About Coconino County

About Coconino County

Encompassing 18,661 square miles, Coconino County, Arizona, is the second largest county in the U.S. but one of the least populated. Our county includes Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi Indian Reservations, and the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Elevations range from 2,000 feet above sea level along the Colorado River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.

November 22, 2007

A Thanksgiving Rescue

Stuffed with turkey and fixins, my husband and I are walking to our car after Thanksgiving dinner at his boss's house when my SAR beeper goes off. I call in, and the coordinator's message states that, while on a hike in Oak Creek Canyon, a woman and her teenage son have gotten separated from two younger children. It was the two younger children who returned to the motel and, when it eventually got dark, reported that their mother and brother might be lost, without lights, food or water, or warm clothing. The temperature is already at or below freezing and will certainly fall as the night goes on. With Steve's blessing, I drop him off at home and head to The 105--the SAR building. I now keep my Search & Rescue gear in the car.

My beeper has been quite active lately, and always during the night, but all of the calls since my first mission on Mt. Humphreys have been 10-22'd. Most of those cancellations have happened while I was en route to The 105. I'd hear the beeper go off for a second time, and, after a quick glance at the code to confirm, I'd find a convenient place to turn around. Within fifteen minutes or so, I was slipping back under the covers. Then I'd yack at my poor, sleeping husband for a while, because now I was wide awake. One mission was called off just as we volunteers were getting underway to the staging area, having spent the better part of an hour loading gear and, in that case, ATVs. But at least I got another chance to watch the experienced folks hook up the trailers, load and secure equipment, and go through the whole business of getting things ready to go, often with my face close to their hands as they worked with straps, clips, pins, chains and other gizmos and widgets. Anyhow, I've gotten used to the hurry-up-now-go-home scenario. Sometimes, situations just resolve themselves before we get there.

So far, though, tonight's mission is still a go. And it looks like quite a few other volunteers are up for some after-dinner activity. I count eight of us at The 105, and I hear there are at least two more responding from the south, heading into Oak Creek Canyon from below. One way to travel from here in Flagstaff at 7,000 feet to Sedona at about 4,200 feet is to drive the switchbacks down through Oak Creek Canyon. It's an approximately 45-minute (and very scenic) drive. Towards the bottom of the canyon, where it is noticeably warmer at that lower elevation, are a few resorts. One of these--Junipine--is where a family from Tennessee is staying over the long, holiday weekend, and, today, Mom and three of her kids decided to take an afternoon walk up the nearby A.B. Young Trail. This trail leads hikers up thirty-some-odd switchbacks to a remote, wooded area called East Pocket at basically the same elevation--and therefore temperature--as Flagstaff. East Pocket, however, is about an hour's drive from town, at the end of a long, dirt road.

As we now head down that long, dirt road in SAR vehicles, we listen to radio traffic on the frequency we were told to use tonight and receive further information from Sergeant D. Apparently, another deputy has already hiked up the whole trail, calling for the missing hikers, then searched at the top, in either direction along the rim, for about half an hour with no results. So we say that he has "cleared" the trail itself. The deputy is now heading back down to Junipine, and our volunteers at that end are beginning to search the canyon below. Perhaps Mom and son did hike down but, for some reason, didn't make it back to the motel. Between the upper and lower trailheads, however, there is no place to get off the trail; it's extremely steep and rugged if you step off the switchbacks. And, from the top, there really is no alternative, non-technical route in the area to get to the bottom of the canyon. So chances are good that our missing hikers are somewhere in the Ponderosa pine forest in East Pocket.

We drive as far as we can towards the upper trailhead, stopping once along the way to wake a group of camping hunters to inquire if they've seen or heard anything of interest. Nope. So we park near the fire tower about a mile from the A.B. Young Trail and begin searching for clues. One volunteer stays with the vehicles, running the flashing blue lights and, now and then, a siren, in hopes that the hikers might see or hear us. One searcher climbs the fire tower, but no one is up there. Three of us--myself and two veteran SAR members--start down the path from the fire tower towards the A.B. Young Trail, while a second group heads in another direction to cover more ground. There are lots of prints in the dirt, but we can't be sure that any of them belong to our subjects, who we're told are wearing sneakers. We see plenty of sneaker prints but don't have a description of the subjects' treads.

We call and blow whistles as we slowly walk along and study the ground and surrounding darkness with our headlamps and flashlights. After each call or whistle, we stop for a long moment and listen. Actually, one of my companions did have to remind me to be silent, to give someone a chance to respond. I feel a little silly; I guess it's the adrenaline making babble a bit. So I listen extra hard as I hold my breath, hoping I'll be the one to hear a faint, far-off call. Alas, minutes later, we all hear a reply--repeated, enthusiastic replies--from two very relieved hikers.

The lady and her son are both shivering uncontrollably but are otherwise "Code 4"--meaning, okay. I offer some extra clothing from my pack and a bottle of water. One of the other two volunteers who are with me does the same, while the third walks closer to the rim to get a better radio signal. I can't hear what he's saying, but I know he's reporting to Incident Command that we've found the hikers. Turns out, they'd intentionally separated from the two younger children shortly after reaching the top of the trail earlier this afternoon; the kids wanted to return to Junipine, while their mom and older brother decided to wander around for a while. In doing so, however, they couldn't find their way back to the top of the trail. It soon got dark, which made matters worse, not to mention much colder. By the time we find them around midnight, they've been out here for ten hours instead of the two or three they'd expected.

It's a quiet ride back to Flagstaff, with the two exhausted hikers in the back of the vehicle I'm in. My SAR companions explain that it will be an hour's drive to town and then another 45 minutes back to Junipine. Thankfully, we are eventually informed by radio that our coordinator will meet us at the Sheriff's office and drive the hikers down to their motel, saving us tired volunteers an hour and a half of additional driving, round-trip. Thank goodness.

Despite the lesson in preparedness that mother and son get from one of our most experienced volunteers once we reach the Sheriff's office, they seem sincerely grateful. I'm sure this will be a Thanksgiving they'll remember for a long time. I sure will.

Meet "Ramkitten," the hiking writer.

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