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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.

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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