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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)

From Smokey's Kitchen, Bigelow and I drive to Yosemite. We backpack up the Mist Trail on a preventive search, during which a YODOGS team scouts the trails for trouble. Bigelow talks to a steady stream of hikers, explaining what YOSAR does. Looking around, I take note of Yosemite's deceptive nature. Yes, there are cobblestone trails and metal handrails, but the moment you step off-trail, real wilderness stretches as far as the eye can see.

Thanks to YODOGS' success, other parks are jumping on board. Lassen Volcanic National Park named its version of YODOGS the "Volcanines"; they face sulfurous mud pits and paw-shredding volcanic rock. Even CARDA joined the charge. In 2005–after heated debate–the organization adopted a classification system in which searchers must pass a physical fitness test (a 10-mile backpack above 7,000 feet, with a minimum 1,000 feet elevation gain) before participating in high-country missions.

Both dog and handler must be competent since searches can be so dangerous. The very first YODOG, Ranger, enjoyed his status for just two months. The night before Thanksgiving, 1998, Bigelow and Butrym were called to a search for a missing hunter. Scouting the area, Ranger ran to a particular spot, and Bigelow saw a sudden flash.

Ranger had found the missing man. Strong winds had downed a power line; the man had tripped on it and been electrocuted. His body was still in contact with the line when Ranger put his paw on him. Butrym pulled Ranger's charred body from under the line, then raced to the car. Bigelow drove 95 miles per hour to the vet while Butrym gave Ranger CPR. "We knew he was gone," Bigelow says, choking up even now.

As Gus, Bigelow, and I continue up the Mist Trail, Gus prances along, blissfully unaware of the big paw prints he has to fill. Since YODOGS inception, teams have saved Boy Scouts and the elderly; a missing person on Castle Peak; a lost autistic 10-year-old in Tehema County; at least three octogenarians with Alzheimer's; and a man trapped for 36 hours in a large poison oak patch in Aqa Nuevo State Natural Reserve.

At the top of Vernal Fall, people lie beside the Emerald Pool, bathing in the day's last rays. We creep along because Gus is very popular. Almost every hiker stops to pet him and ask, What kind is he? Does he bite? Is someone missing? Gus soaks up the attention. If you let him, he tries to insert his entire 58-pound self into your lap.

One man tells Gus, "Remember what I smell like, buddy, in case I get lost." Since it's thought dogs remember the scent of every person they've met, Gus probably will. Later that night, we will set up our tent beneath Half Dome's shoulder, and Gus will hit the hay in his trademark position: on his back, feet straight in the air, occasionally sneezing himself awake. Come winter, Bigelow will start training him in avalanche search-and-rescue; he hopes to have Gus certified by 2010. Meanwhile, the hiking season is winding down, and luckily, on this day, no one is missing.

I look back over Yosemite Valley. Dusk gilds the granite domes, and the clouds blush pink and purple. It's too bad that Gus can't see the colors of the sunset. But then again, maybe he can smell them.

Kristin Bjornsen lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her dog, Clyde, who's always searching for turkey sandwiches.

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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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