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.

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One Day, Two Missions

Okay, now I don't feel quite so bad about missing Wednesday's and Thursday's evidence search.

On Friday morning, just as my mom and I get to the hair salon for her 9:00 appointment (and my trim while her dye is doing its thing), my pager goes off. Shoot! I was going to miss another mission, I thought.

I called in and Sergeant D's message said it was a search for a missing hunter (kind of a recurring theme at this time of year) in the Marshall Lake area. Hmm, I contemplated, that's not far from where I live. So I left a message, saying I'd be tied up for a while but that I'd like to join in if the search was still ongoing after I dropped my mom off back at her house. Then I hung up and called Al, who I knew would be going on the mission. Al said he'd grab an extra radio for me.

I fidgeted while the hairdresser got my mom started, then fidgeted some more while she was combing away at my matted, curly mass. Twice I fished my ringing cellphone out of my pocket as she was trimming, trying not to move too much lest she snip off part of an earlobe. It was Al, calling to tell me he was going directly to Marshall Lake with Cassie, his and the team's tracking dog, to begin a hasty search. So, he'd relayed my request for a radio to another team member at the SAR building. Then it was Al calling again from his truck, asking if I knew a quicker way to get to Marshall Lake.

With my earlobes still intact after those two calls, I called my husband, a Flagstaff native, and asked if he knew of any alternate routes to the lake, on some unofficial dirt roads maybe. Nope. So I slipped my phone back into my pocket and behaved myself for the rest of my agonizingly long haircut, then changed into SAR clothes in the salon bathroom while the hairdresser continued on my mom's head. Tap, tap, tap went my foot as I tried to distract myself with tabloid magazines. (Did you know that Brittany Spears... uh, never mind.)

Okay, so fast forward to about 11 a.m. I got to Marshall Lake just as our team was preparing to depart the staging area and head into the field. Al was already out with Cassie along with the subject's brother and a scent article, a shirt the missing man had worn on a couple of days ago. The hunter, Robert, had been gone since 5 p.m. on Thursday, when he vanished while he and his brother and friend were out looking for elk. One minute he was there, the next he was gone, the friend told me.

The point last seen (PLS) was marked on the maps Sergeant D handed out to each searcher along with the briefing sheet. Robert, who was in his early fifties, was about 6-foot-2, 280 pounds, and had no known medical conditions. He was wearing leaf-patterned camo pants and jacket and a black shirt.

We were also told that Robert had been wearing sneakers, though his friend was unsure of the brand. Sergeant D and other SAR members had looked for prints around their campsite, but there were many different treads in the area.

The DPS helicopter was in the air as our team set off in pairs, some on ATVs, some in vehicles, and Scott and I on the Ranger UTV, which can be used to transport a patient. Scott and I followed a trio of hunters to some sneaker tracks they'd located. We spoke to a young couple camped nearby, then parked the Ranger and set off on foot.

Scott and I yelled and I blew my whistle as we climbed to the top of the mesa near the PLS. We saw quite a few tracks, but they were all boot prints. Meanwhile, another pair of SAR volunteers were following some sneaker prints along a dirt road, with the helicopter leap-frogging them and flying above some of the spur roads ahead. At one point, Scott and I, standing on an outcropping above Cherry Canyon, thought we heard a reply to our calls, but it turned out to be ATV Team 1 down below. Darn.

From there, we started downhill, following a wash. I believe Sergeant D had said that something like 40% of the time, lost hunters are found in washes. Hmm, interesting.

As was the next bit of info to come over the radio. Robert's sneakers were just found in the back of his truck. He was wearing boots when he disappeared. Boots with Vibram soles. Oh.

I don't know about Scott, but by then I was starting to get that sinking feeling. Were we going to find poor Robert, unresponsive or worse, somewhat hidden in the grass in his camo garb? I'd seen a vulture circling not long before. Maybe we should have checked over there. Maybe a stray bullet had missed an elk and... well, you get the idea.

Usually when I start to get "that feeling," the person turns up. Which held true this time, too. At about 2:30 p.m., we heard a deputy call Sergeant D on the radio. He said, "We just got word the subject may be at the Circle K on Lake Mary Rd." The Circle K? Wow, that's a long walk.

Scott and I turned around and slowly made our way back to the Ranger (which luckily I'd remembered to mark on my GPS), while a deputy went to the convenience store and confirmed that, yes indeed, it was Robert. He'd been there since 10:00 that morning. I could have picked him up when I drove by on my way to Marshall Lake. Ah well, all's well that ends well once again. That's much better than the scenario my imagination had been cooking up.

So then, at about 4 p.m., I got home coated with dust-covered sweat and waited for Steve to get home from work. I put off showering, and we walked our dog, made some dinner, ate, chatted, watched the presidential debate, and... you guessed it: My pager went off again. Good thing I hadn't showered yet. Would have been a waste of water, right?

And since I've already been long-winded enough, I'll just summarize:

Man goes for a hike with just a water bottle in his pocket. Man gets a bit misplaced. It gets dark, but hiker-man has no flashlight. He does have a cellphone, though, so he calls for help. Deputy responds and drives around, running his siren and talking to the lost man by phone while SAR team is on the way.

SAR arrives. Doo doo-doo! (That was a trumpet.) By now, deputy has some idea of the man's location based on when lost man said the siren was the loudest. So, SAR divides into two teams and heads out from different trailheads. We call, we blow whistles.

We make voice contact. We find man, escort man back to trailhead, then to Sergeant D, then to man's vehicle a few miles away. Happy, tired man goes home. SAR goes home. I go to bed without a shower. Poor husband, Steve.

A few days later...

Just a little added information on the missing elk hunter who turned up at Circle K. He, uh, got a ride there. Yes, he did get lost and did spend the night in the great outdoors, but then, in the morning, he apparently found his way to one of the many forest roads in the Marshall Lake area and caught himself a ride.

Thing is—so we're told—that ride took him right past the campsite he'd been sharing with his brother and friend. So why didn't he stop there? I don't get it. Even if he didn't go right past the site, it was on THE main forest service road out there, just north of the lake, so it wasn't like it would have been hard to find. Why didn't he ask the driver to take him there?

Ah well, no sense in asking logical questions.