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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.

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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