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.

An Hour Off For Dinner

I had just finished my last bite of dinner when the phone rang: SAR. I'd heard some radio traffic about missing base jumpers earlier in the day while on another mission, but hours had passed with no call-out. I figured the situation had been resolved. I guess not.

The earlier mission had been a rather sedentary one, with a long drive to and from Forest Lakes--the same rural development where we'd searched for Mark Irby for 10 days in January, 2009. This time, our Coordinator had requested five volunteers to go down there to assist the dive team from Page, Arizona-- the Coconino County Sheriff's Office Underwater Search and Recovery Team from the Page Substation, to be specific--who would be searching a pond in the area for a the body of a man who'd been missing since this past summer. (That initial search had taken place while I was in Nepal.)

I had no idea how we were supposed to help a dive team. We weren't told to wear our swimsuits (lucky for me) or bring snorkels, only to check in with the deputy on scene when we arrived that morning.

So, here's what we were instructed to do. Each of us SAR folks would stand on shore, holding a rope. At the other end of a rope would be a diver, holding the rope in his hand, keeping it taught. The ropes would have two purposes:

1. As means of communication between the diver and his partner on shore: One tug meant something, two tugs something else, three yet another message, etc. (Things like, stop, go, surface, found something, and so forth.) The recipient of the message was supposed to repeat the tugs, indicating he or she had understood. And the tugs needed to be exaggerated, so the diver and especially the person on shore could differentiate actual communication tugs from involuntary pulls on the rope as the diver swam.

2. As a means of keeping the diver on his grid. That is, each diver would search an area of the pond in a back and forth grid pattern. The diver would swim out to the outer edge of his area, and then he and his partner--the person on shore--would take up any slack in the rope. The rope would be kept taught as the diver went under and searched. After the first pass, the diver would turn around, the person on shore would take in the rope about three feet (determined by the amount of visibility underwater, which was low in this case), and then the diver would swim back the other way, thereby making the second sweep three feet away and parallel to the first one. Then the rope would be taken up another three feet for the next pass and so forth. Make sense?

So that's what my teammates and I did for several hours--hold rope, take in rope, and tug if necessary--while the dive team swam back and forth. I sat on shore, then I stood, and sat and stood some more, trying to stay focused on my job while the warm sun made me sleepy. The one teammate without a rope to manage periodically delivered drinks and snacks to the rest of us stationed around the pond.

In the end, the divers did a thorough search but found nothing ... except some unusually huge crawdads.

So homeward bound we'd headed, listening to the radio traffic along the way. That's when we'd heard something about those missing base jumpers.

"What's a base jumper?" I'd asked my friends.

I was told that a base jumper is someone who puts on a parachute and jumps off a cliff.  Oh. Is that, like, fun? Guess it is for some folks, but apparently this particular foursome, who'd jumped into the Little Colorado River gorge, hadn't planned well for getting out of the canyon once they'd jumped in. Oops.

Base jumpers (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
But there had been no call-out for SAR by the time we returned to the building. So I headed home, grabbed some microwavable dinner, and had been there for about an hour when that call finally came. And back to the SAR building I went. I figured this mission might be a bit more on the active side than the first--possibly a tech rescue--and I had plenty of energy in reserve.

As it turned out, the reason for the delay before the call-out was the need for more investigation by the Sheriff's department to determine where exactly we needed to look. They had received information using base jumper nomenclature, which was not marked on any map. Based on past experience, several areas were checked and the subjects' vehicle eventually located. And then SAR was called.

Apparently, the four young men, ranging in age from 18 to 30, were now a day overdue, the reporting party had said. As I understand it, this was supposed to be a day trip. Jump, open parachutes, land, hike out. But I guess the route out, which they'd heard about from someone somewhere, hadn't been so obvious.

As we made the rather long drive from Flagstaff to Cameron and then onto the Reservation land, the four subjects were spotted by the helicopter, climbing out of the canyon ... as in, hand-over-hand. They had left their gear--parachutes, camera equipment, etc.--at the bottom. They were also very dehydrated. As SAR was en route, still thinking we'd need to go down to help them out, the helicopter dropped (or lowered? not sure) water to the men.

As we bumped our way along the unpaved roads, the Navajo officer on scene reported that one of the men had made it to the rim. Then another and another and, finally, the fourth. They were all basically okay ... and apparently wanting to know how they were going to get their gear out of the bottom of the canyon.

From what I heard, what they did get were citations for being on the Rez without permits and for "littering" by leaving gear down there.

After waiting to meet up with the four shirtless and, as far as I saw, shoeless jumpers so our Coordinator could take a report, around SAR turned and headed for home. I got in sometime around midnight, making it a 19-hour day of SAR with a lotta sittin'.

The Little Colorado River meets up with the Colorado River in Grand Canyon