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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Two for the SAR Dogs: A Night Search on the San Francisco Peaks

Two very dehydrated hikers were lost with no lights and no other gear and separated from each other. One of them had a cellphone and, luckily, a signal. He finally decided to call for help after hiking ahead of his friend, who could go no further.

They'd come up from the Verde Valley to hike to the summit of Humphreys beginning at 3 p.m., but unbeknownst to them, they were not actually on the Humphreys Trail. Instead, they'd hiked down the Kachina Trail, away from Humphreys. At some point, they decided to go off-trail anyway and up toward a different summit. Eventually, the two turned back when their energy supplies and daylight started to fade quickly.

At about 9:30 p.m., I heard SAR activity on the online scanner, so I knew the call-out was coming. At around 10:00, it did, and I and five other volunteers, including one K9 handler with two search dogs, responded. In three pairs of two, myself with the handler and the two youngest of her four air-scenting golden retrievers, split up per our assignments and headed to our starting locations.

Cindy and I began hiking with the dogs from the trailhead at Snowbowl. Another pair of searchers drove down Schultz Pass Rd., then headed up the Weatherford Trail to intersect with the Kachina Trail from the other end, and our third pair of searchers drove down Friedline Prairie Road to that trailhead, to hike up and intersect the Kachina Trail at another location. So, we were searching from both ends and in the middle. I had a feeling, based on the information our coordinator was given by the one hiker on the phone, that Cindy and I were closest to the subjects' locations.

And that turned out to be the case. About three-quarters of a mile in, the dogs alerted, and we soon had voice contact with the first subject. We found him sitting in the middle of the trail in the dark. After thanking us for coming out, the first thing on his mind was water. He ended up drinking four liters before I eventually hiked him back to the trailhead. Other than being very dehydrated and hungry with a resulting headache, and a bit chilly (so I lent him one of my jackets), he was in good condition and denied needing medical attention. I stayed with him while Cindy and the dogs continued up the trail to try to locate the second hiker.

The young man I was with told me that, for a while, he'd practically carried his friend, who was in worse shape. Finally, the friend had said he had to stop and lay down, while the first guy kept going. At some point, he too had stopped, but the two remained in distant voice contact. That is, until the weaker of the two either fell asleep or passed out for a time. When he awoke, he later said, there was no answer from his friend. That's because his friend (the one I was with) had decided to try to keep going with the light from his phone. He'd made progress for about another 45 minutes before he again had to stop. I believe it was then that he'd called 9-1-1.

DPS helicopters were not available to assist with the search, but a Guardian medical helicopter was able to come out. They didn't locate either hiker with their night vision equipment, but they did help in relaying communications for us once Cindy lost radio contact with me and with our coordinator back at the Snowbowl trailhead.

About a mile or so past where we'd found the first subject, the dogs again alerted, this time heading off trail, up-slope into a gully. In the distance, Cindy heard the jingling of the bells on the dogs' collars increase in speed, meaning they were running. Then she heard a bark, as one of her dogs will often do when alerting at night. Then the dogs returned to her, gave their other alerts—jumped on her—and took off back into the gully as Cindy followed. Soon, as the dogs ran back and forth between the human they'd found and their handler, Cindy made voice contact with the second subject.

Thankfully, after he too was hydrated, the second hiker was able to walk out with Cindy and eventually met me, his friend, and our coordinator back at the trailhead. After all the obligatory information was gathered, some preparedness information given to the two subjects, and the second young man declined medical attention, we all went on our way. I was home at 3a.m.

Thank you to those super SAR dogs for making our job that night easier and faster. Had the second hiker been unresponsive, finding him without the dogs would have been a much longer, more difficult task.

Cindy and her search dogs on another mission.