on the trails below.

Normally, a 250-foot rappel wouldn't faze Gus, a copper-mottled fluffball who's equally comfortable hanging from helicopters, riding shotgun on snowmobiles, and charging over knife-edge ridges. Gus is a member of YODOGS, the relatively new K-9 division of Yosemite's 41-year-old, world-class search-and-rescue (SAR) team. With 21 other canines, he participates in as many as 12 missions a year searching for missing hikers amidst Yosemite's wild, glacier-carved terrain. Over the past decade, in the park and surrounding counties, YODOGS teams have found nearly a dozen people, two bodies, and numerous clues and artifacts. They've also narrowed search zones by "clearing" areas–eliminating giant swaths of searchable terrain–in record time.

Dogs weren't always such an asset to searchers combing the Sierra high country, however. For years, Yosemite had relied on the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), the nation's largest search-dog group, with more than 125 teams. When called upon for a Yosemite search, CARDA would deploy whichever teams were closest–regardless of their mountaineering skills. But when the mostly urban search teams went into Yosemite's craggy, high-altitude backcountry, they often ended up doing more harm than good. Several times, "We had to rescue the rescuers," says Evan Jones, Yosemite's SAR and EMS manager during the late 1990s. In a few cases, the inclusion of such teams may even have contributed to the lost hiker remaining lost. In frustration, park officials reached out to enthusiasts like Bigelow. The SAR dog handler and criminal defense attorney from Sacramento helped establish YODOGS in 1998. The goal: create a wilderness-savvy canine team to assist with the three to four big searches that occur annually in Yosemite's 1,200 square miles–and be on call for the scores of small ones. Now in its 10th year, with 22 teams, YODOGS is one of the most tightly screened canine rescue groups in the nation and serves as a model for other parks and SAR agencies because of its strict criteria for fitness and self-sufficiency in the mountains. But the real story of YODOGS began 15 years ago, with a dog named Ranger and a hiker named Jerry Dragoo.

On Monday, August 1, 1994, Dragoo, a high-school superintendent from Taft, California, car-camped near Leavitt Lake trailhead just north of Yosemite. He planned to hike over three passes and rendezvous with his cousin at Bigelow Lake two days later. On Saturday, Dragoo's wife, Leslie, called his cousin to check in and discovered that Dragoo, 48, had never shown up.

On Sunday, a full-scale search ensued, but by Wednesday, August 10, helicopters and "ground pounders" still hadn't found Dragoo. Investigators questioned his wife, who shared a tragic bit of context: The previous May, the Dragoos' 18-year-old son, Mathew, had flipped his car and died. The family feared that, in the wilds of Yosemite–a place father and son both loved–the elder had sought an end to his grief.

As Wednesday dragged on, Leslie Dragoo's fear heightened. Standard procedure in the 1990s included searching intensively for a victim for three days and then scaling back to a body recovery. But Yosemite Search and Rescue wasn't ready to give up. A Black Hawk helicopter flew Bigelow, fellow dog handler Terry Butrym, and a 2-year-old Australian shepherd, Ranger, to Dorothy Lake, at 9,400 feet near Forsyth Peak. The trio ascended a buttress into a remote cirque below the peak, and kicked steps up a 40-degree snowfield to the saddle.

Ranger scouted 60 yards ahead, his nose twitching. Suddenly, his snout snapped downslope. He cocked his head, stood on hind legs, and chomped the air. Then he charged back down the snowfield, slipping in the mush. At an icy tarn, he disappeared behind elephant-size boulders.

Bigelow and Butrym didn't get their hopes up. If Ranger had found someone, he'd give his "alert"–an action such as sitting, barking, or jumping that search dogs do when they discover a target scent. But moments later, the dog ran back…and sat down. "Show me," Butrym commanded.

Ranger led them to a lichen-covered boulder, still damp from the morning drizzle. There, dressed only in a light rain jacket and hours from death, lay Jerry Dragoo.

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READERS COMMENTS

Blackstone Valley Outfitters
Jan 14, 2011

Great Article. Years ago I trained our first dog, a golden retriever in tracking and know first hand the hard work and dedication both handler and dog have.

calboy147
Jan 14, 2011

Who packs out the poop for the wolves and big cats?

James
Jan 13, 2011

I'm all for the SAR dogs, but let's keep the other domestic animals at home. The last thing I want on the trail is to have to deal with someone's dog. Oh, I'm sure I'll get an earful from all the owners of well trained and obedient dogs. Well, I'm not talking about yours then, but unfortunately all dog owners aren't like you so save the lecture on how perfect your pooch is.

missthemountains
Sep 06, 2009

Amazing article. Dogs are wonderful animals that can be our companions, our best friends, workout partners, and saviors. Wish I could take mine into the woods with me more often. Also, bless the people that give of their time and money to volunteer to do this in the SARs.

SEC
Aug 27, 2009

Camille, I think David's comments were in reference to JDG's comments about increased canine presence on NPS trails.

Camille
Aug 27, 2009

David, while your comments are true, they are irrelevant to the story. It's about SAR dogs, not untrained people who bring their dogs into the wilderness. It was a very interesting and educational story about the evolution of the canine wilderness SARS team. Read it again (all 5 pages).

David
Aug 27, 2009

Certainly there are well trained dogs and dog owners that understand the back country. Unfortunately, there is a larger number of clueless dog owners with a variety of dogs that are more likely to become snacks for the wild animals. When a prized pet goes missing the woods, our rangers don't want to spend time dealing with the distraught owners. Also, most of these owners do not properly deal with the Leave No Trace ethic.

Mike
Aug 24, 2009

Shouldn't the title read "Yosemite" instead of "Yellowstone"? No worries... I make that mistake all the time myself.

JDG
Aug 16, 2009

Wonderful article, these SAR dogs could be the gateway for other compataint dogs and dog owner/handler to be free to take their dogs into national parks on trails. Which I usually don't get a chance to visit as often as I like for the very reason that dogs are not allowed on trails in national parks. From what I witness quite often is that the people in the wilderness cause way more damage than any dog causes out there.

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