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.

June 29, 2011

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

There were two hikers, very dehydrated, lost with no lights and no other gear, and separated from each other. One of them had a cell phone 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 3pm), but unbeknownst to them, they weren't actually on the Humphrey's Trail. Instead, they'd hiked down the Kachina Trail, away from Humphreys. At some point, they decided to go off-trail anyway and up, towards a different summit, but eventually turned back when their energy supplies and daylight started to fade fast.

At about 9:30pm, I heard SAR activity on the online scanner, so I knew the call-out was coming. At around 10pm 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 the Snowbowl ski area. Another pair of searchers drove down Schultz Pass Rd. and headed up the Weatherford Trail to intersect with the Kachina Trail from that end, and another pair drove down Friedline Prairie Road to hike up and intersect with the 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 their 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 he'd practically carried his friend for a while, who was in worse shape. Finally, the other subject 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 forty-five minutes before he again had to stop. I believe it was then that he 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.

Probably 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 gulley. In the distance, Cindy heard the sound 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 two returned to her, gave their other alerts--jumped on her--and took off back into the gulley 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 rehydrated, the second hiker was able to walk out with Cindy and eventually met myself, 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 denied needing medical attention, we all went on our way. I was home at 3am.

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.


Pete Kosednar said...

Awesome post! Glad the two were found ok.

Jono Adams said...

Does this handler normally run two dogs at once? I know quite a few handlers who have multiple dogs either trained in different disciplines, or just at different levels of training, so it's not uncommon for them to roll to a search with 2-3 dogs in their vehicle, but I've never seen anyone running multiple dogs at once on the same task.

Is this at all common out West or just something unique to this handler/your team?

Deb Kingsbury said...

Hi, Jono...

Yes, this handler often uses two or more of her dogs at the same time during searches. They're air-scenting dogs and are used to working together. I've seen some other handlers do the same.

As far as I know, it's not uncommon for a handler with multiple air-scenting dogs (which work off-lead) to work more than one on a search. Trailing and tracking dogs, however, work on long leads, so a handler would take just one.

I'm not a K9 handler myself -- just a "backer," and I help our handlers with their training by being a "lost" subject for the dogs to find -- but from what I've seen working with other K9 teams from other counties and at conferences, one handler working more than one air-scent dog isn't all that uncommon (for handlers that actually have multiple certified dogs).

Deb Kingsbury said...

Jono, I wanted to follow up on your question and my response. I just saw Cindy this morning (hid for her dogs) and talked to her about this. She actually says that it's NOT very common for a handler to work two air-scenting dogs at the same time during missions. For one, many handlers don't have multiple certified K9s. (They may have more than one dog, but oftentimes only one is certified.) And those that do often don't work more than one, because--for one thing--it's more difficult to reward more than one dog for a find, which is an important part of the process. She said she wouldn't work one of her dogs with another handler's K9 in the same segment/area, but, like I mentioned, her dogs are very used to working together, and for ... I believe ... three of her four dogs (or maybe it was two?), all their "live finds" have been with at least two of them working in tandem. Her dogs stay on task really well when working together, rather than distracting one another.

I know I've seen other handlers using two dogs at once at conferences, but I guess that it's not as common as I'd thought.

Dan said...

It must be hard for you to not ask them what the heck they were thinking. starting at 3PM with no lights? Did they have a map?

Deb Kingsbury said...

Hi, Dan...

No, no map either. Just the clothes they were wearing -- shorts and t-shirts -- one cell phone ... and that's it. I believe they'd each had a bottle of water when they'd started out, but if they did, they'd ditched the bottles somewhere along the way once they were empty.