Rescuers Are Tough, And So Are Their Stories

Mar 17, 2017

Lieutenant Steve Adams, Search and Rescue Coordinator for the Alaska Troopers, at the Bethel meeting of regional Search and Rescue volunteers.
Credit Johanna Eurich / KYUK

Some of them are grizzled old men, some are younger. They come from fifty communities throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and they are in one room talking about how to find the lost, the missing, and the dead. They would all object to being called heroes. 

Many of these Search and Rescue volunteers are like Paul Andrews from Emmonak and have tough stories to tell. Like the first time he found and brought home the dead.

"The recovery of two brothers that had apparently drowned and that was my first ever sighting of, you know, recovering a drowning victim. It broke my heart to find them that way, but in reality we were doing it for their parents because they want their loved ones back and found."

Andrews, along with the rest of the people in the room, form the Delta's safety net. In his village, when someone doesn't come home he is the first person called.

"Whereas they are supposed to call law enforcement and law enforcement is supposed to get a hold of me. But they do just the opposite."

Normally, village search and rescue operations put together something they call the "Hasty Team".  It's not in the jargon of big city or state rescue professionals. The "Hasty Team" is the name for the first ones out looking on the ice, the tundra, the woods, or the river. It's a good day when they find the missing up the trail, nursing a broken down snowmachine or four-wheeler; a bad day when they see the tracks heading to an open lead in the river.

"They were about 20 miles upriver from Emmonak on the river, and they were traveling at night and they didn't know there was an open lead. Had they gone a hundred more yards on the south side before trying to cut across, they would have made it."

If things look tough and they need help, they call the Alaska State Troopers.

At this week's Search and Rescue meeting in Bethel, State Troopers told the volunteers that before heading out on that first search they should call the Troopers. Even if the state's personnel are hours or days away. Troopers say if they are called early, the state can help with practical things like paying for gas and caring for the rescuers.

"The complaint we hear from the community is it slows down the process of getting those folks out there. And it may, and we're working on that. However, it's so important that these volunteers are protected when they are serving their community that we think it's better that they take a few minutes to make a phone call than to just jump on their snowmachines and go."

But the state has its rules, and many village-based search and rescue operations don't know them. Sitting in Bethel, Roderick Phillip from Kongiganik found out why he could not get any money from the state to offset his community's rescue efforts: he needed the right paper work.

"The one thing I found out during the conference that if we want to get reimbursed for fuel for workman's comp and all these other things, we need a case number for a search before we conduct any search."

Search and Rescue volunteers are practical people. They want to know about the latest tools and techniques. Things like ice rescues and the bar Bethel volunteers use to snag bodies off river and lake bottoms. They listened as National Guard pilots explained how best to mark a night landing for Blackhawk helicopters. Many listened in amazement as Joshua Claeys explained that white lights could blind pilots wearing night goggles, and that all it take's to be visible on the ground is a glow stick. They took notes when he told them green is the wrong color glow stick. To be seen it should be red.

"You can probably see a red glow stick up to about three miles. If you have a one gallon jug of water and drop a glow stick into it, you can amplify that signal out to probably about 10 miles. It's very, very visible."

One thing Search and Rescue volunteers all deal with is loss, the kind of deep loss that most of us don't volunteer for. Village Search and Rescue crews don't get called out to look for strangers. In tiny communities like Stony River, when Andrew Gusty or his family are called out to look for someone that's missing, he's searching for a friend, a relative, or even a child he may have helped raise.

"It's what we go through up in Stony River. We have to find relatives. All these, they're relatives. We find them. It's hard on all of us, not only one person. It's hard on parents, on everybody."

The Search and Rescue volunteers in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta don't have extensive training and fancy equipment. You won't see them making a splash on TV. They use common sense, knowledge of the terrain, and sometimes prayer and luck to find the missing, save those they can, and bring back the dead. They may look like ordinary people. If you live here, they may be your neighbors. They may not like being told this, but they are the closest thing we have to heroes here on the Delta.