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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An Ongoing Mystery

If I'd taken one, I'd show you a picture of all the vegetation that came out of my hair following our latest search—not only the pinon/juniper/ponderosa pine salad that collected around the shower drain the night I returned but also the pile of twig bits I assembled on my desk the next day. Long hair and SAR just don't mix very well.

Anyway, it was another bushwhack, this time in the area where the ATV belonging to Mark Russell Irby was found about a week and a half ago. As you might recall, Mr. Irby went missing on January 2nd from Forest Lakes, when he went out for "just a short ride" around the subdivision before he and his wife were to return to their home in the city. But Mark Irby never did return, and after a 10-day search, neither he nor the red Bombardier ATV he'd been driving had been located. Not until a couple of hunters stumbled upon the ATV earlier this month, well outside of the original search area.

This time, I participated in the "Irby search, Part 2," on two days, the first being a hasty search when the ATV was retrieved and then a full day, which included efforts by two counties, mounted units, K-9 teams, ATV riders, and ground teams. My field team was assigned to search a canyon. I took center position along the bottom, while Mike and Larry and Larry's chocolate lab Logger (or maybe it's Lager?) covered the flanks.

At first, the going was rather easy. We spread out a bit, keeping one another in sight, and slowly made our way along what began as a gently sloping drainage, scanning the ground and trees for anything out of the ordinary. We kept an eye out for clothing or perhaps even bones that weren't clearly those of an animal. We checked clusters of rocks and beneath bushes, being as thorough as we could.

Then the canyon began to deepen, and eventually my teammates were high above me and often out of sight, with steep, brush-covered walls on either side of me. At times, we were out of voice contact too, as the vertical distance between them and me grew into the hundreds of feet, so we resorted to communicating by radio as I periodically plotted our progress on my map and relayed to IC that we were Code 4 (okay) and our approximate location in our search segment. Eventually, though, I was too deep in the canyon to make radio contact with base, so my teammate on the rim above me relayed the messages.

At one point, I thought I might have to backtrack in order to ever exit that canyon. I'd come to a bit of a climb and, though Mike had found a place to make his way down to the bottom to join me and successfully negotiated the tricky spot, my arms and legs just weren't as long as his and I was having trouble finding good hand- and footholds that I could reach. So I walked back and forth, looking for an adequate spot to climb and finally gave in to handing my pack up to my teammate to make things a little easier.

"You think you might be able to brace yourself to give me a wrist?" I asked Mike as he stood looking down at me. I don't like to ask for help, but I figured it might speed things up—a lot.

Mike wedged his foot against a dead but sturdy tree and reached for my arm. It wasn't pretty, let me tell you, and I ended up in the dirt, but needless to say I made it with my teammate's assistance and we continued on.

As the canyon bottom gradually rose to rejoin the rims, so too did my radio make contact again with the others in the field. Teams were spread out all over the new search area, doing a good job of covering the 10 segments from morning till late afternoon. But, as far as I know, nothing of particular interest was found, and the mystery surrounding Mr. Irby's disappearance continues.