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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)

But whatever "Strasser skin cells" are floating in the air, Gus hasn't detected them yet. He yo-yos between Bigelow and a spot 50 yards ahead, and covertly nabs an unidentifiable black lump off the ground. "Gus, whatever you're eating, drop it," orders Bigelow. The lump plops from Gus's mouth; then he jumps into a muddy puddle, leaps out, and dives back in. "You're in a goof-off mood," Bigelow says. "I'm not happy about that."

As we continue walking I worry that we're not going to find Strasser, and internally debate the most tactful response: Well, we all have our off days, don't we? Maybe Gus thought he was supposed to find that black lump? But suddenly Gus's head shoots up. He zigzags in a grid pattern, then beelines toward a clump of trees 250 yards distant. Moments later, he returns and sits in front of Bigelow. "Show me," says Bigelow, and the two race to where Strasser lies behind some boulders, camoflauged in netting. If I were standing 10 feet away, I wouldn't have seen him.

It took more than the successful Dragoo search to set the wheels in motion for YODOGS. That would require two unsuccessful searches: one for the backcountry ranger Randy Morgenson, in Kings Canyon National Park (a story BACKPACKER chronicled in the May and June 2006 issues), and one for a dayhiker named David Morrison, in Yosemite.

On July 24, 1996, after Morgenson, 54, had failed to radio park dispatch for four days, officials launched a search that grew to nearly 100 people, five helicopters, and eight dog teams (mostly CARDA). The latter unleashed numerous problems. Five teams, defeated by altitude and rugged terrain, were evacuated early, one just minutes after the helicopter dropped off owner and dog. Bigelow, who participated in the search, says several handlers–accustomed to rural, flatland searches and unfamiliar with wilderness travel–also brought 50-plus-pound packs, which rangers then had to help carry. One Rottweiler, trained as both a search dog and guard dog, even bit a ranger, apparently mistaking his green uniform and helmet for a bite suit.

One of the most significant events occurred on day seven. Handler Linda Lowry, her dog, Seeker, and ranger Rick Sanger were dispatched to the Window Peak Lake drainage, where Lowry developed altitude sickness. She persevered, and while the three descended the snow-filled basin, Seeker suddenly veered off. Before he could sniff around, though, he broke through the surface of a frozen pond. Seeker clawed his way out, but lacerated a paw. Lowry raced to her dog, then took a GPS reading to mark the spot that had interested him. The two were then evacuated by helicopter.

In her debriefing that night, Lowry recommended taking "another dog back to pt. where Seeker showed interest." Her suggestion was never heeded, however, underscoring another reason YODOGS was created: to foster good communication between K-9 teams and SAR officials.

Five years after the search, backpackers stumbled upon Morgenson's remains less than 150 feet from the spot Lowry had marked. Though the cause of his death remains a mystery, one leading theory is that Morgenson fell into the same frozen pond that Seeker did and was sucked under. The dog, it seems, was on to something.

Similar problems plagued the search for David Morrison in 1998. That May 25, the 28-year-old San Francisco man set out to dayhike Half Dome and never returned. Nearly 250 people, 15 dog teams, and four helicopters scoured the area for five days, finding nothing. During the search, one Los Angeles–based dog handler, carrying a 65-pound pack, wrenched his back and demanded a helicopter flight out–shutting down the search for five hours in a critical area. Another handler found a likely footprint, didn't mark the spot, then got lost on the descent. "Other handlers weren't prepared for the cold weather and some didn't want to hike," says Evan Jones.

Jones, now chief ranger at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, realized then that Yosemite "needed dog resources it could depend on." He approached Bigelow and another dog handler, Michael Freeman, about creating Yosemite's own K-9 team. Members would need to be certified as dog handlers for at least two years; pass the USFS Pack Test (hike three miles with a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes); and be self-sufficient in the backcountry for 72 hours.

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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.

Jan 14, 2011

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

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.

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.

Aug 27, 2009

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

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).

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.

Aug 24, 2009

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

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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