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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.

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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