Yosemite Rescue Dogs: Could This Dog Save Your Life?

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

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.

Dragoo had suffered a shattered ankle, six broken ribs, a punctured lung, and
a gash on his forehead in a headfirst, 25-foot tumble on Thursday, August 4. After
failing to locate his cousin, Dragoo had scrambled atop a ridge to build a memorial
for his son and tripped on talus. Too injured to descend to camp, he survived
by drinking lake water, rationing his gorp, and huddling against the boulder for
shelter. The search helicopters that passed overhead gave him hope, but Ranger
gave him the greeting of his life: a cold spray of water from a vigorous shake
of his shaggy coat.

Ranger's discovery of Dragoo had far-reaching effects, most notably causing California's
Office of Emergency Services (OES) and other state SAR agencies to expand the
typical intensive-search window from three to seven days. (At least three other
people have been found alive in that extended period since then.) The search also
highlighted the value of a certified dog team. What helicopters and more than
50 ground pounders hadn't found, a panting furface named Ranger had. In fact,
one far-ranging dog and a competent handler can cover the same ground as quickly
as 20 people.

Today's K-9 SAR teams must pass a gauntlet of tests to become certified. With
CARDA, for example, dogs must find an unknown number of people (one to three)
in a 100- to 200-acre area in less than four hours. Handlers test for scent theory,
first aid, crime-scene preservation, and more. But as the Dragoo search demonstrated,
mountain rescues require special skills. In places like Yosemite, the searchers
also must be seasoned high-country explorers, comfortable with rugged terrain,
mercurial weather, and altitude.

On a sunny morning in September, I join Bigelow and Butrym (a private investigator
from Rocklin, California) for a training session at the Royal Gorge Cross Country
Ski Resort, outside Truckee. We walk toward the pine-covered ridge of Mt. Disney.
Somewhere in this area hides another YODOGS member, Rick Strasser. Gus and Bigelow's
job is to find him.

Six feet tall and 180 pounds, Bigelow has salt-and-pepper hair, rimmed glasses,
and a baritone voice. He wears a yellow T-shirt that reads "Yosemite Search and
Rescue" and sports a walkie-talkie on his hip. He radiates competence. So
it surprises me when he suddenly says, in high-pitched baby-talk, "Are you gonna
find him, Gus-Gus? Gonna work-work?" When Gus explodes into action, running
ahead, ears perked up like periscopes, nose in the air, Bigelow confides: "It's
hard at first for guys like me to get over the high-pitched voice. But what's
important is that it gets the dogs to respond."

Bigelow bought Gus in 2006 from an Australian shepherd breeder in Albuquerque,
New Mexico. He had wanted a pup that displayed the qualities of a good search
dog: curious, playful, highly driven to track "prey" (a missing person), and neither
the alpha nor the omega personality ("a dog willing to make decisions on his own
but who would also listen," says Bigelow). At the breeder's house, Bigelow unsuccessfully
tried to run obstacle courses with two other puppies. Then he tested seven-week-old
Gus, who'd been curled up napping. "He was a ball of fire, relentlessly trying
to get my toys," Bigelow says. Thirty minutes later, they were driving back to
California, Gus asleep on Bigelow's lap. Twenty minutes after that, a carsick
Gus was puking on Bigelow's jeans.

Fast-forward three years, and Gus seems to be living up to his puppy promise,
sprinting through the grass, nose on the job. But as we walk along, one question
bothers me. "Why didn't you give Gus one of Strasser's socks or T-shirts to sniff,
like they do in crime movies?" I ask. Bigelow explains that only "trailing dogs"–which
track the scent a person leaves on the ground when he or she walks through an
area–need a whiff of clothing. That trail is composed of dead skin cells,
called rafts, that fall off the human body at a rate of 40,000 per second. Trailing
dogs track the cells to discover a victim's direction of travel.

Gus, on the other hand, is an "air-scent" dog, which means the skin rafts he targets
emanate directly from the lost person, billowing off of them like steam from a
sweaty body and creating a "scent cone." Air-scent dogs zero in on the source
of the cone and work to detect any and all humans in the search area–which
today means the hidden Strasser.

Bigelow, Gus, and I hike up the steep, forested slope to the ridgeline and traverse
along it. As morning sun warms the ridge, cold air rises, giving Gus a whiff of
the odors below. We travel west with no sign of Strasser. Bigelow works Gus in
a grid pattern, moving him into the wind.

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.

At the time, such requirements were groundbreaking. Only a few organizations nationwide
had anything similar. They also ruffled feathers. Some handlers felt (and still
feel) the criteria unfairly excluded less wilderness-savvy searchers–as
if YODOGS were an elitist clique with SWAT team hauteur. "People felt we were
saying they weren't good enough to be back there," says Bigelow. "But it wasn't
their search skills in question. It was their wilderness skills." Mark Herrick,
a CARDA-certified, mission-ready handler who's not a member of YODOGS, agrees,
adding it's a question of putting people in the right terrain. "I live at sea
level," Herrick says. "I know that if I go up to altitude, I'm going to feel crappy,
so I choose not to." But not everyone self-screens in this manner. "Yosemite is
a sexy place to search," says Bigelow, and missions have an exciting, "I'll save
the day!" appeal. This can lead handlers to overstate their abilities. So ruffled
feathers or no, Bigelow says, YODOGS' stringent criteria stand.

Bigelow, Butrym, and I finish the mock search for Strasser and drive to Smokey's
Kitchen in Truckee to meet other YODOGS members: Gordon, Mary, Lynn, Elise, and
others, along with their dogs. Chocolate Labs, German shepherds, golden retrievers,
and Aussies frolic in the parking lot. The handlers come from a variety of professions:
lawyers, doctors, firefighters, scientists. But they all have a few things in
common: extensive backpacking and mountaineering experience, an obsessive dedication
to search and rescue, and a belief that their dog is the dog. "Is there friendly
competition between YODOGS members?" I ask.

"There's nothing 'friendly' about it," jokes Bigelow. "But once we put the SAR
shirts on, we're all on the same team."

All volunteers, they easily rack up 15,000 miles a year driving to searches and
training sessions. They practice multiple times a week and spend thousands on
doggie gear and health care. Gordon's late dog, Hana, ruptured her ACL on a Yosemite
search ($6,000), and Elise dropped $3,000 when her Lab, Moose, fell ill after
"eating who knows what on a SAR," she says.

Because of these hazards, most of the handlers carry pet health insurance. Jokingly
calling themselves "The $10,000 Dog Club," they also spend big bucks on Vibram-soled
booties, Doggles (canine goggles), and harnesses.

Their dedication has paid off, with all the members having found (or helped find)
missing persons, both in Yosemite and surrounding areas. Yet not all searches
end happily. "Yosemite is vertical granite, sleek ravines, and a vast backcountry,"
Jones says. "We don't always find people, and when we do, we don't always find
them alive."

Mary's German shepherd, Banshee, is a "cadaver detection" dog, trained to find
bones, blood, and the smell of decay (caused by degraded proteins called cadaverine
and putrescine). Along with body recovery, search dogs can specialize in avalanche,
urban disaster, and water searches. The best can find victims submerged as much
as 30 feet underwater by smelling skin cells that float to the surface.

Dogs accomplish such feats through their 150 to 220 million olfactory receptors–versus
the 5 million humans have. They also have vomeronasal organs–fluid-filled
sacs behind the upper incisors, which enable them to identify pheromones. Their
extraordinary power of smell may be the reason they can distinguish between males,
females, children (even twins); people's emotions; animals in estrus; and pre-seizure
states in epileptics.

Three-year-old Gus still has a way to go before reaching that level of expertise.
In dog-rescue years, he's still a puppy, with all of a puppy's foibles: If he
gets the frisbee during tug-of-war, he won't give it back, and he chronically
steals Bigelow's socks. Last October, however, Gus got a chance to prove himself.
Hikers in Yosemite Valley had stumbled upon a backpack that belonged to Ruthanne
Rupert, a 49-year-old woman who disappeared in 2000. With this new clue, searchers
resumed the hunt for her remains, sending Gus, Bigelow, and about 20 searchers
into a cliffy ravine.

Gus and Bigelow picked their way down mossy rocks, navigating around 10-foot drop-offs.
Partway down, "Gus pawed at the ground and looked at me quizzically," Bigelow
says. He saw that Gus had unearthed a badly chewed boot, later believed to be
Rupert's. It was Gus's first find. Though the searchers combed the ravine, they
found nothing else. Most likely, Rupert got off trail and fell in the cliffy ravine.
Animals would have scattered the pack and other remains.

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.